Building Castles in the City

Visitors have to ring to get into the premises, and once they’re securely ensconced in the front lobby, outside sounds are still audible through the glass doors – a cacophony of human and mechanical activity. In short: city life. And city life is what Samcon has built, and is built upon.

Sam Scalia, President, and his wife, Diana Ferrara Scalia, Strategic Advisor, form the successful couple behind the Samcon empire. One day after their return from an Italian holiday, they show no signs of jet lag. There’s something so utterly glamorous about the husband-and-wife team that makes you want to stop and stare. They have lots of stories to tell. Some are of Chianti hilltop views, but the rest are about their business ascent. At the risk of sounding saccharine, the oft-chronicled philanthropists are a gilt-framed picture of happiness.

“You’ll lose your shirt,” Scalia recalls the non-believers cautioning. “Not one peer in the ’90s even considered building in the untapped markets where we did – Centre-Sud, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, Le Plateau Mont-Royal and Villeray. They were in the suburbs.” “And they were in development, not redevelopment,” his better half emphasizes. “Now, builders follow him into the city, thinking if Sam’s there, it must be OK. So you get multiple projects that really transform an area.”

 

“After a lovely dinner, Sam drove me to an abandoned meat-packing place in the Plateau and asked me,

‘So, what do you think?’ I didn’t know what to say, but when he talked

about improving quality of life,being in health care, I TOTALLY got it!” 

 

Ferrara Scalia’s official role was unofficially handed to her on the couple’s first date in 1995. At the time, she was working as a clinical nutritionist at the Royal Vic. “After a lovely dinner, Sam drove me to an abandoned meat-packing place in the Plateau and asked me, ‘So, what do you think?’ I didn’t know what to say, but when he talked about improving quality of life, being in health care, I TOTALLY got it!”

Thanks to Scalia’s exploratory curiosity – “I love to go places where no one else does” – and his wife’s sage input, Samcon has upped the livability factor of various inner-city neighbourhoods. “Families, some who’ve lived in these areas for two generations, are grateful for the chance to improve their living conditions as well as the possibility to progress from renting to owning,” Scalia says.

“I was around construction from a very young age, running on footings that looked to me like race tracks,” he continues. At the budding age of eight, the Scalia tot wrote an elementary school composition, a kiddie manifesto, declaring that he’d one day become a builder like his three uncles and his dad, David Scalia.

His foray into the business began in 1989, when he found a piece of land for $40,000 with a mortgage of $39,000 in the east end where no one wanted to go – near the prison.  “My father bought it, and I took an ad in the newspaper and resold it. And then I found another lot which he liked and together we built a sixteen-apartment building on it.”

Not long after that, Scalia, growing antsy within the confines of a weekly salary job, was ready to bust out on his own. “I dreamt that I could do this by myself. I had to find a name, though. I thought…Sam’s construction, and came up with Samcon,” he says, laughing at its sheer simplicity. Backed by his father’s fiscal reputation, Scalia’s debut project was the construction of an eightplex.   

I asked my father to co-sign for a loan of $60,000. I told him that after selling it, I’d pay him back $110,000.” The deal was sealed after a fatherly clause was entered into the contract: “If the project didn’t go well, he’d take it back and I’d return to my salary job with him.” Needless to say, that didn’t happen.

Ever-smiling Scalia says, “If you’re not eternally optimistic…you’re finished in this business.” Clearly, a positive mindset has contributed to Scalia’s success, but marketing moxie hasn’t hurt either. “I remember as a kid passing this billboard when in the car with my father. It showed a salesman – ‘See Sam for a good deal.’ We’d joke about it; my father teasing me…‘Ha! I’ve already seen Sam and he didn’t give me a good deal.’ That billboard stuck with me. I wanted one of my own.” Evidently, the universe heard his appeal (more precisely, Samcon’s marketing department) and – boom – it delivered. From 2002 to 2008, Scalia’s comely grin graced a 20’ x 40’ sign facing the heavily-trafficked Metropolitan highway, popularizing (and humanizing) the builder’s brand.

 

“If you’re not eternally optimistic…you’re finished in this business”

 

There’s so much to say about the stratospherically successful company with around 4,600 units under its belt. It boasts a hit parade of Montreal area redevelopments or “infills” (industry jargon for new buildings erected between existing ones or replacing obsolete properties). Consider the successful Jarry Park project; an upscale tower in 2000 on Avenue Laurier – the company’s first concrete construction; the famous André Grasset 6-phase concrete condo expanse; the fifteen-storey Le Metropole, and what will surely become an enduring downtown Montreal landmark, by function of size and location-location-location, the twenty-five-storey tower – Le Drummond. Further noteworthy are the many prestigious awards attesting to Samcon’s place in the pantheon of industry powerhouses.

Asking Scalia and his wife to describe their fantasy home, the parents of four youngsters – two boys, two girls, each named after a grandparent – say they already own it. Built by – who else? – the Westmount property is the delightful realization of a wishful sketch by Ferrara Scalia twenty-five years ago, before she and Scalia married. She says that though neither “grew up in stereotypically ornate Italian homes,” they’ve gone with abundant granite and marble (they chuckle), a mosaic foyer floor, and plaster mouldings and columns (they howl), after appreciating such Italianesque elements “in context” while honeymooning in Italy. Their house is surely another crowning achievement in Samcon’s repertoire.

written by Loretta N. Di Vita