The Picket Family

121806 article picket The Picket FamilyThe chance of a construction business lasting for four generations is like—well, you’ve got a better chance of winning the Lotto,” said David Picket, president of the longstanding Gotham Organization.

“It’s worse than restaurants,” Mr. Picket said. “The margins are terrible—the margins in relation to the risk involved.” One bad job out of 10, he explained, “could wipe out everything.”

“We’ve managed through the years to have very few losers.”

Mr. Picket, 44, might not have hit the jackpot. But he can at least feel a sense of accomplishment in reaching that against-all-odds fourth-generation mark.

Like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him, Mr. Picket is now a boss of the reputable family construction business, which dates back to 1913. “The fact that one generation made it, and now four have made it, is pretty phenomenal,” he said.

“Just to keep a company going and have it as stable as I think we are after all these years—I feel good about that,” agreed his father, Joel Picket, 68, who continues to serve as the company’s chairman after more than 40 years at Gotham’s helm.

The father-son team presently divides leadership duties over the company’s two-pronged operations: The elder Mr. Picket oversees Gotham’s bread-and-butter construction contracts, while the younger deals mostly with the more lucrative development side.

Perhaps the centerpiece of the company’s combined efforts of late can be found at the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Manhattan: a $66 million, 275,000-square-foot shopping center called Harlem USA, which opened in 2000, bringing otherwise ubiquitous retailers—including Nine West, Modell’s Sporting Goods, and Old Navy—to the historically underserved neighborhood.

But its most widely recognizable building is probably the ultra-luxe Atlas New York apartment complex, completed in 2002 along West 38th Street, not far from Bryant Park. It recently housed contestants of the Bravo cable network’s popular TV series Project Runway.

The Atlas is one of a series of 21st-century residential developments that the nearly century-old company created under the direction of the younger Picket—a stark change from the outfit’s more traditional projects. Others include the Foundry on West 54th Street and the New Gotham on West 43rd, both large luxury rentals with heavily detailed, carefully designed lobbies.

“If you looked at our sort of pie chart of work from 25 years ago, it was mostly hospitals and a lot of institutional work; today, it’s overwhelmingly multi-family residential,” said Joel Picket, who partially credits the company’s longevity to its ability to adapt.

“My grandfather started work as a carpenter and evolved into an owner and builder,” the elder Mr. Picket said of the company’s founder, Nathan Picket, who, alongside his own son, David Picket, later rebounded from the Depression by morphing the company into more of a general contracting business.

After their deaths—in 1944 and 1962, respectively—the company branched out under the direction of current chairman Joel Picket to encompass both development and contracting.

Such multi-tasking is a rare find among today’s more specialized construction outfits—a difference that serves Gotham well, he said: “People know that when they talk to us, they have people who understand the business from every side—which is not only development, but the real truth in terms of the contracting end. And we can be very helpful to whomever our clients might be for that reason.”

Having a broad understanding of the business is something that Joel Picket picked up from his father: “He was an amazing technocrat. People used to call him for advice all the time about just about any kind of construction problem.”

The younger David Picket said the same of his own father: “He’s pre-eminent in his field. I don’t think there’s anybody around running a construction business who’s better.”

Industry savvy isn’t passed down directly alongside the Picket name, however. At least one family member failed to live up to the clan’s constructive rep, according to the elder Picket.

“When my father died, he had a younger brother who was 32; he became president of the company. After two or three years, the company really wasn’t going anywhere. It was actually losing money. The executors of my father’s estate and my family decided that something had to be done.”

The uncle was let go, leaving the then twentysomething Joel to rebuild the company based purely on his father’s good name and the funding of an old family friend.

With that old familial glitch in mind, the elder Picket admitted to viewing his own son joining the company with at least a bit of apprehension. Therein lies one of the hardest challenges in maintaining a family business, he said.

“The thing people who do business with you worry about is the viability of the next generation,” said papa Picket, whose initial anxiety has since been replaced by pride in his offspring’s own innovations.

“I think we’ve skinned that cat,” he said.