An Oral History of Structure Tone: Building in the ’80s & ’90s
From pagers and payphones to physical change orders, building in the 1980s was certainly different! Tune in to Episode 3 of Structure Tone’s 50th Anniversary Oral History series to hear current and former tenured employees recall the energetic atmosphere of building in the ‘80s and ‘90s, some groundbreaking project wins for Structure Tone, and the fun memories made along the way.
Welcome to Building Conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. If you’ve been following our podcast over the last two years, you know that interviews with AEC experts about the trends driving the industry are our bread and butter. But today’s episode is going to be a little different. August 2021 marks Structure Tone’s 50th anniversary. For those of you who aren’t familiar with STO Building Group’s history, Structure Tone New York really started it all. To celebrate our legacy brand reaching this monumental milestone, we’ve recorded over 30 employees of all levels and backgrounds telling their Structure Tone stories. In this episode, we’re covering Structure Tone’s early days, building in the 1980s and ‘90s, some major project wins, what company culture was like, and how all of that led to founder Pat Donaghy’s client-first motto becoming the cornerstone of our organization. Again, welcome to Building Conversations and episode three of Structure Tone’s 50th Anniversary Oral History series. Let’s start our trip back to the early days by first hearing from Structure Tone president, Mike Neary.
Mike Neary (01:31):
Mike Neary, president of Structure Tone, and I’ve been with the company officially since 1984. Unofficially, I’ve been around Structure Tone since 1975. So how I became involved at Structure Tone and became employed by Structure Tone is obviously family relations got me the introduction to Structure Tone. I worked as a summer laborer for seven summers, all throughout high school and all throughout college. You know, after college I graduated, went to work for a management training program at a trucking company. I worked there for about a year and a half, and I got recruited to Structure Tone by Pat Donaghy. I had never seen that side of Structure Tone before because obviously working as a laborer in the field, that’s what you saw, that was the industry you saw. So, I signed on and with all the years of being exposed to Structure Tone being a laborer, working on job sites, seeing how the field worked and how things got done, you felt very comfortable with the business, but I had never seen the business side of it and really all the workings, because it was very small back then. Today we have departments, we have disciplines.
Mike Neary (02:42):
We have responsive abilities that are very much outlined. Back then, they had a small number of people, they all did a little bit of everything. Pat was the ultimate boss. They were just starting to introduce computers, etc. When we first started, people always kid around, you got a roll of quarters and a beeper, and that was your technology and communication back then. You go out to a jobsite, you’d be setting up the landline at the jobsite, and that was a common thing just with communication back then, so it was a lot harder to get a hold of people, because if you imagine when they were at the jobsites, they’re out on the floor and maybe they have a landline in the office, but they’re not there. So, you didn’t get a hold of them all day, because they’re out walking the floors.
Mike Neary (03:27):
So that is a whole different scheme. We used to have like work order books where a client would authorize us to do more work or a subcontractor wanted some change order, something approved or signed. And we used to have the, what’s the, had the, uh, not the velum paper. It had the, like tri-party change orders. You would keep one for the records, you would sign something and give one to the client, etc. So, it was a lot of that kind of stuff, or they’d be calling the office, when they do come back in from the field, they’ve got to order materials. It was a whole process and a routine.
And it seems everyone had a roll of quarters on them in those days, including former president, Tony Carvette.
Tony Carvette (04:08):
Hi, I’m Tony Carvette. I joined Structure Tone in 1986 as executive vice president in 1988. I was promoted to chief operating officer and in 1991, I became President as well as Chief Operating Officer. I actually was a client of Structure Tone in either ‘74 or ‘75. I was with at a skincare cosmetic company called Georgette Klinger, and they were on the second and third floor at 501 Madison Avenue. And we realized that since most of the profits were in products, we should be on the ground floor. So, we’re able to secure space on the ground floor and I had interviewed three contractors and was ready to award the job when Georgette Klinger called me and said she had just met this wonderful Irishman. And that of course was Pat Donaghy. And I had to meet him. I did meet with him and I tried everything to discourage him from pursuing the job, but he was persistent.
Tony Carvette (05:08):
We ended up giving him the job and they did an absolutely fantastic job. When I came to Structure Tone, there were no cell phones. The superintendents used to get a roll of quarters. They had a beeper. And when we beeped him, they’d have to call office to see what the message was. When you called the office, the only phone number was 212-481-6100. There were no direct lines. So every call came through the switchboard and Helen, the operator, would say, “Structure Tone, hang on, Structure Tone, hang on.” People thought that was the name of our company, Structure Tone Hang On. There were no fax machines until someone sent an RFP asking what our fax machine number was. And we had to run out and get one quickly. So, communication was huge. And of course, there weren’t any computers, so everything was typed, and you really didn’t have the kind of information that you have today.
Union labor was another defining characteristic of building in the ‘80s.
Tony Carvette (06:04):
I think in the ‘80s, everything was union, which in a funny way, made it easier. It’s unbelievable to me that the industry changed and transitioned to where a good deal of the work is non-union, where before it was all union. So, I think it was easier to compete because it was apples to apples and all the companies were union.
According to Tony, the structure of the construction market in the ‘80s helped Structure Tone solidify their spot as a frontrunner in the industry. And the company has continued rising in the ranks, despite the differences between building back then and building now.
Tony Carvette (06:38):
It’s different because of the unions and it’s different because of there’s a lot more competition, I think. And most of the jobs now are construction management. I think in the ‘80s, there were almost all bid GCs and the CM was just evolving and Structure Tone became I think a leader in the field of doing construction management work.
The market isn’t the only part of the business that’s evolved. Brian Boyce, Vice President of Operations for Pavarini North East talks about how different communication is today.
Brian Boyce (07:10):
Hello everyone. My name’s Brian Boyce, I’m the vice president of operations, I started in 1984. I think what’s evolved now is technology. Technology’s unbelievable. And we work in a 24/7 world, right? To have your phone with you and you’re always communicating. Back when we started, you’re carrying a roll of drawings on a subway to a job and break them out. And if you’re communicating, you’re getting it through your beeper that was calling you. You had to go down to the street if you didn’t have a phone for a payphone. So, there was a time lapse in getting an answer, in getting an answer from an architect or an engineer to build a job. Was the meeting in the field or the office? Everything is so much faster now, which helps the job.
And Mike Melanophy, regional vice president for Pavarini North East agrees.
Mike Melanophy (08:02):
I’m Mike Melanophy, the regional vice president for Pavarini in Stamford, Connecticut. I graduated college on May 26th, 1984, and I started at Structure Tone on May 29th—that Monday. We went from beepers and a roll of quarters, because you always needed a roll of quarters for the payphone, and then there was the introduction of the fax machine. But I’ll never forget it, in the operations department on 26th Street, you almost needed permission to use the fax machine because it cost a quarter to send a fax. And there was a guy there, Eddie Wall, who was always monitoring the fax machine, asking “why are you faxing that? You know, why don’t you just get in a cab and run it up?” So, you’re like whatever. It was actually great to watch the evolution of technology really change what we do for a living. And Brian’s right, we are far more efficient, but you’re always on call, too. When you went on vacation then, you went on vacation, right? Technology and expectations are, you’re always approachable and reachable. Even if you’re on vacation, you no longer can you say, “well, I’m going to a place that doesn’t have a signal.” That’s the moon! Otherwise, you’re reachable. You’re approachable.
But what was it like in the field?
Michael Marron (09:15):
Hi, I’m Michael Maron. I’ve been with Structure Tone since 1987 and I’m a project superintendent. When I first started New York City, it was kind of crazy in construction. It was booming and there weren’t enough trades or enough people going around. So, we all ran around the city and we all helped each other and pretty much worked from morning to night. It was interesting. It was fun. What I remember most about when I started was just how busy and how crazy we were and how we just ran around the city. And the typical Structure Tone attitude was there was no job too big and there was no job too small. We would put sheetrock in cabs and compound buckets and paint, and we’d be running around Manhattan, doing all kinds of service jobs. We’d be getting phone calls at Thursday afternoon to get a job set up for the weekend.
Michael Marron (10:04):
And somehow between the whole office, we all got it done. Back in the ‘80s. It was really, truly just trying to get the job done and go as fast as humanly possible, deliver a quality project. Now we have a whole lot more safety regulations, a whole lot more paperwork, a whole lot more emails. Everybody expects an answer in in minutes, instead of “let me look into it and get back to you.” It’s a little more high-pressure now than I would say in the ‘80s. People think that modern technology is better. Me personally, sometimes I think we should go back to the fax machines and slow down a little bit.
It’s hard to slow down though, when you keep winning project after project, and the early days saw some of our organization’s most groundbreaking client awards. Members of our preconstruction and operations teams look back on some of their most memorable project wins.
Karl Anoushian (10:59):
My name’s Karl Anoushian, I’m senior vice president. I head up the preconstruction portion of the work here in New York. I started in 1993. Goldman Sachs, One New York Plaza was the first major project that I did here and that started the whole Goldman Sachs ball rolling, which we did quite a bit after that. We took six columns out of the top floor of that building, put seven-foot-deep transfer girders across the roof, and hung the roof so that the traders could look across the trading floor and not have to go like this, but could see straight through. And I mean, you can still look at it. If you Google it, you’ll see the whole structure up on the roof. And so, when you look at things like that, it’s like wow. That wasn’t your everyday job that we did. And from there it became, you know, One New York Plaza, 32 Old Slip, 85 Broad, 10 Hannover. It just kept going and going and going, and all from reputation in my opinion. We did the job and we knocked it out of the park.
Another tenured Structure Tone employee, Paul Keosayian, a senior project manager who has worked for Structure Tone for his entire 35-year career talks about his first project.
Paul Keosayian (12:09):
My name is Paul Keosayian. I’m a senior project manager with Structure Tone in New York, and I started with Structure Tone as an intern in May of 1985. So, my first project with Structure Tone in the summer of 1985 was for Newsweek magazine. I worked with Frank McCann and Pete Scully. Scully was an old-time super and Frank McCann was one of our project managers and we were building, I think it was two or three floors for Newsweek magazine. It was interesting because I was the RPE, I was the messenger, I was the document control person, I was everything. There was no FedEx. There were no messengers. There was no fax machine yet. So, everything had to be handwritten go to the architect’s office, they’ll call us back or we’ll call them. They’ll tell us it’s ready. I’d go down and pick it up and brought it back. So that was my early career,
But it wasn’t until the mid-90s that he managed his first major renovation.
Paul Keosayian (13:05):
I was told to go to JP Morgan at 522 5th Avenue. So, I packed up my stuff and I went to 522. I was told this was for a few months. Five years later, we did a complete restack of the building, replaced all the windows, put in generators. We completely repositioned the building. And I guess that was really my first foray into something big. Everything up to that point was really maintenance work, small patch of matches, stuff like that. Really learning everything. So, when I got to 522, I was really taking all that experience and rolling it to one project.
Another lifelong senior project manager, Don Rodenheiser recalls the start of his Structure Tone career.
Donald Rodenheiser (13:44):
Don Rodenheiser, senior project manager, and I started at Structure Tone in 1983. I was young. So, I was fascinated by the city and all that, and all the buildings and jobs going on. We did a lot of work at IBM and Uptown, and then the big Sony job came up. I wasn’t involved in Sony, but I was right next door at IBM, so you could see a lot of the action taking place. The first big job that I was ever on myself was, we did Bloomberg, and prior to that, I guess it was a bigger job, JP Morgan, 60 Wall. I ended up going down towards the end to finish it up, whether it be punchlist or day-two work, but those were the big ones for me.
If you tuned into episode one and episode two of our oral history series, you heard about the importance of maintaining Structure Tone’s family feel straight from Pat Donaghy and John White Sr. Scott Corneby, executive vice president, remembers what it was like when he started in 1985.
Scott Corneby (14:51):
Scott Corneby, executive vice president, and I started in July of 1985. I was lumbering along through college and playing probably too much golf and staying out late at night. But I grew up in a neighborhood with Don Rodenheiser, one of our other elder tenured people here and in between Don’s house and mine was a fellow named Mike Tobin, who was the director of operations back then. So we had kind of conversed throughout the tail-end of my college years. And when I graduated, Mike Tobin said, “Hey, you want to come down and give it a try? We’re looking for a few young people. It’s a small company, it’s starting to grow.” So, I came down and interviewed with Mr. White and Mr. Tobin. And a week later I started here. I was not a city person.
Scott Corneby (15:37):
My first thought was, “This won’t be for me,” and “I probably won’t last a couple of weeks.” So I was dead wrong there because it’s almost 36 years later. I think it’s a culmination of a lot of it – why you stay somewhere. My memory of the company coming here, it had a good feel to it. It was a family kind of feeling, a family culture, which still exists today. Everybody was willing to help each other and share experiences. And if you were new and weren’t quite sure what was going on, somebody would definitely help you. There was never that competitiveness that, “Oh, I don’t want to help somebody, I’m going to help them get promoted to the next project manager or the next position.” Everybody here has always really tried to help out and help anybody. And I think that same culture’s still here today. So, I think a culmination of all that, the camaraderie that we had back then, there’s still a lot of that camaraderie feeling today.
Part of Mr. Donaghy and Mr. White’s approach was creating opportunities for employees and their families to come together outside of work, which led to some unforgettable company events. Holiday parties, company picnics, ski trips—you name it.
Karl Anoushian (16:42):
Holiday time was always special around here. We used to have, I mean, back in the day it was a lot of fun. It would be jumping, you know, in between major bids and going out to sub parties, client functions. It was a lot of fun at the right time of year.
Scott Corneby (16:58):
You know, we all sound like a lot of fun back in those days, but it was easier because the company was smaller. The summertime picnics were very well attended because everybody knew everybody, the holiday parties. Everyone really got to know each other personally, and their family. There were multiple softball teams that people played on in the evenings, so there was a lot of bonding and togetherness. And it was probably a little easier cause the company was smaller then. One of the old executives used to organize a ski trip once a year. And for probably for seven years, we did that as a company. I mean, if you tried to do that today, you’d have to rent the mountain, right?
Mike Neary (17:34):
We used to have our summer picnics where we had lot families and we used to have so much fun doing that. We used to have softball team. Early on, I was part of the softball team or whatever and we played all Randall’s Island and Central Park and, and the softball games at the picnic once we started with acquisitions. We acquired Pavarini so they would come and then everybody was so competitive, we had to make them more fun and not competitive because we didn’t want fisticuffs to break out. They were so overly competitive and then everybody got consumed with it and they forgot about their families at the picnic, but it was still an awful lot of fun. And people will still talk about it today, the great memories they have.
Paul Keosayian (18:16):
Back in the early days, we used to do a company ski trip. My first ski trip, we went to Vernon Valley for the day. Then the year or two later, we did it as a company event. So it was Saturday and Sunday with you and your family. It was a lot of fun.
General Counsel, Dave Cahill, who began his career at Structure Tone 31 years ago, details what made these events so great.
David Cahill (18:37):
The people. It’s always been my favorite part of working at Structure Tone. I can tell you, 31 years, I never really felt like I was going to work. I just think it’s going to keep getting better and better. I think we have a really good group, from senior executives on down to people building the jobs. There are quality people across the board. They used to say, you didn’t last at Structure Tone if you didn’t come in and work hard and I think that’s still true today and it’s not just working hard, it’s working smart. It’s working well with colleagues and respecting everybody. And I think that’s still true today.
And despite some “playing hard,” no one ever lost sight of Mr. Donaghy’s trademark client-first mantra.
Jim Donaghy (19:16):
My father expanded the business in the ’80s.
This is Jim Donaghy, executive chairman of STO Building Group.
Jim Donaghy (19:23):
And his view was that you shouldn’t say no to a client. Clients are meant to be people that you build a relationship with for everything that they’re facing. And if that meant a small project in another city or following them to another city so they can have that high-touch, high-service attitude from their construction workers in another city, that meant doing whatever it takes. You know, the world’s a little different today and our company has evolved and changed, but I don’t think we’ve lost the family culture aspect to who we are. We believe in it over anything else. There’s nothing we believe in stronger than working like a family and treating people like they’re in a family. We’ve never been perfect, but that’s what we go for. That’s what we kind of love about the organization is that that human touch part of it. And that even translates to how we view our clients. Clients for life, kind of like a family member,
Karl Anoushian and Tony Carvette agree.
Karl Anoushian (20:22):
Clients first. And that was never in doubt. So, whatever it took, whatever we needed to do, we got done. Our goal was always do the best job for the client and the next one will come. You know, and that was always, that was always my sales pitch. I wasn’t the best salesman, but if you gave them the right numbers and you worked through that and you completed that job and you closed that job out, you became the go-to guy for the next one.
Tony Carvette (20:48):
So, we were very client focused. You’d always take a client to lunch or breakfast and you were really focused on the clients. And I think that’s one of the reasons Structure Tone was so successful because they focused on the clients and we had a great operations depart that delivered all the silly promises we made that the job would be done. They somehow got it done. And that’s what made the company so great in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Mike Neary and Mike Melanophy talk more about how Structure Tone’s culture influenced its growth and success.
Mike Neary (21:18):
The Structure Tone management philosophy at an early age in the growth of where we are today was very much into best practices, communication, collaboration. And since then, that has really continued to be a staple here. And it’s a great, whether we hear it from emerging leaders or the executives that are running all the businesses, we learn a lot from each other. There’s a lot of support. There is a lot of client surrounding that is important to us. You know, our client is doing work in another city. We want to make sure that we all realize how important those clients are for us. So, we have that regular dialogue and that’s part of the secret sauce for Structure Tone. Many companies have grown, like we have, don’t have that family culture that starts back when Structure Tone was first starting to grow, but then, looks to maintain that as new companies come on, board, have merged with us, it’s part of the key.
Mike Melanophy (22:19):
For me, I think what separates us is no employee here is just a number. You’re a level 1, level 2 super, level 3. For as large as this company has gotten since we started, it’s still a family. It still feels like a family. I love the open-door policy, whether it was John or Pat, Bob, or Jimmy or whomever else, everybody’s approachable. There’s a real team unity here. Everybody pulls the rope in the same direction. And I have no concerns calling anybody on 34th Street if I need support, whether it’s pitching a job, resolving something in a job or making them aware of something. I feel what separates us from the others in our marketplace is the family culture that we grew up in. And it’s still here today. Big as we are, it’s still here today.
Going back to the early days, Structure Tone has prided itself on being a family-oriented company. Many of the employees you heard from today have worked here for decades and attribute their success and longevity to the guidance from the company’s early mentors. Mr. Pat Donaghy and Mr. John White. Paul Keosayian sums it up perfectly.
Paul Keosayian (23:30):
Well, when I tell people that I’ve been with the same company for 35 years, it kind of blows their mind, but you know, it’s a monumental feat, I think to say you’ve been with the same company all these years.
A monumental feat, indeed. We’d like to thank Jim Donaghy, Mike Neary, Tony Carvette, Dave Cahill, Scott Corneby, Karl Anoushian, Mike Melanophy, Brian Boyce, Paul Keosayian, Don Rodenheiser, and Mike Marron for sharing their stories about Structure Tone’s early days. We’ll be talking about expanding the Structure Tone brand next. So, stay tuned for episode four of Structure Tone’s 50th Anniversary Oral History series on the Building Conversations podcast.