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Building Tradition

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  • | 2:48 p.m. March 11, 2011
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Company. J.O. DeLotto and Sons Inc., Tampa
Industry. Commercial and residential contracting
Key. Maintaining relationships over generations
By the numbers. Click here to view DeLotto's revenues since 2008.

The timing couldn't have been worse for Craig Lamberson to take the helm of J.O. DeLotto and Sons Inc. The transition toward outgoing Chairman Lyle Blanden's retirement in December 2008 was planned years earlier, but nobody could have foreseen the worst recession in the 65-year history of the Tampa-based contractor.

Now representing the fourth generation of leadership, Lamberson continues the same business plan DeLotto's founders built over the last half-century: taking on diverse building projects of all sizes. The contractor is on its way to rebuilding the falloff in revenue over the last two years and, for the most part, has been successful in keeping personnel on its payroll at a time when layoffs among contractors are more common.

“We're in the same place as everyone else, trying to hold onto our quality people,” says Lamberson, a 20-year DeLotto veteran. “We're still here, and the doors still swing both ways.”

Far from being the Gulf Coast's largest construction firm, DeLotto nevertheless doesn't flinch from bidding on high-profile projects and getting those contracts. It completed the Glazer Children's Museum in downtown Tampa last year and is well on the way to finishing a Davis Islands mansion, belonging to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, that will be the single-largest residence in Tampa.

Four-figure projects

But those multimillion-dollar projects aren't the sole focus of DeLotto, which has diverse experience with master-crafted residences, office and medical buildings, credit union and bank branches, auto dealerships, schools and churches.

It has also taken on interior build-outs in small commercial spaces for as little as $1,000 during the downturn, Lamberson says. The important aspect is keeping its people busy, he says, noting “the paperwork is still the same.”

DeLotto has performed public housing work in Tampa and Pinellas County that was covered by federal stimulus funds, though Lamberson says that type of work makes up less than 10% of its $37.9 million revenue last year.

As much as he tried to prevent layoffs in recent years, Lamberson says he had to let go three employees in late February. The company now has 41 employees.

During the boom years, DeLotto had nearly 60 employees and annual revenue exceeding $50 million, making it one of the Tampa Bay area's largest contractors. The firm is still headquartered at its original location near Busch Boulevard and Nebraska Avenue, where Julius O. “Pop” DeLotto founded it in 1946.

His son, Julius C. “Jay” DeLotto, led the company from the 1950s until 1994, when he sold his stake to other unrelated executives. Blanden spent 36 years with the company and was chairman and CEO since 1985.

One job leads to another

Although the DeLotto family is no longer directly involved in the company's operations, Lamberson says it continues to honor the founder's commitment to building and maintaining strong relationships with design and engineering professionals, as well as subcontractors and building material suppliers. Some of its client relationships have carried over from one generation to the next.

In some instances, those relationships have resulted additional business. For example, Jeff Wooley, president and CEO of Courtesy Automotive Group, has hired DeLotto to build and renovate its showrooms over the last decade after the company completed his home in Tampa.

“I respect their professional abilities, business acumen, budget controls and timeliness in completing the tasks at hand,” Wooley stated in a recommendation letter. He noted that DeLotto recently built a local Nissan dealership for Courtesy that was completed not only under budget, but two months ahead of schedule.

“Those kinds of projects are another opportunity for clients to touch on other aspects of what we do,” Lamberson says. “We make sure we take care of them no matter what the project is.”

Building high-end homes sometimes means respecting clients' privacy, as has been the case with Jeter's new house. DeLotto is not allowed to say it works for Jeter, but rather a related company.

Lamberson says some residential customers are less forthcoming about their projects while others may want to attract as much publicity as they feel their expensive domiciles will allow. “We honor that both ways,” he says.

Intangible rewards

Involvement in the community has also been another hallmark for DeLotto. This has led to highly visible projects such as the Glazer Children's Museum, which was launched with a sizeable donation by the ownership family of the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

In turn, the $10.4-million, 53,000-square-foot museum project offered other intangible rewards to the longtime contractor, such as making a favorable impression on fun-seeking youngsters instead of stodgy adults and demanding clients.

“We're in the business of building things that will hopefully outlast ourselves,” Lamberson says. “It was a privilege for us to be involved in that project.”

As one of the oldest remaining general contractors and construction management companies in Florida, DeLotto intends to maintain its old-school approach to future projects.

The firm is now able to add “green” building to its long list of completions: The 11,000-square-foot Tampa office of luxury travel agency Exeter International, built two years ago, recently received gold certification through the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.

Key challenges for DeLotto going forward include being able to forecast future growth, since construction normally tracks six months behind business secured by architecture firms and civil engineers, and being able to turn profits from tighter margins.

Lamberson notes that the company has been through tough times before, and that his firm isn't any different from other local contractors in that regard.

“That's the battle we're all fighting,” he says. “We're looking for those positive lights.”

Who is Kered Connors?

As much as projects like the Glazer Children's Museum are held in public view, others by J.O. DeLotto and Sons are practically shrouded in secrecy — even if they are in plain sight to Tampa residents and other national observers.

Confidentiality agreements keep the company's president, Craig Lamberson, and others from being able to say they're building baseball star Derek Jeter's new 30,000-square-foot home on Bahama Circle in Tampa. They can only confirm having a contract with a client named Kered Connors LLC, whose sole proprietor wears No. 3 for the New York Yankees. (Kered is Jeter's first name spelled backwards. His father, Charles Jeter, is the only officer listed in state corporate records.)

Jeter's mansion, which will be the city's single-largest residence once he moves from his current home at Avila Golf & Country Club, is getting plenty of attention from sports fans in town for Yankees spring training, and by celebrity-gawker websites and TV programs.

Even his boss, Hal Steinbrenner, inadvertently spotlighted it a few weeks back when he remarked to sports writers that Yankees players were too focused on “building their mansions” rather than winning the American League pennant last season (which the less-lucrative Tampa Bay Rays took), though he later qualified the gripe by saying he wasn't singling out Jeter.

There are conflicting reports as to how much Jeter's new waterfront home is worth, along with speculation as to how well its value will hold given Tampa's current depressed housing market. That may not be an issue to the veteran shortstop, who began his professional baseball career with the minor-league Tampa Yankees and signed a new three-year, $51-million contract late last year to stay with the Bronx franchise.

It is also uncertain at this point whether the giant house will ever be open to the public, such as during charitable events, the way former basketball star Matt Geiger welcomed guests to his 28,000-square-foot Tarpon Springs mansion. Geiger sold the largest home in Pinellas County in January to an unidentified buyer for $8 million, having spent far more when it was built in 2003.

Despite all the loathing of highly paid athletes and their opulent ways, Lamberson will say on the record that DeLotto's Davis Islands client should be given credit for creating hundreds of jobs over the last couple years during a tough time in the construction trade.


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