An Oral History of Structure Tone: The Beginning (RE-RELEASE)
It’s Irish American Heritage Month! In honor of Structure Tone’s Irish roots, we’re resharing a favorite podcast episode from Structure Tone’s Oral History series—featuring founder, Pat Donaghy, telling his immigration story.
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. From first-hand accounts building in the 1980s, rebuilding after 9/11, and creating a lasting company culture, we’ve covered it all—decade by decade—and will be releasing the highlights in an “Oral History” series over the next several months. And to kick things off, we’re starting with the visionary who started it all: Structure Tone founder, Patrick J. Donaghy. Again, welcome to Building Conversations and Episode One of the Structure Tone’s 50th Anniversary Oral History Series.
Patrick Donaghy (01:21):
Uh, hi. Patrick Donaghy. I’m the founder of Structure Tone, many, many moons ago. And what would you like to know?
We wanted to just start at the very beginning to understand how Mr. Donaghy, an 18-year-old Irish immigrant in the 1960s built one of the leading interior construction businesses in New York city.
Patrick Donaghy (01:44):
Well, I was born in Tyrone, Northern Ireland, and Tyrone Northern Ireland back in the 50s, it was like a war zone. Okay. Uh, a, it was after the war, it was British occupied and, uh, for us on the other side of the fence, there was no future. Every job was accounted for, every job was manipulated, gerrymandered, whatever it took, even the biggest source of work, which was the shipyards in Belfast. So if you were a young kid at that time and growing up with that and seeing, uh, what they were doing to the people, your parents, your friends, your aunts, uncles, whatever, um, it was, it was a war zone. And the first thing you start thinking about is getting the hell out of there and thank god, that’s what I did in 1959. Uh, I was invited here to America. Thank God by my sisters. I had two sisters here. One of them was nice enough to pay my fare, uh, on a plane that I never saw except in the air. You wouldn’t see many planes sitting around back then. And, um, I ended up landing at Idlewild airport
Or a better known today as JFK.
Patrick Donaghy (03:09):
I was 18 years old and a very open mind and very curious about the rest of the world and especially America. I loved America. So that little guy now comes to Kennedy airport with $11 and one little, tiny suitcase, like a briefcase. And then we started into the business trying to find a job. Fortunately, my sister was, she took me down to the unemployment agency and I got a job except the job was ripping out old ceilings in apartment houses and come home at night. And all my sister could see was the whites of my eyes. That didn’t last too long.
Luckily, Mr. Donaghy says construction ran in the family and he was able to get some hands-on experience at a very early age.
Patrick Donaghy (03:58):
Uh, my, my father worked was I was the foreman of a quarry, he did homebuilding and stuff like that and roads and all that stuff. So that was construction for him and kind of in the blood, I guess when I was a kid, I built an outhouse when I was about 16 and it actually stayed there until I was gone 1959.
Even better, Mr. Donaghy had attended a technical school back home. So he knew how to read drawings
Patrick Donaghy (04:27):
While you were ending up finishing at the tech, you have to actually physically go work on a site. So all the mechanical drawing of the carpentry and everything else you did at school, uh, all came into fruition. When you went to the job site,
This skill and his willingness to take on any task helped propel him. When he transitioned to the second job in the states.
Patrick Donaghy (04:50):
I ended up going from there to a very, very great old firm called Nelson Frisick, which was a, uh, a woodworking company, which was right up my alley because I could read drawings. I could draw them, I could speak English, the whole shop, all the mechanics were all, uh, Polish, Italian, German, Czechoslovakia. They couldn’t speak English. So this kid ended up in this position where the boss would come to me to talk to me about going to pick up plans from the landlords or the architects or the contractors. He asked me one day, could I drive? And I said, yeah, I can drive because I was driving when I was 10 years old on a, on a tractor. And, uh, I had no license, but I drove his car right in New York City, taking men to the job sites and stuff like that.
From there, Mr. Donaghy, he was recruited to join a construction firm known as Wickol construction.
Patrick Donaghy (05:50):
It was a small company. First of all, I knew my boss at that time, uh, who was an accountant, knew nothing about construction. So if you want to talk about looking business and look, and how you get something started is you have to be in the right place at the right time, but you also have to kind of make the right moves at the right time. In this case, for me, it was perfect because it was moving from the construction site to the office, but also taking a much larger view of what was going on in the business world. Because as I said, he did not know anything about the business. So he depended on me to line up the subcontractors, pick the bids, do the pricing, do the takeoffs, all that kind of stuff.
It was at Wickol Construction or the very first seeds of Mr. Donaghy’s trademark client-first mantra were planted.
Patrick Donaghy (06:42):
To my surprise. Of course, I was doing a lot of the estimating myself. So to my surprise, when I would give somebody a price, do the job in the time that they were expecting, they would thank me if the pay and they would thank me. And I was like, wow, this is amazing. It’s true. If you do the right thing, you do the right job. People appreciate it. And I caught on to that real, real early in the game.
Another critical moment on Mr. Donaghy, his path to building the business was meeting Structure Tone’s co-founder Lewis, R Marino.
Patrick Donaghy (07:18):
And when Lew Marina and I in 19, uh, I guess 68, we met and started talking about business and how his company was. He was, he was in a smaller company as well. Um, we had a tremendous amount of similarities. Lou is a wonderful individual passed away at 58 unfortunately, but we kind of just gelled.
And besides working at similarly sized construction firms and the city Mr. Marino, and Mr. Donaghy shared a deep appreciation for their favorite football team, the New York Jets.
Patrick Donaghy (07:55):
I met him at a, a Jet, uh, when you, you know, about the Jets, right? And Joe Namath, Joe Namath was my hero in the Jet history. Um, that’s where I met him at a dinner, a luncheon rather that used to happen on Mondays after the Jet game. If the Jets lost, you got chicken, if they won, you got steak at, so that started the relationship and that probably around 1968 and 69, the Jets, won the whole thing.
From there, their relationship only got stronger.
Patrick Donaghy (08:33):
Then we would meet for a beer every once in a while, just to chat. And then got into 1969, we started talking about the business and how we were doing, etc. And at that time, uh, my wife was expecting she was actually pregnant with the twins. And I decided, you know what, it’s time to think about moving on.
And just like that, a partnership was born.
Patrick Donaghy (09:00):
Two of us decided to go into business. We decided to look for somebody to support us, give us the first infusion of cash that we would need, which by the way, it was big $50,000. I know you’re laughing, but it’s not funny if you go back to 1970, it was not funny, but we had an office and we started hiring laborers and carpenters. And we started talking and knocking on doors and talking to our clients. A lot of the clients that I was working very closely with, I already had told what I was doing. So they were right on board. So basically the minute we started, we already had work coming in. And then it started to snowball a little bit because we were doing the right thing. We were doing the right job. We were cheaper than most contractors. And we were the new boys on the block and they used to challenge us, you know, can you really do this job? Yes, we can. That’s basically the whole history of how we started.
Although loyal clients followed him to his next venture, Mr. Donaghy explained that the construction market in the city at the time was definitely not ideal for getting a new business off the ground.
Patrick Donaghy (10:09):
Um, everything was very slow, but the only thing that saved us was that we were not out there trying to build buildings. Okay. We were doing interior fit up and interior fit up is a little bit different than building. Interior fit up, a client may need you even if the client is cutting back and taking less space, they still need you to go fix that space up. It’s like the advertising companies, we were tremendous amount of advertising. We were doing J. Walter Thompson, Gray Advertisement, Dolan & Bernbach, and we were doing about five of them. And they could keep me going, just doing moves. They got a new client. They did not want that new client in the same spot, like Coca Cola and Pepsi. They got Coca-Cola space. They call it the Coca-Cola space. They got the Pepsi account. They call it the Pepsi space. So we were called upon many times to build a space in a very short period of time, four or five weeks, six weeks. It was just a great entree into the whole business and how it worked.
The next thing that this day one crew needed was a company name.
Patrick Donaghy (11:21):
I had gone to meet a real estate guy at IBM, and he said, I’ll be more than happy to put you on the, on the bid list. But, uh, because you’re brand new, you need to have a track record that you could show us as your new company before I could even give you a project, but I can let you bid. And that’s why we’re not a bidding service. So let’s see if we can’t do something about that. And he said, what you should do is try to connect with somebody that’s already working for IBM.
It just so happened that that big $50,000 investment earlier came from Jim Morrow, the founder of an acoustic flooring company called Sound Tone floors, who had worked for IBM in the past.
Patrick Donaghy (12:02):
And bingo, that’s how the name came. Structure, they were doing floors and they were doing sound studio floors, Sound Tone. We’re sitting in the office one night about seven o’clock talking about the name that is going to be very important because of what the guy from IBM said. And I came up with the name Structure Tone, and that name has been bantered about unbelievably. What does that mean? Where did that come from? I know where it came from.
The initial pursuit wasn’t for a huge project, but this job for IBM certainly helped Structure Tone and build momentum early on.
Patrick Donaghy (12:40):
It was in Garden City Long Island, small job, um, building offices. And we did a tremendous job, a real good job because we knew that our neck was on the line to prove ourselves. And the guy in charge, his name happened to be John Tour. And John liked us. And John wrote a very glowing letter about this wonderful new company that did his project. And he sent it to their real estate group in White Plains, IBM real estate. And that kind of kicked us off as far as the real estate group was concerned because that’s all they needed to know. It was a management gonna be happy with their decisions. So now that John Tour wrote the letter, they could show that as proof that they didn’t make the decision, but management made the decision. So it’s one of those political things within the organization that happens every day. And, uh, I think that was major.
Clients like this within their first year of business meant the company had to expand to a larger space that could accommodate their growth.
Patrick Donaghy (13:41):
It was a two-room office with a reception area. And, uh, you can, you can tell, we weren’t thinking too big. That was about 1971, probably. And, uh, we actually had to move out by the end of that year because of the amount of work and people that we needed to support us. When we moved from 677 Madison Avenue to 240 east 39th street, which was the Sound Tone warehouse and offices, the warehouses down on the street floor, which was the old garages. And the office was on the second floor. So we hired an architect and did a nice job and built a suite of offices with plan room and stuff like that. That was when we were looking at
When asked about one of the most memorable jobs from Structured Tone’s early days, Mr. Donaghy did not disappoint.
Patrick Donaghy (14:36):
So we’re starting off and we’re waiting for this, what we call big job. And it was for Simplicity Pattern, and it was almost 2 million bucks. We were probably one year in business, maybe at the time, but we knew about this in the first year we started and it was like a, like a big, big deal. And we said, when we started the demolition on that job, we’re going out to dinner. We’re going to celebrate. I mean, did we started the job? We started the laborers off at the demolition and we went off to local restaurant on 34th street. And we had about a two-hour dinner and a couple of drinks. And we come back to the site, 200 Madison avenue and we’re standing in the lobby, almost patting ourselves on the back. You know, we got this job and you know, and all of a sudden we noticed the water coming down the face of the elevator doors.
Patrick Donaghy (15:32):
That’s not a good sign. And we went upstairs and there’s a bunch of laborers standing around looking at it, water coming out of the sprinkler pipe. They broke the pipe, sprinkler pipe, the meantime, they didn’t know how to shut it off because the building manager wasn’t there and the maintenance guy that wasn’t there. So I’m yelling at them, put a bung in it. I’m talking about a bung that used, when the churn the milk, there was always a bung in the side of the churn. So they’re like, what’s that bung? You know? So I broke the head of the, uh, of a sledgehammer, paired it and stuck it into the pipe to stop the water. So now I realized Jimmy Shapiro, who was the chairman of the board and owned some Simplicity Pattern. His office was right underneath where we were working.
Patrick Donaghy (16:23):
So we’ve went down to see Jimmy’s office and there was water coming down, the paneling cause that time they all these big executive offices all had dark paneling, which I know that’s not happening today. The ceiling was, was already drooping. The light fixtures were leaking. So what to do, do we now stop. This is the end of Structure Tone. Or do we do something about it? So we got the water stop and eventually got shut off. This is like by now almost midnight at night, our office was about five blocks away at the time. And we had a little warehouse there on 39th street. And now you’re on the phone calling subcontractors, who, in some cases you didn’t even know the home phone, but thank God we managed to get most of them, including Sound Tone Floors. They did the carpet they’re brand new carpet. So they had some carpet leftover, got them lined up.
Patrick Donaghy (17:18):
We got the electrician lined up, got the ceiling, got lined up. We’ve got our labors with linseed oil to clean off the panels. And, and we got the job done by five o’clock in the morning. At that time we used to keep shirts in the office. We went back, changed their shirts, but our suits back on and came back to the site nine, o’clock waiting for Jimmy Shapiro. And he walks in we’re like, what are we going to say? If he realizes what we did? And before we had a chance to say anything, he just went like that. Hi, how did the job go last night before we could answer, he’d taken off his coat and he smelled the linseed oil. And he says, you know, guys, we got the best cleaners in this office in New York City. Look at this place. It’s like brand new. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So that’s a, that’s a construction, funny story,
The solid client base and an increasing number of jobs coming in Mr. Donaghy and Mr. Marino decided to further invest in the company’s future by acquiring Vinmar construction in 1973,
Patrick Donaghy (18:24):
Vinmar was for sale because the owner wanted to get out of the business. It was a known construction company for many years. Vinmar construction in New York City. And, uh, we made the deal a three-year payout, and we would get the owner and his son, and about 20 employees, including project managers, superintendents, estimator, and then down to carpenters, laborers, and, uh, even a, uh, a warehouse full of all the equipment and construction materials and a truck and a driver. So it was a home run in a very early stages of our career that, uh, we now had this credibility because we had a bunch of people that were in the business and they were now working for very structured time. Venmo was a good stepping stone for us.
As the company continued to grow Mr. Donaghy talked about what sets Structure Tone apart as the firm got started. At first, it was their lean operation.
Patrick Donaghy (19:26):
I think we brought to the table this easy to deal with client relationship type of thing. We were only interested in what the client wanted. We didn’t want to sell them something that they didn’t want. We didn’t want to do the merry-go-round. At least some of these big companies would do. They’d bring 10, 12 people to the sales presentation and a client would be bamboozled with questions. And, you know, we’d walk in maybe two of us or three of us, maybe we’ll bring up chief estimator or something with us. And, uh, it was slim and trim and, and, uh, they could see that it was the overhead wasn’t there. So we were going to do a, you know, a job much less, uh, than, than our competitors.
Second, it was showing clients that they would always come first.
Patrick Donaghy (20:11):
Yeah, did you ever see one of the cell phones? And I had a thing on my belt that I could slide it into, uh, go to the presentation, put it up on the table. And if it rang and rang, I picked it up and answered it. I’d say, excuse me. I got to talk to the client. I got to talk to them and I’d get up, excuse myself for a couple of minutes, come back to the, to the table and we’d leave the presentation. And my guys would be like, well, I guess you just blew that presentation. What the client saw was the client got the attention. Somebody was calling and they could reach me at any time. And that went from a negative to a very big positive, because it was true. They could call me at any time, any hour of the day. And I lived by that.
And third, it was sheer determination to get the job done.
Patrick Donaghy (21:09):
You know, you, you didn’t want to let anybody down. You didn’t want to get the reputation as being a schlump that made a promise and couldn’t deliver. That was very important to us. We knew it was very important to our clients because in a lot of cases, they were putting their neck on the line to the hierarchy of the company that we could do the project. So it really was a no brainer that we do the right thing and we didn’t get greedy. And we didn’t try to do more than we thought we could deliver. And I think that was very important. Work was never an issue, getting jobs. It was never an issue. It was, could we perform, could we do the right thing? And did we have the right people in place? That was the challenge. We had all these blue-chip clients. We realized that, you know, we better move fast to, to build up the organization because otherwise you’re not going to be able to do it. And I did not like to tell somebody who can’t do a project you’ve bent over backwards. You went out of your way and you, and you managed, it was just pure grit.
And as business took off Mr. Donaghy and Mr. Marino maintained this philosophy, no matter how busy they got.
Patrick Donaghy (22:19):
So as we started to get into the latter part of the 70s, um, you could almost see the marketplace picking up and a lot more business coming our way and a lot bigger and better jobs, but we didn’t care so much about how big a project was. We were more interested in the client and continuing the client. We were the client’s contractor, and that has paid off tremendously, that it was a situation where if we didn’t do the right thing in bidding or delivering a project, okay, we deserve to lose that client. But we were so protective of the clients that we very rarely lost a client. So the whole idea then was getting your people to, to function with that mentality.
And a big part of making sure making sure that mentality was always present, was by hiring and mentoring people who shared their values.
Patrick Donaghy (23:20):
And my motto was always make sure you’re hiring up people that are smarter than you. Not that people that you are now, the boss and you are going to tell them what to do, anybody that you tell what to do. They have no excuse if the screw up, because you told them what to do. No, you have to talk to me what you’re going to do. And I think that that probably the mentality that saved us a lot, we wanted people that could mix and match and, you know, do the right thing.
And steering clear of the corporate hierarchy that might make the company’s leadership seem unapproachable.
Patrick Donaghy (23:58):
I hated that. I hated that. And I was very, very important cause we had some people that had some issues, personal issues, family issues. And, uh, I didn’t want somebody coming into work that had family issues and afraid to tell me what the issue was going on. That that would be stupid. How do you expect somebody to do a proper day’s work if they have a load on their shoulders that they can’t handle.
After building a positive reputation and beginning to assemble an A-plus team Structure Tone leaders began to think about how they could continue this momentum through the next decade.
Patrick Donaghy (24:34):
That was where we really started to hire and bring in more of a professional touch to it, including salespeople that actually did the presentations and that type of stuff and office manager, all that good stuff. And I think that that was kind of what we saw coming and not. We, we, we knew it was our weakness to support system with the new organization.
We’ll be hearing much more about this decade of growth from several of those early day, new hires, many of whom still work for the company today. For now, we’ve asked Structure Tone’s original mentor to leave us with a piece of advice.
Patrick Donaghy (25:18):
Believe in yourself. And if you believe in yourself, who else do you have to prove anything to? And live beyond people’s expectations. That’s what I like to say. Surprise that
To Structure Tone founder, Mr. Donaghy, we’d like to say thank you for sharing your stories and congratulations on Structured Tone’s 50th anniversary. Stay tuned for episode 2 of Structure Tone’s 50th anniversary oral history series on the Building Conversations podcast.