Family Business in Puerto Rico

Thomas G. Dolan

August 2008

Richard Huntley, president of WeKanDo Construction, Inc. in Rio Piedras, is the third generation of wall and ceiling contractors in Puerto Rico, but the fourth generation of the trade itself.

The patriarch, Homer P. Huntley, started a plastering business way back when, then passed on the legacy to his two sons, Josiah and Orville. They developed a large plastering/lathing business in St. Louis, Mo., which expanded to a number of other cities, including Dallas and Washington, D.C.

In the mid-1950s they were invited to bid on a project in Puerto Rico, and Josiah took a trip to the island to check things out. One thing he discovered was that everything there was done in block concrete or cement plaster. Nobody knew about plastering with hawks and trowels, or especially the pumping of cement plaster mixes. Josiah saw an opportunity. He never went home again, or, more accurately, Puerto Rico became his new home.

In 1957 he brought his wife and son to Puerto Rico and started Josiah Dale Huntley & Com¬pany. His, son, Harold "Renny,” was 9 at the time. He grew up working weekends and summers in the business. After getting a college degree from Texas Lutheran College, he joined his father as a partner, and then, when his father passed away in 1978, changed the name of the San Juan–based company to JDH, Inc.

Renny expanded the original lath and plaster business to include acoustical ceilings, fireproofing, drywall, insulation, interior and exterior stucco, and some specialty categories. He also introduced exterior insulation and finish systems to the commonwealth.

Renny’s son, Richard, recalls growing up in the business, which, he says, "was always around the house, on the same property. I was always hanging around the office, seeing how things were done.” He worked summers while going to college. After graduating with a degree in business management from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, he started working for his father as an apprentice and continued working his way up.

Apron Strings Cut
But here there’s a bit of a twist to the traditional family business story. After working for his father’s company, now called Huntley Construction Group, for four years, Richard says, "I saw an opportunity to go out on my own.”

In 2004, Richard started WeKanDo Construction. His father, meanwhile, is continuing to work as a consultant, but has passed on his customers, suppliers and the actual wall and ceiling business to his son.

So, as Richard Huntley readily acknowledges, he didn’t start his business from scratch. He never worked out of the proverbial garage, as his grandfather did when he first moved to the island. But reputation means a lot anywhere, and it means even more on an island that is only about 100 miles long and 40 miles wide, where word travels very fast. So the tradition of quality workmanship and service from the older generations has helped Huntley to build on that momentum, and he knows he has to maintain it.

Moreover, though Puerto Rico has maintained its image as a year-round vacation paradise, in other respects, times have changed.

"We are experiencing the same recession as on the mainland, and the competition here is just as intense,” Huntley says. "We’ve been able to maintain our volume, both by keeping our old customers (unless they go out of business) and by getting new ones.

Eye on Trends
At one time up to 90 percent of U.S. pharmaceutical companies had facilities on the island, but now, because of the government’s withdrawal of the incentives that brought them there and/or their need to consolidate facilities on the mainland, many of these companies have left. Some military bases have closed down, though some are being remodeled into residential or commercial areas. Residential work has generally slowed, but commercial work is doing well. But the biggest boost is in tourism. Many major brand names, such as Hotel Hilton and Trump are building hotels, golf courses, condos and apartments. This, in turn, is bringing in many retail chains, such as West Elm, Toys R Us and Max Studio stores, which has provided work for Huntley.

But, in a market so small, the competition is still intense. There are two other large contractors that are about WeKanDo’s size, as well as others from the mainland that are attempting to set up branches. Then there are numerous small contractors. Here, Huntley explains, the situation is a bit different from the mainland. There many businesses start up in a garage, only a few make it, and those that do go for larger projects and specialty niches. They don’t try to compete with the small contractor, who comes on with a lower price since he has much less overhead.

In Puerto Rico, however, where the individual craftsman has a long tradition, many of these people are very skilled and established, but still work out of their garages. "We have to compete on all levels,” says Huntley, from the $2,000 job to the several hundred-thousand-dollar ones, along with the occasional million dollar ones.

Huntley also is seeking to expand on the diversity of offerings that his father fostered, and for the same reason: to take advantage of every opportunity in this small geographical area. Also, says Huntley, although his grandfather started out with some technologies brand new to the island, and his father continued along these same lines, such as with EIFS, the process is more difficult now.

"We’re always trying to find out what is new and get ahead of the trends, Huntley says. "We did this with aluminum panels when they came out a few years back. Now a lot of people have gotten into them and there’s much more competition.

Yet, with all of the efforts to take advantage of every opportunity, Huntley has also evolved his niche.

"We’ve concentrated on doing the finishing packages on high quality work, such as cornices in hotels,” he says. "We’ve developed expertise in certain high quality specialty areas, and are able to get it done with a lower cost and higher profit.” Yet, at the same time, Huntley says, "We sometimes do smaller jobs for our bigger clients, repair work and maintenance on some of the commercial buildings and shopping centers. The nature of this industry here means we have to look for what is available, especially in the market we are in now.”

Take Care of Business
Huntley has about five employees in the office and 45 in the field, including seven supervisors, who work on cross-training every¬body so there is always somebody available to do any type of work that may be required. He also utilizes many of the smaller one-man businesses for subcontractors.

Huntley works to keep his employees with him. "We have quite a few from dad’s company, and even some from my grandfather’s, though there are not too many of them still around,” says Huntley. "We don’t offer the best pay, but we try to maintain warm employee relationships. We have an open door so anybody can communicate with me. We help them out whenever we can. If their car breaks down, we’ll have somebody pick them up, and a mechanic to check out their cars.

On the mainland one of the big issues, or course, is the large influx of Hispanic workers, with the language challenges that brings. Since Spanish is commonly spoken in Puerto Rico, it would appear that immigration is not a problem. But it is in a different way.

"About half our work force is from the Dominican Republic,” Huntley says. "They are all Spanish speaking and there is not much of a cultural difference, but some people say they are coming here and taking their jobs. Well, they’re hungry, but they are here legally, and do good work, so we hire them.”

Education Matters
The Association of the Wall and Ceiling Industry has long been important to the Huntleys.

"My dad has long been active on the AWCI board and various committees,” Huntley says. "I’m in the process of joining some of the committees and becoming more active. AWCI is very helpful in keeping us informed of everything that’s going on and updating us with the most recent products available.”

Huntley also says he appreciates the educational offerings of AWCI. He has the AWCI certificate for successfully completing the EIFS—Doing It Right seminar (plus one in fireproof¬ing from a manufacturer), and will soon get a similar certi¬ficate from the Steel—Doing It Right program.

"Our next goal is to become an AWCI EIFS cer¬tified company, an EIFSmart company,” he says. "Having this expertise and the proof of it through certification gives us a competitive edge in this environment.

Along these lines Huntley is thinking about formalizing the training into regular classes, as well as the on-the-job, hands-on training.

"I’m not too sure how far we’ll go with it,” he says, "but I think it would be a good thing to set up a regular program so we have AWCI seminars here, as well as those sponsored by manufacturers and other suppliers.”

One thing that has gotten Huntley thinking along these lines is the new expanded facility he’ll soon be moving into. He now works in a space with about 5,000 square feet for office and 20,000 for warehousing equipment and material. He’s now located in the center of the island, close to the capital. But he has found a good deal on the east coast, about 40,000 square feet of office and warehouse space. He will be able to cut costs by accessing suppliers more easily, both those locally and imports, saving on fuel. The larger warehouse will also be designed to operate more efficiently.

Cut Costs, Not Corners
In terms of efficiency, Huntley is already in the forefront of sophisticated computer use. In addition to the standard accounting and warehouse management functions, his programs orders from suppliers, does all the estimating, does the scheduling to keep projects up-to-date, and has a time-keeping tracking system.

By cutting costs but not corners, Huntley has been able to maintain the quality work and reputation of those in his family before him. Since he started in business in 2004, his annual volumes have been between $3 million and $5 million.

Huntley, unlike many, if not most new business owners, is not a workaholic. He’ll sometimes work long hours, but often leaves early, so ends up averaging a standard 8-hour day, Monday through Friday. On his time off he likes to relax around the house or train for his position on the national water polo team.

He spends more time around the house for another reason, too: On May 13 of this year, Huntley and his wife of four years, Yariza, celebrated the birth of their son, Marcelo David.

The fifth generation?