Chris Johnson knew he faced a challenge in 2006 when he was hired to build a bank in downtown Newark. For decades, the Brick City had been plagued by corruption and patronage, creating barriers that kept out would-be developers and contractors.
But in his bid to obtain a permit, Johnson worked with Stefan Pryor — then the city's incoming director of economic and housing development — who asked for something in return for helping with the paperwork.
"He said to me, 'Newark used to be a different town. Just do me a favor — invest in Newark, and do it the right way,'" Johnson recalled.
Johnson, CEO of Hollister Construction Services, took Pryor's advice and got the company involved in an after-school program teaching business skills to city teenagers. Since then, he said, the eightyear-old company has continued its commitment to the city, with Hollister now overseeing several of the most visible redevelopment projects launched under Pryor and Mayor Cory Booker.
The Hasbrouck Heights-based firm is overseeing construction of the 180,000-square-foot distribution center for Wakefern Food Corp., on Cornelia Street, and the 117,000-square-foot Damascus Bakery, on McClellan Street. Its other projects include the Newark Collegiate Academy high school, a 64,000-squarefoot charter school.
The firm's commitment to Newark is not lost on Pryor's successor, Adam Zipkin, who said the city works regularly with the firm because of its involvement with "projects that are moving on quick timelines," like the distribution center and bakery, he said.
"They're looking at Newark as a city where they intend to really try to do a lot of work in the future, so they're spending the time to build relationships and do things the right way," zipkin said.
Johnson said all of his business is underpinned by relationships, from the firm's work in Newark, to its "repeat opportunities" with five banks, to its role as the manager of $12 million in capital spending for Farleigh Dickinson University. In its role with FDU, Johnson's alma mater, Hollister's duties include projects "from move a door to put up a building," he said; this fiscal year, the fi rm has 80 active projects with the institution.
Richard Frick, the university's director of facilities, said Hollister's role with the university expanded about three years ago, when the university turned over functions such as architecture and engineering to project management firms like Hollister, helping to cut project costs. Since then, the university's relationship with Hollister has strengthened, as "they understand what our priorities are and what our standards are."
"There's consistency there," Frick said. "They understand our standards and uphold them. The trust portion is absolutely critical, and I believe that works both ways."
Johnson said the firm's founding also can be traced to a relationship, in this case, with an investment partner with Johnson's former employer, Troast Construction Co. Johnson was working there as a vice president in 2004 when the investor approached him about starting his own business, an idea he had long considered and embraced.
The business has seen steady yearover-year growth since then, even during the recession, and now employs about 55, Johnson said. The keys to that success have included building trust with repeat clients and being familiar with the region, where Johnson has worked since college.
"What's amazing for me is that sometimes we'll go to do a construction project, and I've worked in the building three times in the last 20 years," Johnson said.
The company's success has been helped in part by state development incentives programs like the Urban Transit Hub tax credit, which is supporting the Wakefern project, and other financing tools that are supporting the Damascus Bakery.
Hollister is also discussing new projects with four charter school operators as the firm seeks to expand its educational footprint in Newark, Johnson said. Those plans have been launched by the Newark Collegiate Academy, which is under construction on Norfolk Street and will be complete by the spring.
The firm has been "a true partner from the beginning," said Hannah Richman, who oversees real estate development for TEAM Charter Schools, the organization running Newark Collegiate.
She said Hollister agreed to start predevelopment work on an at-risk basis, meaning it did so before the client formally secured financing.
E-mail to: email@example.com
On Twitter: @JoshBurdNJ