This engineer ‘wanted to be the guy.’ So he built a successful construction firm

John Kovacs never thought he was on a path to a career in construction. With an engineering degree from The Citadel and ambitions to work in Manhattan, Kovacs started his career with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and entered the agency’s management training program.

However, Kovacs’ opinion of contracting changed drastically when he was assigned to a rehab project on New Jersey’s Lynwood Avenue bridge, which crosses over several main arteries of the George Washington Bridge.

“On that project I realized how little input I actually had in the construction of that [overpass rehab],” Kovacs recalls. “I was only there to watch and inspect. I wasn’t in charge of calling the concrete truck. I wasn’t in charge of buying the steel. I wasn’t in charge of telling the guys what to do. … I wasn’t the guy.

“You either want to be the guy or you don’t, and I wanted to be the guy.”

To be the guy, Kovacs decided he needed to learn from the guy. So, every weekend for the next year and a half he would sit by the desk of the contractor for that Lynwood Avenue project, Frank Del Vecchio. “I’d watch and he’d do his estimates. … Guys that age want to teach people that are younger. They’re a wealth of knowledge and will gladly give it away.”

With Del Vecchio’s guidance, Kovacs started Diamond Construction in Brick, New Jersey, in 1990. His first job was cutting grass for the Old Bridge Township Board of Education for $825. It was a humble beginning, but it wasn’t long before the contracts began reaching five and six digits.

“One thing a lot of people don’t realize about construction is that it’s a marathon not a sprint,” Kovacs says. “It’s not a get-rich-overnight scheme.”

Diamond started out doing concrete, curbing and sidewalk work. Around 1995, the company began taking on municipal school projects. By 2004, school projects were about half of the company’s volume, and Kovacs decided to take on asphalt paving to supplement the company’s success in concrete.

Kovacs also drummed up a trucking business that brings in about $500,000 annually. Eventually, he says, he wants the company to do more state road work as well.

Today the company runs as many as 50 employees, depending on the season, and brought in $7.6 million in fiscal year 2018, performing asphalt, concrete, curbing, sidewalk and trucking jobs.

Always looking forward

And though a lot of folks with Kovacs’ lengthy business tenure would either be comfortable with their current size or eyeing retirement, he still has a desire to keep the company growing.

“A lot of guys my age are trying to slow down,” Kovacs says. “Not me. I have a 25-year outlook. I’m

of the mind that I just started today, and I’m not going to retire for another 30 years.”

One factor curbing that desired growth is the fact that Diamond is limited to an eight-month working season due to the New Jersey climate. And even during the season, Kovacs classified the weather as “disruptive” and “always stopping work.”

“Our revenues are essentially always capped,” he says.

So to expand the company’s construction season, Kovacs has set up a new division of the company in Las Vegas doing the same work he offers in New Jersey. Though the Las Vegas division, operating under the name NV NJ Construction Group, requires more than a few cross-country flights every year, Kovacs says he can handle much of the business from New Jersey via internet telecommute.

“We’re not looking to be the lowest bid,” Kovacs says of his entrance into the Las Vegas market. “We’re looking to get jobs at our price.”

The second office required more than two years of work to get up and running and, in some ways, it will be like starting completely from scratch. But the move is emblematic of Kovacs’ philosophy toward business.

“In this business, you have to be forward thinking. You can’t just tread water, because it’s such a turbulent industry,” he explains.

The company’s Las Vegas office recently gained a contract with the city of Reno, and Kovacs says they expect to begin work there in early March.

Kovacs says his approach requires constant vigilance. “I’m here at 4 o’clock in the morning most days. … You start small and you put your nose to the grindstone every single day,” he says. “It can be a very thankless, singular existence.”

Because of that, Kovacs says the biggest challenge he faces is balancing his work and home life.

“Nobody (outside of the industry) realizes how hard it is. Being in business for yourself is a familial balancing act,” he says.

However, Kovacs’ hard work has earned Diamond a sterling reputation in northeastern New Jersey.

“When I use John’s services, I know that I’m going to get a stamp of approval from the customer,” says Ike Steward of Nickers Corporation. “He’s worked in probably every [school] district that we have and he’s established, and it gives our customers a certain comfort level.”

“I cannot recall ever having to have them come back for even a minor deficiency,” says Ed Ostroff of the Jackson Township Board of Education. “To me that’s a huge deal. That’s one less folder on my desk. That’s one less phone call I gotta make, one less final inspection that I’m waiting for.”