An Oral History of Structure Tone: Era of Expansion
By the 1980s, Structure Tone leaders began considering opportunities outside of New York City—but growth for the sake of growth wasn’t exactly the plan. Tune in to Episode 4 of Structure Tone’s 50th Anniversary Oral History series to hear our regional leaders reflect on what drove this exciting era of expansion.
Welcome to Building Conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. August 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of Structure Tone, STO Building Group’s flagship company. And since August, we have been sharing stories of the company through this special oral history series of the podcast. In this episode, we hear more about how the company began to expand beyond its New York City roots, following our clients to cities like Boston, London, and later joining with longtime collaborators across the country to sow the seeds for the family of companies we are today. Again, welcome to Building Conversations and Episode 4 of Structure Tone’s 50th Anniversary Oral History series.
By the 1980s, Structure Tone had become one of the leading interior contractors in New York. That’s when founder Pat Donaghy and his partners began looking at opportunities outside of the five boroughs. But growth for the sake of growth wasn’t exactly the plan. Everything centered on Mr. Donaghy’s client-first mantra.
Patrick Donaghy (01:16):
So that kind of started growing for whatever the client needed us, we were going to go. And I think that probably was the start of the growth for us. It wasn’t a planned growth, as let’s go here, let’s do this—we never went any place unless we had a base to start. And I think that has paid off pretty well. You know, we went to some cities with clients. We did projects for them and we knew that that wouldn’t be the place we would want to be, so we would pick up our sticks and go home.
His son, now STO Building Group Executive Chairman, Jim Donaghy agrees.
Jim Donaghy (01:56):
My father expanded the business in the 80s. And his view was that we 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 that you can open up a business with the same philosophy locally, so that they can have that high-touch, high-service attitude from their construction workers in another city, that meant, you know, doing whatever it takes. And we opened up Boston, we opened up Washington DC, we opened up New Jersey, and eventually opened up London with that same philosophy. My father opened up those offices with that same philosophy.
Longtime partner, John White Sr. was asked to lead the charge on the company’s first significant project outside of New York, heading north to Boston.
John White Sr. (02:52):
Again, it was relationships. Boston, we were brought there by a friend of ours—a friend of Pat’s and a friend of mine, Tom Nelson. He came out of Teacher’s Insurance, and he was hired by a developer in Boston, and they developed four or five buildings over the course of two or three years. And he wasn’t happy evidently with the build out, and looked at us to move up there.
Pat and John enlisted several members of the New York team to help them with these Boston projects, including Mike Neary, now the president of Structure Tone.
Mike Neary (03:34):
We didn’t have an office anywhere outside of New York at the time, but I had the opportunity to manage some client accounts up in Boston. So, I was working remote. I was the super, I was the estimator and the project manager all wrapped up and one, living out of a hotel and building a client’s project and getting bids, etc., and relaying information back to New York, but really taking full control role of it in the local market. But that was before we had any formal office. While I was up in Boston doing a few projects for clients, a landlord/developer came to Pat Donaghy and asked about our ability to support them up in Boston with a major development. You know, the major development was a company called Jaymont Properties, and they had just bought a building. They owned the building, they were developing it with another contractor and that contractor was leaving the union and it was becoming non-union.
Mike Neary (04:31):
So, they needed a new union general contractor, a supporter of the unions to come in and take over a major project for a 30- or 40-story building and to build out the entire interiors of the building for multiple clients. So that outreach from that client relationship to Pat sort of prompted us to plant the flag and open up an office. So that’s really the history of how we started an office there. We had done remote work, but now all of a sudden, with the kind of undertaking we had, we had to set up more substantial support and start setting up an operation that was going to be able to service that client and ideally, and hopefully, you know, more clients.
More clients did take interest, so Pat, John Sr., Mike and the others began building a Boston-based team. One of their first recruits was Mike Ryan, now Senior Vice President in Structure Tone’s Boston office.
Mike Ryan (05:29):
I started in 1985 when the Boston office first opened. And ironically, I was not an employee of Structure Tone. At the time, I was an employee of another general contractor, and I was loaned out to Structure Tone. I had done all my co-ops with that other contractor at the time and graduated and was looking for a job. And I got a phone call from that contractor, and they said, we have a project for you, but it’s not with us, it’s with another contractor. So, we’re going to loan you out. At the time, I was still living at home. I had just graduated college, so I didn’t have any money and I was just learning the construction business. I did a lot of things. My title was plans clerk, but I was assistant super, assistant PM. When you have four or five people in an office, you do just about everything. So, it was a huge learning experience for me. And the one thing I learned about Structure Tone at that time, and I was most impressed with, was the sense of urgency that everybody had from all the people that came from New York and anybody that we hired. If you were going to work for this organization, you really had to have that sense of urgency.
Perhaps one of the best examples of that sense of urgency is the story of how David Kempton, Senior Regional Vice President, first came to the Boston team.
David Kempton (06:39):
So, I joined Structure Tone in January of 1991. I came straight out of college. I went to college in Ireland, and I started in New York as an estimator. In the summer of ’92, I was scheduled to go home for my best friend’s wedding. I was actually the best man. So, I was on the way to the airport, and I got a call from Richard Hart, who was my boss at the time. And Richard told me to pop over to the, I think it was Trump terminal, and get a flight up to Boston because he needed me up here on Monday morning for an assignment. So, I was on the way to the airport, had all my bags. That’s the good part of the story. And then I came up here, called my friend in Ireland, of course, and told him I wouldn’t be able to make it. Came up to Boston for what was originally meant to be six weeks and stayed here. So, this was ’92, and stayed here until 2001. So, it turned out to be about nine years.
After returning to New York to work with Structure Tone’s mission critical team—then called ST Tech—Dave returned to Boston, and the team has been full steam ahead ever since.
David Kempton (07:50):
I always thought I would probably come back to Boston. A few different opportunities presented themselves to me before I came back. I had an opportunity to work in London, I had an opportunity to go work in Denver, but I guess in my heart of hearts, I really wanted to come to come back to where I really felt was home. And it certainly is home at this point.
Boston wasn’t the only city where Structure Tone started to see opportunities. Around the same time, the company was helping clients in areas like Washington DC, Northern New Jersey, London, England, and eventually Dublin, Ireland. The next generation of leaders were helping establish these offices, creating a unique identity for each location while still upholding the company’s steadfast client-first, can-do culture.
James Reidy (08:36):
I’m James Reidy and I head up our business in Ireland and also have oversight of our London office. I joined our Boston office in February of ’98, I was 23 years old and at the start of my career. I really enjoyed working in the Boston office, we have a great team there who made me feel very welcome from day one. But after nearly ten really great and enjoyable years, the decision to move back to Ireland was a purely personal one. The volume of the Dublin office had really ebbed and flowed since its inception in ’95, so when I arrived in 2007, it was a relatively small business unit with only a handful of employees. I think it’s fair to say that the Dublin and the Boston offices are very closely aligned. How we grew the Dublin business was really based on my experience working in Boston and the cultural values that Mike Ryan and David Kempton instilled in me, and that our clients come first, second, and always. Our mantra in Dublin is small is beautiful, and we have successfully grown our business with our clients and those initial small wins were key when we relaunched our business back in ’07. So, while we deliver multiple major projects today successfully across sectors, those small wins really were the foundation of the Irish business. Today, we have a great team of over 125 employees in Ireland, and the Dublin office is certainly well diversified for an office of its size. We work across Ireland, and again, successfully across a range of sectors for our clients.
John White Jr. (10:08):
Hi I’m John White, I’m the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Structure Tone regional offices. So, when I got involved, that strategy was already in place. We weren’t going to be satisfied with just doing a hundred million a year and bringing X amount of dollars to the bottom line. We really wanted those offices to stand on their own two feet and really start growing their presence in that market. And it was a very successful strategy and it included, in some cases, changes in leadership, but in many cases just enhancing the leadership by strengthening the next level below the business unit leader, because many of the business unit leaders at that point also had been with the firm for at least 10 to 15 years. But growing the business development portion, it wasn’t just about work being handed from New York to Boston, to Washington, and to New Jersey, but more about growing your own clients and growing your own projects.
And while client relationships gave Structure Tone a start in these cities, getting the ball rolling wasn’t always glamorous.
Dermid Kelly (11:08):
I’m Dermid Kelly. I’m the Regional Vice President for Structure Tone Philadelphia. In 2006, when we were first doing Deloitte, we didn’t have an office in Philadelphia. We were servicing the project from our Princeton office. And we had a little space in the basement of the build manager’s office. And we were trying to run the project through there. And anytime we were chasing other work, they were asking us where our office was. And we were saying it was the jobsite of 1700 Market Street. So, over the next couple years, we were kind of dipping our toe in and we felt like we were half pregnant with trying to grow Philadelphia. So that’s when we had decided, all right, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it. And we got an office at 16th and Walnut.
Dermid Kelly (11:54):
It was funny because it used to be a laser hair removal treatment center that we took over. And I was on a jobsite with a landlord, Pearl Properties. And he was all bummed out, this guy, Reed. And I said, “what’s wrong?” He said, “Oh, in the middle of the night, one of my tenants just up and left and they haven’t paid rent.” And I said, “well, go show me the space.” So, we walked over, and he brought me upstairs and it was three offices where they did laser hair removal treatments. And I said, “It’s perfect, we’ll take it.” So, that’s how we came across the office. And I remember when Bob Mullen would come down to visit, I’d joke around with him about saying that these are the good old days right now because it was the start of something, what I thought was going to be a lot of fun and a great opportunity to grow the Philadelphia office. And it was.
While following clients to these new markets launched Structure Tone’s growth, the company wasn’t opposed to strategically adding partners through mergers.
Patrick Donaghy (12:51):
I think it was just also part of the growth. You know, back in 1973, we bought a little company. The family had one son and the old man was retiring and the son didn’t want the business. So, they sold it. Well, I had a three-year buyout with them, but they both came to work for me. And I think that kind of started the fact that—boy, you can get a lot of good stuff because they brought clients and they brought experience. And so that kind of, you know, planted the idea in my head. This is not such a bad idea.
Another of these opportunities was in Texas with a company called Constructors. Executive Chairman, Jim Donaghy explains.
Jim Donaghy (13:40):
We also met a terrific gentleman named Senan Fitzmartin, who was a colleague of John White’s. In their earlier days, they worked together and he had a business in Dallas and was looking for a strategic partner. And my father made that decision to merge with that business down in Dallas and to this day, that’s a successful business. We call it STSW, Structure Tone Southwest, but they’re very much a Structure Tone operation and have the same culture started by Senan Fitzmartin in the ‘70s or in the ‘80s when he started the company.
Joe Cribbin (14:17):
Hello, I’m Joe Cribbin, president of Structure Tone Southwest. I joined Constructors & Associates back in 1996 after a 14-year career in the dry wall business. While I hadn’t yet joined the company when Constructors joined the Structure Tone family, I do know that the goal was to leverage the relationships in New York with a lot of financial and insurance clients that were establishing a large presence in the Texas markets. As you could probably imagine, especially back in the ‘90s, being known as a New York contractor in Texas was really not that popular. However, we benefitted tremendously from the client base that Structure Tone had and the opportunities that were presented to us. So, at first it was a little challenging, but over time, it actually added strength to our brand and, again, created many opportunities that we normally wouldn’t have. We eventually homogenized our brand with Structure Tone in 2010, becoming Structure Tone Southwest. We felt it was important to be known as a true part of this dynamic organization. Looking back on my 25 years with Structure Tone, it’s just hard to believe the time has flown by so fast and how we’ve grown and how dynamic the organization has been. I knew this was the place I wanted to be from the first day, everyone’s so helpful, they make you feel part of the team, part of the family. And this is our prominent culture that exists today. Despite how many people join our organization and what types of companies we merge with, we’ve done a great job as an organization of maintaining that family-type of culture and I think that sets us apart from a lot of our competition.
Back on the East Coast, Pat and John’s relationships continued to bring new opportunities to the table, both for the company to expand its expertise and for Structure Tone employees to develop their careers.
Patrick Donaghy (16:08):
Then, George Pavarini and his partners wanted to retire as well. We did basically the same kind of scenario, except in that case, we bought the building as well, as part of the deal. And we also got George and his partners for, I think again, three years or four years or something like that. So, it’s not just expansion when you do that, it’s actually getting a different culture and a different mentality. And when we bought Pavarini, they had Puerto Rico, Florida, and Connecticut. So, we bought three different offices at the same time by doing that.
Mike Melanophy (16:48):
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. I was very fortunate to land this job back then. Little did I know, years later, here I am talking about the opportunity that I got in 1984 and really what a blessing it is to have had the opportunity to work for this company. When I left New York City in 1994, we were still Structure Tone, I was still Structure Tone. There were opportunities in the Westchester market and Fairfield County market for Structure Tone with Structure Tone clients like Johnson & Higgins, and the real big one was MasterCard. And I came up here in 1994ish to work on MasterCard’s new worldwide headquarters in Purchase, New York. Myself and John White Jr. were the two managers in charge of the account. At the tail end of that in 1995, early 1996 is when Structure Tone purchased Pavarini Construction.
Mike Melanophy (17:51):
I lived up in this area. I lived in Connecticut and I was given the opportunity to stay up here and be the director of operations for Pavarini Construction. In 1996, our Structure Tone clientele were looking for the Structure Tone organization to have the ability to take buildings out of the ground for them. They were getting some core and shell requests from clients. Structure Tone, as you know, was primarily an interior firm. At that time, they didn’t have the core and shell expertise. The Pavarini brand was a well-known brand in the Tri-state area. Maybe even bigger than that. And the rest is history.
The combined expertise of Structure Tone and Pavarini allowed the company to make new inroads in core and shell construction in the Northeast, and provided employees from both companies with new opportunities to develop their careers. Like Mike Melanophy, Brian Boyce saw joining the Pavarini team as a chance to try something new.
Brian Boyce (18:49):
Hello everyone. My name’s Brian Boyce. I’m the Vice President of Operations. I came up to Pavarini in 2003. Mike and I did the Amaranth trading floor over in Greenwich and it was like Mike said, you know, Pavarini evolved. The Structure Tone influx with the interior fit-out and then the core and shell guys, and by 2003, they had a good unique team up here in Connecticut that can build anything. That trading floor and interior fit-out was a fast track, really aggressive, difficult job we did. And probably our signature job we finished up here a couple years back was NBC studios. They rarely did studio work up here at the time. I think NBC ended up being the largest studio on a single floor on the East Coast, so pretty impressive build-out we did and successfully turned over to them.
Mike Melanophy (19:47):
When you take an expert core and shell company with an expert interior company, it’s a win-win for everybody, right? Nobody could build the interiors like us and the Pavarini staff really knew what they were doing with taking buildings out the ground. So, I think what was most interesting about it for me was there was a learning curve for both companies. We were a fast-track company. We knew how to get in and out. They were experts in taking buildings out of the ground. At that stage of my life, I didn’t have that expertise. So, they were learning from us. We were learning from them, you know, it was like chocolate and peanut butter. You got chocolate in my peanut butter, but next thing you know, you got a Reese’s cup. You know, it was a good thing.
With the addition of Pavarini, by the end of 2000 Structure Tone had expanded their expertise to include core and shell work around the Tri-state area. That led to a new proposition—could they get into the core and shell market in Manhattan? That’s where Eric McGovern entered the picture.
Eric McGovern (20:51):
My name is Eric Christopher McGovern, President and CEO of Pavarini McGovern. I was in the construction business. I was an executive at a company called Larry McGovern International, which morphed into Bovis, which then is now an acquisition of Lendlease. Lived internationally, lived in London building Canary Wharf, went out to the far east, set up an office Malaysia, and then came back and built a resort down in the Bahamas called the Atlantis. And then, I guess 21 years ago, roughly plus minus, I met Jim.
That’s Jim Donaghy, Executive Chairman of Structure Tone.
Eric McGovern (21:34):
I was looking to start another business, all right, and kind of needed a financial partner. Didn’t need anybody to get business. Our family and our last name was always able to get business in the core and shell world, but it needed a deep-pocketed financial partner. And Jim and Pat at that time were interested talking about an entity that they had bought some years agocalled Pavarini and kind of merging it and morphing it together and creating a company called Pavarini McGovern.
While Structure Tone continued to lead the interiors market, Pavarini McGovern hit the ground running, winning a number of new construction projects in the city. Soon enough, the benefits of combining their areas of expertise to pursue projects together started to become clear.
Eric McGovern (22:18):
It was 505 5th Avenue. It was a building on 42nd street and 5th Avenue where we were doing the core and shell for a private developer and STI had the opportunity to do the whole building for CIT, which was a tenant of course, a financial tenant. And I turned to the client and said, the only way this is going to get done—because of the shared resources, shared hoists, common ways of loading the floors, building it concurrently—while we were building the interiors is that you had to use Structure Tone as our partner to build this so that it was seamless. And that’s really probably the first time where, and we still use it as an example when we’re pursuing opportunities, where it really kind of, to me in my own eyes, it kind of just said, “Wow, there’s the strength of both organizations as one.”
Today, the two companies continue to leverage each other’s strengths on some of the city’s most complex new developments, like TSX Broadway in Times Square.
Eric McGovern (23:24):
And the synergy of putting those two groups together, or those two knowledge bases together, it could be pretty powerful. And for the most part, that has worked for 20+ years, that synergy, that energy, that the knowledge base. So, it’s been pretty cool.
While the 1980s kicked off Structure Tone’s first big era of expansion, the company has continued to look for ways to grow, expand, and innovate. But that culture instilled by Pat Donaghy, John White, and the generations that followed, persist to this day. Dave Kempton explains.
David Kempton (23:59):
Yeah, 50 years later, and certainly the 30 years later that I can personally speak to, things are very different, but they’re very much the same. Obviously we’re much larger, especially in the last three years, we’ve taken on a lot of new companies that are part of the STO Building Group, but the culture hasn’t changed in 30 years. It’s still the same get it done attitude, client-focused conversations you might have had with Pat Donaghy in his office, or John White in his office 25 or 30 years ago could still be conversations that you’d have today and be just as pertinent. And, you know, it’s no secret what has made us a successful company is our client vision and our kind of get anything that the client wants done, within reason, of course. So, I think we’re as client focused as we were 25, 30 years ago and more, and I think that’s certainly what’s made us as successful as we’ve been over the last 50 years.
Now, according to John White, Jr., the company is looking to the next generation of leaders to continue pushing the entire STO Building Group to new heights.
John White Jr. (25:09):
Well, considering now all of our regional offices are over 30 years in existence, you do have both the—call it the long-term, the people who used to be the young people are now the old people. And I don’t know when that happened. Um, but it’s now their job to make sure that the next generation continue growing the culture and growing our client focus and continuing it, which is why it’s so important right now to focus on the succession planning across our companies and making sure that we’re putting people in the place to succeed in the future. Our company’s 50 years old this year or 50 years young, shall I say, this year. And we’re certainly hoping that the next generation can follow in our footsteps and grow the company even further and achieve even more over the next 50 years.
We’d like to thank Pat Donaghy, Jim Donaghy, John White Sr., John White Jr., Mike Neary, Mike Ryan, Dave Kempton, Dermid Kelly, Mike Melanophy, Brian Boyce, Eric McGovern, Joe Cribbin, and James Reidy for sharing their stories and reflections on this era of growth for the company. In our next episode, we’ll hear from our employees about what it was like to work in New York City in the 1990s, and some of the most memorable projects from that decade. Thanks for listening to Structure Tone’s 50th Anniversary Oral History series on the Building Conversations podcast.