Friendship at Work
Best friends and co-workers become co-owners of Velox Design and Construction
The owners of Velox Design and Construction (Velox) in San Francisco met 15 years ago when both were 2,500 miles from home. Douglas Burrows left upstate New York for temporary construction work in California and never went back. “It was a bit of a culture shock,” he recalls. “I came to the melting pot of all these different ethnicities and people and languages. It was amazing.”
Oliver Zelada, a law student and part-time musician in Guatemala, came for the rock and roll. “I came here to see Metallica, and then I stayed,” he says. Oliver quit law school and became a plumber.
Though Oliver and Douglas worked together at several construction companies, they had little in common except ambition and a strong work ethic. “I didn’t understand a word of Spanish, and Oliver’s English was terrible,” Douglas says. “He dragged me out to concerts and restaurants that I normally wouldn’t go to, and they ended up being awesome. I scheduled whitewater rafting trips, family campouts and mountain climbs he would never dream of.”
The two soon became best friends and ended up at Velox, a general contracting company. When the owner wanted to sell, they were ready to buy. In January 2021, Douglas and Oliver transitioned from employees to owners. “We’ve gone through a few companies, and we’ve always stuck together. It was amazing to work our way up and become the owners, to start from the bottom, and now we’re here,” Douglas says.
The effort that Douglas and Oliver put into their personal friendship extends to their professional contacts. Their office is filled with photos of excursions and events they’ve experienced with clients.
“We’ve climbed Mount Shasta, gone whitewater rafting down the American River, gone on fishing trips under the Golden Gate Bridge,” Douglas says. “Our clients are extensions of our family, and we all work together and help each other out. Why not have fun doing it—otherwise, what’s the point?”
The business partners are determined to deliver results. “We back up all of this with work,” Oliver says. “At the end of the day, we’re a construction company. We meet timelines and the clients’ necessities and give them a final project they’re happy with.”
Velox specializes in residential and commercial renovations and additions, as well as seismic upgrades that reinforce buildings to prevent collapse during earthquakes. Douglas, Velox President, primarily works as business manager, and Oliver, Director of Operations, is the creative designer, though they help each other with tasks. “Eighty percent of our clients have pictures in their head about what they want, but they have zero knowledge about construction. That can be tough to translate ideas from someone’s brain to make it happen on a construction site,” Oliver says.
The Velox partners strive to live up to their company name, rooted in a Latin word that translates to speedy. For example, a seismic retrofit for a Haight Street apartment building required the installation of steel moment frames and shear walls, which provide strength during earthquakes. Velox completed the project two months ahead of schedule.
“I think we get a lot of projects because of how fast we get things done. If you line up all the ducks how they’re supposed to be lined up, you’d be surprised how fast a project can get done,” Douglas says.
In their quest for speed, Douglas and Oliver are careful not to sacrifice quality. The company’s reputation and results have earned Velox a top 1 percent ranking among California general contractors by BuildZoom. The contractor rating and referral service measures customer satisfaction, work experience, contractor licenses and certification.
Tiny Homes and Big Opportunities
Before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the economy, Velox averaged $4 million in annual revenue. “It’s not like that this year,” Douglas says. “I think there are a lot of holdbacks because of COVID.”
Velox is using the slowdown to ramp up other ventures. The team recently bought a house on Meadowbrook Drive in San Francisco, stripped it to the studs, designed and rebuilt it. “We finally got to be our own client, and it felt so free. We reconfigured every square inch of this house. It was cool to express my creative freedom on my own project, and it was a slam-dunk. We sold it in five days,” Douglas says.
Their next big thing is to construct more of the tiny homes they started building for fun. Velox transformed a used shipping container into a modern 280-square-foot home featuring tile and hardwood floors. “More and more remote land is becoming accessible with the way we’re traveling and the way the world is moving,” Douglas says. “With green energy and battery packs, these tiny homes are going to start being placed in remote rural areas, and they’re gorgeous.”
Building the tiny home was an experiment that the owners hope will one day help to expand their business. In the meantime, Velox is ready to roll out another converted shipping container—a mobile pool available for rent. “I thought it would be cool because nobody has pools, so I built a pool out of a full-size 20-foot container. It has a built-in bar and glass wall, light show and waterfall,” Douglas says. “Sometimes when you can’t sleep at night, these things just go through your head and you’re like, I’ve got to build that!”
Culture of Collaboration
Oliver and Douglas want Velox to be a part of the green future. “I am from upstate New York, where you burned your trash outside, and I learned a lot over the years and came to care,” Douglas says. Velox uses green materials and supplies in its own office and on some projects, and the company is switching to an all-electric vehicle fleet.
“I think every little change can make a difference in the future, maybe not for me, but it might affect my daughter somehow,” Oliver says.
The partners want to impact the community as well as the environment. The melting pot of culture, language and food that kept Douglas in California extends throughout the Velox office, where eight employees represent six different countries. The guys appreciate the acceptance they’ve found in San Francisco, and they invest in giving back to their adopted home.
They fix houses for needy families with Habitat for Humanity Greater San Francisco, and they commit to buying supplies and lunches from local businesses. “It’s good to give back. We live and work in San Francisco, and all our guys live and work in San Francisco,” Douglas says. “You’ve got to support your community, otherwise why are we here?”
When the pandemic curtailed Oliver’s opportunities to perform the music he loves, he turned to another creative hobby—photography. “I thought maybe I can do some photos, and the money I collect from photo shoots, I can donate that.” Oliver gives all of his photography earnings to nonprofit organizations that support COVID relief.
Professional and Personal
Construction first connected the pair from upstate New York and Guatemala, and now ownership inspires them. When they embarked on their professional partnership, they decided to push themselves personally, too. “We were working our butts off to move up in the company, and part of that was changing our lives around and being healthy,” Douglas says.
They set up a fitness studio in their office so that when the workdays are over, the workouts begin. Oliver has lost almost 100 pounds in the last year. “My perspective, vision, focus, my energy, everything changed. It’s like a new version of me. It’s like I found a way to time travel, and I traveled 20 years into the past,” Oliver says. And 20 years into the future, Douglas and Oliver—both fathers of young daughters—envision Velox providing education and opportunity for their families and satisfaction for jobs well done.