JOHN LEMING, The Morning Call
Sometimes, what you see really is what you get, which is the philosophy of Anthony "Tony" Caciolo and Lewis "Chip" Shupe IV.
Caciolo, the 31-year-old co-owner and president of Monogram Custom Homes, Upper Saucon Township, espouses a philosophy of sticking with good materials as standard equipment in the houses he builds.
Monogram has an impressive model residence in Pointe West in Upper Macungie Township. It won the 1997 Single-Family Model Home of the Year award from the Lehigh Valley Builders Association.
As Caciolo shows a visitor through the house, which has all the bells and whistles you'd expect in a $349,000, 3,600-square-foot dwelling on a one-half acre lot, he points out some of its more- unusual aspects, which he includes as standard equipment.
The kitchen counters, Caciolo said, are made of a deep-green granite imported from Finland. The downstairs rooms are set off by oversize crown molding and chair rails. The hardwood floors are glued, screwed and nailed to prevent squeaks.
The heating system also is a bit unusual for this region -- it's a hot-water baseboard system that can be "zoned" to provide different levels of heat to different areas of the home. "We add a heck of a lot of value to our houses without adding a lot of cost," Caciolo said.
One of the ways he does this is by buying "very high up the distribution chain," using the Internet to search for high-quality materials at the lowest cost.
Caciolo and Lewis did not grow up in the construction industry, but instead went to Lehigh University, where they met, and ended up initially pursuing careers in business. After Caciolo graduated in 1989 with a degree in business and economics, he want to work for a couple of big corporations, including GM and Xerox. He said the job at GM was incredibly boring and cut him off from almost all contact with the outside world.
His job as a sales rep for Xerox was better, he said, but he still was dissatisfied, so when he was offered a chance to go back to Lehigh to get an M.B.A., an offer that included a teaching assistantship, he jumped on it.
At the same time, "I also decided we wanted to live in a contemporary house," and built a house in Valley Green Estates in Schnecksville. Because he was in school, he had some free time, and did the trim, electrical, insulation, painting and kitchen work himself.
Even though he confesses that he had been bitten by the building bug, he took another "suit" job after earning an M.B.A. He joined Bell & Howell in Allentown as its worldwide program marketing manager, helping the company sell mail-inserting equipment in Europe.
But all the time, he said, "I was still building houses on the side." This little piece of diversification paid off when Bell & Howell announced that his division was leaving the Lehigh Valley in early 1994.
He and his wife, Penny, a certified public accountant, were faced with a choice. "I could either move to North Carolina with Bell & Howell or build custom homes." He went with the latter, and by the end of 1994 he and Shupe had built 15 houses. He hasn't looked back since.
Nor has Shupe, who's also 31. The partnership between the two men is built on friendship and mutual trust. Shupe's path somewhat paralleled Caciolo's. After Shupe graduated with a degree in English, he took a job with Lubrication Research Inc., Exton, Chester County, which made aftermarket automotive lubrication systems.
After a year, Shupe said, the company went belly up. Unemployed, he was offered the opportunity to bid on a Boston Chicken construction project in his hometown of Wilmington, Del. Because a friend owned the restaurant franchise, he said, "I had the inside track on the deal."
"I won the bid and then I panicked," he said, but because he had some construction background and because Boston Chicken had provided him with about 100 pages of plans, he was able to pull it off.
But the Boston Chicken project turned out to be a one-shot deal, and by 1992 he was out of a job again. At this point, he said, "Tony was building his (personal) second house so I came up to help him with that."
What started out to be a weekend gig quickly turned into a regular job, and soon the two built a spec house on Kurt Drive in Upper Macungie Township "It just sort of evolved from there. We sold it before we finished it," Shupe said.
From $1.5 million in 1993, Monogram's revenues rose to $4 million in 1997, Caciolo said. He projects revenues on the 25 to 30 houses he expects to sell this year will come in at somewhere in the neighborhood of $4.5 million to $5 million. The company has two full- time employees and one part-timer. In addition to Pointe West, Monogram also is building homesin Mill Estates in Upper Saucon Township, where it has 20 lots available and one spec home.
"Tony is pretty much responsible for selling the contract, putting the blueprint together," said Shupe, the corporation's secretary, while he operates as the construction manager, scheduling the subcontractors, inspecting the work and generally "making sure the house gets built."
Before Caciolo geared up as a builder, he put his marketing expertise to work to uncover the "hot buttons" people looked for when they were considering a home. For instance, he said, there are brand names like Jenn-Air, Rheem, York and Jacuzzi that people readily recognize and associate with quality construction. Accordingly, those are the products Monogram uses.
Gino Nicolai, president of Hannabery HVAC of Allentown, does Monogram's heating and cooling system work. Nicolai describes Caciolo as "absolutely a great guy. He'll say to me: 'How can I do it better, not how can I do it cheaper.' That's unusual for a builder."
Nicolai, whose company has about 130 employees working out of Allentown and at satellite offices in Quakertown and Clarks Summit, Lackawanna County, said he works with about 300 builders, some of whom have a "slap-'em-up and get-out-of-there" attitude.
He said this kind of attitude puts his company on the spot, because when a builder's done, he's usually gone, while the HVAC firm's relationship with the homeowner can continue for decades. "Lots of times, I kind of get blamed" for builders cutting corners, he said.
And unlike some other builders, Nicolai said, "Tony allows me to talk to the homeowners prior to the sale. He doesn't bang the people . . . on the markup on the options."
Rick Bender and his wife, Sharon, had Monogram build them a 3,000- square-foot house in Lower Macungie Township, near Alburtis, in 1996.
R"I haven't had any problems except for a few nail pops, and they came back and took care of them. That's normal," said Bender, an electrical contractor who has two children.
He said he and Sharon picked Monogram because "My Realtor mentioned him to us, and we went out to a job site and met Chip and Tony. I'm an electrician., so I know the ins and outs of builders and how they did things. They don't nickel and dime you," he said of the partners.
Dr. Neal Stansbury, an orthopedist who practices in Salisbury Township, said he and his wife, Debbie, and their three children moved into a 4,000-square-foot house built by Monogram in Apple Valley Estates in North Whitehall in February 1997.
"We did quite a bit of research" on different builders, interviewed a number of them and eventually settled on Monogram. "They were very competitively priced and at the same time they seemed very workable. I'm very happy with my house," Stansbury said.
Copyright The Morning Call. Reproduced with permission.