Business

Call of Duty

AmBuild is owned by veterans, employs veterans and works on projects for veterans. The secret to the company’s success, according to its founder, is ‘a never-give-up attitude.’
By Christopher Durso
August 3, 2022
Topics
Business

Mark DeChick had been working in construction for years when he first learned about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) program. He’d been in the U.S. Marine Corps and served in the first Gulf War as a tank crewmember, specializing in clearing mines, and eventually was classified as a service-disabled veteran. After gaining an engineering degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology, he went to work for Rochester, New York–based Christa Construction, focusing on construction administration and project management.

Federal legislation gave the VA authority over set-aside and sole-source contracts for verified SDVOSB companies in 2006. DeChick found out about the program a few years later. “That’s when I decided, instead of working for somebody else, why not do this myself?” DeChick says. By 2011, he was ready to hang out a shingle; with the help of a friend, he’d come up with the perfect name for a vet-owned firm: AmBuild, for American Building Company.

A little more than a decade later, AmBuild is not only thriving as a business but doing it in a way that lives its values. That has included prioritizing hiring veterans, working on meaningful projects such as military cemeteries and VA hospitals, merging with another veteran-owned construction company and helping still another veteran stand up a supply business.

As AmBuild’s company philosophy phrases it: “Our goal is to build partnerships with our clients through honor, commitment and value.”

AMBUILD ASSEMBLE

DeChick didn’t quit his day job immediately, but he was upfront with Christa: He would leave once he lined up his first job for AmBuild. That happened after about a year and a half; then, DeChick was working for himself. He was interested in general construction and pitched AmBuild in that direction, aiming for government projects such as VA medical centers before gradually taking on private commercial and industrial work.

The VA’s SDVOSB certification—along with New York State’s Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business (SDVOB) certification—made all the difference. “I probably would not have started if it weren’t for that program,” DeChick says. “I would have been nuts to start a small construction company, but that’s the path I took.”

Hiring veterans was part of DeChick’s business model from the beginning, for reasons both practical and personal. “From knowing the folks I served with, I just thought, ‘This would be great,’ because they have a great work ethic,” DeChick says. “And I’m a veteran, thinking, ‘Especially if I’m starting a veteran-owned company—it’d be great to have veterans onboard as well.’”

Growth wasn’t so much slow as incremental, as it is for many small businesses, but one by one, the pieces fell into place. “It’s a never-give-up attitude,” DeChick says. In 2014, he reconnected with Andrew Claus, with whom he’d worked at Christa more than 10 years before. A onetime carpenter who moved into backend operations and eventually got an MBA, Claus joined AmBuild as DeChick’s partner, focusing on information systems, accounting, HR and anything else that didn’t involve working on a jobsite. “It was perfect,” Claus says. “He took care of everything in the field—everything outbound—and I took care of everything in the office.”

Four years later, AmBuild was ready for its next big move, also involving one of DeChick’s former col-leagues from Christa—a U.S. Army veteran named Albert Urban. (Claus notes: “Rochester is kind of a big, small town.”) “I had a parallel path between being in the National Guard and being in construction,” says Urban, who formed his first company, Urban Custom Construction, immediately after getting an engineering degree from the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Throughout his career, he balanced positions in construction with active-duty stints in the Army and National Guard, including deployments in Bosnia and Iraq that drew on his expertise with maintenance, logistics and operations.

“I see a lot of similarities between construction and the military,” Urban says. “It’s the camaraderie of the people, working with equipment and tools outside, working with clients to meet their needs, being capable to deliver on unique requirements. But mostly, it’s working as a team. Watching the guys effectively delivering services to a customer within a budget is just very rewarding. I think the culture of the military is also the culture of construction.”

In 2015, Urban launched Global Urban Enterprises as an SDVOSB-certified construction company. Over the next few years, Global Urban and AmBuild worked together on several projects in and around Rochester, and between those jobs and DeChick and Urban’s time as colleagues at Christa, they began wondering if they wouldn’t be better off turning their two smaller companies into one larger company. So, in 2018, they did just that under the AmBuild banner—with Urban as chief executive officer, DeChick as chief operating officer and Claus stepping out of an ownership position and into the chief financial officer role.

“The advantage was, we’d worked together before,” Urban says. “We created a business plan that incorporated what I was hoping to do while focusing on what Mark was already doing. I could not grow at the capacity that we have without Mark’s previous work.”

‘WHAT IS BETTER THAN THAT?’

AmBuild experienced growing pains during its early days—“We grew kind of quick and we were up to almost 40 [people] at one point,” Claus says, “and that was a little too much, too fast”—but today has stabilized at approximately 24 full-time employees and an impressive portfolio of work. The company also has a sister outfit called AmBuild Supply, whose president, Thomas Farina, is a U.S. Navy veteran whom DeChick met while Farina was working somewhat unhappily in commercial sales for building materials. DeChick saw the opportunity to support a fellow vet and helped the U.S. Naval Academy graduate set up his own wholesale materials company, including achieving SDVOB certification from New York State.

AmBuild Supply is a separate organization that operates independently from AmBuild, “but we do have a symbiotic relationship in terms of our business-sector approach,” Urban says. “They buy the materials, we put them in. We can choose to buy materials from anyone, but the focus on buying materials from Tom gave him a real advantage to get started in the business. So, we’ve got some projects going, we can buy materials from Tom, help out a vet and both companies grow together.”

While AmBuild works across sectors, including government, education, medical and nonprofit, certain projects resonate with the company more than others. Prime among them is work on a variety of Rochester-area VA facilities, including replacing the roof on the Batavia VA and renovating the Community Living Center at the Bath VA. “For us to start a business, we needed that Service-Disabled set-aside to give us the confidence that we had a niche market that we could go for,” Urban says. “That what the VA provides with veterans.

“First, it gives the veterans a chance. The second part of that is, as combat veterans, both of us [Urban and DeChick], it’s like therapy,” Urban continues. “We end up working for the government, so it’s a continued service to the community and to the government as a contractor. We get to continue our service after retirement.”

Just as impactful for AmBuild is the 269-acre Western New York National Cemetery, in Pembroke, New York. Having completed phase one of the project, which opened in 2020, the company is now at work on phase two, expanding the new military cemetery’s interment capacity and adding facilities to store cremated and mixed remains, fencing and landscaping, as well as a roadway loop. “We’ve got some great clients that we enjoy working for,” Claus says. “Even fresh out of college, I was a carpenter for a while, and I liked seeing the beginning to the end of a project. Now we get to do that over and over again. We can drive past what we’ve built and see the imprint that we have. Seeing the benefit to vets in western New York—what is a better opportunity than that?”

Actually, DeChick has an idea there. Over the years, AmBuild has worked on numerous affordable-housing projects, and DeChick would like to combine that expertise with his own interests in rehabilitating old houses and giving back to fellow vets. “I would like to go into an old neighborhood—especially in Rochester, there are a lot of houses that are boarded up—and buy the block and make them veteran homes. Have a community of vets,” DeChick says. “I haven’t gotten to that connection yet, how to make that all happen, but that’s what I’d like to see down the road.”

by Christopher Durso

Chris leads Construction Executive’s day-to-day operations—overseeing all print and digital content, design and production efforts, and working with the editorial team to tell the many stories of America’s builders and contractors. An experienced association magazine editor, writer and publications strategist, he is a graduate of Saint Joseph’s University and lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Related stories

Business
ICYMI: Highlights From NIBS’ Building Innovation Conference 2024
By Jordan LeGras
CE reports from the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Building Innovation Conference 2024, where industry experts answered questions on sustainability, diversity and inclusion, technology and more.
Business
Nonresidential Construction Spending Slips 0.3% in April, Remains Near Record High
By ABC
ABC has released its nonresidential construction spending report for April, noting a marginal slip along with maintenance of a near-record high.
Business
Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud
By Tracy Winn
While silent leadership is easy to overlook, it can play a key role in forming deeper and more meaningful connections with work crews, subcontractors, clients, suppliers and stakeholders.

Follow us




Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Stay in the know with the latest industry news, technology and our weekly features. Get early access to any CE events and webinars.