Among construction sector stars, most life stories you hear are about kids becoming interested in the industry in their childhood, working alongside parents in the family business, building a backyard shed, replacing pipes, patching holes in walls.
Sean J. O’Connor had none of these things, but always knew a different path into the industry was possible.
Years before founding SJOC Construction Inc. in 2016, O’Connor wanted to be a builder, but freely admits he knew little about construction and had no family influences or any prior training. Even without hands-on experience, he was consumed with a passion to build and transform properties.
Meeting a lifelong contractor who began showing him the ropes, including dealing with trades and understanding different sequencing and methodology, his eyes were opened to this exciting new world—and his first love.
“I realized then that I have to learn this business, and I will do whatever it takes,” says O’Connor, who began touring job sites with his hardhat, safety boots and lunch pail.
Working for whoever who would take him on, he met a Cuban man who, on his own, was building a house in a Brampton, Ontario suburb. On the back of his dusty truck, the man wrote with his finger that he would pay $10 an hour. O’Connor told him to keep his money and rather, teach him how to build.
Joining the union and working with this contractor for a year of introduction, O’Connor fortunately met two seasoned construction veterans and worked his way up to lead carpenter. He quickly became so adept that the owners asked him to take over the company. Although the offer was tempting, he declined, sticking with his ambition of becoming a builder.
Creating a destiny
Around the same time that the offer was made, the Canadian construction industry was hit with a six-week union strike. That pushed the young O’Connor to start his own company, SJOC Construction. The company namesake comes from his initials representing total commitment and ownership. Since the original founding, the company is no longer about one person, but rather the entire team behind the same vision.
Unlike others in the industry, SJOC Construction, from the beginning, was never afraid to tackle complicated, risky, structural remodelling projects. This led to O’Connor subcontracting, then bringing on board plumbers, masons, flooring installers, et cetera, building himself a list of trusted tradespeople, and negotiating with suppliers.
“I knew the client base was very particular on the level I got involved with, so I didn’t want a subcontractor touching something unless they had been doing it for 20 years,” he says. This included specialized tile setters who focused solely on creating remarkably precise work, rather than the “plumber being the painter being the tile setter.”
Soon this led to bigger projects and more responsibility, with O’Connor and his team building a reputation for work which was not only outstanding, but often completed ahead of time. Sometimes this involved O’Connor sleeping on the job site, doing whatever it took to get everything completed to client satisfaction.
“It’s like the old saying: ‘If you want something done, give it to a busy person,’” he says. Before long, O’Connor had built a company complete with site managers, project managers, architects, draftspeople, controllers, marketing experts, and finance.
Today, SJOC Construction takes on impressive residential works including residential renovations, custom and high-end luxury homes, commercial, institutional, military and security works, project management, property evaluations, design and engineering, and more.
“We operate across Ontario and take on any job we can mobilise around, and that either has drawings or doesn’t,” says O’Connor. “A big component of our business is design-build.”
A better construction experience
Sometimes clients approach the company with an idea but don’t know where to start. As the builder, SJOC gets involved at the consultative end, guiding the architects and engineers to better, more cost-effective ways to build for the client. “We handle all of those components on their behalf and on behalf of the trades, and help them get organized.”
At SJOC, the team lives by its straightforward motto: A Better Construction Experience. O’Connor notes, with pride, that he and his people ask themselves every day how they can improve the building process for their customers.
This includes everything from responding to client questions quickly (often within minutes, not hours), keeping clients in the loop about the state of the project, and being transparent about pricing. This can result in weeks shaved from construction times, saving everyone money and freeing both SJOC and their clients to move on more profitably.
“As much as our clients love us, what best serves the project?” asks O’Connor. “Being expeditious, providing high quality, and safety. We’ve never had a safety incident in the history of our company.”
Customers know which experienced team member they are dealing with, and aren’t bounced around from one person to another, as often happens in some other companies. These factors—timely project completion, stellar communication, professional work, and honest communication—are some of the reasons why customers come to SJOC, and leave glowing reviews on Google and other sites praising the company and its work.
Reasons for the outstanding reviews, says O’Connor, come down to one thing: SJOC Construction’s absolute commitment to its clients. “We don’t leave until you love it,” he says simply, “and that often comes at a cost to us, but it’s the roots of this company.”
Everything comes back to care. How do project managers and site manager work with clients? Are workers treating job sites respectfully, with no candy wrappers or cigarette butts left on-site?
“We care for that visual and the client comfort, and they don’t even feel like they’re on a construction site,” says O’Connor. “We should be like ghosts, and not have scaffold piled up in front of somebody’s lawn for seven months. Teaching that care to our people translates to the clients, that we give a damn, and that’s rare. It’s not common amongst different businesses.”
A piece of the pie
In fact, it was this care, and going the extra mile, that appealed to Chris Suraci. Now heading SJOC’s business development, Suraci says it was SJOC’s passion that drew him to the company. “The slogan of ‘a better construction experience’ speaks to our niche in an industry that’s very populated, and has definitely made a name for itself of being about greasy contractors with attitude,” he says. “We carve out a major piece of the pie simply by treating people better. We just do things that are considered ‘a better construction experience.’”
To ensure clients the best possible building experience, the company has invested in hiring the right people and using the latest technology, including next-level software that interacts with a project as it happens.
Once somebody comes on board with SJOC, a portal is created which can easily be accessed at any time through a phone app or computer, so all communication from anyone on the team, including subcontractors, flows through the app.
“It’s comfort they can see, and clients are at peace,” says Suraci. “How do you pull back the veil? How do you let people behind the scenes? That’s a big part of our positive Google reviews, and clients interact with that. It’s a big deal.”
With his company a proud member of the Canadian Home Builders Association, O’Connor attends many of the CHBA’s speaking events and promotional activities. “It’s always been a dream to be involved with CHBA,” he says. “I think our relationship is largely untapped with the resources that are there and available, something that allows us to get involved in different project scales, so it’s very interesting.”
No cherry picking
Taking on residential and commercial projects, SJOC believes there is an untold number of projects in any category or sector. “Anything constructible, anything that can be built, we want to get in and make our mark on,” says O’Connor.
This ambition frequently leads the company to unique projects, including one under way in Dundas, Ontario, where SJOC is using quantities of historic and reclaimed wood to realize the client’s vision. Other projects in the work are ultra-modern, with polished concrete floors, floating vanities, and no traditional elements.
Envisioning significant growth in the next five years, O’Connor says the company’s end goal remains the same: to be a company where clients simply say “Give the work to these guys, they’ll take care of it. That’s based on how many people know us,” comments O’Connor. “So it’s really about executing on projects, well-run projects, and building consumer confidence that we can handle it. ‘Forget about that other guy, honestly do yourself a favour, and hire these guys.’ That’s where we need to be.”