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James Riso

DNA of a VP of Construction

James Riso HeadshotJames Riso is a principal of The Briarwood Organization and primarily responsible for overseeing the daily operations for all general contracted, construction managed and Briarwood-developed projects, as well as overseeing daily operations of the company, including property management. James is a past president and current board member of the Queens and Bronx Building Association, a past president and current board member of the Bayside Village Business Improvement District and a board member of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing. He is also a member of the Workplace Development Advisory Board. He is a Certified Green Professional through the National Association of Home Builders. James holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the New York Institute of Technology as well as a master’s certificate from the Schack Institute of Real Estate at New York University. He is also a licensed Real Estate Broker.

James Riso
The Briarwood Organization

Brianwood LogoHave you always aspired to becoming a VP (or above) of a construction company?

Yes, it’s a family business. We’ve been doing it for generations since 1912. I started out helping my father when I was a kid and have been in the industry ever since. It wasn’t a role that was just handed to me. I started at the bottom as a laborer, working on sites and learning how the business operated on the front line. Understanding all the moving pieces that go into actually building something was my introduction to the industry and I built my career with the company from there.

What technical skills do you think are integral to role?

You need to be able to organize and delegate. Keeping track of all the people and tasks, knowing who is responsible and how any one deadline or task impacts all the others along the line. It’s one reason why I think starting your career on site is such an advantage. Seeing all the things that contribute to a successful build, and also knowing how a delay on one piece can cause problems across the site and project. 

If you’re able to visualize the whole project in your head then you can be very effective and efficient in planning and managing it. You need to be both detail-oriented, and very aware of the big picture. The combination of both of those, and knowing which one is important in which situation, will make you an excellent project manager, and company leader. 

What attributes/characteristics do believe are integral to the role?

As a business leader I think financial acumen and negotiation skills are important. This is a relationship based business, and the financial decisions you make could have long-term affects on your company. Can you negotiate and make a deal that works for all parties, while still maintaining those relationships? Those skills are crucial. And there are lots of different skills that go into negotiating. Communication is vital, as is mediation - you need to understand what everyone brings to the table, and what their priorities are for the contract. 

Another aspect, which I think is important beyond negotiating as well, is decisiveness. Some people get really overwhelmed by the amount of information and options. You have to be able to see through all the noise to find a solution that will have the best outcome. If you can’t make a decision then you’re holding up everyone else from doing their job.

What is your advice to someone who is moving up the ranks in the field and wants to pursue a management/executive career?

Try to get exposure to as many aspects of the business as possible, diversity in experience is crucial. Not everyone needs to start as a laborer, but everyone needs to understand what a building site looks like, how all the trades and contractors work together and what the process of building looks like. 

I would also emphasize developing the financial skills that will serve you as a business leader. At every level of the business you will benefit from being able to read a financial report and understand how all the different aspects of a project affected the results you’re seeing. Where did you meet your budget? Where did you go over? Where can you find savings or efficiencies? If you can understand that at a project level, at a regional level, and then at a national level - and depending on your company potentially at an international level as well - then you’ll be able to really add value to the business.

In your opinion, how important is networking?

I think relationships are very important. However, I think that sometimes people get very focused on just meeting people in the industry and thinking that that’s the same thing. In my opinion, if you’re good at what you do, then the networking follows. If you work hard, treat people well, and operate with integrity then you will build strong relationships. That’s your network. That’s what’s going to build your reputation and drive your career.

Compared to 5 or 10 years ago, in your opinion how would you say your role has evolved?

The biggest change is the computer and the internet. Everything is instantaneous now. A decade ago communication was slower, you would have to wait for information, designs and drawings also took much longer. Now, everything is a lot quicker. It ties into what I was saying earlier about decisiveness. In an age of instant communication you need to be able to analyze data quickly, gather information, talk to you experts and draw conclusions, all in a comparatively short amount of time.

What advice would you give to the next generation of professionals aspiring to become a construction leader?

You can’t be an expert in everything, so you need to surround yourself with people who have a different knowledge and background. You need to be able to deal with different types of people. You can’t let your job title go to your head. You can learn from everybody. I’ve learned from Project Executives and I’ve learned from laborers on job sites. Everyone has their own perspective and area of expertise.