The Real Deal New York

Stop, hammer time: Q&A with NYC construction boss Charlie Avolio

Prez of Suffolk Construction's NYC office talks industry trends, T-Swift
By Kathryn Brenzel | September 01, 2017 07:00AM

Charlie Avolio and a rendering of 532 Neptune Avenue (Credit: S9 Architecture)

Earlier this year, Suffolk Construction scored a major job: A mixed-used tower that is expected to be Coney Island’s tallest.

Rubin Schron’s Cammeby’s International Group tapped Suffolk to build 532 Neptune Avenue, a 430-foot-tall tower that will include 544 apartments, 90,000 square feet of retail and another 15,521 square feet for community facilities. The project marked the construction company’s third job in New York City since opening an office in the city two years ago. Though Suffolk has been very active in other markets — especially Boston — for more than 30 years, New York City is still relatively new terrain.

Charlie Avolio joined the firm in March 2016, taking on the role of president and general manager of Suffolk’s New York office. Avolio graduated from Villanova University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1986. That same year, he joined Turner Construction as a field engineer, eventually working his way up to vice president of the company. After 30 years with Turner, Avolio decided to take the reins at Suffolk’s new office. Its other projects in the city include a rental building a 222 East 44th Street for Lloyd Goldman’s BLDG Management and two apartment towers at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6 for RAL Companies and Oliver’s Realty Group. The latter project has been held up by litigation brought by the Brooklyn Heights Association, a neighborhood group that argues plans for the park are excessive. The project, Avolio said, is now underway.

Avolio grew up the youngest of three children in West Hempstead on Long Island. He and his wife now live in Valhalla with their daughter and son, ages 21 and 18, respectively. He drives his Audi the 45 minutes (or more, traffic and weather depending) to Suffolk’s Midtown office every weekday.

As part of a new questions-and-answers series with construction bosses in New York City, The Real Deal sat down with Avolio in Suffolk’s office at One Penn Plaza. The company was in the process of moving its office from the building’s 42nd to the 55th floor.

What made you pursue construction after college?

I didn’t see the design side as something that I was going to be really interested or really good at. I felt that I was probably better suited to more of a hands-on career where I can interact with people. My uncle was in the banking business and did a lot of construction lending, and he was kind of a little bit of an influence for me to look into the construction industry. He worked at National Bank of America. So, after a few job interviews, before I graduated college, I had a job offer from Turner Construction.

Are there any particular projects that stick out from your time at Turner?

I would say my most rewarding project was an addition and renovation for St. Mary’s Hospital for children in Bayside, Queens. Not the most prominent project, not the biggest or most complicated. But it was a 90-bed facility for children that needed to have a long-term stay at a hospital after they’ve stayed at an acute care hospital. So, that was the most rewarding.

What was the most challenging project?

I was down at the World Trade Center from 2006 to 2016 in several capacities, working on the rebuilding of the World Trade Center and the public work and the public space that’s there, as well as Tower 2 for Silverstein [Properties]. Probably the most challenging project, for many reasons, in my career.

Why did you leave Turner?

I was there for 30 years. I had a great career, I have a lot of friends there and have a lot of respect for them, but the opportunity came to me to do a couple of things here at Suffolk. Certainly, the opportunity to start up an office and start a business almost from scratch was very appealing to me. With the size and the scope of my last company, that opportunity was probably not there.

How have you grown Suffolk’s New York office so far?

Our first project was with Forest City companies and G&S Investors at Hudson Exchange in Jersey City. From that launching point, we’ve been able to grow in our size and capacity. We currently have nine projects under contract, a little over $900 million in revenue. We have over 50 employees here in New York, and we have a backlog of over $1 billion. So, we’ve been focusing on really relationship building. We don’t chase work, we chase relationships. And if we can create productive relationships, at some point, they’ll be fruitful. It doesn’t have to be tomorrow or next month, it could be next year or the year after.

What’s it like working for Cammeby’s, being that they are somewhat new to the ground-up development game?

We’ve had a very good working relationship with them, it’s very collaborative. I wouldn’t say it’s a learning process for them. I believe it’s their first ground up development of this size. They have people on their team who have certainly worked on projects of that size. It’s just as an overall developer, they’re not thought of as a “ground-up” kind of company.

What about Brooklyn Bridge Park? It’s been delayed quite a few times due to litigation. What’s that been like for you?

Like anything else, it takes patience. RAL Companies has been a great client to work with. From my vantage point, they’ve been very patient with the process. I’m not going to take sides or take an opinion on the discussions that they are having with the community. I can understand some of the things the community is thinking and feeling. So, it can get frustrating, but this is our business. Most projects don’t start on the exact day that you expected.

What are the biggest challenges of growing a business in New York, compared to other markets?

We’re in a crowded market. Clients have a lot of choices with companies they can use. Generating market share in a market that is this large but has so many competitors, is certainly a challenge. Although we have a strong national brand, certainly we haven’t been a name brand here in New York over the last couple of years.

What are your thoughts on the construction safety legislation that is being considered by the City Council?

I’m pleased that the legislation is moving thoughtfully through its process. If the legislation is put in place without really analyzing what impact it has on the industry, there could be a ripple effect with the pace at which work at place is being done. The New York City requirement for an OSHA 10 as basic training is a good start, I don’t think it goes far enough. The OSHA 30 program is a little more comprehensive, but also with time on the job, you learn your craft and you learn the steps you need to keep not only keep yourself safe but the people around you safe and the public.

What do you think about the 59-hour safety requirement?

Safety training is continuous. If it’s not daily, it’s weekly. Your pre-task plans and job hazard analysis that are done on a daily basis, in my view, is part of training. Construction projects change hourly. So, to say that there’s a prescriptive 59 hours, to me, it really doesn’t tell the whole picture. There should be a set of basics, and there should be a set of continuous training or continuous processes that the industry should go through to ensure that the workforce is safe at all times.

What was your first job?

My first job was with the school district that I lived in [West Hempstead]. There were schools moving, they were combining the district and relocating some of the classes into different buildings. I got a job at the school district on the moving van. I was 16 years old, so I spent July and August moving furniture from school to school. It taught me I probably didn’t want to be a mover because of the amount of work and the lifting.

Have you heard the new Taylor Swift song?

I have not. But she’s been all over the news, so I learned that her followers are called “Swifties.”

Think there’s a construction boss we should interview?
Email kathryn@therealdeal.com (Photo illustration by Lexi Pilgrim for The Real Deal)