The 42-story Las Olas River House, which will house 280 luxury condominiums upon its completion, is the largest of three residential projects that Boston-based Suffolk Construction has undertaken in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In one respect, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is looking a bit like Boston these days.
Mixed amid the palm trees, tanned bodies and unique architecture of South Florida – elements that would seem foreign to New England – is an icon quite commonplace in the commonwealth: the Suffolk Construction Co. sign.

In Fort Lauderdale alone, the Boston-based firm is working simultaneously on three residential projects, the largest of which is a pair of 42-story towers that will yield 280 luxury condominiums when they are completed in mid-2004. In addition to that $135 million undertaking, Suffolk just broke ground a few blocks away on a 14-story apartment building known as the Waverly and is in the pre-construction phase for another 22-story apartment tower slated to be built near the other two projects.

“Suffolk has grown dramatically in Florida,” acknowledged Senior Vice President Rex Kirby, a native hired three years ago to oversee Suffolk’s Sunshine State activities. Kirby estimates that Suffolk has a $350 million backlog of work in Florida at present, and saw revenues increase 50 percent there during the past year alone, from $100 million in fiscal year 2001 to $150 million in 2002.

Suffolk Senior Vice President Fred O’Neill said last week that the company made a conscious effort to explore other markets after seeing the construction business in Massachusetts slow to a trickle during the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“We realized that if you depend on one market to obtain your business and to grow … your eggs are all in one basket,” O’Neill said last week. “That is the main reason we wanted to initiate getting into other areas.”

Suffolk selected Florida partly because it had a Boston client who was targeting that market, O’Neill said, but also because it was relatively easy to access from the Hub. Rather than use local people to establish the office, as Suffolk had previously tried elsewhere with limited success, O’Neill recalled that the company sent about a half-dozen professionals familiar with Suffolk’s corporate philosophy and systems to open the West Palm Beach operation in 1993.

Suffolk established another base in Irvine, Calif., in 1998. Among the assignments taken on in California are the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines, a four-star hotel overlooking the Pacific Ocean in La Jolla; Sunrise Assisted Living’s $6.2 million senior housing development in Pacific Palisades; and the Newport Coast Villas, a multi-building time-share facility being developed in Newport Beach on behalf of Marriott Vacation Club International. That $12.3 million project will feature 64 time shares spread out in more than 103,000 square feet of space.

Residential construction has been a large piece of Suffolk’s business in Florida, although the firm also has won prestigious construction awards for its work on the Muvico Theaters in Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. The West Palm Beach cinema, which cost $22.2 million, was designed with a Paris Opera House theme that features a four-story atrium and grand staircases. Muvico was so satisfied that it asked Suffolk’s Florida office to do five Muvico facilities in all, including one in Maryland.

‘Quality People’

As with the Muvico undertakings, Kirby said many of the projects Suffolk has delved into in Florida involve significant detail, requiring expert craftsmen who can work efficiently to meet what are often aggressive schedules. In that regard, Kirby said, Suffolk has done well in attracting a limited pool of skilled labor. “You’ve got to be able to build relationships with the subcontractors,” he said. “They can pretty much pick who they want to work with, and you really need the quality people to be able to get a project over the finish line.”

Suffolk is capable of doing virtually any commercial building, Kirby said, although the Florida market has been tepid for both office and hotel construction. And while the firm will work throughout the state, the activity has been centered in the Palm Beach, Broward and Dade County markets. Population growth in those areas has kept Suffolk busy, Kirby said, and has been so significant that school construction is one promising sector Suffolk hopes to pursue.

“That’s a huge market we are starting to focus on and build our credentials in,” said Kirby, whose firm just landed its first Florida school project, one to be built on behalf of Palm Beach County. Renovation of older residential properties is also on the upswing, he said, giving the company another line of business it can exploit. Suffolk is in the midst of several such projects, said Kirby, helping owners reposition assets to compete with the slew of new residential complexes springing up throughout South Florida.

Suffolk now has about 90 people in its Florida division, including Bay State transplants Chris Kennedy, John Lesh and Mike Beaumier. A project executive, Beaumier is currently overseeing construction of four luxury apartment buildings in Boynton Beach, a resort community just north of Boca Raton. During a recent tour, Beaumier and superintendent Carl Burzenski outlined the various challenges of the assignment, including the owner’s desire to phase construction so each building can be opened up for occupancy as soon as possible. Although that can make for scheduling migraines, Beaumier said work is progressing as promised.

“Suffolk prides itself on repeat clients,” said Beaumier. To accomplish that, “We need to be able to coordinate and get things done when we say we’re going to get it done … We’re very committed to that.”

“Nothing stops the bus,” seconded Burzenski as he tried to help the local electric utility access one portion of the job site being worked on by a subcontractor. “The mentality with us is, we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Hard by the Intracoastal Waterway, the Boynton Beach project has also required Suffolk to interact with the Army Corps of Engineers and Florida’s strict agricultural laws. Not only did the site have to be raised to accommodate flood plain regulations, a strand of mangrove trees on site had to be tended to carefully, requiring the removal of debris and non-native plants which had inured themselves amid the trees. Mangrove trees are so protected that pruning even one can lead to fines, said Beaumier.

“Working in South Florida has its own set of peculiarities,” he said. “It makes it very interesting.”

Even with established players such as Turner Construction, the Weitz Co. and Bovis active in the area, Kirby said he believes Suffolk has built a solid base in Florida. The 42-story Fort Lauderdale venture, known as the Las Olas River House, has brought widespread recognition, he said, especially given that it will be the tallest building between North Miami and Atlanta.

“That’s a very high-profile project, and I think it has opened a lot of eyes about Suffolk and what our capabilities are,” he said. “We’re very visible, and we are continuing to [grab market share] every day.”

The home office also has been pleased with the results of the national expansion, said O’Neill, adding that the satellite branches have been able to service clients in other markets as well. Florida has done jobs in Texas and Tennessee, for example, while California has secured projects in Arizona and Colorado. “We have good people, we have good clients, we have good volume and we have good profits,” O’Neill said. “It all seems to be working right now.”

Boston-Based Suffolk’s Work Shining in Florida and Beyond

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 5 min