Walk into a casino in Las Vegas and you find yourself in an environment where the machines blink and beep, the lights stay on all night and the drinks are on the house. This, of course, is no accident. They want you to keep playing and pushing your chips out further and further until, finally, you’ve lost it all. It’s especially difficult to keep one’s head after you’ve been winning for a while.
Success in business has these same dangerous qualities. The average person probably doesn’t see this, but it is the sneaky trapdoor underneath unwary entrepreneurs. A record year for a business can convince ownership that now is the time to push, to strike while the iron is hot, to get while the getting is good. Without the ability to read the terrain and plan accordingly, this seemingly grand state of affairs can quickly become the sinkhole that swallows a company whole. Luckily for Pratt Brothers Inc, the heavy construction and site development outfit, Jim Pratt and his brother Tom keenly understand the perils that come with the success of growth. With Pratt Brothers Inc doubling its revenue in the past couple of years, they’ve kept their heads on a swivel, aiming to constantly strike the right balance between growth and sustainability in a time where seemingly nothing is certain in the industry or the world.
Today, success has found Pratt Brothers tackling multi-million-dollar projects with over 100 employees, but it has more modest origins. Grandfather James and his brother Bill were the original Pratt Brothers who started their contracting service in Westbury, NY on Long Island during the birth of the American suburb. Jim explained, “My grandfather James and his brother were the original Pratt Brothers Contract in the late 30’s, 40’s, and as it grew into the 50’s they did a lot as the island was growing. Work that was growing at the time for all the new school districts and as suburbia spread, you know before the war, after the war they did a lot of site work development and that kind of stuff.” The company had a few different iterations across the decades until the mid-2000’s when Jim and Tom took the reins and molded Pratt Brothers into the significant entity it is today. There are now three generations of Pratts working in the company. Significantly, it’s not only the Pratts that have maintained a working continuity through the years. Both in management and on the floor are families that have been working side by side with the Pratt family going back generations. “It’s kind of like the Police and the Fire Department. Sons generally gravitate in our industry into their father’s shoes, so there’s a lot of that. Generations of operators and truck drivers and laborers that continue to go through. We bring sons and daughters on.” Institutional knowledge and continuity over so many years helps immensely when the company finds itself enjoying higher levels of success and all of the responsibility that comes with it. Stability like that engenders the balance that a company needs as it grows and faces new challenges.
That growth has largely come since 2018, as sales have doubled in that span. Taking on more municipal jobs on top of its private sector work was a main driving factor. These jobs are often large in scale and budget. Pratt Brothers work slate is roughly 50/50 private and municipal these days, and they’ve needed to grow to accommodate the expansion in project size. “A contract on the site work side; You know these jobs can be of size. You know 20/40/50 acres now. At this point, a lot of them are rejuvenation, reorganization. Knock down something that was built in the 40’s. Build something up.” As a result of being designated an essential business, Pratt Brothers also found itself inundated with work on new warehouses that have gone up in droves on Long Island and as well as on critical highway work. The two-pronged public/private work slate has put the company on its best footing yet.
“As a site-work contractor and highway contractor, Pratt Brothers sees itself as nearly one-stop shopping.”
As a site-work contractor and highway contractor, Pratt Brothers sees itself as nearly one-stop shopping. It can “self-perform” almost everything on a project, and it wants its clients to know that up front. As Jim said, “We are a highway contractor and we do asphalt, concrete, drainage, sewer. We don’t do much water-main work. We have a couple of good friends who are contractors on the water-main side. We also do landscaping. We can self-perform almost anything which gets us to a place where if we go to work for an owner, let’s say in the private sector, we can say it’s one call. You got us from the day you clear the land to the day you put the stripes on the parking lot and cut the ribbon.”
Pratt Brothers has taken this model to work on some serious projects across Long Island in the last few years. Just a few weeks ago it completed a 12-million-dollar paving job on Jericho Turnpike in Suffolk County. On the other side of the border in Nassau the company has tackled work on the new state-of-the-art UBS Arena, home to the New York Islanders. It is complicated work, as the arena sits in a confluence of suburban homes, busy commuter streets and highways. Access at the site was always going to be difficult. But Pratt Brothers happily got to work, regardless. “Work was a large parking garage. I think it’s a couple thousand cars, 2500 cars. We did all the underground site work for the foundations, pipework, plumbing work. We built a nice retaining wall for access for the people to get over the other side of the ramp. That was Phase One. Phase Two was a bunch of deep drainage and site improvements to allow new access off of the Cross Island Pkwy heading north up to the garage.” Pratt Brothers is waiting to hear back on its bid for Phase Three which involves work on an enormous retail space for the area.
Despite the success of the last few years, these remain very challenging times. Supply chain fallout still hasn’t been resolved and inflation has reared its ugly head once again. And this is where Jim and his team have really had to keep their hands steady on the wheel during the company’s growth. The easiest thing is to be avaricious and continue chasing revenue and growth for its own sake, regardless of the wider context within which the business is positioned. Jim has been clear-eyed about all of this. The price of crude oil has ballooned, which can result in million-dollar fluctuations on Pratt Brother’s balance sheet if it isn’t careful. On top of that heavy industry on Long Island is particularly cyclical, due to heavy winters, its relative isolation and a top-down planning schedule for Nassau and Suffolk counties that leaves much to be desired. For all these reasons and more, Jim and his brother aim to keep level heads and only expand to the size of the work available, and not get caught up playing dangerous games.
This ethos can be seen in Jim’s roll as the Chairman of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, as well. His attitude perfectly sums up why Pratt Brothers Inc is in fine fettle and is emblematic of an idea everyone should be striving towards, regardless of industry – that there can be enough for everyone. “I’m a big fan of food in the trough and I don’t care who gets the job as long as there are jobs out there. Because if there’s funding for work and there’s work available, sooner or later, everybody you know is successful at the bid table. And I think that’s a critical aspect of what LICA does, to make sure that we can put enough work out, to keep the infrastructure alive and keep it intact and always increasing its stability. That’s been challenging for the last couple of years, but we’re fighting hard to get it in a better place.”
Stability. Balance. Success.