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The Real Deal – Stop, hammer time: Q&A with NYC construction boss Anthony Rinaldi

From The Real Deal

Rinaldi talks baseball, union labor and what it’s like dealing with a death on a construction site

The world’s tallest modular hotel, according to its builder, is also the “worst nightmare” for union construction companies.

“Modular to the unions is hell on earth. It’s like their worst nightmare because everything’s being built in a factory faster, cheaper and without union labor,” said Anthony Rinaldi, head of his eponymous firm, the Rinaldi Group. “This project, CitizenM, is the epitome of everything they hate.”

Rinaldi, 52, who founded the Rinaldi Group in 2003, is a proponent of open-shop construction — meaning a labor force that includes both union and nonunion workers. Rinaldi recently became regional chairman of the open shop group, the Associated Builders and Contractors, which has been a vocal opponent of the construction safety bill passed by the City Council in September.

The 100-plus-person firm is working on a dozen projects in the city, including the CitizenM hotel, a 20-story modular hotel on the Lower East Side. The company, which is based in Secaucus, New Jersey and has offices in Manhattan, focuses on rental, condo and hotel projects in the city, New Jersey, Florida and Arizona.

Rinaldi graduated from Lehigh University in 1988 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He worked at several construction firms — including Cross Bay Contacting, HRH Construction and Crain Construction Company — before setting out on his own. He and his wife, Joan, have been married for 28 years, but they started dating when they were juniors in high school. They live in Secaucus with their daughter, Julia, who is in high school, and they have two older sons, Anthony and Frankie, who are both in college.

As part of a new questions-and-answers series with construction bosses in New York City, The Real Deal sat down with Rinaldi in his company’s New York office at 125 Maiden Lane. He answered the following in a New Jersey accent:

The bio on your website says your mom was an amateur bowling champion. Tell me more.

She was once recruited to go on a pro-bowlers tour. It was a lot of traveling, and one of those things, and my father wasn’t so hot on it. So, she didn’t do it. But she’s in the amateur bowlers women’s hall of fame. Believe it or not, they actually have something like that. She had state records forever, and certain county records that lasted for 23 years.

Your father was a police officer in Hoboken. What was it like growing up the son of a police officer?

He was probably one of the most brutally proud cops I’ve ever seen. He was militant. He was a proud American, he was a proud cop and he was disciplined. He was the kind of cop who wouldn’t even take Novocain for a cavity because it was a form of a drug. This was an influence because as a kid, you want to be like your dad. So, I finally get my first cavity, I’m going to do what my dad does, right? I’m not going to have any Novocain. I was on the ceiling. So, my entire life, I’ve only had two cavities. The second one, I took the Novocain.

What made you want to go into construction? Did you ever consider following in your father’s footsteps?

I really didn’t think about going into the police force. My father came from a different era, didn’t go to college but was very well-read and believed in education. When he took the police captain’s test, he actually placed first, and he beat out a lawyer. He was proud of that, being a layman. Growing up, I was very good in math and science. As I got older, the two professions that I was looking at was either engineering or accounting. And I certainly felt like I wasn’t built for accounting. I liked to be around action.

You played Division 1 baseball at Lehigh. Did you ever consider going pro?

I actually had three major league tryouts. I had a tryout with the [LA] Angels, the LA Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians. Long story short, I had tryouts but nothing panned out from that. I would’ve liked to try to pursue it. I don’t know how far I could’ve gone. But, with my dad passing while I was in college, I was an only child, my mom needed me, and I needed to get a job. My life’s plans got a little bit sidetracked.

One of the jobs you worked on at HRH Construction was the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, where Malcolm X was assassinated. As part of the public-private project, you preserved part of the theater and also constructed a new research center for Columbia University. What do you remember from that time?

When we were bidding the job, I walked onto the floor where he was killed. You could see the bullet holes in the podium. I actually said to one of the guys, “You listen to me. We get this job, the first thing we’re doing is we’re taking all of that, and the guy from the Economic Development Corporation was behind me and says, “You’re not touching any of that. This stuff is going to be artifacts.” I says, “I thought you guys were leaving this to be demolished.” He says, “No way, as the contractor, you’re going to be carving all of this out, and we’re going to be salvaging that.”

After HRH, you joined Crain Construction in Jersey City, but things ended acrimoniously with the owner. What happened?

Between 1996 and 2002, I worked my way up in the company from a vice president with a 20 percent stock to becoming actually president and 50 percent stock. Unfortunately, at that time, the original investor, who created this company, wants to take a different direction. Meanwhile, he had very little involvement with the company other than the financial side of it. We didn’t see eye-to-eye at that point. I tried to buy the company from him, but he wouldn’t sell it to me. So, I was left with a really difficult decision. What we wound up doing is, literally overnight, I closed the doors on a Friday night as Crain Construction, and Monday morning we opened up as the Rinaldi Group in 2003. Every single person who was in that company at the time came with me.

In 2015, the Department of Buildings briefly suspended your license following the death of Christian Ginesi, who fell 24 stories at your construction hotel site at 301 West 46th Street. What happened after your license was suspended?

Once we were able to sit down with the Building Department and show them the number of things that we were doing even prior to that incident, we were able to show them the facts of the case, you know, what really happened, which was human error. I was finally able to get my day in court. We ultimately were exonerated.

What was it like dealing with the perception that your company was unsafe?

I’ve been through a lot of difficult times in my life. Losing my dad, that was a difficult time. Trying to juggle a baseball scholarship with engineering at Lehigh, I thought that that was hard. I actually went to a fat farm for a month, and I thought that that was difficult. But going through that experience, and the rush to judgment, and then trying to get back what took a lifetime to build up, a reputation, was a difficult task. All too often what happens is an issue like that becomes a political football.

How did it impact your business?

It was a tough bell to un-ring. With the exception of one project at the time, we didn’t lose one project. Even with that one project, the only reason that that happened was it was with a client that we were doing three projects with at the same time. The lender got a little squeamish. They didn’t take all three projects from us, but the lender said in light of the fact that [the company’s] got a couple potential issues, let’s not put all of our apples in one bushel. That client, to their credit, stuck with us on the other projects, and we’ve done repeat work with them since. All of our clients stayed with us because they knew that we were the same company that we were before that incident.

Why have you and your family stayed in Secaucus?

My wife, she’s got two sisters, and all of them live in town. We still live blocks away from each other. They are, the three sisters, on the phone with each other every day at 10 o’clock in the morning. I’m like, I don’t get it, what could you possibly cover all these years, that you haven’t covered before? But they are a tight-knit family, and she did not want to relocate. I grew up in Secaucus, New Jersey. I’m going to live and die in Secaucus, New Jersey.

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