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CEO still gets a rush from the job

Lawrence Merle recently was asked about his biggest regret. His reply was simple: He does not have one.

“Things happen for a reason, and if I were to change something I wouldn’t be where I am today,” says Merle, the CEO of Genesee Construction Service Inc. “This is who I am.”

Merle, 48, founded the business in 1996 with two partners; in 1999 he bought his partners out and became the sole owner.

In 1999, Genesee Construction was composed of a handful of workers and logged sales of roughly $1 million. The Dansville, Livingston County, company now employs nearly 30 workers and logs annual sales of nearly $15 million.

The local construction firm has served as the general contractor on high-profile projects in the area, from the Culver Road Armory to the High Point development in Victor, Ontario County.

While no two days—or two projects—are the same, Merle enjoys life on the job.

“I enjoy a vacation, but I’m always excited coming back to work,” Merle says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Changing paths
Merle grew up in Coalport, a small rural town in central western Pennsylvania.

After high school, he attended Bob Jones University, a Christian liberal arts college in Greenville, S.C. He originally intended to study pre-law.

“I loved to argue,” he says.

When not in class or studying, Merle would work construction jobs to earn some extra cash. It turned out to be a field he was interested in pursuing.

“I’d always done small (construction) jobs,” he says. “I realized I really liked it.”

So, he changed his major sophomore year. He chose accounting for two reasons: First, construction companies traditionally were not strong on the finance side of the business. Second, it gave him something to fall back on if his venture into the field didn’t work out.

Merle graduated with a bachelor of science degree in accounting in 1988. He stayed in South Carolina for about a year before heading to Upstate New York, where his wife, whom he met in college, grew up.

He worked for a local construction company, but his goal was to own his own. He founded Genesee Construction with two of his co-workers. It started as a largely general construction firm, but later expanded into site work.

“We do everything, from removing the first tree on the site to planting the last tree there,” Merle says.

Employees are cross-trained, so most can do everything from laying blacktop to hanging sheet rock. The firm sees little turnover, with the average employee having worked there for nearly a decade.

Genesee Construction serves customers mainly within a 100-mile radius of Dansville.

One of Genesee Construction’s current jobs is the second Class A office building at High Point, a Rainaldi Bros. Inc. development comprising retail, office and proposed residential space on 120 acres across from Eastview Mall.

Among the tenants will be CooperVision Inc., which is expected to move in this summer.

Genesee Construction built the first office building there, which houses Constellation Brands Inc.’s headquarters, as well as the retail stores below, including Alex & Ani and the North Face.

Merle began working for Fred Rainaldi Sr. in the late 1990s, after trying to make inroads with the developer. The job was a Rite Aid Corp. store in Dans-ville, and Merle’s local connection, as well as his tenacity, helped land him the job.

Fred Rainaldi Jr. praised Merle’s work, citing his experience, attention to detail, high energy and family atmosphere he helps create on job sites. He also spoke of Merle’s ability to adapt at the highest level to different building styles from specialty retail and medical to Class A office space, adding that Merle has garnered the respect of national retailers at both the Culver Road Armory and High Point.

Merle also does jobs for Rochester Regional Health System, including building some of its dialysis centers.

Genesee Construction has completed jobs for Watkins Glen International and the Doan Family of Dealerships, and has built more than a dozen Rite Aid Corp. stores.

At least 85 percent of Genesee Construction’s work is from repeat customers.

“We are one of the best-kept secrets in the area,” Merle says.

A diverse trade
One of the things he likes most is the diversity of his profession, Merle says. He even enjoys the sometimes hectic schedules.

“People will joke that I never age, and I believe that’s because I truly love what I do,” Merle says. “I get to do what I want on a daily basis and make a good living at it.”

The most challenging part of his job is finding trained, dedicated workers. Ideally, he would like to grow the business to nearly 40 workers, a number he believes would be adequate to accommodate growth.

Merle praises his current workforce, noting it takes commitment and pride in one’s work to make it in the construction field.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment when you see a finished job,” Merle says. “At the end of the day, there’s something to show for the work you have done.”

Merle still enjoys it when people look at a building Genesee Construction has raised and praise him for a job well done.

“It’s an adrenaline rush,” he says.

That desire to see the finished product and to be proud of the results drives him to succeed in the field.

“If you couldn’t see something like that it’s hard to get out there and work in subzero temperatures,” Merle says.

Tony Randall, CEO of Rochester-based Ramar Steel Inc., has worked on projects with Merle for about 10 years. The two have complementary styles and the business relationship turned into a friendship, Randall says.

He describes Merle as honest and hardworking.

“When he says something, you can bank on it,” Randall says. “He’s one of the few people I would do a job for with a handshake.”

Merle begins his days early, around 5:30 a.m., and often works until near 10 p.m. when he sends out final e-mails for the day. He works in the office, but spends a large part of his time on job sites. One day a week is dedicated to meetings where he reviews current and upcoming projects.

Merle enjoys watching his clients grow.

“When they grow, you grow,” he says.

Merle’s efforts recently received industry kudos: He traveled to Las Vegas to be honored as Equipment World’s 2015 Contractor of the Year.

Each year, the recipient and 11 finalists are selected by the editors of Equipment World in a competition sponsored by Caterpillar Inc. Genesee Construction was chosen out of 80,000 firms throughout North America.

Merle describes his life as an American dream success story, which has come together with the help of many, from subcontractors and employees to clients.

“I have a great wife, kids who tolerate me and a job I love,” he says.

Merle lives in Dansville. He and his wife of 26 years, Mary Ann, have two children: a daughter, Mary Ellyn, 23, and son, Jon, 20.

Mary Ann handles office administration and human resources for the firm, and Mary Ellyn oversees marketing and communications.

When not working, Merle enjoys hunting and a more unusual hobby: He operates a beef farm called J&M Ranch. Merle bought his first animal in 2004. The farm has 20 to 25 cattle at a time, raised naturally and with no growth hormones.

Professionally, he has no plans to slow down. Merle does not see himself stepping away from the business he created and grew—even if he served as a sounding board when older.

“It’s like one of your children; it’s part of who I am,” he says.

Merle was recently having a conversation about rewriting history—what you would change if you could go back in time and do things differently.

He would not change a thing.

“I thoroughly enjoy what I do,” Merle says.

Lawrence Merle
Title: CEO, Genesee Construction Service Inc. 
Age: 48
Education: B.S. in accounting, Bob Jones University, Greenville, S.C., 1988
Residence: Dansville, Livingston County
Family: Wife, Mary Ann; daughter, Mary Ellyn, 23, and son, Jon, 20
Hobbies: Hunting, operating a beef farm
Quote: “I enjoy a vacation, but I’m always excited coming back to the job. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

5/1/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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