A ‘poor, dumb builder’ and his blueprint for success
Nashua builder John Stabile believes in keeping his eye on the ball. Some people in his business have failed because “they lose sight of the pitch. They lose sight of what they’re doing and they get off doing other things,” he says. “And when they get into different things, they lose sight of the core business and the core business is being run by somebody else who doesn’t do it as well.” So how does a man who owns 26 companies and is currently building homes in half a dozen New Hampshire communities, in Worcester, Mass., and other parts of New England keep his eye on the ball? Well, he buys a professional baseball team, of course. “My wife calls it a distraction,” says Stabile, the rookie owner of the Nashua Pride, now in the Canadian-American League. That could pose a problem for the former leader of New Hampshire Republicans, who, like his good friend, former Gov. John H. Sununu, has been known as someone who “does not suffer fools gladly.” Fortunately, his wife Virginia suffers distractions patiently. “She’s very patient,” Stabile smiles. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be married for 38 years.” For all his varied interests and enterprises, Stabile’s world is remarkably self-contained. The staff in the main office of Holman Stadium, home of the Nashua Pride, is made up of front-line executives of H.J. Stabile and Son. The company office, the stadium and Stabile’s home are all within a one-mile radius. Despite many hours at the ballpark, he returns to the office at 4 o’clock every day “to find out how I really make money.” Stabile prides himself in being conservative in business. There have been, he says, seven downturns in the housing market since 1946, which was, coincidentally, the year he was born. “Those turndowns are very hard to avoid unless you’re very conservative and you’re watching the market very closely,” he says. “A lot of guys would get in and they wouldn’t pay attention to the warning signs that perhaps the cycle is turning down. And they’d get out there with too much speculative housing, too much speculative land.” He would rather err on the side of caution. “Last year, I should have built a lot more than I did, but I was concerned about the market and I pulled back. Now I’m in Amherst with 84 houses, I’m in Milford with 70 houses, I’m in Manchester with 52 townhouses going. And I’m in Hollis with about 25 going. And we had the best first quarter we’ve had financially, dollar volume-wise, in the history of the company.” By the end of the year, he expects The Stabile Companies to have “about $50 million” in sales. Not bad for a conservative businessman who likes to describe himself as just “a poor, dumb Italian builder trying to make a buck.” But, as Casey Stengel said, he “couldn’t o’ done it without the players.” “I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with outstanding people,” says Stabile, whose companies employ 140. “That’s allowed me to do a whole bunch of other things that have basically been a quilt of businesses.” His companies include “apartment complexes, trailer communities, mobile home communities. We own shopping malls, we own office buildings, industrial facilities. We own an equipment company, a landscaping company, a painting company, a myriad of entities that are all linked back to our business, which gives us a great ability to be able to service each other.” In the beginning Stabile was born in Medford, Mass., the son of another builder, Harry James Stabile. “I started working for my father when I was 8 or 9 years old,” he says. He went to Bridgeton Academy in Maine, where he played hockey well enough to win a partial scholarship to Norwich University in Vermont. An aspiring engineer, he became, instead, an English major. “The chairman of the English department was a hockey fan,” he explains. “He said, ‘Mr. Stabile, I think that you’re going to be a very good hockey player, but I don’t think you’re going to be a very good civil engineer.’” Stabile accepted the invitation to major in English and found he liked the way modern writers built sentences and developed ideas. “I was more of a Hemingway kind of guy, but I did my Chaucer and all that I had to do, but that’s not me.” Stabile’s father had passed away a few years earlier, but his eldest son carried on the family name and tradition. Attracted by the booming real estate market in southern New Hampshire’s “Golden Triangle,” Stabile moved to the Granite State in 1969 and was hired by a development firm named Gilbilt. “Then I went to work for Jack Cadario, and Jack was one of the largest home and apartment builders in the state. And within a couple of years I was running his operation and then I went out on my own and started my own business in 1974.” The company, which Stabile named after his father, became one of the largest builders of houses and apartment buildings in southern New Hampshire and was a major player in commercial construction in northern New England. Along with commercial parks and hotels, Stabile’s companies built the Southern New Hampshire Regional Medical Center in Nashua, Hillcrest Terrace independent living complex in Manchester, runways at Logan and the terminal at what is now Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. He sold the commercial arm of the enterprise to Gilbane Company of Providence, R.I., in 1993. Soon after, Stabile ended his active involvement in Republican politics, following three terms in the state Senate, including two as majority leader, and stints as party chairman under Governors Sununu, Gregg and Merrill. “I just started to do things, family things,” he says. “Politics became all-encompassing. You’re out every night, and it’s one crisis, somebody else’s crisis, every day.” ‘A macro guy’ In 1999, Stabile had a crisis of his own to deal with. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer and operated on soon after. The cancer has remained in remission even since, and Stabile continues to plan and build. He has a project before the Nashua Planning Board for a joint venture with Southern New Hampshire Services to build 200 units of housing on the site of an old Nashua Corp. plant on Franklin Street. Fifty of the units will be priced for workforce housing, while the remainder will be sold at market value. The plans also call for a riverfront park at the site, adjacent to the Nashua River. Whether in politics or in business, Stabile has always seen himself as an idea, rather than a detail man. “I’m very much a macro guy and I keep a good bunch of micro people around me.” He hopes his “micro” people can help him turn things around with the Pride, a team that has been successful on the field, but disappointing at the gate. Having bought the team for around $650,000, Stabile says he will spend “whatever it takes” to keep professional baseball in Nashua. But don’t start thinking John Stabile likes to throw money away. At a meeting in his office at Holman Stadium, the “macro guy” was inquiring about some very “micro” details, like how many baseballs it takes to play an average game. “Seventy-two,” Butch Hobson, the team’s manager tells him — more in a game played on a wet, muddy field. Hobson explains that in the Atlantic League, in which the team played previously, even a small spot of dirt on a ball will disqualify it. “In the Atlantic League, they’ll throw that right out,” said the manager. “Well, I hope they don’t in this (Can-Am) league!” Stabile said. Everyone at the table laughed.