As the economic crisis grabbed hold of the nonresidential construction industry, small subcontractors grappled with whether to shrink their operations in the hopes of surviving or expand their capabilities to gain access to more work. For Zebby Sulecki, Inc., Broomall, Pa., and R.J. Forbes, Attleboro, Mass., the opportunities associated with diversification were worth the risks.

Zebby Sulecki, who started his namesake company in 1987, describes the last five years as an economic rollercoaster ride in which he added drywall, carpentry and acoustical work to the firm’s painting services.Today, the company is more similar to a full-service commercial and institutional subcontractor—giving Sulecki better control over his projects and margins. But it also means being more accountable to clients.

Ardmore Toyota, Zebby Sulecki“Drywall and painting are two tough construction niches because you see the finished product. Often if there was a problem, the painter would blame the drywaller and vice versa. Now,we can take full responsibility for the finish work,” he says. “It’s helping us with bigger buying power and control of our production and coordination.”

While R.J. Forbes continues to do commercial and institutional painting work throughout New England, it has expanded its services to be a single-source provider of high-performance industrial coatings, high-pressure washing, concrete repair, epoxy flooring, electrostatic spray finishes and water/wastewater linings. Repeat business in the higher education market remains strong, according to President Ross Forbes, Sr., and diversification has allowed the company to pursue new jobs in the water and power markets.

On top of providing additional services, both firms emphasize the value of improving safety and efficiency processes onsite. Bringing 26 years of experience to the table, Zebby Sulecki, Inc. regularly recommends different materials that may be more cost-effective. Its EMR has been between 0.66 and 1 for the past several years,opening up access to more jobs in the health care market.

R.J. Forbes hasn’tWhaling Museum, R.J. Forbes had an OSHA violation since it was founded in 1993, which helps set the firm apart as more general contractors and owners prequalify subcontractors based on their safety records, workforce size and project experience. In addition to collaborating with an outside safety consultant and doing regular toolbox talks, the company trains personnel in hazard communications, scaffolding and equipment, and is certified for confined space entry and lead-based renovation,repair and painting activities. Forbes makes sure customers are informed about the company’s latest capabilities in order to generate repeat business.

“We return calls within 24 hours, quote a good price and do quality work. Honesty is what works for us,”Forbes says. “The good contractors appreciate what we do and keep coming back to us for more work.”

For R.J. Forbes, more work means more employees—jumping from 25last April to 65 in June. Zebby Sulecki, Inc. is up to about 60 employees as well, including two new estimators. Additionally, the firm just moved into anew office that’s five times bigger than its previous space, with an onsite warehouse and a training/meeting room that fits 100 people.

Training is a priority for Sulecki, who grew up in Europe where there are more opportunities to pursue trade careers. In addition to an apprenticeship program with the Eastern Pennsylvania Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors, the company works with the Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades and has a goal of initiating outreach to high school students this year. Based on signs of construction work going on in the firm’s 100-mile radius during the past nine months, it won’t be long until an infusion of young craft professionals is needed.

“The economy might not be growing a lot, but even in a stable market we feel like we’re making progress,”Sulecki says. “Opportunities are out there every day; you just have to go and get them.”

Joanna Masterson is editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email, visit or follow @ConstructionMag