The Congress Companies

Bill Nicholson, owner and CEO of The Congress Companies, learned many lessons from his uncle and his father who started the company in the early 1950s. Some of those lessons were how to hold a client and how to service a client. Nicholson learned early on that the construction experience starts for the client way before the shovel hits the ground. That premise, backed by a dedication to providing the best quality to every project, has made The Congress Companies a long-lived company, with a third generation of family members taking their place to lead the business into the future.

Nicholson did not inherit Congress; he purchased it. In 1972, he started working for the company as a laborer, carpenter and then foreman. By 1987, he was an estimator and project manager and when his father and uncle decided to reduce their role, Nicholson purchased the company from them.

The company, initially building restaurants and hotels for Howard Johnson Corp., moved into constructing nursing homes and healthcare facilities in the 1970s, and has been both witness and participant to the changes this industry has experienced over time.

In the early 1970s, Congress started transitioning from hotel building to nursing home facilities, a seamless transition according to Nicholson. “Back then, a nursing home was not very different from a hotel with a nurse call system,” he explains.

Congress’ work with a FHA loan program directed at financing nursing homes, elderly projects and assisted living facilities, called HUD, ensured its workflow in the industry into the 1980s. The company also diversified during this decade, venturing into multifamily and elderly housing. “The ’80s were an expansion period; we did some condominiums and some apartments,” Nicholson recalls.

It was in the 1990s when assisted living emerged as a new concept. “Some of our clients in the nursing sector came to us and said, ‘There is this new product called assisted living and we’d like to put some of it together,’” he remembers. “We said, ‘sure, let’s get together, bring some design folks with whom we can partner and start work.’”

One of the first assisted projects it completed, in 1995, was Golden Pond, which was the first assisted living facility built under the HUD 232 Program in Massachusetts. The company constructed the 64,500-square-foot facility, the design of which was a “companion” model, with two bedrooms to each unit.

Repeated Business

The lull in construction starting in 2008 impacted assisted community developments, as well. “There was a slowdown period in that area in the last six years,” explains Nicholson. “Now we’re looking at a situation where there is pent-up demand in the assisted-living industry because there has been no assisted living construction since the credit crisis and the recession that we have all lived through since 2008. Things seem to have eased up a bit in the credit markets, and there is assisted-living construction now being financed, including HUD and conventional construction loans.”

When the credit market started to recover, Congress saw a lot of its clients return for upgrades, remodels and additions to their existing facilities. About 80 percent of the company’s work is from repeat business, a testament to its quality and superior customer service.

One of the customers that came back was Golden Pond. The assisted-living facility decided to do a four-story addition, with 41 assisted-living beds in 30 units. The demand for the configuration of the assisted-living units has changed over time and this client was experiencing a demand for larger, more independent living-like units.

Congress, which prides itself on listening to its clients’ demands and working with them “long before the pencil touches the paper,” as Nicholson puts it, designed larger, homelike residences for the Golden Pond expansion. “The new units feel very much like independent living, with single occupancy and their own kitchen,” Nicholson explains. “They do not have an institutional feel to them.”

The work will also include renovation of the main mechanical, electrical, HVAC, plumbing and laundry central plants. The construction will be done without disruption to the current residents at Golden Pond and it is slated to begin in the fall of 2012.

The Future

Nicholson plans very deliberate growth for the company in years to come. “We operate best as a boutique builder, not as a big machine,” he states. “Our growth will be based on opportunities to do projects that make sense for our delivery model. We’ve also done site selection, permitting, design, and furnishings and development for a fee, for our clients as well as the pure CM work. We provide a vertical integration of services and that is a very significant differentiator for us.”

Focus on the customer is essential for Nicholson, who states, “We want our people to be focused like a laser beam on the projects they’re working on. We don’t want them distracted with too many customers.”

To provide that level of service, the company will focus on projects that fit its service philosophy, working with clients that understand its process. “We are not a one-size-fits-all firm,” Nicholson says. “We do have so much muscle memory in the healthcare sector, and we have so much to offer a client. If they’re interested in that collaborative delivery model, we’re here to service them. That model is good for many clients; others have a different view of how they want to buy construction services.”

Nicholson is proud of the recognition his company has in the Boston, New Jersey and New York areas and is excited to see The Congress Companies thrive for another 60 years, with the addition of his own son to the company, currently a project manager. “Longevity is rare in this business, but we see all the signs of increased longevity because the generation coming up behind us is very enthusiastic.”

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