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Thu September 15, 2011 - Northeast Edition
It has endured for nearly a century, four generations of family, as strong as the structures it has built.
Yet, amazingly, Barletta Companies — a renowned firm that has had a part in building some of the most famous projects in and around Boston for decades —began with a single shovel.
One Shovel, One Dream
In 1914, before America had even thought about entering the first World War, Vincenzo Barletta, an Italian immigrant, built the foundation of his own American dream when he established the V. Barletta Company in Roslindale, Mass.
“He started with a very basic piece of equipment — a shovel. His company built masonry walls and concrete sidewalks, installed small underground utilities — that type of work,” said his great-grandson, current President Vincent F. Barletta, the fourth generation of family ownership and management.
“The office was in his home in Roslindale. Back then, there wasn’t nearly the volume of paperwork as there is in the business now, but what there was, he did right at the kitchen table. In fact, before we moved to the Canton office in 2004, that house was still part of our corporate headquarters.”
Vincenzo’s new company grew slowly and despite financial setbacks, the work began to pay off. Vincenzo became an outstanding builder, winning an award for the Fore River Bridge, the first of many that his firm would earn over the decades.
So, how does a construction company thrive for nearly a century?
“Through a combination of hard work, perseverance, dedication, flexibility and being at the right place at the right time, which I suppose could be called ’luck,’” said Barletta. “We’ve always had family members in management, and have been fortunate to have employees who care deeply for the company and its future.”
Surviving the Depression
During the Great Depression, Vincenzo and company dug deeper in the earth and in its own reserves.
“People have two choices when they run into hardships,” said Barletta. “You can either learn from adversity, or you can let it beat you. He took his lumps and kept going.”
In 1929, Barletta won a $612,000 contract to construct sections of the Neponset Valley Sewer System for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
“That same job would be worth almost $8 million today, and certainly it helped keep the firm going through some very tough times,” said Barletta.
When World War II arrived, Barletta contributed immensely to the war effort, completing projects for the War Department, the Navy and the Army Corps of Engineers. The company’s most impressive defense related achievement was the construction of the entire South Weymouth (Mass.) Naval Air Station in less than 24 months.
“Besides the dirigible hanger, we also built the South Weymouth Naval Base’s runways, personnel barracks, mess halls, recreation buildings, ammunition depot, gas and storage facilities and the helium distribution, water and sewage systems,” added Barletta. “We constructed fuel storage facilities in Casco, Maine, and ammunition storage facilities in Hingham, Massachusetts for the U.S. Navy. Sewer, gas and water line Installations at the Boston Harbor Defenses for the U.S. War Department, and a one-mile submarine water pipeline for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
In the heady post-World War II boom, Barletta’s growth mirrored that of the nation’s. Construction of infrastructure projects for Eastern Massachusetts such as the Fore River Bridge in Quincy, the Mystic River (Tobin) Bridge, the East Boston Expressway and sections of the new Neponset Valley sewer system were completed.
Vincenzo passed away in 1958, leaving management of the prospering firm to his son, Frederick. In the 1950s and 1960s, Barletta continued to grow, and built segments of Route 128 (Interstate 95) around Boston, worked on the Neponset River Bridge in Quincy and completed the entire downtown portion of the John F. Fitzgerald Expressway (the old Elevated Central Artery) including the Dewey Square Tunnel.
With the unexpected passing of Frederick in 1968, his young son Vincent inherited, not only the company, but also a group of truly dedicated employees who shared their knowledge and expertise with their new president, ensuring the company would continue to grow and prosper.
“I think in any family-owned firm, transitions like this are doubly hard. Not only have you lost the head of the company, you’ve lost a parent or grandparent. Foresight and planning help overcome that,” said Barletta. “For instance, Vincenzo’s two sons, Frederick and Nick, had been brought into the company when they were still pretty young. After Vincenzo’s passing, they worked together, and then Freddie’s three sons, Douglas, Frederick and Vincent, joined the firm full-time as they matured.
“Vincent, my father, graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in civil engineering and from Babson College with a degree in business administration before he started working here full-time. And again, my brothers and I were brought into the business when we were still young, working after school and summers,” he said.
During the 1970s, the firm, which was now known as The Barletta Company, completed a number of contracts at Boston’s Logan International Airport, including the creation of Bird Island Flats.
“The Bird Island Flats project was a massive job for the time [early 1970s] and provided the room for Boston’s Logan Airport to expand. The I-95 bridges were completed from 1972 to 1977, and provided a modern highway system through eastern Massachusetts,” said Barletta.
“Each of our projects is important — and for the same reason. The work that we do improves people’s daily lives,” he added. “For instance, our construction of the Carroll Water Treatment Plant provides up to 405 million gallons of safe drinking water to Greater Boston families and businesses every day; the 25-acre public park we built in East Boston allows residents and visitors to take a break from their urban environment, and our many transportation projects help make people’s commutes easier and faster.”
Other projects included the construction of 13 bridges on Interstate 95, the reconstruction of the Interstate 495 and 290 Interchange in Worcester, Mass., and completion of a pollution abatement and flood control facility for the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
From Horizontal to Vertical
Through the 1980s and 1990s, the company moved almost exclusively into the field of vertical construction.
“You have to be able to adapt to changing conditions and markets. For quite a number of years, cities and towns were investing in treatment plants, schools and other public buildings. We couldn’t just sit and wait for our traditional work to come back. We had to go where the market was,” said Barletta. “At that time, we had some in-laws and non-family administrators highly placed in the company and many of them were well-versed in the building trades.”
Besides working on the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s massive Deer Island Treatment Plant facility, Barletta also completed many waste and water treatment plants and institutional buildings for local municipalities, and it was during this time that the engineering division was added.
Fourth Generation Ascends
With the passing of Vincent Barletta Sr., in 1998, his sons took over leadership roles in the firm.
“Right from the start, we were determined to preserve the working atmosphere of a small, privately-owned firm that we’ve enjoyed since the company was founded. It’s definitely a balancing act between being a family company and running a business professionally, but we make it work,” stated Barletta.
“On any given day, we have hundreds of employees and pieces of equipment working on dozens of job sites. I often wonder what my great-grandfather would think if he could see what his little business has become.
“It was tough in the beginning. It definitely helped to have people around you that you knew you could count on. Dad used to be able to micro-manage the company, but it’s grown way too much for that now,” said Barletta. We knew we’d have to rely more on organizational, business and management tools and make major investments in items of high-technology and networked computer systems.
“There were personnel changes, and along with the responsibilities we handed our people, we gave them authority to make decisions about the running of their operations. Some of our projects are huge. They’re run almost like small separate companies, and although the site offices are linked to headquarters by computer, the project staff needs the flexibility to be able to handle the day-to-day decision-making. We set policy and provide them the tools and support they need. You have to have trust in your people to do that, and they have to know that you’ll have their backs,” he said.
Coming Full Circle
Barletta’s heavy division was founded that same year, returning the company to its roots in heavy and highway construction. Working on the new Central Artery/Tunnel (The Big Dig) project brought the Barletta name full-circle; re-building the infrastructure of Eastern Massachusetts that it had originally built over half a century before.
“I suppose, if you’re in the construction industry and your firm is in business long enough, you may very well end up ’rebuilding’ your company’s own work,” smiled Barletta. “Still, it was quite an experience to watch structures that had been in place for my entire lifetime, that my family had helped to build, being demolished, even if they were being replaced by something better.”
Barletta sees the changes in and around Boston and its prominent city-suburbs as, “Opportunity. If your business is building infrastructure, there’s nothing better than regional growth for providing new work. And, obviously in older cities, there’s always work replacing, rehabilitating and repairing. It can give you a rewarding feeling to add your own work to the tapestry of a city with so much history. One of our recent projects was located in the shadow of the 18th century Old State House, just steps from the Boston Massacre site.”
Barletta said he is “extremely fortunate” to have a core of dedicated long-time employees who are, “Top-notch professionals, from the engineers and superintendents to the administrators and foreman. They are definitely the biggest factor in our continuing growth and success.”
The longest-standing employee of the company is Harry Cornick, who was hired by founder Vincenzo in 1956.
“In the summers, he used to pick up my brothers and me and take us, along with his son, to work on the job sites raking woodchips and things like that,” said Barletta. “He worked his way up to superintendent, and finally retired in 1995. After five years, he came back to work for us, claiming he was bored with retirement.”
Fifty-five years after he was first hired, you can still find Cornick at Barletta, working in the estimating department, five days a week.
Hundreds on the Job
Nearly a century later, the one-shovel company has diversified into general construction specializing in heavy and highway, bridges, tunnels, airports, rail transit projects and marine construction, as well as treatment plants, pump stations, green roofs, power plants and utilities, design-build, and equipment rental.
Barletta Companies are currently working on two design-build projects — the replacement of a historic swing span bridge over the Merrimack River, and the construction of a parkway and related facilities on the site of the former South Weymouth Naval Air Station (which it originally built during World War II).
“We’re rehabilitating the 70-year-old Hultman Aqueduct, which until recently was the only water line supplying drinking water to the greater Boston area,” said Barletta. “We’re also building another signature bridge for the City of Boston; the sinusoidal pedestrian bridge spanning Millers River and the Duck Boat ramp, which will connect the North Point Park in East Cambridge to the Paul Revere Park in Charlestown.
“We have half-a-dozen rail facility projects in progress, and also under way is Armenian Heritage Park, which is being constructed in the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, between Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Christopher Columbus Park.”
They also are building plans for the company’s 100th anniversary, set for 2014.
“We’ll be starting our planning in the next six months or so. The majority of firms never reach the Centennial anniversary mark, so we’ll definitely be celebrating,” said Barletta. “Certainly, we’ll be soliciting input from our employees. Since they helped build the company, we want to include their thoughts on how to commemorate this milestone. As long as they don’t suggest I shut the company down for a month and take them all on a cruise.”
Barletta Companies are located at 40 Shawmut Road, Canton, Mass. For more information, visit www.barlettaco.com. CEG
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