“We just go.”
That statement from Claris Design-Build founder and CEO Phil Clark sums up how his innovative and expeditious team approaches each of their growing inventory of building projects — but it could also be the company’s motto.
Following a packed 30th Anniversary celebration that hosted company staff, clients, and local officials, Clark was joined by the company’s new Vice-President of Construction, Justin Miller, CFO and VP of Operations Eric Maria, and Project Executive Michael Kozlowski talking with The Newtown Bee about how far the local construction firm has come since those early days of the 1990s.
And while the company currently boasts a staff of nearly 50, with four offices serving six states, the Claris story actually began when Clark, who graduated from Penn State with an architectural engineering degree in 1987, arrived on the site of his first job at the massive IBM campus in Southbury, Connecticut. The Scranton, Penn. transplant not only engaged his talents on that project, but eventually met and became engaged to his wife, Debbie, who lived in neighboring Danbury.
Throughout his college years and during Clark’s time working for other large and mid-sized construction firms, he always had one goal in mind.
“I never really wanted to work for someone else,” Clark said.
Emulating what Claris continues to do on many projects — making seemingly challenging to impossible ideas possible — he made the decision to strike out on his own just as the recession of 1991 hit. He started small, rehabbing residential foreclosures for various banks, knocking out as many as 10 projects per month with a small crew.
Then, on October 1 of that year, Clark made it official by launching Claris in the rear of a Trumbull garage with little more than an old desk and a rotary phone. With his attention to detail and an infectious work ethic, he quickly grew out of that modest space, opening Claris’ first commercial office in Bridgeport two years later.
After a decade, Clark and his growing team decided to relocate the Claris headquarters, again coming to Newtown, where he remains to this day.
Overseeing a staff here and at another office in the Hartford area, as well as field offices in Salt Lake City and Charlotte, North Carolina, Clark has continued to surround himself with motivated peers, including the three who joined him to discuss the company. Maria, a cousin, Kozlowski, and Miller came to the company as interns.
Kozlowski, a Newtown native and construction engineer, worked for nearly a decade toward his recent VP post serving first as a project manager.
Miller said he was most recently involved in a complex multi-story vehicle service facility in White Plains, New York, which he believes provided a lot of challenging urban construction experience he believes will serve the company well in the future.
“Showing up on that job site every day, it’s mind-boggling how much we’re doing in such a short amount of time,” he said. “Physically seeing that project and knowing I’m part of that daily progression is something to be proud of.”
Another early-stage project that excited all three company officials is a fully automated 100,000-square-foot beer distribution center being integrated in an urban setting in New York. The company is also engaged in a growing number of residential or mixed commercial/residential projects as well as self-storage facilities.
Kozlowski said another automotive project, the relocation of North American Motor Car to Danbury, also posed significant challenges due to the site being mostly ledge.
“I remember meeting Eric there about two years ago, and it seemed like what they were looking to put there was impossible. So we put together a concept and site plan that’s not too far off from what is being built now,” Kozlowski said. “I know that initial idea of how to solve the problem is what sold the client on using Claris.”
“If we can get in the door with somebody, we’ll draw up a concept and site plan,” Miller added. “From there, the speed at which we can complete construction is really what we want, and that’s what we push for with our clients as well. It’s all about having a design department in house.”
“It’s a really collaborative atmosphere,” Maria added. “Our niche is really handling design-build concepts and working with customers producing their vision and making it an easy process.”
‘A Nice Experience’
Maria’s talent according to Miller, is making sure that vision works within the confines of a budget.
“We work to make every project a nice experience for the client,” Kozlowski said.
During times in-between larger projects, Claris remains busy doing smaller design-build concepts and fit-outs.
A Scranton native, Clark said he agreed to take his first job at the Southbury IBM campus with the idea he would graduate to a new position in California. But after meeting and falling for Debbie, he has remained in Connecticut ever since with no regrets.
As the company has grown, Clark said more recently Claris has launched a development subsidiary that has completed, among other projects, two large student housing facilities that the company also owns.
“One of the things that still makes it easy to get up and come in here every day,” he said, “is how much I enjoy growing the company.”
Today, Clark remains engaged considering where to open his next Claris field offices while watching the growing portfolio of design-build projects multiply.
“Our design-build process is really our niche, no matter what kind of building. Take, for example, that New York auto service facility. That really evolved from a napkin drawing, literally a sketch on a napkin. Our clients need to get into their buildings and we’re good at cutting through all the red tape,” Clark said. “We just go.”
Editor John Voket can be reached at email@example.com.