John Finton builds dream homes for the richest dreamers in the world. The co-founder of Finton Construction has built domestic palaces for L.A.’s richest and most famous – clients include Hollywood stars Jennifer Lopez, Dustin Hoffman and Simon Cowell, plus former Mayor Richard Riordan, to name a few. But he’s going global. He currently has projects in Russia, France, the United Kingdom and Mexico. Closer to home, one project is a 10,000-square-foot Tuscan-style estate for actor-director Keenen Ivory Wayans. The home will be built with eco-friendly materials and building techniques. Finton, 46, estimates nearly half of his business comes from repeat customers: For example, he has built four houses for Robert Maguire, the downtown L.A. commercial real estate mogul. Finton Construction started in 1984 in Pasadena and now has annual revenue of $60 million despite the collaspe of the luxury home market. Besides its headquarters in Arcadia, the company maintains offices in Costa Mesa and Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Finton met with the Business Journal at a recently finished contemporary house in the Coldwater Canyon section of Beverly Hills.
Question: What is the most luxurious home you ever built?
Answer: It’s hard for me to determine what is “luxurious.” For example, one man home-schooled his children, so we built a school at his house. We’ve built houses with bowling alleys, shooting ranges, vineyards, a 13-acre polo field, a helicopter landing pad and garage for the helicopter. You or I may look at that as ostentatious, but if it helps him commute from far away to his family, it doesn’t seem so crazy. If you’re a celebrity, it may be difficult to go watch a movie at the mall, so a home theater makes sense.
Q: What is the largest home you ever built?
A: The one we’re building in Moscow is nearly 70,000 square feet. It has an indoor pool that looks like it belongs in a Four Seasons hotel with slides and grottos and steam. There’s part of a lake inside the house, a wine cellar and a music studio. I don’t know what else you could put in a house.
Q: Who is the client?
A: Every time I asked what she did for a living, the subject was changed.
Q: Are your clients spoiled people?
A: We like to use the word “demanding” or “particular.”
Q: How do you deal with them?
A: My therapist says I’m a pathological accommodator. The clients I work for expect that.
Q: How do you accommodate them?
A: You need to be available. I’ve learned, however, there are limits. Hopefully people respect time with your family. Early in my career, I let people take advantage of me. So now I set limits against talking in the wee hours of the morning or meetings on Sunday, unless it’s a must.
Q: When are you available?
A: I get up at 4:30 every morning. From 4:30 till 8 at night, I’m working. If people can’t contact me in those 16 hours, it can wait till tomorrow.
Q: How many houses are you building at any one time?
A: I don’t like to say, but more than 20.
Q: Why don’t you want to say?
A: Clients ask, “How many jobs are you doing?” And I say, “I’m only doing yours.” I try to make everybody feel that way.
Q: Why do you build homes?
A: I enjoy residential architecture, the aesthetics of it. Also, I love the people – not everyone – but 95 percent of them. I love making them happy.
Q: What was the strangest request you’ve had from a client?
A: I had a client from London who wanted a certain kind of cat in the house, and asked me to locate and possibly purchase one. It’s called an Ashera cat. They look like leopards and cost upward of $100,000. I don’t even have a cat.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I was adopted by a family in Pasadena at 8 months old. My mother and father were older. They adopted me and my sister, but they weren’t equipped for kids.
Q: Did you argue a lot?
A: I never had a disagreeable word with my parents. We just didn’t connect.
Q: So how did the conflict develop?
A: I got into adolescence and I was very independent. My parents never understood that. I was a mild teenager compared to today – no drugs, but staying out late. “Incorrigible” was the word they used.
Q: What was their response?
A: They just threw up their hands. They made me a ward of the court. I ended up at juvenile hall from 13 to 15, but it was the mildest level of juvenile hall.
Q: Many teenagers don’t get along with their parents, but most don’t end up as wards of the state. What pushed them over the edge?
A: I just had a clear mind of my own that was conflicting with theirs.
Q: How did you get out?
A: A neighbor couple never had a son – they had two daughters – so they became my foster parents when I was 15. I lived with them until age 17. I finished high school, barely.
Q: And then?
A: I wanted to teach skiing. So I moved to Mammoth and became a ski instructor.
Q: How did you get into construction?
A: At Mammoth, I didn’t really make any money so I started construction part time. It was better than working in a restaurant or the other choices available to a person without education.
Q: Why did you leave the ski business?
A: Well, I tore my knee so I couldn’t teach skiing anymore. I was about 20. I came back to Pasadena and decided to go to Pasadena City College because I couldn’t really do anything else.
Q: Were you still “incorrigible”?
A: By that time I was motivated. I got my contractor’s license. My girlfriend’s father was an interior designer, so I started my business doing little projects for him. I never really worked at a regular job again.
Q: Did you graduate from college?
A: I went to Pasadena City College and Cal Poly Pomona and I graduated. I went to school after hours and night. I graduated with almost a 4.0.
Q: When did you go into construction full time?
A: I had saved money, so I started buying houses, fixing them and selling them. For a college kid, I was making good money – $60,000 to $70,000 a year. By my senior year in college, I was driving a Porsche. People thought I was a drug dealer.
Q: How did Finton Construction get started?
A: I thought if someone could apply what I learned in college to construction, they could make serious money. I didn’t want to just work out of a truck and have a yellow pad of paper for an office. A schoolmate agreed and became my partner.
Q: How was your company different?
A: I wanted everyone to have white trucks with a logo on the side. The employees all wore uniforms, like McDonald’s or Disneyland. No moustaches, long hair or earrings.
Q: What about all your competitors?
A: Construction is one of the most disorganized industries. Certainly you have Kaufman and Broad (now KB Home), the so-called production builders that are well-oiled machines. But for contractors working on custom homes, the vast majority didn’t pay attention in school. They don’t have a business background and they aren’t used to managing people or a business plan. It’s a different mindset.
Q: How so?
A: If you didn’t go to work one day, you would call in and tell the boss. In construction, some of the subcontractors, they just don’t show up. If they worked for IBM, they’d be fired.
Q: Why don’t you fire them?
A: Because for a while, the market was with them. You would pay whatever it took to get a qualified guy. A lot of the tradespeople are vastly overpaid. I know plumbers who make $100,000 a year and don’t always show up to work.
Q: How did Finton Construction grow?
A: We started in Pasadena and La Cañada-Flintridge and the business really took off. The revenue almost doubled every single year. At one time, someone in La Cañada told me that my company had more building permits than all other contractors in the city combined. We built about 80 homes in the area.
Q: What was the turning point of your career?
A: Ultimately, we got a job building a house for Tony Ressler in a gated community near Beverly Hills. I had never seen a house that big. Tony really took a chance.
Q: How did you compensate for your lack of experience with large homes?
A: I hired a very good superintendent, probably 20 years my senior. After it was finished, I remember walking through the house thinking I had never seen a house like this. Looking at the plans, I wouldn’t know how it was supposed to turn out. But the guy I hired knew how it was supposed to look.
Q: Why was that job so important?
A: Tony managed a big equity fund and knows everyone in town. At one time, I could have just worked for his friends that he referred to me. Since then I’ve built 15 homes in that gated community.
Q: What was the hardest decision of your career?
A: Personal decisions cross over to your business life. Getting a divorce was the biggest decision of my career. My former wife couldn’t understand the scheduling and time demands of this business.
Q: What can other entrepreneurs learn from your experience?
A: Never make the money your only concern. You have to take care of finances, but as a general rule success comes gradually. So if money is your only reason for being in business, it gets boring.
Q: Did you ever wonder about your biological parents?
A: I think every adopted kid wonders. As I got older, the dynamics changed with my adopted parents. We got along great as adults. One day my mom said, “Would you like to know about your biological parents?” She got all this information from the adoption agency.
Q: Any surprises?
A: It turns out my biological father was 14, my mother was 16. One of the things my parents and I didn’t agree on was that when I was 14 I had a girlfriend. She was about 16.
Q: Was there a phone number or contact information?
A: There was a note on the document saying my mother wanted to contact me. But at the time my (adopted) parents were alive, and I didn’t want to make them feel like they weren’t my parents anymore. I left it alone. Then my mom died of cancer, so I wanted to meet my biological parents.
Q: How did you establish contact?
A: I called the adoption agency. Within a few hours I got a call on my cell phone. It was like talking to a stranger.
Q: Did you ever meet her?
A: My mother was charming. She lived in a very rural part of Ohio. I flew to Lucas, Ohio to meet her. It was the only time I ever saw her, but it was closure to that part of my life.
Q: What was she like?
A: My biological parents were really outdoorsy – hunting, fishing, camping, whereas my adopted parents could care less. I prefer to be outdoors. I’m more like my biological parents in my likes and dislikes.
Q: Who are your heroes, either fictional or real?
A: John Wayne. I’m a boater and I still see his boat the Wild Goose in the marina. He was just a cool guy who never won many awards but loved life.
Q: What sets you apart from those construction guys working out of the back of their pickup?
A: I have a colleague who’s one of those guys, we work on projects together. I mentioned that I have a meeting tomorrow in Europe. He told me, “I don’t work south of the pier.” For me, that would be unfulfilling. I’m pretty ADD. It would be difficult for me to be happy just doing one or two projects at a time.
Q: Who was your most particular client?
A: We have one client who is legendarily particular. The landscapers at his house have to vacuum the leaves – no leaf blowers. When they trim the hedge, they use a laser to keep the lines straight. And they cut the hedge with scissors because he doesn’t like power tools.
Company: Finton Construction
Born: 1962; Los Angeles
Education: Bachelor’s in real estate finance, California Polytechnical Institute Pomona,
Career Turning Point: Built a house for Tony Ressler, co-founder of private equity fund Ares Management LLC
Most Influential People: Tony Ressler and Bill Keller, founder of Keller Construction
Personal: Lives in Pasadena; two sons, ages 10 and 14, from previous marriage; daughter with current girlfriend
Hobbies: Fishing and scuba diving. Owns a sport fishing boat that travels along the coast of California and Mexico; Finton and family fly to meet it in various ports.
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