A Conversation with John Rusk of Rusk Renovations

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Follow us throughout our 12 part series as we sit down with the top Architects and General Contractors in New York City to discuss their impressive career journeys. This month we met with John Rusk, President and Founder of Rusk Renovations.

Along with partner Mary Kocy, Rusk operates Rusk Renovations, a company that specializes in renovating New York City high-end residential projects. He also teaches Residential Construction Management at Columbia University and is the author of On Time and On Budget.

Adler Windows:  So John tell us, how did you decide to choose a career path within the construction industry after studying Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon University?

John Rusk: I grew up in a family of mechanics who were all working on hot rods, so I developed a strong set of mechanical skills from a young age. That experience, coupled with a degree in Fine Arts, prepared me for a life in construction when I moved to New York City in 1984. Construction brought in the aesthetics portion and also allowed me to use my excellent mechanical skills.

AW:  Tell us about setting up your own firm, Rusk Renovations?

JR: It began when a friend recommended me to someone who needed a paint job.  After that job, I was asked by someone else to hang a door.  I called up a friend,  learned to hang a door, and hung it the next day. I slowly built up my skills.  In the beginning, I was doing all of my own demolitions, cabinetry, tiling, and painting; the only thing I did not do was plumbing and electricity. I kept improving my skills and before I knew it, I began to build out my team and the company.

AW:  Rusk Renovations focus’ on high-end residential renovations in NYC, why did you decide on this challenging niche?

JR: I have always enjoyed client interaction, working with some of the smartest most creative people in the world, and individuals at the top of their industries. I also enjoy the technical challenges that maximize the talents of everyone on the team. I have a saying that I use quite often: “Singers use their voices, painters use their hands, and architects use their contractors”.  I have always enjoyed being the hands of architects and designers.

AW:  Rusk Renovations holds a three-day college training program every fall. This sounds amazing – where did this idea come from.  

JR: Architects and designers need technical information during design development, schematic pricing, and on-site meetings. Often the full engineering staff aren’t beside them; so my partner Mary Kocy and I realized that it would be so much better to bring together our technical and aesthetic knowledge and put it into an educational program for everyone in our company.  The initial “mechanical colleges” provided training on heating, plumbing, ventilation, and gas work.  We are working on adding additional courses on shoring, excavation, and underpinning.

In addition to training our staff, I teach graduate students at Columbia University and Mary previously ran adult education at Bank Street College. Based on our backgrounds and experiences, we are good at educating adults, using their own experiences, hands-on demos, and videos. We have found that our staff really enjoys the college and new recruits are always interested in the education they can get here and nowhere else.

AW:  What would you consider to be your biggest professional achievement to date?

JR: When I started Rusk Renovations, we were building single apartments and single bathrooms. Since the company has grown, Mary and I are very fortunate to have built a great company with wonderful employees, designers, and architects behind us. The fact that we have won two Crain’s New York“Best Places To Work” awards is a testament to how devoted the people here are to the work that we do. Knowing that our employees are feeling fulfilled and happy is an amazing feeling.

AW:  What do you consider to be the biggest challenge for Rusk Renovations as a residential general contractor in NYC?

JR: The biggest issue is that the industry has a low barrier to entry.  Companies can promise things that they will never be able to deliver and it is often difficult for design professionals and homeowners to vet them.  We work with a number of Family Office organizations and we have developed a set of 20 questions to help owners and their design teams to vet general contractors; these questions provide disciplined insight into their experience, relationships, finances, warranty, and process.  You can download it for free from our website.

AW: You wrote a book called On Time and On Budget – what an amazing achievement. Can you tell us about how this opportunity arose?

JR: The process began out of work I had completed in the program of negotiation at Harvard University. While I was there, I was invited to really think about why the construction industry was such a mess. I came to realize that the design professionals, the contractor and the owner all share the same interest: a beautiful project finished on time and on budget.  

AW: How do you juggle being President of a major contracting company in NYC, and being a part-time lecturer at Columbia University?

JR: I conduct only one semester per year (13 evening classes). My students bring fresh ideas to me and inspired me to create our 28 checklists – one for almost every sub trade that we do. These lists have helped us to figure out a cleaner and better method of educating our people and being able to track process. We started doing 4-D schedules after one of my students stressed to me how important they are. I have also been able to hire a number of my former students.

AW:  Has there been any major influences in your career? A mentor perhaps?

JR: For a number of years I was involved in a nationwide group of high-end contractors called Remodelers Advantage. From this group, I learned the best high-end construction practices from across the country. Presently, I am a part of Vistage, which is a networking and educational group.   Within this company, the big picture ideas come from my partner Mary Kocy. She began with Rusk 14 years ago and really focused us in directions that took us to where we are today and has made us a much better company.  Lastly, I had the great privilege of spending time with an architect, George Early, who escaped the Holocaust and had quite a few ideas about life, courage, and ethics.

AW:  How to do you envision the next ten years of your career?

JR: Right now we are focused on developing our processes and our employees’ knowledge base so we can really be the best contractor in the city. We are always striving to build better and more efficiently so future projects are not delayed.

AW:  What advice would you give to someone who is currently trying to make it in the industry?

JR: Build your company slowly – I have seen companies grab work and build themselves up so quickly, without the processes and employees in place,  that they inevitably fail and create an unnecessary hardship.  Slow and steady is a much more sustainable road.

AW:  One last question, what is your favorite thing about NYC?

JR: The food! I love the diversity of New York.  As Anthony Bourdain said, food provides a great insight into different cultures.   I do not have a lot of time to travel but I can travel the world in our five boroughs.