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BUILDER—Tilting Toward the Top

A Van nuys company that specializes in tilt-up construction HAS SEEN BUSINESS BOOM THANKS TO THE STRONG ECONOMY AND A PHILOSOPHY OF FINDING AND KEEPING A STRONG ROSTER OF CLIENTS With all the attention being paid to dot-com this and dot-com that, people might be excused for believing that the only industries truly experiencing explosive growth are those in the cyberworld. That’s not the story at all for one Van Nuys-based firm. Revenues for this 31-year-old-company have skyrocketed from $8.2 million in fiscal 1996 to $64 million in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2000. Although EPI General Contractors uses computers for various aspects of business, founder and chief executive James Amato makes his living in one of the most traditional ways possible constructing and refurbishing office buildings and commercial structures from San Francisco to the Mexican border. EPI is one of a handful of local companies specializing in tilt-up construction, a technique where walls are fabricated on site and then lifted up and set into place as an entire unit instead of being built from the ground up. Amato doesn’t attribute his firm’s growth to any single factor but says a number of forces have come together at just the right time and place. “I’ve been in business a number years, and have built up a sizeable network of people I know in industrial real estate and other walks of life,” he says. “We just started to hit a seam in terms of projects we were being handed. We also matured as an organization, and I hired some really capable project executives who (with the people already on staff) helped expand the company. “The economy has also been a big help. The last two to three years, in my experience, have been one of the most dynamic periods in Southern California development history. Projects just seem to keep getting bigger.” EPI’s own history is a good example of the growth phenomenon. Prior to 1996, the largest single contract the company had received was worth $5 million. Today that figure has more than tripled to $16 million. But it’s not just the size of the contracts that EPI is getting that has helped the firm grow so rapidly. It’s also the way it is getting them, says Amato. While much construction work is predicated on submitting the lowest bid, EPI has been winning work because of contacts and reputation. “We’ve been getting a lot of referrals, and although we do bid, most of them have been with a short list (of competing bidders),” he says. Back for more After Amato’s company gets in there and does the work, clients come back for the next project. Some of EPI’s long-time clients include the Amoroso family, whose senior member Joe Amoroso Sr. owns the Hyatt Islandia Hotel in San Diego across from Sea World. EPI is in the process of completing a fifth project for the family. Loyola Marymount University in Westchester, Amato’s alma mater, has been a client since 1974. He has remodeled the main entrance to the campus and upgraded the school’s library. Explains Amato: “For example, we listen to them and find what a (client’s) goals are. If they’ve got a goal to build a building for ‘X’ amount of dollars in ‘Y’ amount of time, we put our entire energy into making that happen. And generally speaking we do it. We produce all the things people talk about on time and on budget. Clients appreciate that.” EPI does this usually by getting in on the planning of a project in the very early stages when it’s no more than 10 percent completed. That allows Amato’s team to work with architects at the very beginning to figure out the best way to stay within a given budget. Another critical element in EPI’s success was Amato’s decision to hire Management Action Programs Inc. in November 1998. “We were growing so fast, we had to get professional help,” he said. “So I went to a management workshop in Newport Beach featuring Jerry Epstein, and after that, I brought him in. He started to work with us on a weekly and monthly basis. He helps us analyze what we’re doing and aids with planning and organization issues.” “Jim has been investing in the management skills of all of his managers for two years,” explains David Kolstad, MAP senior staff consultant who begins the initial training process with clients. “We build our program around the needs of the company to help them go from intention to habit. Kolstad says Amato offers the MAP’s program all the way down to the project engineer level. “This is typically the first job out of college, and they’re usually pretty green. What Jim does is throw them challenges, and if they’re not handling them well, he’ll realign things to help them start accomplishing and then move them back up to the more challenging level. “That’s his philosophy: helping someone become better than they already are, and I love watching that,” adds Kolstad.

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