Real estate developers have been transforming the landscape of Buffalo for the last decade, renovating old buildings and erecting shiny new ones.
But they’re often not the ones doing the heavy lifting.
That task falls to construction companies and general contractors, who are hired to perform and oversee the work. And one of the most frequent names in that field is RP Oak Hill Building Co.
Founded in May 2006 by Melissa G. Baumgart, Gary Bichler and Christopher J. Hogan, RP Oak Hill has grown to handle many of the historic renovation and adaptive reuse projects that dominate development activity. Their clients include many local developers – including Rocco Termini, Jake Schneider, McGuire Development, Mark Croce and Mark Hamister – while their portfolio features landmark projects such as Hotel @ Lafayette, Apartments at the Hub, 10 Lafayette, Curtiss Hotel, Queen City Landing and Campus Square.
The company was formed by the three construction industry veterans at the urging of their late friend and mentor, Richard Garman, a local businessman and philanthropist who owned Buffalo Crushed Stone before selling it in 2000. Originally called R&P Oak Hill Development, the firm was named for the first initials of Richard and Patricia Garman, and the name of their East Aurora estate, Oak Hill.
Last May, in a bid to preserve the company’s long-term future, the three owners transferred it to a Employee Stock Ownership Plan, putting control in the hands of its workforce. Bichler (pronounced BICK-ler) remains CEO while Hogan is chief operating officer. Baumgart is on the board. But now they work for their employees.
Bichler, who is also chairman of the Construction Exchange, spoke recently about the company, what’s next for Buffalo and what the city will need to do to keep up with new construction.
Q: You converted your private company into an ESOP. Why?
A: It was basically a succession plan that our financial partners asked us to look into – our bonding company and our bank. I will be 66 years old in December; my partner is closing in on 60. We tried to convince them that we were going to live forever, but they didn’t buy into that.
So Chris and I sat down and started that journey. We started looking for options, and it appeared as though the ESOP was the best, because it ensured a continuation of the company with the personnel that are here now. It gave them an opportunity to be an owner of the company through shares, and it incentivized them for the future.
Q: How long have you been in construction?
A: I came back to Buffalo in 1977, and started in the construction business, and that’s basically all I know. I’m a builder at heart. I love it. It’s all I know how to do.
Q: What was the market like when you started the company?
A: Chris and I, when we came back together, we had worked in a business as a general contractor, called a hard-bid contractor. That’s tough. So we looked at a slightly different model, where we would become your construction department.
We decided to go into the private market, and there seemed to be some dynamics in the construction industry at the time that there was an opportunity in that market. We were going to provide a service that was needed.
By design or by fault, we were recognized as becoming industry leaders in this rehab. We developed a capability in that market at the time that market was starting to expand.
Q: Are you surprised by how much work you’ve gotten?
A: We’ve been lucky, but luck usually occurs at the intersection of hard work and good planning. Chris and I have been working hard and we’ve collected a group of good people.
We are in a market right now where we have an expertise in an area that is in demand: redevelopment of existing buildings. It’s not an easy one. There’s a learning curve. We’ve done pretty well with it. So I think we’re very fortunate. The market emerged at a great time and we ended up having the tools necessary to take advantage of that market.
Q: Was that deliberate?
A: Yes. We did see that as a market. You don’t see it clearly. It’s like everything else on the horizon. There was a fuzzy look. We started tuning in on it, and the more we tuned in on it, the more it became clear. And we’re just fortunate to have the resources necessary to capture a good portion of that market. It’s been very good for us.
Q: When things were starting out, would you have envisioned the success you’ve had?
A: I always told Chris, yes, I saw it. But I’m the eternal optimist. We’ve never been to a presentation we weren’t going to be selected for. We’ve never bid on a job we weren’t going to get.
I tell my folks that I look at 9 to 5 as the time you take care of the business you capture from 6 to midnight.
I’m thrilled with what’s going on in Buffalo right now. I was confident. Watching Buffalo, I’m a Buffalo kid, born and raised, and always had some confidence in this market.
Q: Does it surprise you, what’s happened in Buffalo?
A: It’s a pleasant surprise. It’s a manifestation of the facts that I saw a while ago. Things were starting to happen.
All of a sudden, Buffalo is attractive to outside investment. That means there’s an infrastructure to support their desires.
And I think that will continue.
Q: What’s next for Buffalo?
A: There’s some manufacturing opportunities starting to come back, significant. We’ve just been selected for a major project with a manufacturing company. So I see that.
I see the historic renovation continuing. I see the low-income housing market and mixed housing opportunities continuing.
I think a lot of it is going to be happening in the City of Buffalo. There are some market dynamics saying Buffalo is really the place to be. The demand for good housing in the City of Buffalo is just increasing.
It’s really an exciting time. I see a lot of good. At my age, to look back and see this happening right now, it’s terrific.
Q: What do you do as builders to keep up?
A: We’re getting ready to put together our business plan for the next five years. Certainly to the end of 2018, we’ve got some backlog and some good projects. But what we’re going to do is sit down with our staff and we’re going to fill in the blanks, to plot our course over the next five years and to get some of our new owners to buy into the direction that we’re taking.
Maybe the young people have some ideas about things that I haven’t even thought of. I want our young talented, educated folks to get a chance to have some input. There may be things that we don’t see yet, that they may be thinking about.
Q: Do you see yourselves staying as a builder or becoming a developer?
A: We’re builders. We don’t want to compete with developers, and it’s not a good thing to be perceived as their competition. We think that we pair up good with the development community because we’ve got good resources and we can help them.
Q: What risks do you see?
A: With the expansion of the city, there’s the infrastructure. You need to make sure the infrastructure is keeping pace with the community. Those things have to keep marching along with the increased demand. So an awareness of infrastructure, where it is right now and where it needs to be, is going to be important. Some of the infrastructure that’s in place is badly in need of repair. That’s got to happen.