Chris Amato, pictured at a construction site in Spring Lake, is CEO and president of CMM Custom Homes in Wall Township. He also recently took over as president of the Shore Builders Association of Central New Jersey. — All photos by Aaron Houston for Real Estate NJ
By Joshua Burd
It was 2009, two years after Chris Amato had returned to his family’s homebuilding business, when he was mulling the idea of joining the Shore Builders Association of Central New Jersey.
He asked his father’s advice, knowing the elder Amato, a former president of the New Jersey Realtors Association, knew the importance of trade organizations.
“He encouraged it, but with a smile,” the 41-year-old Amato recalled. “Or with a smirk, maybe.”
His father continued.
“He said, ‘You’re going to get involved and it will be very valuable to you, but it’s going to take a ton of your time,’ ” Amato said. “And it does … but because I’m such an active participant, it really is very valuable to me personally, but also for my career and (the business) and some other development things that I’m working on as well.”
The younger Amato, now the CEO and president of CMM Custom Homes, is more just a satisfied member. A decade after joining the Shore Builders, he recently took the reins as president of the Lakewood-based trade association, providing a leading voice for the region’s homebuilders while providing benefits to his own business.
He does so while guiding CMM Custom Homes as its second-generation leader. The Wall Township-based company has grown steadily over the past decade and now has anywhere from eight to 12 projects in development at a given time, up from three to four around 2009.
Focused largely on the waterfront of Monmouth and Ocean counties, the firm’s homes range from $250,000 to $5 million in value, Amato said. And its clients have the added benefit of what’s known as CMM Service Plus, a business unit that helps maintain and does small projects at homes that the company has built.
But with the COVID-19 crisis now looming, Amato is also navigating those challenges for both CMM and the Shore Builders, a chartered local chapter of the New Jersey Builders Association and the National Association of Home Builders. He recently noted that the 75-year-old organization, which serves 300 member companies in Monmouth, Middlesex, Mercer and Ocean counties, will be more important than ever during an unprecedented and difficult time for the industry.
“Your approach should be safety first, and production will fall in step,” Amato, who succeeded Michael Kokes as the board president, wrote in a recent message to the association. “We are working hard to ensure we are providing the best information available to our members about how to operate safely, while also giving the financial and operational procedures coming from trusted sources like NAHB, NJBA, as well as our sponsors.”
Founded by Amato’s parents, Paul and Joyce, CMM Custom Homes has been serving the Jersey Shore since 1983. The younger Amato first joined the firm in 2003 and worked there for two years before moving to New York City to work for a renovation company and general contractor.
He returned to the family business in 2007, he said, before setting his sights on trade associations around two years later. Among them was the Shore Builders Association, which offered health care packages that would provide an opportunity to reduce his own expenses.
It was one of several reasons Amato felt compelled to join the organization by 2011, he said. After participating on committees and joining the board, Amato spent the past five years on the association’s officer ladder, rising to become president earlier this year.
He is quick to list the benefits: knowledge, professional relationships, access to architects and vendors who can help him provide a better service to his clients. That’s not to mention “the friendships and the camaraderie that happens in the building industry.”
“All of that happens at all of our meetings, those relationships are strong and I can always make a call to somebody,” Amato said. “If I’m looking for access to a market or knowledge about a town, somebody who works in the town, there’s somebody who has experience in all of those elements and there’s a lot of camaraderie that occurs through that.
“It takes my knowledge and grows it exponentially.”
As president of the Shore Builders — and as someone who has toured homes in about a dozen different markets — he now hopes to spread that knowledge to others in the custom homebuilding space.
“Here in New Jersey, it is broadly spec builders, but we do have a number of custom builders that are involved,” Amato said. “And one of the things that I want to do is try to share the value that I’ve found in the association with other custom builders locally.”
The affiliation has also yielded new business opportunities. For instance, CMM is partnering in a 26-unit beachfront condo development in Long Branch that is being built by PRC Group, a longtime builder that is also based in Monmouth County.
“It’s amazing to me the kind of connections you make when you’re part of an association like this,” he said, noting that the project should deliver some time next year.
As part of its growth in recent years, CMM in 2013 launched the unit known as CMM Service Plus, seeing a new opportunity in maintaining and servicing the homes that it had built. It also provides a path to sustaining relationships with longtime clients, Amato said, noting that he does not market the service beyond existing clients that live in a CMM-built home.
“I think it’s been a real success,” he said. “People like having us come back to do work on the house that we built for them.”
As a Shore builder, CMM was undoubtedly impacted by Hurricane Sandy. The firm responded by focusing on existing customers who needed repairs — despite the vast opportunities for new construction — as it sought to manage its own resources and deliver the best possible outcome for those homeowners. The company would do repairs on dozens of homes over the next five years, Amato said, recalling one key headwind: Vendors during that time were driving up prices from one year to the next, “so it was very hard to keep costs under control and try to deliver for clients.”
“That was the biggest challenge,” he recalled. “It wasn’t whether you were going to be able to get the work. It was how you were going to be able to get it done and make sure you were managing costs.”
CMM has long since completed its Sandy-related work. All of its current projects are new construction, which typically entails getting involved with a client from the earliest stages of design. Doing so can help the firm offer a more predictable and manageable price for the project, he said, although there are still plenty of challenges for custom builders.
According to Amato, that includes the unpredictability of securing state and local entitlements. Both can add months to the design phase and delay the start of construction, he said, echoing a long-held concern among New Jersey developers.
“When additional constraints are put on that, it makes it more challenging,” Amato said of the land use and permitting process. “And I’m finding out that that’s true whether you’re building a single-family or you’re building a thousand homes. It is a concern across the board for every builder in New Jersey, and as an association we’re trying to work with the legislators to try to find a better solution because it doesn’t help anybody.
“In our view of this, they’re not getting a safer house or a better product or better ratables for the state. They’re just slowing the process down and adding unnecessary costs. So that’s on our radar.”
Perhaps a more imminent threat has been the coronavirus pandemic, which has battered the economy and rippled through industries such as home construction. Amato said the onset of the crisis was “unnerving” and filled with uncertainty, but the Shore Builders and the NJBA have persevered in recent weeks by staying connected and sharing information.
“The rules that the governor put out left a lot of room for the local governments to interpret, so we were getting a lot of different interpretations,” he said. “Having that connection to other professionals in my industry made it a little bit more predictable to navigate that.”
CMM had also seemingly weathered the storm by mid-May, as Gov. Phil Murphy was lifting restrictions on construction while still requiring social distancing measures at job sites. Amato noted that the firm closed two deals during the two-month stay-at-home period and was still speaking to prospective clients through video calls, keeping its pipeline largely intact.
“It feels like we are into a place where we at least know what our plan is for construction and how to manage some of the risks that are out there,” Amato said.