A better way
From building his first home with no construction experience, to creating a very successful homebuilding firm known for its innovation and quality, Ralph Corbo has never shied away from a challenge. The Founder and Owner of Connecticut-based business, The Corbo Group, and still at the helm in his 70s, Ralph is proud to be taking the business into 2021 with a firm plan for future success and his son beside him on the journey.
Before sharing his strategies for the next half decade, Ralph started with the fascinating story of how The Corbo Group came into being and the evolutions it has undergone up until this day. “It was around 1975 when my wife Natalie and I built our own first home, based from a plan we saw in the local newspaper. We were enamored with the authentic English Tudor design, and we decided to embark on that undertaking, despite having never built a house before,” he began.
While Ralph and Natalie may have been young (mid-20s) and inexperienced (both were public school librarians at that time) they were both determined, creative and not afraid of hard work or research. “By the time I was 28 we had built a beautiful home, doing a lot of the work ourselves, including general contracting and interior finishes,” continued Ralph. “At the same time as the project was completed, we held a party at the house for a congressional candidate that I was helping, after he won his seat. There was media at this party, and one of the reporters from the major newspaper in the area loved our home and ended up featuring it in the Sunday magazine section. That story led to people approaching me to ask about the building process.” Seeing an opportunity, Ralph decided that during school summer vacations, he would build a house or two – thus, The Corbo Group was born in 1977. The next three years were successful and following taking leaves of absence to try the job full time, Natalie and Ralph left the library world and dedicated all their time to making their new venture a success.
While focusing on homebuilding and some significant restoration projects, including two former schools, the Group also worked on a few commercial buildings as well, keeping and managing the properties for several years. But in 2002 a near-disaster struck – Ralph was involved in a motorcycle accident that required multiple surgeries. Needing a right-hand man to help Natalie run the business, he called on his son Colin, who was a graphic artist at that time, to assist him.
“He came back to help out and he never left!” said Ralph. Indeed, Colin has had a transformational effect on the Group, not just through supporting Ralph with the business, and also through the sad passing of Natalie in 2012, but by introducing new technology and approaches to Corbo’s way of working. “The innovation that Colin has added to the company has been dramatic,” Ralph revealed. “Natalie managed the business well but she managed it from our generational point of view not from his, and he has now digitized every aspect of our company.”
This includes the creation of an electronic filing system, where every document associated with an individual project is scanned and collated into one file, which can be accessed from a desk or jobsite. “We can simply point and click, and see a contract, pictures, anything at all that relates to the house or development, and that has been excellent just in itself,” said Ralph.
“Colin also innovated an internal construction estimating and accounts system, so we now have the ability to access what we paid for a bill a month ago and compare it to what we paid for it today. To be able to look at that in real time and instantly see what impact it’s having on our business plan and finances helps us be current with our customers. Colin’s technology expertise has allowed us to operate more like a big company but remain a very small company.”
It is clear that Ralph is very willing to embrace innovation and it is true to say that this philosophy has been a major part of The Corbo Group since it was founded. In the very early days of the business, Ralph and Natalie discovered a home concept called an ‘envelope home’ that is very energy efficient, and they were also very involved in passive solar homes – once again, these attracted the attention of the press, raising the reputation of the company and attracting new business to its doors. This dedication to energy efficiency has never waned, and the company is still always looking for simple ways to produce energy efficiency in the structure and design of the home.
“Being based in the North East our primary concern is heating more than cooling, and we work on several techniques on how the houses are built and assembled, and our experience of building passive solar homes really is useful here. I read about techniques now and think to myself ‘we’ve been doing those for 25 years’! I am glad that someone else recognizes it now,” Ralph commented.
Every home that The Corbo Group builds starts with a collaboration with a third-party energy rater, who assists with the design to include a high degree of energy efficiency. “This can include areas such as ‘does the home face the sun, what are the climatic conditions in this neighborhood, are we in a valley, are we on top of a ridge, which windows are we using, what is the heating and cooling system’?” explains Ralph. “They come up with a design that is inputted into the Federal Department of Energy program called RESCheck, which gives us several specifications and performance levels, and tells us how much energy the home will consume based on a standard – we are always looking to be below that standard.
“We submit that information (which is voluntary by the way) to the building department to show what our energy profiles will look like. Then after the house is built, but before the walls and holes are closed up, the energy rater will come back into the home and inspect all of the items that were specified in this energy package to ensure they have been done according to plan. If not, we can rectify it at this stage, before the house is sheetrocked.
“Finally, when the home is finished, they come in and do a final check and thorough inspection. They give us a report that tells us how the house performs, and typically it’s better than what was originally planned. We take real pride in being able to hand that document to our customers, and show them the results. We spend extra money to do this, but we think it’s well worth it.”
Further innovations that are part of the Corbo DNA include integrating technology into the home. The Group has been doing this for the past 15 years, again under Colin’s influence, and as Ralph explained, its abilities here set it apart. “We want to make our homes technology-friendly, and for many years we have been using structured cables in our projects to enable this. Structured cable has multiple cables inside, for uses such as video, audio and internet in a single bundle. It allows multiple things to happen inside that cable and it means there is no pulling the house apart, or cutting the dry wall for installations – whatever use the client wants it’s there.
“We also joined the Custom Electronics, Design and Installation Association (CEDIA) many years ago, and they do a lot around home theatres and whole house technology. We have now done several home theatres in our projects.” Furthermore, with the advent of Covid-19 and people using their houses in different ways, Corbo’s approach offers customers flexibility to change as they need to. “Our ability to do this is not typical for most homebuilders, but is part of how we are always looking for another useful, simple thing we can do for the end user in an easy way.”
Having raised the topic of Covid-19, Ralph went onto give more details about the changes Corbo made to its operations in order to keep projects on track as safely as possible. “We introduced these policies in Spring 2020, with a major change only allowing one subcontractor in the home at a time, and leaving a day or two in between crews. Usually you would have the HVAC, plumbers and electricians all inside the house working around each other, each one doing their own task. This new approach costs us money and slows us down, but we haven’t had anybody sick, and nor have there been any incidents on any of our jobs. I think the subcontractors like it, too.
“Once the home is completed, it gets a thorough cleaning by a professional cleaning company and we do not allow our customers to take occupancy until two or three days after the final clean. Again, this causes a little bit of time consumption, but we are very concerned about what we are delivering, we always want to make our customer happy and that encompasses every aspect – from good quality design and construction work, to how the people and players involved have been managed.”
Corbo also benefited from the fact that it already had so many digital operational solutions in place, as when the virus struck, the Group was able to quickly adopt Zoom meetings and be able to discuss projects online with customers, sharing files and showing them pictures and documents in real time. “Without the digitized business system that Colin innovated and brought in, we would have been fumbling like a lot of other people,” agreed Ralph.
Corbo’s office staff also appreciate its innovative approach to technology, especially the flexibility that it brings to their working life. “Colin has created a system that allows remote access to home offices, so if we have a bad weather day or a situation arises, our key people can access their work through a supplied laptop from their home,” explained Ralph. “I don’t mind if they are inputting invoices at 10pm because that suits their schedule – maybe they are doing it in their PJs, who knows!” Ralph also likes to get his staff’s opinion on projects, as a lay person’s perspective can highlight an issue that perhaps someone with more construction expertise wouldn’t consider. “I think they like knowing there is something more to their job than admin, and I like to show my staff they are valued, not just with a good salary and benefits but with a friendly atmosphere, periodic lunch meetings and conversations about topics other than work. We want everyone to like us and work with us, while always doing a great a job and a keeping their goals in mind.”
Concept to completion
Having introduced MHB to the operations at The Corbo Group, Ralph directed the conversation to the areas of construction where it applies its expertise, which extends across several areas of the residential home market. “When you look at a finished home, you don’t always appreciate the many, many stages it has gone through to get there,” he said. “One area where we excel is that we start at the very beginning as real estate developers – we can identify large pieces of land and take them through the complete process of creating individual building home sites. That is a very arduous process, with a lot of risk and different elements, but we have experience in doing this and have nearly finished our latest development. This has taken us three years to do an 11 plot sub division in one of our local communities. We are finishing house number ten which has sold, and next we are going to start house number 11 on spec to complete that project.
“We also buy individual home sites,” he continued. “We recently purchased three of these in another community, two of which are already spoken for. We also work with individuals who already own a site, working with them on their design and with the architects. I would say that we do a lot of design and build and that has been a strong point, with a good success rate.
“The other specialty we have developed over the last five years is doing lake front properties at a private lake front community in Connecticut,” he added. Corbo is now working on its fifth home on that private community, and this involves liaising with the power company that owns the lake, as well as working in an environmentally-sensitive area with an existing community. “We have developed a very good rapport with both the community and the power company, and we have the required expertise to create a lakeside property that not everybody can do. I would say that being a complete builder from concept to the completion is our niche.”
Unsurprisingly, given the level of excellence that Ralph demands from all Corbo builds, the company has been the recipient of numerous awards over the years, including multiple HOBI Awards, given by the Connecticut Home Builders’ Association. This year, Ralph is hoping another of his projects receives a HOBI Award, as it was particularly significant to him. “The last house we did on the lake was a secondary home for a home builder from Florida,” he said. “It was a real honor to be the builder for a builder (the client owns Brista Homes) and he was able to bring a lot to the development. The home came out beautifully, and they are very happy with it. I’ve built for little guys and big guys but building for another builder – I am very proud of that.”
The beautiful properties created by Corbo generally fall into the luxury, high-end category, and Ralph noted that, particularly with the lakefront properties, they are usually second homes, and this means the buyers have more discretionary income, and a bigger budget, giving Corbo a bigger scope for creativity. “That by no means diminishes our other customers who have two incomes and two children, who of course are looking for innovation but have to be more budget conscious,” he added. “In fact, it is here that our expertise can help them to meet their expectations at a cost they can afford. With the market as it is, with materials costs escalating, it has been a big challenge to address rising costs, but we can look at areas that can be changed – such as swapping a granite kitchen surface for example – so that our customers can manage their budget.”
Having spoken about ‘middle-of-the-road’ sector of the market, Ralph noted that as part of a new strategy that is currently being formulated by himself and Colin, The Corbo Group will see a change of direction in the future, shifting more focus onto the secondary home buyers’ market, and larger scale home renovations. “In Connecticut, we are seeing a boom right now from New York buyers who want to get away from Manhattan and want to get in a less dense environment. A lot of those are second home buyers so they are not as constricted by budget.
“The other area we are going into is larger scale home renovations. A lot of people love the property they currently live in but need to adapt it – they don’t have $1 million to build another house, but they will spend $400,000 to make this one really great. So, we are going to be moving over the next couple of years to the home renovation segment and we are going to look to hire a project manager that specializes in that area. We think the secondary home and home renovation markets will give us more flexibility to deal with market changes.”
While changes may be afoot for the direction of Corbo, what will remain at the center of its operations is a strong, family-company ethos, and its eternal dedication to innovation. Now in his 74th year, Ralph’s curiosity about upcoming trends and his willingness to try new techniques and technologies remains as strong as ever, and these traits are also shared by Colin. Ralph noted this has to be balanced with an appreciation for the market and what will work for a Connecticut buyer. “Our marketplace is a little bit traditional, so we try and input a little bit of ‘trendy’ design, but in a way that is compatible with our demographic. Our buyers still want dining rooms for traditional celebrations, for example, so we have to always bear that in mind.”
From speaking to Ralph, it is clear why The Corbo Group has seen the success it has achieved. He remains as enthusiastic about his business and clients as he was when the business was founded, and he maintains an energy to deliver a client’s dream that shared by his team, and ultimately the customer. “I still get up every morning and I am just enthused about what is the day going to bring. I am always reading, designing or creating, and looking ahead to what’s happening in the future, and I think that customers can tell that we aren’t just going through the motions – this is truly a vocation and that our enthusiasm is infectious. Suppliers and contractors also like working with us, because we are interested in what they are doing and what they think, and we are always looking for a better way of doing something.”
The changes that Ralph mentioned to the company’s focus also reflect his intention to reduce his role in the active day-to-day operations of the company, and concentrate his own expertise on the financing side, with Colin taking on more duties. He mentioned that at some point he is ‘going to want to get a beach chair and a margarita’ – given his drive and dynamism, and his obvious love for what he does, Colin and The Corbo Group will no doubt be keen to keep Ralph’s input into projects for many years to come.
The Corbo Group
Services: Premium homebuilder