Continuity plus innovation guarantees success
Venegas Construction Corporation of Ponce, Puerto Rico, was founded in 1965 by Emilio J. Venegas. According to his grandson, Emilio R. Venegas, who joined the firm in 2005, and is now being primed to take it over from his father and current President, Emilio M. Venegas, Emilio J. started the company as a succession of Ponce Builders Corp with several partners in order to provide construction services on small projects. A half century later, Venegas Construction has grown into one of the island’s premier construction contractors.
Grandson, Emilio R. says that the company grew organically as challenges arose and were met with pioneering solutions. “If you look at our track record, there was a point in time, in 1988; when we acquired the first large scale trencher in Puerto Rico,” he begins. “A trencher is a piece of equipment employed in the construction of underground pipelines in rocky subsurface conditions. At the time it was an innovative, yet risky acquisition. Several years following that, we held a considerable market share of the underground pipeline sector of the construction industry.
“In 1990, we employed slip form construction and we poured a silo while moving forms and pouring concrete continuously for nine days.” Slip forming is used for tall structures such as bridges, towers, buildings, and dams, as well as for horizontal structures, such as roadways. Slip forming enables continuous, non-interrupted, cast-in-place “flawless” (i.e. no joints) concrete structures which have superior performance characteristics when compared to piecewise construction that utilizes discrete form elements. “We’re not experts in this, but we learned about the technology, we tried it and delivered it successfully,” he says.
“Similarly, in 1992, we self-performed tilt-up construction for the first time without having any prior experience with tilt-up.” In a tilt-up construction project, a building’s walls are poured directly at the jobsite in large slabs of concrete called “tilt-uppanels” or “tiltwall panels.” These panels are then raised into position around the building’s perimeter forming the exterior walls. “In the United States, you have specialty contractors that do just that. We employed it, ourselves,” Venegas says. “In 1993, we built the largest post-tensioned mat foundation in the Americas, here in Puerto Rico.” A mat foundation is a massive type of foundation used to provide load-bearing capacity in expansive, rocky, or hydro- collapsible soils.
“Then later on, in 2004, we were among the first to acquire mobile recycling equipment. This allowed us to recycle construction waste resulting from building shell and pavement demolitions, and process this waste for re-use as base materials installed under new pavements and buildings. As a result, shortly after 2004, we gained market share in demolition and roadwork projects. This recycling, in addition to being consistent with our recent sustainability efforts, introduced dual savings as it reduced both the amount of waste disposition and the amount of import aggregate.” Venegas continues. “In 2013, we built a superflat floor for a manufacturing facility, where we obtained an FF of 100 and an FL of 96,” he adds. Conventional methods of construction are not adequate to produce floor surfaces that are flat or level enough to support the operation of the sophisticated lift trucks in wire guided, defined traffic, narrow aisle, high-rack environments. Specialized methods of construction, incorporating strip pour construction techniques, are required to produce a superflat floor. “So there were several points in our history where an opportunity presented itself,” he concludes. “If we present a timeline on our 50-year trajectory, you see a pattern where every several years, there is a new innovation which leads to a new segment of either growth or experience. We’ve continuously evolved with time.”
Venegas stresses that his firm is not a niche or specialized contractor. “We’ve done work in every single segment of the construction industry,” he explains. “We’ve built buildings and infrastructure projects in 16 different sectors: institutional, industrial, residential, commercial, urban infrastructure, healthcare, tourism & entertainment, public works, federal government & military, high rise, ports & heavy civil, historic restoration, sustainable & LEED certified, sports venues, arts & recreation, and finally, power generation. Therefore, we’ve done several projects within each one of these 16 sectors, including many iconic and important projects on our island.”
In addition, compared to many general contractors in the United States, for example, Venegas reports that his company does most of the work itself, rather than relying on sub-contractors. “We self-perform between 50 and 80 percent of our construction contracts,” he says. “Therefore, we own approximately $5 million in property, plant, heavy equipment, fabrication shops, and offices to support our operations. We employ diversely experienced, licensed engineers; all of them have over 15 years of construction experience and a few of them have over 30 years.” Depending on the company’s workload, Venegas Construction generally employs between 150 and 600 workers.
When asked how his company differentiates itself from the competition, in addition to its use of ground-breaking construction methods, Venegas responds thusly: “We believe the most important is our track record with our clients. We have a fifty-year track record where we’ve never, ever defaulted on a project, failed to complete a project, or had any sort of litigation with a client. We do not fight with our clients, instead we are reasonable and proactive in the solution of problems; this gains us reciprocal treatment, plus rapport with our clients. We believe clients look for the reasonable and amiable problem solver. That combined with our track record of high quality and aggressive, fast-paced construction sets us apart from the rest.”
Up until about five years ago, Venegas says that a lot of its work was for public clients, but the company has since moved steadily into the private sector. “Before 2010, we did 80 percent public work, 20 percent private. And the private work – we didn’t go out and pursue it – it came to us,” he states. “From 2010, on, we’ve weaned away from the government and now 100 percent of our work is for private sector clients. Within these private sector clients, we experience considerable repeat business.”
The company’s solid reputation as a reliable partner helps explain why it has never needed to promote itself widely, relying on word of mouth and public bids to gain and maintain its market share. “For 50 years, we have never had any marketing materials – never needed it,” Venegas says proudly. “But now that we’re planning a potential geographic expansion, we’re working on our website and preparing marketing materials so that we can introduce Venegas Construction to other areas where we’re not known – outside of Puerto Rico.”
Venegas explains that the company has already built on other Caribbean islands, such as Vieques and Culebra, the remote islands that belong to Puerto Rico. “The short hops to nearby islands, we’ve done before,” he says. “But in the past five years, we’ve acquired stateside clients that have invited us to participate in work far more distant from our headquarters, such as: New York and Florida. Initially, our reaction was, ‘No way; we could never do that. All our competitive advantages are here. We don’t see how that could even be possible.’ That was five years ago. But more recently, we decided that we’re going to expand and establish construction management operations in Florida and New York. Therefore, we currently find ourselves in the process of obtaining licenses to perform as a general contractor in these states. We have some help from existing clients, but mostly, we need to introduce ourselves; we need to let the local industries know who we are in Puerto Rico and what we can do for them in Florida and New York.”
While the recent recession in Puerto Rico has severely hampered the construction sector throughout the island, Venegas says that his company has managed to hold its own during that time span. “If you graph the growth or extinction of the construction economy during the past five years against our performance,” he says, “it’s remarkable. We’ve been able to sustain good performance in an extremely onerous market. And it is a real challenge to maintain that. If we can maintain our current performance in our current industry in Puerto Rico during the next five years, we’ll be very satisfied. And I would like to see a meaningful growth of successful operations in the United States, as well.”
As Venegas Construction begins its next period of development and expansion, Venegas reflects on what has made the company so successful in the past and how this new generation of leadership plans to continue that same trajectory. “We did not become a specialty contractor to do our projects,” he says. “We just learned, educated ourselves, got the necessary equipment, and did it successfully. And we gravitated to these challenges. We like them. And you see that trend throughout our entire timeline. I love that about this corporation. When a new sector comes up, we’re usually ahead of the learning curve. Then the market gets saturated and we move onto a new challenge.
“I also love the fact that our people, like me, are third generation employees. Many of the employees that started with my grandfather – their children worked along with my father and their grandchildren now work with me. And you see a growth in their positions. A lot of the people that started out as a laborer or a carpenter with my grandfather – their children, in my father’s generation, made it to become supervisors; and today, some of these grandchildren with me are engineers or safety supervisors. They’ve grown with us. Their families have grown with us.”
Innovation paired with continuity – it’s the winning formula that should guarantee another 50 years of growth and prosperity for this venerable Puerto Rican construction company begun and sustained by the Venegas family.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Venegas Construction Corporation
WHAT:One of Puerto Rico’s premier construction contractors
WHERE: Ponce, Puerto Rico
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