Pete Perea – Comstock Homes
Pete Perea was used to seeing his framers arrive on the job site one at a time, each in their own car. But over the past couple of years, he started noticing a shift: The guys would show up crammed into one truck, six or seven per vehicle, with all their tools piled in the back.
Perea knew they were trying to cope with soaring gas prices and the climbing cost of living in California. So, as chief executive officer of Comstock Homes, he raised their salaries to keep them with Comstock, an El Segundo-based builder that employs more than 70 people.
“It’s a big challenge and we’re all trying to look for ways to get around all that stuff, but if it’s staring you in the face, there’s not much you can do to avoid it,” he says. “If they leave to go somewhere else to get more money, and you had the employee for four, five years, you know, that doesn’t make any business sense at all.”
Perea can empathize with the boots on the ground because he used to be one of them. He lost his father when he was 10 years old, but his grandfather and uncles looked out for him. Some of them were tradesmen in the construction business, and Perea gradually decided to follow in their footsteps.
At age 19, he knocked on the door of a construction trailer and asked the guy who answered if he was looking for any help. The next day, his new boss threw him the keys to a flatbed Toyota pickup with a shovel in the back and told him to follow the water truck. Perea did, picking up silt out of the gutter and putting it on the back of the truck.
“I was with a superintendent out there who was willing to teach me the ropes,” Perea says. “From there I just moved from different companies into the warranty side of it, and then back into the construction side of it. Worked my way up to superintendent, then general superintendent, then VP of construction and now CEO.”
Today, if Perea has to grapple with the headaches of skyrocketing labor and materials costs due to inflation and supply chain issues, he at least has help: His trusted workforce now includes his son, also named Pete, who works with him as a superintendent.
Tackling complex jobs
Perea is proud of the difficult, complex jobs his team has tackled. Case in point: They’ve done some work on oil fields recently, abandoning wells and building over 300 homes.
To abandon a well and prevent it from leaking hydrocarbons, workers need to plug not just the well but also surrounding areas that liquid could seep into. It’s a complicated process with many steps that depend on whether the well is completed or uncompleted, onshore or offshore, and whether the tops of the cement casings are above or below the surface. It’s also a delicate process because scientists have found that some abandoned oil and gas wells, of which there are roughly 3 million in the U.S., emit cancer-causing air pollutants.
Comstock worked in tandem with an oil company, which oversaw the abandonment of the wells, and did all the mass grading—the movement of soil and clearing of the land—that was interspersed with that process.
“It was quite an undertaking,” Perea says. “We did two projects like that—one in Signal Hill, which was one of the first oil sites in California. Then we did another one in Santa Fe Springs; that was 53 acres and over 200 oil wells that we had to abandon.”
Balancing the timing between abandoning the oil wells and getting official signoff on gas, plus getting the grading and infrastructure completed, presented the biggest challenges, Perea says. The projects took about seven months.
“As smaller builders, it’s harder to find land to build on because the larger entities buy them up pretty quickly when they become available because of their deeper pockets,” he says.
Diversifying to stay competitive
Faced with well-funded competitors, Perea has diversified Comstock’s business lines. For example, after the most recent recession, the company did some general contracting work in addition to its bread and butter, homebuilding. That led to partnerships with two affordable housing developers in California, People’s Self Help and C&C Development.
The affordable housing developers apply for tax credits through the state and subcontract Comstock to build their projects. Comstock has now built 375 affordable apartment buildings, single-family homes and condominiums in California.
The company is also building a hotel next to Comstock Wines, the winery owned by Comstock Owner Bob Comstock in Healdsburg, California, in Sonoma County. The hotel will include 108 rooms on 1.6 acres of land, with a Grange building for events, a pool, a restaurant and retail space.
That will be Comstock’s first project in the hospitality space. Perea and his team broke ground in July 2023 and expect to finish by February 2025.
It’s a tough industry, but Perea says he’s gotten to where he is today by cultivating strong business relationships.
“I tell my son to develop partnerships and relationships and to treat everybody well in the business, because at one point or another, you’re going to cross paths with that subcontractor again,” he says. “So I always tell him, just make sure that you treat everybody fairly and they’ll treat you fairly.”
The view from the C-suite
Because he has forged friendly relationships with colleagues across the industry, Perea has never turned to a recruiter. He networks with his counterparts at other companies instead. For example, if he needs a project manager, he’ll call up another leader and ask, “Are you guys slowing down? Do you need to lay somebody off?”
He also hires candidates with diverse backgrounds: a guy who used to park cars in Los Angeles; a woman so eager to learn the trade that her car trunk was stuffed with construction books; a young man who showed up and offered to work for free for a month. (Perea offered him a salary after the first week, impressed at how hard he went after the work.)
“If someone just has a tenacity—I mean, I’ve hired people who don’t even know anything about this business—I’ll take them on and I’ll train them,” he says. “What’s attractive to me about that is, I can train them my way and they don’t come with bad habits from another builder.”
For his part, Perea has learned every aspect of the business through stints at Western Pacific Housing, KB Home, Lennar, D.R. Horton and, finally, Comstock, where he’s worked for well over two decades. And as CEO since 2018, he’s deployed what he’s learned in the industry to build a team that can get the job done.
“I employ people from all different cultures and nationalities; to my mind, it’s just, if you can do the work, you can do the work,” he says. “I like people who are good at their jobs and fit in with the company culture—those are the only prerequisites.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. VIII 2023 Edition here.
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