Montoni built construction company from the ground up
In just six years entrepreneur became a key player on the Quebec construction scene

When Dario Montoni's parents decided to build themselves a dream home, the aspiring architect made a few sketches on his free time. It's probably not surprising that the couple accepted their son's designs. What is surprising is the boy was only nine years old at the time.

"I've always loved architecture, and I was sure one day that's what I would become." Montoni said. "The fact that my parents used my sketches for their new house was a big thrill for a little kid."

Today instead of drawing buildings, Montoni builds them. At just 32, the young entrepreneur heads Le Groupe Montoni, Division Construction, one of the province's fastest growing industrial construction companies.

In just six years, Montoni turned the company he founded, from being a basement operation with just a desk and a phone, into a business that will generate close to $32 million in revenues this year.

Montoni, learnt the construction business from the ground up. "I've always loved to work, and was good with my hands," Montoni said. "Even as a teenager, I was renovating rooms, finishing basements and that kind of stuff."

Montoni has good entrepreneurial blood in his veins. His father ran an aircraft parts plant and together his parents operated a chain of dry cleaning stores, an industry in which Montoni would get his first taste of business.

At just 17 years old, while still in Cegep, Montoni borrowed $50,000 from his father to buy out one of his parent's franchisees, who was having trouble making a go of it.

"The store was only doing $800 a week worth of business but it had a great location and I knew I could turn it around," Montoni said.

Long hours followed, but sales soon doubled, and then doubled again. At the end of the first year, the store was generating $4,000 a week in revenues. "While other kids were partying, I was in the store or in school," Montonit said. "I worked so hard I lost all my friends," he joked.

But the hours paid off. Soon after, Montoni sold the store grossing a $75,000 profit for little more than a year's work, and was bitten with the business bug. As his parent's dry cleaning chain grew, Montoni began doing the carpentry, making front desks and so on, every time a new store opened. His love for construction gradually deepened, and when university came he opted for engineering rather than architecture.

After graduatiion, Montoni worked a couple of managerial jobs in the construction industry but before long he grew restless.

"Once you have worked for yourself, it's very hard to go back to a regular job," Montoni said. "So I decided to take my savings and strike out on my own."

His first contract was a $5,000 renovation, but sales were slow in coming at the beginning and the dollar amounts were modest. "I did not draw a salary from the company for the first year and a half," Montoni said. "And even then the check was pretty small."

Montoni's first big break came when he convinced his father to let him act as general contractor on a multiple unit leasing property he was commissioning. Although Montoni did the job at cost price, he picked a valuable experience, and bigger contracts started coming in.

According to one client who recently commissioned a $2 million, 35,000 square foot building from Montoni, the keys to his success are vast experience and concern for the customer.

"He knows almost all the details of the projects that he gets involved in," said Don Burke, president of Burke Industries, a Laval based water pump manufacturer. "Dario gave remarkable after sales service. He stayed in touch more than a year later, and made sure that everything was working."

Alain Lamoureux, general manager of Liebherr Canada, a heavy equipment marketer, which recently occupied a new 50,000 square foot, $6 million machine shop and warehouse agreed.

"(Montoni's) competitors were making bets that he would not be able to finish the job within the time frame we asked for," Lamoureux said. "But he supervised the project himself, and he gave us the keys the exact day he promised."

Montoni credits his success to the solid team he has built up around him.

They say that every successful entrepreneur needs a good lawyer and a good accountant. Montoni was lucky, his sister Sonia is a chartered accountant, and his wife Franca Riso is a lawyer, and both now work at the company. The administrative talent they provide lets Montoni to concentrate on what he knows best: operations.

But when Montoni describes his company as a family business, he uses the word in a large sense. "We treat everyone that works here as though they were part of the family not just those whose name is Montoni," said the young entrepreneur. "That's why we have a low turnover rate. Once people join they tend to stick around."

As good as things are, there's a good chance that they will get better still. According to one expert, industrial construction is seeing continued strong demand, with more buyers (as opposed to renters) entering the market.

"The stock market is down, and interest rates are low," said Gilles Dagenais, vice-president, of Royal Lepage's commercial division. "Those are ideal conditions for the real estate market."

In recent years Montoni has been trying to add value by providing feasibility studies and design services, but in many ways his business is tied in to the overall health of the economy.

The recent hot real estate market is a refreshing change for Montoni, who built his business, during the lean times of the post referendum late 1990s. With construction activity expected to remain strong, business should get a little easier. This will hopefully give him some free time to call up those old friends that he lost touch with while building his business.

 

Photo caption: Although he is only 32, in just six years Dario Montoni built one of the province's fastest growing industrial construction companies.

 

peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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Sidebar: Getting ahead

o Dario Montoni learnt the construction industry from the ground up, by doing carpentry work in his parent's dry cleaning store chain, and through engineering studies at McGill.
o He started Groupe Montoni by working from his basement, and got experience as general contractor on a major development for his father, before branching out.
o Montoni treats all his employees as though they are family, including his sister who is a chartered accountant and his wife who is a lawyer.
o Montoni's company stands out in a cutthroat industry by providing value added services, such as design, feasibility studies and office layouts.

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