"At the turn of the 20th century, the era of grand scale public-works projects had begun to unfold. From subways to bridges and tunnels to the expanding network of roadways and byways, Americans embraced industry and progress.
An engineering revolution that had begun in the 1870s with fervent innovation swept through the urban streetscape pushing the boundaries of the metropolis. Skilled and unskilled laborers, tradespeople and craftsmen flocked to America’s shores by the hundreds of thousands in search of work and a better life.
Like so many immigrants, Leonardo Suzio, founder of the Suzio York Hill Companies, saw a country that epitomized wide-open space, freedom and boundless economic opportunity.
In many ways the history of his company parallels the spectacular history of modern engineering. Like so many periods of growth and development, it is a story of transition, born of challenge and prescience, at once deeply personal, social, historic, economic and political.
Now in its third generation, the company still bears Leonardo Suzio’s original motivating principle: opportunities are limited only by the imagination.
is family’s execution of it, the Suzio York Hill Companies have earned Business New Haven’s 2005 Founders Award for companies in business more than a half-century under continuous ownership.
It all began in 1888, the year the Great Blizzard paralyzed cities up and down the eastern seaboard. Leonardo Suzio emigrated from Benevento, a mountainous region in southern Italy. He had just turned 20 when he arrived in America and soon found work as a teamster driving horses and hauling material. Within a decade, he founded a construction company with a mason, later adding an engineer and hiring day workers as needed.
At the time building dominated the national mindset and would preoccupy the country for the next 50 years and through two world wars. The society’s preoccupation with growth had a profound influence on Leonardo’s strategy, and he quickly focused his efforts on residential, commercial and institutional projects demonstrating a vision burly enough to stay one step ahead of the game.
By 1912, he had expanded into road building and opened his first quarry to produce crushed trap rocks in the Mt. Carmel section of Hamden. This was the dawn of the automobile age. Massive road-building projects escalated over the next two decades and by the mid-1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was hiring firms to grade, drain and hard-surface countless miles of muddy streets.
As it did for hundreds of thousands of Depression-idled workers, the WPA provided a tremendous boost for Suzio’s fledgling business and Leonardo won large-scale contracts from the state for highway projects.
At the same time, he established a ready-mix concrete supply company, an asphalt company and a mason supply business in order to control the source of raw materials. By the outbreak of World War II, he had successfully elevated a mixture of cement, sand and stone - concrete - into a new form of grey gold.
Leonardo Suzio died in 1945, the year the war ended. His sons, Lorenzo and Leonardo C. were just kids at the time - too young to assume the reins of the business. Instead, Leonardo’s trusted business partner, Henry Altobello (the third generation of Suzios’ grandfather on their mother’s side), who was running a Suzio quarry in Southwick, Mass., took the helm, eventually steering the company away from construction to focus on the materials supply side. By mining their own raw materials, Altobello reasoned, the quarries would provide a foundation on which to pursue growth.
""He had the sense,"" says Len Suzio, 47, who today is responsible for administration and finance for the companies, ""that it was more profitable in the long run. And in my mind, he made the right decision at the right time.""
Once Altobello (who was elected mayor of Meriden in the 1950s and was also a state senator; he even has a state highway - I-691 - named after him) took over the business, the country was embarked on a frenzied post-war housing boom. Acres of idle tracts of land outside cities was being gobbled up by cookie-cutter housing developers.
A new automobile-oriented culture worked its magic on Suzio York Hill, transforming it into what it is today: providers of crushed rock and ready-mix concrete products for highway, commercial and residential construction projects throughout central Connecticut. The company today encompassed three interrelated firms: the York Hill Trap Rock Quarry Co., L. Suzio Asphalt Co. and the L. Suzio Construction Co.
The company today occupies a prominent place in the greater transportation community, according to Sean W. Moore, president of the Greater Meriden Chamber of Commerce.
""If you mention T21 authorization, federal money for transportation improvements, you immediately think of Suzio,"" says Moore. ""They have been prolific advocates in Washington for transportation funds for the state. They truly work to strengthen the industry, not just themselves. On the one extreme they provide raw materials for the state, on the other, they bring years of advocacy and lobbying for the building and transportation industries. They run the whole spectrum: they deliver rock and deliver funding.""
Suzio’s high-profile projects read like a wish list of ideal development projects: from Ikea to Yale to the Lord & Taylor wing at Westfield Shopping Town in Meriden, to the I-95 New Haven corridor highway widening project, its ubiquitous green-and-white cement mixer trucks are a common sight on the roadways. For those who can’t get enough, they’re now available, thanks to younger brother Ric, 37, in collectible die-cast versions (rolled out in 1998, they’ve turned into hot-selling items with scarce models fetching more than $150 on eBay).
While the company has made an extraordinary impact on the region and the state, the Suzios are perhaps proudest to have remained family-owned and -operated for more than a century. Today it is managed by five grandchildren of the original founder (their father, Leonardo C., who used to run the company, passed away in 2002.) The company is owned by them and their uncle Lorenzo (Leonardo C’s brother.)
The siblings’ roles and responsibilities are divided by interest and ability. Senior sibling Cheryl, 49, president of L. Suzio Asphalt, specializes in health, safety and risk issues. Linda (Munson), 48, is treasurer, while Len (Leonardo H.), 47, president of York Hill Trap Rock Quarry, is also in charge of finance and administration for all the companies. Scott, 42, runs L. Suzio Construction, managing operations, maintenance and production, while the youngest, Ric, focuses on sales, customer relations and labor issues.
With 100 employees, Suzio York Hill has changed quite a bit over the years and is now fully automated with computers monitoring trucks, mixes and products. Currently, the company is equipping all 50 of its trucks with global positioning systems (GPS) to reduce costs and increase delivery efficiency.
The Internet has played an important role as well giving customers, architects and designers access to detailed information via the Suzio Web site. Company clients, says Ric, have been instrumental in new product development, challenging Suzio to create more environmentally friendly products, stronger and high-performance exotic mixes.
Clients like Yale University ( Suzio supplies 99 percent of Yale’s concrete needs) require the company to use a percentage of renewable resources and endorse building designs that are low-energy consumers. To meet these new challenges, says Ric, the company recently added a recycling business for concrete and asphalt with future plans to expand it. Right now, they charge a small handling fee but are confident the recycling business will grow as it prolongs the life of natural resources and rids blacktop from landfills, he says.
The company has looked into recycling other products, too, such as plaster, porcelain, even roof shingles, and expect to offer additional services. Future plans for the company include expanding the asphalt business, looking at a possible acquisition of a sandpit or developing a new plant.
The five brothers and sisters get along well (as each will attest without much prompting) and spend holidays as well as most Sundays socializing and eating together (as many Italo-Americans do) inadvertently chatting about business when it creeps into the conversation. As it usually does.
All are deeply involved in industry and community associations too numerous to enumerate. And, as the Meriden chamber’s Moore explains, they are not just merely members, but very actively involved.
They trade off industry involvement between them when they can. Len current or recent affiliations include the boards of the Connecticut Construction Industry Association (CCIA), the Connecticut Ready-Mixed Concrete Association (CRMCA), the National Ready-Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA) and the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA.)
His primary nonprofit involvement these days (among others) is Leeway, a skilled nursing home in New Haven dedicated to the treatment of people living with AIDS. In April he will become chairman of the Greater Meriden Chamber of Commerce.
Cheryl is past chair of the Safety & Health Committee for the NSSGA, and is past chair of the National Safety Council’s Cement, Quarry & Mineral Aggregates section. Ric, in addition to industry associations, is deeply involved with the Boys & Girls Club in Meriden, currently serving as its vice president. The company is a founding sponsor of the annual Daffodil Festival, a fundraiser for local Meriden nonprofits now in its 27th year. The family also supports such diverse and venerable institutions such as the Smithsonian Foundation and the Goodspeed Opera House among countless other charities and fundraising activities.
Ric and Len say their community and industry involvement is a legacy of their mother, Henrietta, and her father, Henry Altobello, who was active in state and local politics as well as many industry groups. ""The example of their involvement as well as my mother’s inspires our participation in a lot of groups and nonprofit organizations,"" explains Len. How do they do it? ""I don’t know, we just do it,"" says Len. ""We simply don’t know how to say no,"" adds Ric with a laugh.
Discussing the legacy of the Suzio name in the state, most knowledgeable observers have a hard time disguising their admiration, as Marvin Morganbesser, president of Connecticut Construction Industries Association (CCIA), who has known the Suzio family since 1967, makes plain.
""It’s a wonderful company,"" Morganbesser says. ""They are wonderful, wonderful people. They are one of the stellar companies in the industry, fulfilling a great niche. The family is extremely competitive and very well thought of - just an incredible asset to the community and to the construction industry.""
Morganbesser recalls leaders Henry Altobello and Leonardo Sr. (Leonardo C.) fondly. ""They were well-known for their credibility and genuine warmth,"" he says. ""Both were low profile, regarded very highly, just delightful.""
Tim Arborio, a longtime customer of Suzio York Hill, couldn’t agree more. His family has worked with the Suzio family for three generations.
""They are a great civic-minded family with an excellent-run business - and it’s very nice to work with them,"" he says. ""In our industry, to have a company last that long on the materials side and be run so well is unusual. It attests to their commitment to the business and to their customers.""
Looking ahead, the family hopes to continue running and growing the business for generations of Suzios to come. ""That’s the goal,"" says Len.
The odds are stacked against them, though. Many of Suzio’s competitors, once family-owned, have been acquired by multi-national companies. ""There aren’t many family-owned businesses left,"" says Ric. ""I’m never comfortable when so many foreign countries own so much of our natural resources.""
For now though, they are honored to be acknowledged as a family business and as a team. ""We make a conscious effort to be committed to our industry, our business and the community,"" says Ric. And it shows."
Written by Lisa Micali, Business New Haven