Sal Ferro isn't the complaining type, and you can understand why. He takes great pride in his 105 employees at Alure Home Improvements, a 62-year-old, $50 million company that completes 2,000 jobs a year. He adores his wife and three children and gets tremendous pleasure from helping other families through charitable activities including ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, on which he and his team have appeared an unprecedented seven times.
Not only does Ferro have season's tickets to his beloved New York Mets, but he got to throw the first pitch in 2006 and 2007. On any given weekend, his golf buddies might include former pro hockey players or movers and shakers from New York's business community.
More reasons to smile: Ferro serves on a growing list of boards and has a wall of awards. He's never had to lay off anyone. He also seems to simply relish the little things in life: competing in fierce backyard sports games; chatting with strangers who recognize him at airports; joking around with staff; showing he can still break-dance at age 44; and, especially, watching other people flourish in their own lives.
But there's at least one thing Ferro dislikes, fervently. And today, midway through a painful year for the construction industry, it is on his mind.
"I hate to lose," he tells 17 members of his basement sales team on this morning in early July. The group is assembled in a room of Alure's corporate office, in a nondescript office park on New York's Long Island.
The word "lose" is an overstatement; one of the most successful remodeling companies in the country, Alure Home Improvements has had consistent double-digit sales growth and profits since the mid-'90s, when Ferro began transitioning into the CEO role long held by his friend and mentor Carl Hyman.
Even in the down year of 2008, two of the four divisions that make up the Alure brand — home improvements and kitchens and baths — are on track to grow, and the newest division, sunrooms, is holding steady.
Basement sales, however, are 15% off. Alure pioneered the franchising concept for Owens Corning Basement Refinishing Systems in 1997, and considering that the company sold $22 million worth of basements last year, any slowdown could have an impact on the whole company.
Ferro's pep talk, delivered without notes but with a clear logic, meanders from the Mets' maddening inconsistency to his golf handicap at a notoriously tough course to the paralyzing impact the credit crunch and mortgage meltdown are having on "luxury" investments such as basements.
But whereas the Mets' wounds are self-inflicted, Ferro says, "Our challenges are outside. You are still outperforming the market," the company's finances are solid, and its management second to none. He then lays out a litany of steps he is taking to kick things up, including beefing up training, extending call center hours, and the previous afternoon's "blitz" of having managers personally visit jobsites with Alure yard signs. He urges his audience to step up the energy as well. He asks: Who's planning open houses in the next few weeks? Who's been networking? What ideas do you have for the group?
"It's very easy to invest in a company when things are great," Ferro concludes. "We've got a history of expanding in tough times, and when this cycle is over, we're going to come out smoking."
Paying It Forward
It's that combination of optimism, transparency, and steely determination that makes Ferro such a winning businessman. He's not just admired; people who know him well say he embodies a fundamental decency that has a "pay-it-forward" impact on just about everything he touches, including Alure Home Improvements' stellar reputation as a company that takes care of people.
"He's a guy with a heart as big as the building industry," says Paul DiMeo, a star of Extreme Makeover, to which Alure has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of labor and materials to rebuild the homes of people in need. Besides Ferro's generosity and sheer competence as a construction manager, DiMeo distinguishes his extraordinary "commitment to the players in his company. He takes care of them and they in turn take care of him," he says. "He can ask them to work 36 hours straight [on an Extreme Makeover project], and they will because they know he's right there in the trenches with them."