Trust the Process
A young nineteen-year-old man who was figuring out life and his journey knew one thing: he didn’t want to continue being a grocery store clerk. Lew Houghtaling wanted more, he wanted to make more money, work with his hands and make a contribution to his community. A friend suggested applying for a job as a mason with a local contractor, and what a great suggestion that was.
DeBrino was a household name at this time and was a large contractor with a big book of business. Lew had no idea what opportunities would be waiting for him if he joined the team but the money alone was enough ammunition to apply. In 1970 Lew joined the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Union and was working for DeBrino Caulking Associates earning $4.25 an hour. He knew it was a step in the right direction as he was making a living wage and had benefits, but little did he know what kind of impact this career decision would make on him.
For the first two years at DeBrino, Lew learned the ropes as an apprentice. He focused on mastering his craft as a Pointer, Caulker, Cleaner working on large scope jobs like Empire State Plaza and various buildings in the Downtown Albany area. He worked his was up the ladder earning the Foreman position after two years. The scope of work only got bigger. DeBrino covered a large territory leading Lew to work on the rehab of Yankee Stadium in 1976, SUNY Binghamton, Alfred University and Syracuse University. Work was steady and he was happy with the path he took but then things took a big turn.
Phone rings on a Saturday morning… a call delivering the news that Ray DeBrino , owner of the company, had passed away. Seven years into his tenure with DeBrino Caulking Associates, Lew wasn’t sure how to take the news and questioned if his job was on the line. Devastated by the news and wondering who was going to take over, Lew showed up to work Monday morning as usual. Ray’s Attorney approached three employees and suggested that together they keep the business running and grow from the name that’s already known and trusted. Lew, Loretta Patton, Office Secretary, and Bob Petchell, Ray’s right hand man and laborer in the field, didn’t hesitate and took the gamble. Lew figured he had already invested seven years of his life into the company so taking the risk was worth it. Only two years later and after investing his own money, Lew bought out Loretta and Bob. Lew Houghtaling was now sole owner of DeBrino Caulking Associates.
Though the company had a familiar name to many people in the community, this alone wasn’t going to build success for Lew. He had to build a reputation for himself. He was practically starting fresh due to some unforeseen choices the previous owner had made for the company. Business back then wasn’t as hard as it is today, relationships actually meant something and loyalty went a long way. Lew had to operate as a COD contractor with most accounts until he became established. It took time and persistence but by 1979, only two years into running the show at Debrino, he was able to develop an Accounts Receivable department, have a steady cash flow, create a back log and start hiring more guys for the jobs. That first year under his presidency, his book of business in 1977 was 90k with only two field employees. Fast forward 42 years, Debrino Caulking Associates runs a DEBT FREE, 18 million dollar company with ninety employees.
Upstate Masonry Institute was lucky enough to get the opportunity to meet with Lew Houghtaling of DeBrino Caulking Associates, learn more about his story and what has helped him be successful not only as a business owner but as a resource and advocate to the masonry industry. All questions are answered by Lew Houghtaling.
How have you maintained a successful business in the construction industry?
Plain and simple, My workforce. I don’t ask my team to do things I wouldn’t do. It takes hard work to run a business but it’s even harder work to show up and give it 100%. I have put a qualified workforce together in both the office and field that allows me to take care of the day to day because I can trust that the work that is getting done meets the standard of our reputation.
What is one thing you learned on this journey from apprentice to business owner?
Stick to what you know. There was a time that we tried to dabble into different trades and it bit us back. It put me in the hole to the point where I didn’t know if we would get out of it. That’s when you need to take a step back and reevaluate what it is you are doing, go back to what you know and become the master of that trade.
As a former union mason what is the biggest difference from when you were in the union to now?
The training. The Unions invest a lot of time and money into their membership now. When I joined the union in 1970 you were indentured to your employer, so it was the responsibility of the contractor to do all the training. Now you know the apprentice has a basic knowledge and its our responsibility to help them master their craft. We have pulled at least 100 members out of the union over the years that not only joined our team but stuck with their craft to make it a career.
42 years later, what advice do you have for the folks in the construction industry?
Mentor. Whether you are a business owner or a person out in the field, if you have the experience it is your job to mentor the folks coming into the industry. We all have to start somewhere and the growing process is a lot easier when you have someone to go to that has “been there, done that”
I also can’t emphasize enough, on getting involved. I am a member of various groups and organizations both industry related and community related. If you want to build a name for yourself, you need to start with networking and getting involved. You will learn a lot along the way.
If you could go back in time, and bring something with you to present time, what would it be?
I got into a trade and was able to build a life for myself and my kids, but I see how the schools push college and don’t share the other options. You are no less of a person for wanting to make money, not incur debt and learn something that you will be able to take with your anywhere. I wish we could bring trade pride back to present time. There are too many people that don’t know their options or that think they are “above it”. The lack of looking up to a tradesman/woman is startling.
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