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Ask the Expert

Kenneth M. Colao, President and CEO, CNY Group

Kenneth M. Colao, President and CEO, CNY Group

In New York City, the construction industry shapes Manhattan’s iconic skyline. Moreover, it’s paramount for the city’s property managers and real estate elite to have a deep understanding of how an exemplary construction firm operates—and how exceptional buildings are made.

To get a better handle on the city’s intricate construction scene, we sat down with Ken Colao, a recognized leader and entrepreneur in the construction industry with more than 35 years of experience as a principal and founder of several major construction firms. During his career, Colao has completed more than $4.7 billion worth of construction.

As founding principal, president, and CEO of CNY, Ken manages an innovative, forward-thinking company that has led the way for “open shop” construction of large-scale and high-rise developments, complex reconstruction and repurposing of buildings, and build-outs of sustainable and uniquely designed spaces. Based in Manhattan, CNY provides CMAR, design assist, and advisory services with a collaborative, open forum management style. 

How did you get your start in the industry?

My grandfather and father were in the general contracting business, so I was exposed to construction at a very early age. When I was 10, I asked my father for a job and he gave me a rubber bucket and a hammer, then led me to a pile of strip lumber used for concrete formwork. He asked me to clean the lumber for reuse, and pull out all the bent nails and straighten them. For every bucket I filled with nails, I was rewarded with $5.

What advice would you give to young aspirants?

I’d advise a young construction aspirant to pursue his or her dreams, ascertain what appeals to them most about the industry, and never, ever, give up. It’s essential for young people to explore as early as possible everything that intrigues them and then determine where their passion lies. Building structures in New York City is particularly stressful and challenging. But if you love what you do, it will never seem like work. In my opinion there’s nothing that compares to contributing to the City’s skyline and the feeling of exhilaration one experiences after having built an amazing structure that posed seemingly impossible challenges.

How do you approach redeveloping/reworking a historic property from a construction standpoint?

At CNY, we specialize in repurposing older buildings, reconstructing them, and creating ground-up construction of large-scale developments. Every repurposed building poses special challenges.

So when repurposing a historic building, it’s essential that we gain a deep understanding of the client’s objectives, budget, and the design vision. We typically start with a general survey, a soft demolition process, a 3D laser scan, then a structural demolition, followed by a second scan to determine the centers of structural framing. This information is fed back to the architect and engineers in order for them to create better and more accurate backgrounds, which ultimately becomes the basis for all design. We do all that because in any historic structure it’s essential to understand the existing conditions, since many of the materials and methodologies that were used years ago might not be compatible with today’s technologies. The more research and understanding that is gained from observing the existing structure, the better and tighter the design documents will be, which will minimize costs. For designing complex alterations we ask the design be in Revit so that the BIM process can be utilized in developing fully coordinated CD’s.

What do you believe makes the team at CNY so special? What advice would you give to other construction execs when it comes to cultivating an excellent team and culture?

I encourage our managers and teams to be thoughtful, and to be proactive, versus reactive. Construction is sometimes counterintuitive, and often people lacking experience tend to go in a direction that might not be beneficial to the objectives. So I encourage thoughtfulness and leadership. It’s important to have the ability to nimbly pivot if something is going in the wrong direction, and make adjustments accordingly. At CNY, we have developed a culture that is open and receptive, one that encourages new ideas, creativity, collaboration, and innovation. We offer monthly forums, town halls, and other events where employees can communicate and share. This kind of non-judgmental openness that comes from upper management results in constant feedback from our staff on how to work more efficiently, rapidly, and safely. We have earned a reputation for trustworthiness and reliability, which is largely attributable to the integrity and honesty of our employees. Some of our employees have been here for more than 15 years. That sense of loyalty pervades our company; it’s rare and results in teamwork at the highest levels.


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