TEI owners credit success during the pandemic to their relationship with employees and customers.
On a sunny but cool September morning, your author (MJ) had the opportunity to sit down at TEI Group’s company headquarters in Sunnyside, New York, with owners Mark Gregorio (MG) and Michael “Mike” Staub (MS) and ask them each 10 Questions (plus a bonus one about NYC and its recovery). It was a great opportunity to sit with the owners of the largest independent elevator company, with more than 300 employees, and talk about the city we all love, how they have managed the pandemic (during which TEI stayed open) and how important their success has been.
MJ: Where did you grow up? What is your family background? How did your industry career begin?
MG: My parents divorced when I was 11 years old. This was not so common in 1975. My mother, one of 11 siblings and an immigrant, managed to raise four of us on US$100 a week as a cashier in a department store. My family all chipped in to support us. We all met at my grandmother’s house every Sunday for Mass and family dinner. I entered the industry through a cousin who worked for Millar Elevator — at the time, the greatest independent elevator contractor in NYC. I started in repair, but my previous background in troubleshooting electrical and electronic equipment quickly led me to the maintenance department.
MS: I was born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and our family moved to Rego Park, Queens, in 1966, when I was six years old. So, while I do have a deep heritage in Brooklyn, I consider myself a Queens native. The second child of three, I was raised by my two parents. I have an older sister and a younger brother. We were raised to be close, and we had important family values, including an emphasis on work ethic, instilled in us from a young age. We were taught to care about our work and to put our hearts and minds behind everything we do.
I started in the elevator industry in my early 20s, working at 1 Liberty Plaza in NYC as a helper. After four years at Liberty, I transitioned to Millar, where I was both a mechanic and then a foreman. Following Millar, I worked for New York Elevator as an assistant supervisor until 1997, when I started with TEI.
MJ: MG, you worked for both the NYC Transit Authority (NYCTA) Power Division and Millar. Tell us how those opportunities formed the basis for your years at TEI that came later.
MG: I was fortunate to attend William E. Grady Vocational Technical High School and study electrical trades. Many agencies recruited directly from our graduating classes. I applied to and was hired by the NYCTA in the Power Division working in substations converting AC power to DC power for the train system. Concurrently, I was able to attend City University of New York Staten Island and study further toward my engineering degree. I decided public work was not for me, and I desired the opportunities possible in the private sector. Later, I was fortunate to land an apprentice position with Millar. Unknown to me at the time, Millar happened to have the best reputation for customer service, the most well-rounded mechanics and top-shelf clients. It was a wonderful education from a technical and business perspective. Many of our processes were learned there and copied.
MJ: MS, your background was in New York Elevator and Millar; we used to call those the big, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3 companies. How did that work environment affect how your involvement and philosophy with your current Local 1 workforce? How is work with the IUEC locals?
MS: My background at NY Elevator and Millar put a total emphasis on customer service. We had it ingrained in us to ensure the customers are taken care of, that we are empathetic to their needs and feelings and that we treat them with respect and fairness. In addition, education and personal growth — that we were always learning and getting better — were always at the center of the philosophy.
TEI is an Intertnational Union of Elevator Contructors (IUEC) Local 1 shop, so I can only speak to our experience with Local 1. Local 1 has supplied us with workers who have great talent and come to us with great experience and training. This has been quite essential to our formula of success at TEI: to have a staff that is educated, well-trained and professional. We’ve had a great partnership with Local 1, especially during 2020 as we have dealt with the impact of the pandemic. TEI has remained open with 100% service during this time and worked alongside Local 1 to ensure the safety of our essential workers.
The current management team was able to grow this independent company to over US$150 million within our local market. We are partnering with Analogue to grow our model across the U.S.
MJ: How was TEI formed, and how has it grown to the more than 300 employees it has today?
MG: TEI was formed in 1989 by two individuals to provide ancillary services to other elevator companies in NYC. I joined in 1994 to buy out the engineer. There were 12 employees at the time, and annual volume was approximately US$3 million. Ultimately, John Fichera, Mike and I purchased the entire company in 1999. Fichera has since retired and does some part-time consulting work. Mike and I have bestowed equity to some key people and undertaken a large corporate investor, Analogue Holdings Ltd., that will help us grow our company internationally (ELEVATOR WORLD, June 2020). The keys to smart, responsible growth are simple: find good people, treat your employees as family, find good clients, treat your clients as family and always keep your word. Integrity plays a large role in our culture.
MS: We always strive to do our very best. This attitude has driven us and TEI to see some amazing things happen over the past 30 years. While we never want to get too far ahead of ourselves, we believe that our core values of safety, integrity and quality have aided us greatly in this growth.
MJ: What does the equity position taken by Analogue mean for the future of TEI? Will the scope and size of projects you bid on change? You’ve mentioned “high-value opportunities.” Is this part of that strategy?
MG: The current management team was able to grow this independent company to over US$150 million within our local market. We are partnering with Analogue to grow our model across the U.S. Analogue manufactures and distributes multiple complementary product lines. New TEI branches will be opening across the country. TEI, as a standalone unit, has completed contracts in excess of US$24 million, and the current bandwidth allows double that amount or more.
MJ: MG, you are a part of Autism Communities in New York (ACNY) and Vistage NYC, and have been honored by the Diabetes Research Institute (DRI). Do these voluntary positions reflect the philosophy of you or TEI?
MG: DRI and ACNY are wonderful charitable organizations that aid people with needs. I have been fortunate to have found financial success. It is rewarding to be able to “give back” some of my success to those less fortunate, and I would advise anyone to do the same.
Vistage International is an executive development group I was fortunate to find. Growing from a mechanic to CEO of a multimillion-dollar company does not happen alone. Vistage is a network of former CEOs, trusted advisors and peers from which unbiased feedback can be obtained. It offers a vast resource of experience from which to glean useful information. The knowledge I have gained has been invaluable.
MJ: Who have you met through your TEI dealings who have impacted you over the years?
MG: There are so many, so here are a few. Earle Altman from ABS Partners gave us one of our first modernization projects as a fledgling company. It was essentially a “handshake” deal, in which I learned the meaning of trust among business dealings. Ed Piccinich from SL Green is the epitome of demanding the best from everyone on the team. Bruce Weill and Frank Vasta from TF Cornerstone are among the best high-rise builders in NYC.
MS: This is a very difficult question to answer. We have met so many amazing people over the years that it would be unfair to single anyone out. We have worked with incredible people, and NYC is certainly not short on brilliance.
MJ: What is your relationship with your partners?
MG: Mike and I have a history going back to 1986 or so. We worked together at Millar as field mechanics, foremen and adjusters. While we worked in different geographical locations, we often crossed paths. We have never had a disagreement or argument. He is an amazing partner and friend who oversees our entire service and repair operation. There is no one anywhere who handles the position more competently and passionately than Mike. In addition, the current equity structure has rewarded some key personnel who are highly respected within our company and industry. We are currently designing a stock option plan to expand the performance-based model. (The book Extreme Ownership is a great read, by the way.)
There have been pandemics before. There has been civil unrest before. There has been financial hardship before. There have even been terrorist attacks before. Once again, strong leadership will emerge to guide our city back to prosperity.
MS: Mark and I are the closest of friends. We have great trust in one another, and we both want the best for TEI, all of its employees and all of our clients. I always equate being business partners to being family, and Mark and I certainly hold that adage true. Our trust of and loyalty to one another does not waver, and we work to instill those values in our employees.
MJ: Of all the deals you’ve made for new construction, modernization and maintenance, which were the most impactful for you? Where are the best places to meet customers in NYC?
MG: Once again, there are so many. For new construction, I think 2 Gold Street is memorable, as it was our first new project with elevators running 1000 ft/min; I believe that was in 2002. We maintain the elevators today for the same wonderful client and have completed many other projects together. For modernization, I would say 1166 Avenue of the Americas remains the largest nonproprietary destination-based dispatching job completed by an independent company. Maintenance-wise, I would say 111 Eighth Avenue remains a favorite. It has undergone constant change, renovation and ownership. We have added 12 new elevators to the property and will be modernizing 12 additional passenger elevators thanks to the top performance of our maintenance team on location. However, I am confident that our biggest milestone project has yet to be imagined.
MS: This may not be the most glamorous answer, but we prefer to meet with our clients at their buildings or offices. We feel that meeting face-to-face with our clients is the key to strong communication. I also very much like to get a feel for the job and meet with clients at the jobsite. Then, I can better visualize the job and see how we can best service the customer’s needs. If clients would like to meet elsewhere, that’s up to them! We want our clients to choose an environment that is welcoming and comfortable for them.
MJ: What are the three best restaurants in NYC?
MG: One is a private club called Tiro A Segno, which loosely translates from Italian as “Hit the Target.” There is a shooting range in the basement, and the food is amazing. Biricchino is also excellent, as it makes its own meats and cheeses. The homemade sausage is wonderful. Finally, Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse on 9th Avenue was been a source of many business lunches and dinners for decades, while we were located on West 34th Street.
MJ: During our sit-down, we talked about the effects of COVID-19 on our great city and how your company has handled it through the past and coming months. A question that I am always asked is, “Will our beloved NYC recover and thrive again?”
MS: Absolutely. NYC has been through some incredibly trying times over the years. This city and its people are incredibly resilient and always adapt to any challenge that comes their way. While the pandemic has put some unbelievable strain on both NYC and those who live and work here, we must applaud all of the amazing first-line responders and essential workers for their incredible dedication to their fellow citizens and the city at large. We thank the essential workers for their incredible care and sacrifice. The city owes them a great debt. As TEI is an essential service provider, we also have to thank the amazing men and women who work with us for their steadfast resolve and personal strength to work with us and for the city. It’s because of these characteristics that I know NYC will not only recover from COVID-19, but will be stronger than it was before. In time, when it’s safe, restaurants and businesses will open, theater will return to Broadway, and tourists will visit to take in all this city has to offer. That’s because within NYC reside the greatest people in the world, making it the greatest city in the world.
MG: The men and women of TEI are truly amazing. Everyone worked tirelessly to fully enable remote working for more than 80 employees simultaneously. COVID-19 mitigation plans were developed for various field operations and our office facility. Personal protective equipment was sourced and distributed — we even managed to provide some to our labor union for members unable to obtain their own. All the while, our customers were serviced, and our projects forged ahead. This drive and spirit represent the best of not only TEI and America, but, in particular, NYC.
Frank Sinatra said, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” In the same vein, Derek Jeter said, “There’s a certain feeling about Yankee Stadium.” I walk by Madison Square Garden often. Outside, on the perimeter wall, there are quotes from many stars — Mark Messier, Billy Joel, Elton John and Patrick Ewing all claim it as the greatest stage in the world.
The fainthearted may move away, but true New Yorkers have never left. We will welcome back those who will undoubtedly return. The clouds will clear, the sun will shine, and, yes, our beloved city will recover and thrive again. Humans are social in nature. The extended family nucleus of the office environment simply creates more opportunities for learning and developing oneself and others around you. Mentoring remotely is not practical. There have been pandemics before. There has been civil unrest before. There has been financial hardship before. There have even been terrorist attacks before. Once again, strong leadership will emerge to guide our city back to prosperity.
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