Feature Stories

Meet Kenneth Colao '77

Builder and entrepreneur Kenneth Colao '77

A graduate of NJIT with a bachelor’s in civil engineering, Kenneth Colao has managed projects that include his firm’s building the tallest hotel in the Western Hemisphere.

He’s also built companies that succeeded despite seemingly insurmountable challenges stemming from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“Building is in my blood,” Colao says of the legacy bestowed by his grandfather and father, owners of a modest general contracting business in Bergen County. Given this background, studying civil engineering at NJIT after high school was a natural step for Colao, who was attracted to the university’s hands-on, practical approach to educating engineers. Entrepreneurial in spirit, he also started several small businesses that led to his progressing into construction, beginning as mason tender, carpenter and electrician.

After graduation, while working at Morse Diesel, Colao’s talent and energy so impressed the firm’s top executives that they invited the young engineer to join them in a start-up construction venture. Before his 26th birthday, Colao was responsible for several major projects, such as a 1.3 million-square-foot office development over Manhattan’s Grand Central Station train platforms. The project involved converting the historic Biltmore Hotel into office space while adding 400,000 square feet to the top of the building for the North American headquarters of the Bank of America. With that assignment completed, Colao was tapped to open the firm’s London office and oversee construction of a project valued at 750 million pounds.

Eager to be on his own, Colao took on the entrepreneurial challenge of starting a new construction firm, York Hunter, in 1983 at the age of 28. By the turn of the millennium in 2000, the Manhattan-based company was managing over 60 projects totaling $400 million, many for clients in the hospitality, residential, municipal, institutional, and science and technology sectors, operating from 11 offices in 14 states.

The September 11 attacks were economically devastating, with public works and projects related to tourism especially hard-hit. The fiscal fallout in the New York City area forced York Hunter to the edge of insolvency. “Four of our major projects were totally shut down and our firm’s cash-flow and funding problems caused us to enter a tailspin,” Colao recounts.

The legal and banking professionals Colao consulted advised him to close up shop and file for bankruptcy. But he elected to persist and strive to keep the firm going without taking that final step. “Bankruptcy would have hurt our clients, our employees and my reputation,” Colao says. “With the support of employees, clients, friends and financial institutions, we managed to complete our ongoing projects and pay some 1,400 vendors.”

Persevering, Colao committed all the assets he held, injecting more than $7 million into the company. The measures Colao undertook to salvage his projects and prevent his firm from falling into bankruptcy essentially wiped him out financially.

Fortunately, Colao was able to re-group, buoyed by economic recovery and a line of credit from a supportive lender. In 2003, he and his brother, Steven, formed CNY Builders. The firm provides construction and development- management services, as well as general contracting and advisory services. While their firm’s principal focus is hospitality and residential projects, they’re also at work in the office interiors, higher-education and healthcare sectors.

Headed by Colao, CNY Builders is conducting business and managing projects valued at over $400 million in the United States, Europe and Asia. Among the 43 hotels Colao has built over his career, the new Central Park Marriott in New York City is the tallest stand-alone hotel in the Western Hemisphere. It’s the first “skyscraper” in Manhattan to achieve a floor to area ratio of over 30:1, and the only hotel in the city to offer guests views of Central Park and Times Square.

For Colao, giving back to NJIT includes more than two decades of service on the Board of Visitors of the College of Architecture and Design. He has also endowed a scholarship in international design studies in the name of the Colao family and an award for students preparing for creative, entrepreneurial careers that combine architecture and construction management.

“I’m fortunate to get up every day and do something I’m passionate about, both to physically enhance the built environment and to help energize organizations where professionals can thrive,” Colao says. He advises young people to seek the same fulfilling commitment in life. “Try many different things, but find something you’re passionate about and follow that passion, and when you’re down never, ever give up.”

(from the NJIT Magazine)