Brothers Justin and Matt Stewart lead family-owned Synergy Construction, founded by their parents in 1990. The two of them grew up in the industry, watching and learning as Synergy grew under their parents’ leadership. Their parents put both of them to work from a young age. In high school, Matt and Justin would both work as laborers on Synergy sites. While in the football program at University of Arizona, Justin would come back on the winters and work on Synergy projects. Afterwards, he joined PulteGroup for a number of years before coming back to Synergy in 2006.
Following college, Matt worked stints with Pulte Homes, in real estate, Morgan Stanley and as a Boeing roofer before joining Synergy. The two brothers have taken over the reins of Synergy from their parents, Larry and Pam, and have been building up the family business since. Synergy’s focus lies in multifamily construction, with a mix of market rate and affordable housing.
We recently caught up with the both of them to see how they’ve been doing, what it’s like to grow up in the industry and Synergy’s mission to help solve the affordable housing crisis.
What was it like to grow up in the construction business?
Justin: As a young kid, I remember being there in the office, playing on a computer or just generally being in the way. Building this company was part of our lifestyle growing up. Our vacations revolved around what was going on at work. At age 12 or 13, I would ride my bike over to a job that Matt had at a nearby shopping center. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, spending about an hour to two hours picking up all of the garbage and emptying garbage cans. As I got older, I would go work with Synergy on projects as a laborer, just learning the trade and learning work ethic until I was 17.
Matt: Growing up around the business, I noticed a real closeness among the people that worked together. I got to watch that from the sideline when I was younger. Our mother really believed we should be working on holidays because there were a lot of folks who wanted to take that time to be with their families. It instilled a work ethic in us and brought out a real humbleness. The biggest thing coming up through the ranks were two rules from my dad. First was the golden rule: treat people as you’d like to be treated. The second: anything worth doing is worth doing well.
When did you know you wanted to come back to Synergy Construction?
Justin: I was back in the area and attending this ribbon cutting ceremony for one of Synergy’s projects, for formerly homeless and very low-income families. I noticed a resident talking to one of our superintendents beforehand, and I didn’t think too much of it. Turns out she was one of the people who spoke during the event. She spoke about her life experiences with homelessness and it moved the entire audience to tears. Her story was about how this project became the residents’ source of hope and a lifeline. She would come there with her kids on a daily basis and the superintendent would take the time out of his day to walk them through the building – that kept her hope alive. At that point it became incredibly clear to me that this was where I was needed most and where I could be useful.
How has ABCWW helped Synergy succeed?
Justin: One of the biggest benefits of ABCWW membership are the network members that we know we can count on and communicate with. On top of that, ABCWW has a nationwide network of resources for safety, management, ongoing training and development, that promote industry best practices. That gives you the strength of the whole national organization within your individual company on a very localized effort. I think most member companies focus on that safety track record, because at the end of the day nothing is more important than each and every one of our employees going back home to their families.
It was through ABCWW that we started engaging with the Construction Industry Training Council of Washington and apprenticeship training, making that available to all of our field employees. With the training and development that we do with our entire office, ABCWW provides tremendous resources there as well. They’ve been especially helpful during the COVID-19 outbreak by keeping us up to date. We’ve had daily updates from them and it has helped us keep our sites in line with the absolute latest industry best practices.
Matt: There is a definite advantage to being partnered with ABCWW, because our voices are heard so much more and they carry so much more weight with ABCWW’s support. On the political side, the team has such a critical mission making sure that everybody has a fair shot building affordable housing projects. For me, it was always such a strange contradiction that merit shop companies can't come out and build some of these low-income housing units – units that need costs to be lower! These projects need to be financially doable, yet some of the barriers in the state push the cost of construction up. ABCWW always has our back on that and really works to change the landscape in this fight.
Moreover, when we’re getting subcontractor proposals and bids, we know if they are an ABCWW member that they are a company we can count on and someone we can trust. We know we have something in common and that opens the conversation up – it gives us a very reliable pool of subcontractors that we can work with.
Tell us more about Synergy’s mission to solve the affordable housing crisis.
Justin: That mission is the starting point for the work we do. It’s a multifaceted and collaborative effort. We need more of these affordable housing and low-income family buildings and we want to be a part of the effort to build a lot more of them. But a huge step toward that is keeping construction costs affordable – that’s where we come in.
Matt: I think one of my favorite projects illustrates it well. I was in a project management role at the time, and we finished a low-income housing unit for veterans. Unfortunately, it was only 20 units – it needed to be 200 or 2,000 units. But it was filled with people that were so appreciative of what we had just done. At the barbecue at the end of this project – like Justin had experienced with his project – there were people coming up to talk about what it meant for them. They had given years of service, only to come back and meet such hardship, like homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and overcame all of it. (To be accepted into this housing community you had to be clean or sober.) Now they had their own bed, a place where they could eat, get clean, then get work and start anew. I think a lot of our pride – more so than some of the beautiful market rate units we build – comes from these buildings, for all they mean to the people who reside in them.