NJ Based Vericon Construction Banks On Its Growing Niches
Vericon Construction Co. has relied on a strong safety record, repeat business from financial sector clients and an increasing number of highway infrastructure projects to boost revenue last year—and gain recognition as ENR New York’s Contractor of the Year for 2020.
The Mountainside, N.J.-based contractor is growing as a result of its strong connections with major banks that are expanding in New Jersey and New York as well as from new contracts to improve the Garden State’s highway infrastructure.
Ultimately, the company’s employees and their ability to prioritize tasks have helped the firm add new business, says Steve Mellett, president. “One of our biggest secrets has been knowing that hiring good people means great things will happen—and they do,” he says. “People call us back because they like working with us.”
This growth has continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic over the last several months. Vericon, founded in 2005, reported a 10% increase in 2019 regional revenue to $143.77 million compared to the prior year, with overall revenue totaling $196.5 million. The firm has 145 staffers, with 97 in its headquarters and the rest spread across out-of-state offices in Atlanta, Charlotte, Arlington, Va., Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Projects on the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway—part of a $250-million initiative announced in 2017 to rebuild and renovate 16 of the state’s travel plazas and rest areas—have become an important segment of Vericon’s business. Recent projects include the $8-million Grover Cleveland service area on the turnpike and, on the parkway, the $20-million Monmouth service area and the $14-million Forked River service area.
Most impressive about Vericon is its safety record. The firm has an experience modification rate, or EMR, of 0.581, well below the industry average of 1.0. For 10 nonconsecutive years since 2005, including 2019 and 2018, it has had zero lost workdays, says David Mellett, director of field operations. Notable industry safety awards the firm has won include the Zero Lost Workdays nod from the Associated Construction Contractors of New Jersey and the Citation of Merit from the state’s occupational safety and health agency.
Steve Mellett says retail banking and financial institution construction projects remain the core of Vericon’s business, and notable projects include branches with “nonbanking features.” In September 2019, Vericon finished Chase Bank’s first of its kind branch in Harlem that offers free skills training, small business pop-ups and fintech innovation to local residents. The firm also built Santander Bank’s “work cafe” in Brooklyn, the bank’s first in North America, where customers can grab coffee and access the Internet. This nontraditional bank work shows that clients trust Vericon for “special marquee projects,” Mellett says.
Banking and finance comprise the contractor’s thousands of construction projects globally, nationally and regionally. Vericon has built ground-up projects for financial clients like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Small projects now focus on accommodating bank employees as they return to work as COVID-19 restrictions ease, and the firm sees further opportunities in this area, Vericon’s president says. For instance, as a service offering, Vericon bought about 1,500 sheets of Plexiglass and created a mock-up for sneeze guards at teller counters. As a result, Wells Fargo tapped the firm for 64 installation projects in 12 states that were completed in four days. Additionally, Vericon installed sneeze guards at all rest stops in New Jersey.
Technical innovations that were in place before the pandemic have helped sustain the contractor’s momentum. Procore’s software platform created an integrated online portal for owners, consultants, vendors and employees to upload photos and real-time information. OxBlue cameras, which Vericon has used for several years, allow users to see a build from different angles and provide real-time information, says Robert Mikell, Vericon senior vice president.
“Procore and OxBlue have helped us not miss a stride. Project management and estimates didn’t slow and we felt well prepared. With this technology, we haven’t felt challenged to stay on our targets,” he says.
Coronavirus restrictions still impact Vericon’s workforce and projects. Many bank and travel plaza projects were scheduled to turn over in early June and open to the public before July 4. Labor and materials sourcing issues have pushed back work on most of these by three weeks on average.
Work on one multistory building required the team to put laborers on second shifts and Saturday shifts. On other projects, the team focused on critical tasks and how to stagger manpower while also adhering to safety regulations. “Our clients are applying pressure to get things moving,” Steve Mellett says. “That’s the art of what we are doing now.”
Supply chain and procurement issues also created delays, such as limited availability of carpet because manufacturers couldn’t source raw materials. Mellett recalls that the exact type of glass needed for rest stop projects wasn’t available. Vericon sourced temporary glass to use in the meantime with plans to replace the glass later, and the firm will absorb that extra cost.
Vericon is wrapping up the Vince Lombardi Travel Plaza on the Turnpike in Ridgefield, N.J., a major rest area for truckers traveling the East Coast along I-95. This $30-million project is a complete rebuild of the travel plaza on 22 acres, including demolition of the existing rest stop except for the truckers’ lounge. Scope includes new gas and diesel canopies and their associated tanks, parking and updated infrastructure including storm, sanitary and major electrical underground improvements. Vericon also constructed a new plaza building and milled and overlaid 35,000 yd of asphalt in truckers’ lots.
Temperature requirements for setting concrete meant the project team could only place concrete when the weather reached 40°F. Maintaining an active trucker lot with temporary facilities required extensive site logistics.
The decline in the number of drivers during the pandemic also didn’t ease Vericon’s load. Mellett says the truck lot has remained open during the entirety of construction and holds more than 400 trucks at once. “We’ve had to maintain these facilities to be available during the entire project,” he says.
Vericon had a further challenge: maintaining operations in Bergen County, the New Jersey county hardest hit by COVID-19, says Roy Wunderlich, vice president of design and construction for HMSHost, an Autogrill Co., which partnered with Vericon for the Lombardi plaza.
Critical aspects of the project became trickier, Wunderlich says. Vericon added supplemental handwashing stations and restrooms, created a stringent health and safety plan, and had a security guard screening all personnel daily for COVID-19.
“Vericon identified significant delay items early on and incorporated that into the construction schedule to meet milestone dates,” Wunderlich says. “Despite the impacts of the pandemic, Vericon has still managed to remain on schedule” to open the travel plaza by July 4.
Vericon completed the Thomas Edison service area at milepost 92.9 southbound on the turnpike in 2019. This $22-million project required demolishing the entire site and constructing a 25,420-sq-ft main building, state-of-the-art fuel services for passenger vehicles and oversize trucks, and enhanced parking areas, access routes and security.
Mellett says winter conditions, site logistics, underground obstructions and unsuitable soils made for subsurface construction challenges. One go-around was a ground stabilization system to support the new foundation. This included about 800 concrete-filled rigid inclusion elements to support a typical shallow foundation system.
The ability to persevere and innovate when dealing with challenging, tight-turnaround projects also has helped Vericon’s bank construction projects. Keith Imbruglia, a vice president at real estate firm JLL and its lead on JPMorgan Chase projects, points to a project last year at Broadway and 96th St. in New York City that required relocating an existing bank branch across the street within 48 days.
The space existed within a residential neighborhood, but the city denied an application for an after-hour variance so the team could not work double shifts. Yet Vericon prevailed, Imbruglia recalls, through supreme time management and tight communication among all stakeholders. “Nobody ever thought we’d get this job completed. Vericon, being the partner that they were, completed it for us,” he says.
Vericon’s strategies become creative, too. Imbruglia recalls a large renovation project at Columbus Circle in Manhattan in 2019 to downsize the space from 9,000 sq ft to 6,000 sq ft on a tight time frame.
The project included building a demising wall and providing a full renovation including MEP work within an operating bank branch. To get there, Vericon provided a detailed phasing schedule that included running complex mechanical systems and cleaning constantly as they built. The team put up a faux wall that looked like a regular wall, then built behind it during the day. MEP work was sequenced to avoid disruptions to restroom use as well as heating and cooling and electrical systems.
Pandemic aside, overall site safety remains paramount. Mellett says ongoing projects with Public Service Electric & Gas demanded excellence in safety for multiple reasons, including short time frames and elevated roof work, which required fall protection measures and ladder safety. So Vericon developed in-house procedures like a robust incident review and root cause analysis, and shared that information to its employees and subcontractors. “If you see something, call it. If I’m on site and forget a hard hat, directors hand me theirs. It feels good to work safe,” the president says.
Vericon will see growth in the financial market and health care sectors, Mellett says. The firm is currently building a 20,000-sq-ft fit-out of an ambulatory health center for Atlantic Health System in Clark, N.J. The project includes constructing an MRI suite, CT and radiology spaces, supportive nurse stations and exam rooms.
Other opportunities will arise. Mellett suspects that after the coronavirus, offices might revert to old school designs, with compartmentalized rather than open-floor layouts. He says: “We’ll see our clients’ landscapes change, and we want to be right there with them.”