Pettinaro Empire Celebrates Golden Jubilee
The patriarch of Pettinaro Inc. built one of the biggest construction and property management companies in the state from nothing. Now, it’s celebrating its 50th birthday, and the next generation is making its mark while preserving its core values.
Verino Pettinaro comes from humble beginnings and says he’s still a humble guy. Just make sure you don’t confuse humble with meek or mild.
Pettinaro is the founder of Pettinaro Inc., a construction and management company that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Pettinaro is the American Dream personified, a man who started with nothing and ended up with, well, a lot. He’s made millions of dollars while building and restoring properties that others gave up on, all while creating a family business and legacy he hopes will last long after he’s gone.
He’s also earned a reputation as a tough, but fair, businessman who cares about his community and will always, always speak his mind. “He’s an original,’’ says Michael Purzycki, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corp. “There’s nobody else like Verino. It’s not even close.’’
Pettinaro was born in 1944 to immigrant parents in Wilmington’s Little Italy neighborhood. His father died when he was 9. His mother supported the family by cleaning floors. Pettinaro attended Brown Vocational School and landed a job as an apprentice carpenter in Philadelphia. But the daily commute in those pre-I-95 days got to him. So in 1965, he opened his own business, and Pettinaro Inc. was born.
At first Pettinaro patched holes in basement walls and did whatever other odd jobs he could scrape together from his garage office. He worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. There was no dream of starting a million-dollar business, no fantasy about becoming a construction mogul and one of the most influential figures in Delaware.
“I just wanted to be able to buy groceries,’’ Pettinaro says with a laugh. “Believe me, I had no idea that it would grow into what it’s become. How could anybody expect that? I just wanted to work hard and do good work and support myself and my family, and things just took off from there.’’
His first big job came in 1975, when he built Paul M. Hodgson Vocational-Technical High School in Newark. Now it seems as if his company is involved with half the properties in Delaware, not to mention various dealings in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Pettinaro Inc. has designed, built and manages more than 5 million square feet of commercial and residential properties.
But Pettinaro says success hasn’t changed him, and it certainly hasn’t spoiled him, because he never forgets his modest beginnings. Still, Pettinaro knows he can rub people the wrong way and that his stubbornness can be misinterpreted as conceit.
“I’m humble,’’ he says. “Some people may say I’m overbearing or arrogant. But if I have an idea, I keep pushing and pushing until it gets done. I keep fighting for what I believe in. But I am humble. I don’t think I’m better than anybody. I’m not better than the laborer who works for me. I treat everybody the same, and everybody knows that my word is my bond.’’
It still is, though the 71-year-old is semi-retired now. Day-to-day operations are handled by his son, Greg Pettinaro, the company’s chief executive officer, and Greg’s sisters, Tracy, Cindy and Vicky, all part of the management team. Verino Pettinaro’s core values have guided them from Day One.
“He never takes anything for granted, because he had to fight for every nickel when he first started, and he still counts his nickels and pennies,’’ Purzycki says. “That’s just the way he is. I’ve seen him on construction sites yelling at workers because they were wasting nails. Wasting things is just offensive to him, and that’s a very fundamental part of who he is.’’
It also shows both sides of Verino Pettinaro, who was known for tooling around Wilmington in his Porsche, but still won’t pay extra to fly first class. Greg Pettinaro says that’s how his parents have always been. Despite their success and wealth, his mother, Midge, still buys generic ketchup instead of paying $1 more for Heinz. But being frugal is just one reason Pettinaro has thrived in such a competitive business.
“We’ve worked hard, we haven’t been afraid to take chances, and we’ve had good luck,’’ Verino says. “That’s a pretty good formula for success.’’
Turning garbage into gold
Verino Pettinaro says he’s not in the construction business as much as he’s in the resurrection business. His company has built new construction all over Delaware, but Pettinaro takes more pride in the number of run-down or unwanted properties that he has rejuvenated. He points to projects like Greenville Place in Greenville and The Paladin Club in Edgemoor, where he turned depressed properties into desired properties.
“I take things nobody else wants,’’ he says, “and then I make them good.’’ There is no better example of that than the Wilmington Riverfront, which used to be a wasteland of weeds, rust and rats. But Pettinaro saw something else along the Christina River: potential. So, in 1986, he paid $1.2 million for 65 acres and that was the genesis of the riverfront’s revival in the 1990s.
According to Delaware Business Times, riverfront development has brought more than 1,400 residents and 6,000 jobs to the area. A study by the University of Delaware Center for Applied Demography and Survey Research says the city, county and state have also profited. In 1996, gross riverfront activities added $3 million in public revenue. In 2012, that figure was $32 million.
By any measure, the turnaround has been amazing. Verino Pettinaro got the ball rolling. “I think I have a pretty good perspective on whose contributions really count,’’ Purzycki says. “And from my perspective, we wouldn’t have any of this without Verino.’’
That doesn’t mean that Purzycki hasn’t butted heads with Pettinaro on occasion. They disagree at times, and sometimes those disagreements can be animated. But, Purzycki says, they’re never antagonistic.
“He’s never an easy negotiator, but he’s a fair negotiator,’’ Purzycki says. “People in that business tend to have massive egos, and sometimes that kind of trumps their humanity. But the great thing about Verino is that no matter how tough the negotiation, you know you’re dealing with a good person. He’s just fundamentally decent, and you can count on that.’’
Pettinaro Inc. has also earned the respect of its competitors in the contracting business, people who admire its success and its approach.
“Verino has always been able to see things that others don’t see, and he’s willing to invest in his vision,’’ says Lorri Grayson, vice president of GG+A Construction in Middletown and chairwoman of the Delaware chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. “It’s almost like a gut feeling he has about things. He has that vision. He also takes great pride in his work, and he’s passed that down to his children.’’
Grayson praises the restoration job Pettinaro Inc. did on the old county courthouse building on Rodney Square in 2012, which took the run-down, 96-year-old edifice and turned it into state-of-the-art office space.
“When you see the detail and the trouble they took to get it right, it’s very inspiring,’’ Grayson says. “They kept a lot of the original details and incorporated them into the new design. They didn’t have to do that, but that’s just the way that company operates. They look at more than the bottom line.’’
Greg Pettinaro said that has always been the company’s philosophy as it competes in the rough-and-tumble world of contracting and construction. “We go after things hard, and we’re tough,’’ he says. “That may make it sound like we’re bullies, but it’s really about never saying never, and never giving up if you really believe in the project.”
“So if we see something that we know will work, we’ll keep fighting for it,’’ Verino Pettinaro says, laughing. “And eventually everyone else will wear down.’’
Family and the future
Verino Pettinaro still pops by the office and work sites, but he’s also taking time to enjoy life with Midge, to whom he gives most of the credit for his success.
“More than any [construction] project, the thing I’m most proud of are my kids,’’ he says. “And she gets 100 percent of the credit for that. I worked all the time, and she raised them and made them into the people they are today. She did it all.’’
Not only has their family grown, their business has also changed over the years, evolving from a construction company into a complete management firm with a large portfolio. “From where it started to where we are now, it’s such a different company,’’ Greg Pettinaro says. “It’s just miles apart.’’
Grayson says the transition to the next generation has been a smooth one because son and daughters have followed their father’s footsteps while making their own. She points to the biggest deal the Pettinaros have been involved with, their recent purchase of high-end property in Greenville that they bought from the Stoltz organization for $100 million.
“You’ve got to give Greg credit for that, because it happened under his watch,’’ Grayson says. “That was obviously a huge deal, and really typical of something Verino would have done, and not just for the money involved. I’m glad they own that property instead of Stoltz, because they’re a local company that cares about the community and being a good neighbor.’’
But the Pettinaros also know that family businesses can lead to family feuds. Even close bonds can be broken by money, and when that money is counted in the millions, the pressure is even stronger. Verino Pettinaro made sure his children knew they were part of something special and that the firm and the family need each other.
“I took my business and made my kids my partners,’’ he says. “Now they’re not just workers—they’re partners.’’ Greg was promoted to CEO in 2006. His sisters are equal partners. And Greg Pettinaro says his father’s philosophies have been taken to heart, which was evident when he was asked to describe his father with one word. He thought for a few seconds before answering: “tenacious.’’
“He’s all about perseverance and never taking no for an answer,’’ Greg Pettinaro says. “He’s all about coming up with a solution instead of focusing on the negatives. And that’s something he’s passed down to us: Don’t give up until you solve the problem, and don’t be afraid of doing things the hard way.’’
Greg Pettinaro understands the family-business dynamic, so he created new leadership positions so people outside of the family can be involved in decision-making. The company that started with one man in a garage now employs more than 200 people and has eight different departments, each with its own head.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen down the road,’’ Greg Pettinaro says. “But our parents established real family values, and I’d like to believe that we all share the same philosophy, that family is more important than business.
“I’ve read case studies, and it can get nasty, which is why we have safeguards in place,’’ he says. “At the end of the day, I’m not going to not talk to my sister again over $100,000. I’ll get rid of the job before I get rid of my relationship with my siblings.’’
Purzycki says Pettinaro Inc. is in good hands now, and that bodes well as the next generation puts its stamp on the 50-year-old business.
“There’s a difference, just because there could never be two Verinos,’’ Purzycki says. “But Greg has many of the same good traits as Verino. You can’t expect him to be exactly like him, because Verino has had so many more life experiences. But when you deal with Greg, you get a sense that you’re dealing with somebody who has been trained by the master.”