All the Right Stuff
Kerzner Contracting combines diverse skills and integrity to keep growing
Zach Kerzner is the third generation to head Kerzner Contracting Corp. and is carrying on the company philosophy of building lasting relationships with the integrity to do the right thing.
Based in Bohemia, New York, the company offers general contractor services for all phases of commercial, residential and industrial construction for clients in Westchester, Orange, Queens, Suffolk and Nassau counties.
Bob Kerzner, Zach’s grandfather, started the company in 1974. He believed in getting the job done no matter what, and he used money wisely. Zach’s father, Robert, also known as Woody, blended his dad’s values with his own skill at creating relationships.
Woody is currently President of Kerzner Contracting. He interfaces with municipalities on inspections and handles scheduling. Zach has been Vice President since 2011 and manages all of the day-to-day activities. Bob, who turns 80 this year, has retired to South Carolina and stays active with occasional small remodel or repair work.
Zach learned about the importance of character and integrity from his grandfather, and his father and mother, who frequently reminded Zach of basketball coaching legend John Wooden’s quote: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are.”
Choosing Their Paths
Although Bob’s path to business ownership was direct, both Zach and his dad took detours on their routes. In both cases, their skills and true passions ultimately played a role in the success of the business.
Bob’s full-time job was working on bridges. During off hours, he remodeled residential kitchens and baths. When he needed more income for his growing family, he took a leap and started his own residential construction business. His first big job was kitchen and bath remodeling for The Salvation Army, which spawned a lot more work.
Zach’s father, Woody, had no desire to be in the business and was in college studying to be a physical education teacher when his younger brother, James, suddenly passed away. So, Woody decided to come home to be with his family and never went back to college. He did, however, follow his passion for coaching sports, which eventually opened the door to business expansion.
“My dad was a volunteer coach for basketball and football,” Zach says. “One of his fellow coaches, Rick Bartlett, was an architect with Bartlett, Amoruso & Recce, looking for a contractor to work on a project for Dunkin’ Donuts. So my dad took on the work, and we still have a great relationship with Dunkin’ Donuts today.”
It wasn’t an easy ride, however. “On the first Dunkin’ Donuts project, my dad lost $40,000,” Zach recalls. “But he never walked away. He’s a man of great character who always finishes what he starts, so that’s what he did. And it turned into a very profitable, 30-year relationship.”
When Zach was at an age to make a career decision, his dad discouraged him from becoming a contractor. Instead, Zach went to college on a football scholarship and graduated with a double major in finance and economics. “I just never saw myself working in finance, so I went to work with my dad, but he almost wanted to force me out by giving me boring jobs,” Zach says. “Eventually, he realized I wanted to be in the business and that my education would help him. Our skills have complemented each other and helped the business grow.”
Zach’s sister, Ryan Kerzner, is also a key player in the business. She manages the office and accounting functions. “She really does an amazing job, managing all of the billing and banking. She’s very much like my grandfather in managing finances well. I couldn’t do what I do without her support.”
Finding New Opportunities
When Woody took over the company in 2000, it was generating about $2 million a year. This year it expects to reach $12 million. Reaching that volume took a combination of integrity and relationship building, especially during the 2008 financial crisis.
“In 2009, my father had to absorb about $500,000 in unpaid receivables when, due to the recession, several projects suddenly folded and some companies did not pay him in full. But he paid all of his subcontractors and was debt free by the end of that year,” Zach says. “That’s just the way he is. He didn’t always take a paycheck, but he always did the right thing, so people wanted to work with him. That loyalty got us through the recession, when our company had just my father, me and two employees. Now we have 28 employees.”
While Zach tackled different areas of managing the business, his dad continued to network for new business. “My dad is very personable and has an aura about him. Everyone he meets likes him,” says Zach, who recounts a chance meeting at a social event with Mark Lessing, Executive Vice President of Lessing’s Inc. Lessing’s owns multiple restaurants, pizza parlors and catering facilities. “That connection opened another whole commercial market for us, and our approach to go beyond client expectations kept us in it.”
Kerzner Contracting has benefited from repeat work offered by franchise companies and continues to work with Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin-Robbins, Nathan’s Famous, Rita’s, Blaze Pizza and Starbucks. “If you do a good job, you’ll get called back,” Zach says. “The challenge is sometimes being asked to do things on a short timeline, such as a remodel in four days.”
Franchise work can also lead to other business. Referrals from franchise customers have led to new construction and ongoing remodeling for auto dealers and pharmaceutical companies.
“We’ve created long-term, 25- to 30-year relationships with companies like Lessing’s Inc. and Dunkin’ Donuts because we make sure we get the job done no matter what,” Zach adds. “About 99 percent of our customers give us repeat business. We also get leads from landlords, realtors, The Blue Book Network and now through social media.”
Creating a Family Atmosphere
The warm and personal attitude exists inside the Kerzner office, as well. “We try to create a family atmosphere with all of our employees and subcontractors,” Zach says. “We’ve worked with the same painter for 30 years, storefront subcontractor for 20 years, plumber and an electrician for 10 years. With our staff, my philosophy is to never hire above existing employees. I always encourage them to move up and hire below them. So far, about five helpers have moved up to project managers.”
He also reminds staff members to share their knowledge in the field with others. “I always say, ‘Let someone help you because you can’t do it all yourself.’ Once they realize it makes their job easier, they’re on the way to becoming a foreman.” The company has paid for employees to attend training classes on such topics as project management and how to understand plans.
“We want our employees to have a good life beyond work,” Zach says. “We try to treat them like family. If they need something, they come to me, and I try to help whenever I can. In return, they’re willing to work harder for us. We never have a problem getting guys to work on a rush project.”
Giving Back to the Community
Kerzner Contracting shares its resources with its community in several ways. Zach serves on the board of Sayville Cares, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that supports several causes, such as Building Homes for Heroes, which modifies or builds homes for wounded American service members and their families. In the past five years, Sayville Cares has raised $125,000 and donated materials to this cause. Kerzner Contracting also organized a bone marrow drive for a Kerzner family member dealing with leukemia. The campaign raised $8,000 and encouraged 120 people to sign up to be donors. Kerzner Contracting has also sponsored functions to raise donations for organizations in need of hearing aids, eyeglasses and school supplies. The company has also worked with and donated to organizations such as Make-A-Wish®, Wounded Warrior Project®, Doc Fallot Scholarships, as well as Sayville youth and high school scholarship programs.
Keeping the Spirit Alive
It takes a combination of skills to create and sustain a successful business. “My grandfather had an old-school approach and was financially conservative. My father used his great people skills to bring customers into the fold and keep them,” Zach says. “I think I’ve been blessed with some of both of them, and that is good for the business. I’m also blessed with a wonderful wife, Anne Marie, who supports me in all I do.”
Zach never loses sight of his role. He keeps his grandfather’s ledger from the 1980s in the top drawer of his desk so he sees it every day. It reminds him of the company’s past and what that means to its future.