John Gallin & Son is one of the oldest and most respected family-owned general contracting companies in the United States today. Founded over 130 years ago in Manhattan by John Gallin, an immigrant from Ireland, John Gallin & Son is now in its fourth generation of operation.
Construction in Focus spoke at length with President Chris Gallin to learn more about the company’s beginnings, its trajectory over the years, and ultimately, the secret to its extraordinary longevity and success in what is a very competitive and challenging industry.
Originally, when it was founded in 1886, John Gallin & Son was a simple masonry and concrete company. The initial goals of the company were to simply survive in the rough and tumble of nineteenth century New York City. John Gallin brought his masonry skills from Ireland, seeking the same American dream as many immigrants of his time. John ran the company until 1912, when he was succeeded by his only son, William. William expanded his own skills in understanding architecture through the Pratt Institute and ran the company for over 40 years.
“It was around the post-World War II period, as New York City grew, where [Gallin] started to do more commercial interiors as opposed to just simply masonry, and we became general contractors on such projects as various airline terminals at Idlewild Airport, such as Air France and Swiss Air,” notes Chris Gallin. The Idlewild Airport, first opened in 1948 and was later rededicated in 1963 as the John F. Kennedy International Airport, is one of the more recognizable monuments of the city.
Chris Gallin attributes the gradual but successful growth of the company to a strong focus on family and longevity: “Over the years there have been seven members of the Gallin family that have held the Presidency here at John Gallin & Son. I am the seventh president in the line that extends from the original John.”
There have been four generations of Gallins who have tended and nurtured the company, and this family involvement is likely to continue long into the future. “We currently have four fifth-generation Gallins working in the trenches. I like to call them my ‘nickels’. Like all of us, they started at the beginning, either as laborers, administrators, or estimators, learning the business from the ground up. And hopefully the next generation will stand on the shoulders of the people that came before them,” says Chris.
“One of our responsibilities is not only to take the legacy we receive from the previous generation but to lay the foundation for the next. I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to survive the transitions from generation to generation, is that we’ve all felt that responsibility. Not only are you taking over from the previous generation, but you’re building on that for the next generation. It’s not just the here and now; it’s the past and the future.”
It is this stability and sense of history and responsibility that clients of John Gallin & Son seek, and employees value. “It’s one of our unique traits. Not only is the company currently managed by three fourth-generation Gallin family members, but there are a number of families at Gallin that have been with us for multiple generations. We’re not just a family business, we are a business of families,” states Chris. Beyond the Gallin family, the company has employed four generations of the Ziegler family, three generations of the Kondracki and Terry families, as well as eight second-generation and five first-generation families. One family has had 22 members work at Gallin! Clients can’t help but conclude that with this type of employee loyalty, one that extends from generation to generation, Gallin is a company that is special and one that is built on solid values like loyalty and integrity.
“It’s commitment to our clients, but it is also commitment to our employees because they are part of our family. The fact that we have a number of multiple-generation families working with us really tells the tale of our commitment to our employees. Fathers and mothers enjoyed working here so much that they brought their sons and daughters to work with us. I think that’s a unique trait among any company, much less a contracting company,” states Chris proudly.
The fact that Gallin has such closely-knit staff and has built such a solid name for itself is one of the factors that got the company through the recent and tumultuous economic downturn that began in 2008. Chris explains that it was really a matter of treating employees well. “We went through the downturn and did not lay off a single employee,” he shares. “One of the ways you stay in business is that you don’t get so big that you can’t get small again. We all suffered together. It wasn’t a matter of laying people off; it was a matter of sticking together as a family. We get through the tough times and we set the stage for when times turn around. Because my dad used to always say, ‘There are only two sure things in the construction business: when you’re busy, you’re going to get slow, and when you’re slow, you’re going to get busy.’”
Chris observes that general contracting is a very cyclical business by nature. Because John Gallin & Son specializes in interior construction – the team does not build new buildings but rather renovates office space in Class A office buildings for Fortune 1000 companies and foreign entities — the business, while not entirely immune to recessions, is somewhat more stable in times of economic downturn than for companies that construct from the ground up. Unlike new building construction, even in times of economic contraction, when businesses need to get smaller and perhaps move from a larger space to a smaller space or renovate within their existing footprint to downsize, they need someone to configure the interior to meet their changing needs. “Interior contractors are to a certain extent recession-proof. When there is a recession, people still need [interior] work done, they just do less of it or spend less doing it. It never goes down to zero, which can happen in the new building business. There are always projects going on in the interiors business because there’s always a need: even when you shrink in size as a company, you need to renovate.”
Acknowledging this cyclicality, John Gallin & Son has also purposely controlled how fast and how big the business has grown in order to protect the company and its employees in the leaner times. “One of the toughest things when business gets busy – and it has for the past year or two – is not to get too big. As they say, ‘stick to your knitting’ – when the economy is going hot and heavy as it has for the last couple of years, it’s tempting to bite off more than you can chew because when the entire industry is busy, you can easily get big. But one of the things about being a 130 year-old company is that you realize that it’s not always going to be busy. So to grow organically and to grow within your people [is the goal of John Gallin & Son]. We’ve actually grown from $60M per year to about $100M in the last two to three years, but we’ve done it so that it’s not a complete explosion of staff but rather a refining of the staff we already have.”
It’s clear that the ‘Gallin Way’ – doing business in a way that fosters strong, long-term relationships with employees and clients – is something that distinguishes this company from any other. It is a mantra that seems to cement the company’s relationships with its clients and creates loyalty, not only from its long-serving, multigenerational staff, but from its customers who return for the award-winning service, time and time again. “One of the philosophies we have is that we treat people the way we want to be treated. That’s not only for staff but also for clients. It’s a unique trait in the construction industry. We are more interested in making slow nickels than fast quarters. The idea is that we are not looking to get a project; we are looking to get a client. We aren’t looking to get an employee; we’re looking to get a member of our team. Most employees here average 15 to 20 years with us.”
To be sure, Gallin’s hallmark of doing business with commitment and loyalty has won the team some very big name clients. Recently the company completed a 450,000 square foot relocation of Warner Music’s corporate headquarters. As well, the team also finished three projects for Spotify over a period of two years. Another recent project was a 250,000 square foot project for Footlocker. These are just a small sampling of the many clients that come to John Gallin & Son time and again.
Beyond its experience and reputation, the company has also demonstrated that its services are consistently on point with emerging trends in interior construction. “The type of offices we build has changed as the environment has changed,” explains Chris. “It used to be perimeter offices and a cube farm [in the middle], and over the years that has reversed. We just finished a 20,000 square foot project for an investment advisory firm that didn’t have a single office. It’s all open spaces and meeting rooms, and that’s more a function of how facilities design has evolved over the years.
“As we’ve always said, ‘You draw it, we’ll build it!’ We take great pride in the beautiful work we do, and one of the things that we are very good at is implementing the vision of the clients and architects, especially when you’re doing innovative projects for clients like Spotify, like Footlocker – they want to do something that hasn’t been done before and being able to bring our expertise to help them realize that vision is where we come from,” observes Gallin.
Helping a client realize their vision is also enabled by John Gallin & Son’s large network of subcontractors. “We have a community of subcontractors; we have an excellent relationship with them and we use their expertise as well in order to take a vision and make it a reality. It’s one of the things we are proud of.”
Gallin, like all companies in the construction industry, faces the challenges created by the skills gap – skilled workers are retiring in record numbers and are not being replaced in the same numbers with younger workers going into trades, making it difficult for companies to maintain a skilled workforce. Gallin’s approach to this is as unique as its overall approach to business in general. “I wish there was some kind of magic formula!” says Chris. “We hire very slowly… A lot of the management is homegrown, where we employ workers in the field and over the years many of our carpenters or laborers have moved up to the Superintendent position. We also have a network of clients and vendors that we deal with — people know the environment that exists here at Gallin and they will recommend people that fit what we call ‘The Gallin Way’.”
Chris Gallin contrasts his company’s approach with many of his competitors by how little his clients have to worry about the project while it is being completed. “One client asked me, ‘What does your company do?’ I said, ‘You know what we do? We deliver a good night’s sleep.’ At the end of the day, that’s what we do. And when the project is over, we don’t disappear. If a client needs something post-construction, we stay with them. We want to be their first call for construction services. Some of our clients we’ve had for 50 years!”
The future for John Gallin & Son is likely to be a continued move along its time-honored trajectory – to keep growing cautiously and determinedly, protecting the legacy of its founders and supporting the future of the next generation.