Wes Palmisano featured in The Times Picayune, discusses the journey from “floor sweeper” to tech-generation builder
Published to Times Picayune/Nola.com, 02/27/23 – Along with “founder and CEO,” Wes Palmisano still likes to include the title “floor sweeper” on his business cards and in social media, a nod to his ground-floor start in the homebuilding business his grandfather, Warren, launched after he came back from World War II, and which was carried on by his dad, Warren Jr., and uncle, Rodney.
While he has kept the traditionalist WJ Palmisano title for the holding company, Palmisano gave the construction subsidiary he started 10 years ago the decidedly consultant-sourced name of Impetus. A new subsidiary called RNGD (pronounced “renegade”) brings the latest modular, prefabrication technology to the company’s new factory just off the Earhart Expressway in the Shrewsbury area of Metairie.
Palmisano’s progression of job titles also signals he has moved the business from its lunchpail beginnings to a very modern outfit, as reflected in the company’s 30,000-square-foot “open flow” headquarters on Tchoupitoulas Street in the old Cotton Press District. The space includes high-concept art with motivational maxims, a gym and kitchen facilities that wouldn’t look out of place in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley.
Here, Palmisano talks about the meaning of “Revolutionizing How Construction Gets Done” — RNGD’s slogan — and how the business has grown rapidly over the past decade.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What would you say was your signature project over the last decade, the one that set Impetus apart from the legacy house-building firm and defined its ambition to be a major player in New Orleans?
Our first project was actually Fulton Alley (the bowling-entertainment concept by Kyle Brechtel’s hospitality firm). But in terms of larger-scale projects, the Ace Hotel was one that stands out because Domain Cos. started working with us on that project when we were just a few months in business. They really saw the potential of what we could do and gave us a shot. From there it snowballed into a reputation as a leader in the hospitality and historic renovation space, because Ace was both a historic renovation and conversion of an existing building into a hotel. (The Ace at 600 Carondelet St. was a conversion of the 1928 art deco building that was formerly Barnett’s Furniture store into a 234-room boutique hotel. It was completed in 2016.)
Where did it go from there?
In a span of about five years pre-COVID, we delivered about 3,000 hotel rooms in the city, all within downtown New Orleans. So, we had a job it seemed like on every corner you turned, and that journey somewhat culminated with the Higgins Hotel (The National World War II Museum’s 230-room hotel on Magazine Street). That was somewhat emotional because of the association with my granddad, who had left for the war when my grandmother was pregnant with my dad and didn’t see his son until he was 2 years old.
What would your grandfather say now when he looks up at the Impetus signage on cranes over major construction projects? Would he ask why you don’t have the Palmisano name on those cranes?
Ha, well, the family legacy and my grandfather’s legacy certainly lives on through the WJ Palmisano entity, and that organization is going to continue to grow and expand. Impetus is a piece of that long-term vision, an important piece, but the family legacy is alive and well through WJ Palmisano.
My grandfather has passed but my dad was at our 10-year anniversary party (in early February), where we had rented out the entire House of Blues, and the place was packed. He was taking a look around and pulled me aside and said how amazing it was the size and scale of the organization now, and the projects we do.
What projects got you interested in prefabricated techniques, which now has led you to start RNGD and the factory?
We did a fairly innovative delivery of the Homewood Suites on Rampart Street for HRI Properties, which I think is one of their best performing hotels. It was originally envisioned as a wood frame building and we changed it to a precast concrete solution. So, prefabricated off site and erected on site, like a building kit, and the entire hotel went off in a matter of about 12 weeks (opening in spring 2017). We’ve done a lot of work since for HRI, including other hotels and a lot of affordable housing projects around the state.
You used a lot of prefabrication in your recent project for Second Line Stages, the huge movie studios expansion in the Lower Garden District, right? But that was before you had your own manufacturing facility?
Correct. We were able to use a series of prefabricated components that we did not fabricate ourselves. But the way that project was conceived and put together created a lot of efficiencies that were not anticipated in the original concept design and we were able to deliver the project on an expedited time frame to meet what the owner was trying to achieve.
You said you had RNGD in your plans going back a few years but weren’t able to get it going until recently?
We were going to start rolling out our aggressive 10-year plan in early 2020, but then COVID hit and almost overnight our $150 million backlog of work disappeared.
We pivoted and, as we like to say, we remained stubborn on our destination but flexible in how we get there. We’ve kept the entire organization together but have been slightly delayed moving forward as aggressively as we anticipated. At this point with RNGD, it’s full speed ahead and the concept of industrialized construction is one that we’re very willing to invest in. We’ve got about 25 team members already, a 35,000-square-foot space. It’s got a bright future over the next 10 years.
For someone who doesn’t know the industry, can you describe how RNGD — how the industrialized construction approach — makes building large-scale projects better?
We think there’s an opportunity to improve 20% to 30%, from both a cost and time perspective of the work that now takes place at the job site. We’re still early stage so we’ve got a way to go to prove out our theories. But initial research and data would tell us that we’ve got a significant opportunity. As you are able to use the same system across many projects, through that assembly line process and the repetition, you’re able to gain even more efficiency over time. We would hope and expect that would give us a significant cost advantage over time.