May 14, 2010
FOCUS | General & Trade Contracting
Northway Construction finds niche in high-end auto market
There’s a new upscale Downtown Porsche dealership under construction near Toronto’s tiny Distillery District. The sleek, 34,000-square-foot project is a steel-frame, glass and concrete structure, emerging at Front and Parliament across the street from the current dealership building.
Nice work if you can get it, but for general contractor Northway Construction Co. Ltd. of Concord, Ont., this happens to be the seventh notch in its high-end auto dealership portfolio since 2000.
“It’s become a specialty for us,” says John Scarmato, a Project Manager with Northway. “At this point it comprises about 80 per cent of our business.”
The contractor’s business once included anything from building homes to industrial facilities. The introduction to car dealerships began with a homebuilding project for the owner of a BMW dealership.
“We were renovating his home for him and he asked us if we wanted to quote on building the BMW Autohaus which was then located on Highway 7 in Markham,” says Scarmato.
“That’s how we got into the car business. It was a one-off at the time. They were very happy with it, but we didn’t know it would result in work on more car dealerships.”
Good word-of-mouth and the street appeal of the new dealership led to another dealership contract, this time for the Volvo Villa, located near Yonge and Steeles in Thornhill. That contract was followed by another automobile project, Volkswagen Villa located within sight of the Volvo dealership.
Auto World Imports Network was next. Located between the first two dealerships, this complex comprised both the company’s corporate headquarters and an automobile showroom.
In most cases, the dealership projects include the construction of the garage facilities as well, although lifts and auto maintenance equipment is installed after the project is handed over to the client.
“I think all of the projects played on each other, as one contract rolled into another one,” says Scarmato. “The automobile dealers are a small community, so word of mouth is extremely important in this market.”
Other Northway auto dealer projects included Volvo Unionville, a Land Rover dealership in north Toronto, a Volvo dealership located next to it, and renovation of Willowdale Subaru, also in north Toronto.
The work is exacting, says Scarmato.
“There are extremely tight controls on these projects,” he says. “They’re all trying to maintain their corporate image so that the customer experience is identical, whether that dealer is located in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal. This isn’t like a design-build where the contractor has a lot of options to achieve the design objectives. We price the job and we generally don’t deviate from anything we see on the drawings approved by the owner, consultants or architects.”
Design control documents specify everything from wall and floor finishes, to the type and colour of paint used to finish the interior trim or the appearance of tile grout.
Scarmato, says that, if anything, those documents have become more exacting since the company began building car dealerships a decade ago.
“When we built the Volvo dealership we imported the wood from Sweden,” he says. “The company wants the backdrop for their cars to be the same everywhere, from country to country.”
But that doesn’t mean that the contractor has no input.
“After a number of these projects, we understand how a car dealership functions, so we sometimes offer suggestions,” says Scarmato. “For example, we’ve pointed out that certain floor finishes will not wear well with the weight of the automobiles. These dealerships have a clean, industrial look and they want to make sure the buildings look well maintained.
“When we’re familiar with the product and have seen how it wears over time, we can make the client aware of that.”
Northway works with a large number of sub-contractors, although the team make-up changes considerably from job to job. “We’re only as good as our subs,” says Scarmato. “That’s why we choose them carefully for each project. Often it isn’t the expertise of the sub, but their ability to handle larger or smaller projects most effectively. We need to rely on their strengths to be competitive, and we’re always on the lookout for good people and companies.”
The Porsche project broke ground last October and is currently about half finished. Scarmato says that each dealership project has unique constraints and design features. This one includes rooftop parking and a freight elevator.
“There are also really tight tolerances on a zero property line,” says Scarmato.
“The sidewalks are closed, and we’re accommodating all of the fun stuff associated with working in the downtown core of the city.”
To date, Northway has built only dealerships representing European and Asian car brands, a fact that isn’t surprising as American car brands continue to streamline their dealership networks.
“To date, we also haven’t built a dealership outside of the GTA,” says Scarmato. “But that’s only because the opportunity hasn’t arisen yet.
“Building car dealerships reminds us that we live in a mobile society — and our experience is portable.”
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