It is an intriguing query: With a three-year-old already in the house and another child on the way, just what was the young wife thinking when her husband suddenly announced one day that he was leaving his well-paying job to launch a construction company?

If Mary Martini had any trepidation at the time, she has never vocalized it, son Peter P. Martini said last week while musing over that encounter. It was kind of a double whammy, because he not only told her that he had quit his job, he also told her, ‘And you’re going to be the secretary,’ Peter Martini laughed. But I don’t think she was really surprised. That’s the type of man he was.

And now that the A.J. Martini Co. is celebrating its 50th year in business, it appears there never really was any reason to fret anyway. During those five decades, the Malden firm has established itself as one of the area’s more enduring general contractors, one that today services a wide swath of commercial real estate needs throughout Massachusetts and beyond. Armed with a workforce of nearly 70 people, the company projects revenues of $65 million for the coming year.

Among the current projects are the overhaul of a burned-out 19th century warehouse in Boston’s North Station into a restaurant and office space; construction of a 50,000-square-foot office building in Chelsea on behalf of ACS Development; and construction management services for a 320,000-square-foot office building nearing completion in Cambridge. Recent clients include Aetna US Healthcare, Raytheon Corp., and Tufts University.

A former member of the Army Corps of Engineers, A.J. Martini died in 1988, but the spirit and principles he instilled remain cornerstones of the company, said Peter Martini, who added that, the most important thing he left us was his reputation.

He taught us to deal with people up front and very honestly, said Peter Martini, now chief operating officer of the firm. Integrity was very important to him.

Paul J. Martini, who was the child on the way when his father began the company, today serves as president and treasurer. Another tenet of his father’s that has remained, he said, has been the notion of maintaining strong oversight. While the firm is certainly a significant player in Eastern Massachusetts, Paul Martini said he and his brother have been careful to keep it a manageable size, one which allows one or the other to serve as principal-in-charge of any project they obtain. Although they have done work outside of the Bay State, Paul Martini said the company prefers to handle jobs within close proximity to their home base, allowing one or the other to visit each job site at least once per week.

The way we are organized now, we are able to delegate enough day-to-day and technological [duties] so Peter and I can deal directly with our clients, he said. That’s the way we grew up; we love the construction side, and we’ve got a strong enough middle management group that allows us to focus on that, and not just the management and personnel stuff.

Surviving the Crash
It can be a delicate balancing act to ensure that the company’s roots stay in place while also keeping it moving forward, said Paul Martini. Remaining one size or focusing on a specific area is difficult, he said, because employees are not exposed to new opportunities, and there is also a chance that the business could suddenly dry up.

Indeed, the Martinis know full well that conditions can change overnight. The most difficult period in his 24 years at the company came in the late 1980s, Paul Martini said. Since its inception, A.J. Martini had been active in building suburban corporate facilities, and it was doing the bulk of its business in that field when the regional real estate crash abruptly stopped such activity.

We woke up one day in 1989, and all of a sudden there was no need for our services anymore, he said. Compounding the problem was that the rush of business up until that point had lured several national players into the market, meaning that there was a wave of competition chasing what little work was available.

I’d never seen a rise and fall so dramatic as that before – or since, thankfully, Paul Martini said. Fighting for survival, the company did experience some layoffs, and we also went out and pounded some shoe leather looking for new lines of work, he said. The company revisited some areas it had backed off from earlier, such as health care and educational institutions, and also used its experience as a contractor in an older market to chase historic preservation work. Along those lines, the company won a big coup when it was named by the National Parks Service to renovate Boston’s Faneuil Hall and the Old State House in the early 1990s.

We had always kept our hand in [historic rehabs], but it wasn’t really our focus at the time, Paul Martini said. But winning [the Faneuil Hall/State House contract] definitely put us on the map.

Certainly it was not an easy job, given that everything right down to historic scratches on the buildings needed to be preserved. We couldn’t make any new ones ourselves, but it was important to save the old ones, Paul Martini quipped. Working with architect Goody Clancy & Assoc., the project team used such innovations as placing the water systems in adjacent buildings – chilled water for Faneuil Hall comes from nearby Boston City Hall, for example – and dropping a crane line down the chimney of Faneuil Hall to install an elevator for the disabled.

It’s a lot of fun, Paul Martini said of such work. It can be difficult to solve those problems, but it can be really enjoyable when you find a creative solution.

That marquee assignment has led to other historic projects, including the $18 million overhaul of Harvard University’s venerable Memorial Hall. With educational institutions now looking at rehabbing their older properties, many of them with historic significance, A.J. Martini has been able to leverage that business into one of its major lines of work.

Meanwhile, in responding to the expanding plate of work and the complexity of the industry, A.J. Martini last year reorganized itself into three separate divisions. Although there can be some crossover, the firm tries to place projects into its Suburban Corporate Facilities, Urban Corporate Facilities or Institutional/Restoration divisions. Doing so allows the firm to track where its work is coming from, Peter Martini said, and ensures clients that the project managers and staff have a consistency to their assignments.

The client knows that we’re not sending the next available guy off the shelf who’s done three office buildings when your job is a classroom, Peter Martini said. An owner is going to get a well-qualified person who knows what he’s doing.

Peter Martini credits William Aalerud, head of the Institutional/Restoration Division, with envisioning the segmentation idea. The willingness of Aalerud to provide such input also exemplifies the commitment of the company’s employees, he said, one where they care enough to make suggestions that will strengthen the firm.

We try to instill that in our employees, right down to the subcontractors, he said. You have to really care, and if you do, that definitely shines through.

Other key employees include Vincent Gori, who oversees the suburban division, and Urban Corporate Facilities chief William Creelman. The firm has also hired a business development manager in Ronald Rich, and has a Construction Support Services Group that provides such services as cost estimating, purchasing and inventory control. That allows the building professionals to better concentrate on the front-line work, Peter Martini said. As for the anniversary, the firm is planning a series of events for the coming year, including a historical perspective planned for the Build Boston trade show in November, as well as an anniversary celebration. In the meantime, the owners are gearing up for the next 50 years, and thus far, Paul Martini said, the future appears promising.

We’re doing very well, he said. The pace is much more accelerated today, and the business is a lot more challenging, but Peter and I are ecstatic at what we’ve been able to create here.

Martini Co. Toasts 50 Years Of Industry Ups and Downs

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 6 min