Local Builder Discusses Client-Centric Philosophy, The Artistic Intent Behind Each One of His Builds, and the Multigenerational Legacy of a Family-Owned Business
Richard Aitken and his team are celebrating their 36th year in business on Long Beach Island this season, and they have quite the reason to celebrate. Not only have homeowners entrusted the building of their coastal homes to the firm, but decades later, the new wave of next generation homeowners continues to call on Aitken’s services as well. Thirty-six years since its inception, the Rick Aitken building and contracting team now consists of more than 70 full-time employees, guaranteeing the ultimate customer service commitment no matter what department a client’s situation may be geared towards. The company is operated by a stellar executive committee consisting of founder and owner Rick Aitken, business manager of more than 20 years Christine DiThomas, and Debbie Mattson, who oversees all operations at the firm, including the service department. Likewise, the veteran management team is comprised of Heather Aitken, Rick’s daughter and Director of Sales & Design, Bob Rizzo who oversees the entire Andersen® Authorized Windows and Door service department, and Tom Craig who is the Estimating Department Manager. The entire staff, from the field crew to the design team to the office coordinators, works tirelessly to ensure that the Aitken high-standard values come across in every facet of their services.
While Rick’s artistic eye, love for design, and knowledge of what is architecturally accurate may have drew him into the construction industry more than three decades ago, it was his ancestry that brought him to LBI. Rick’s heritage is Norwegian—his grandparents were among the earliest settlers of Barnegat City (now Barnegat Light) who eventually founded the area within the vicinity of present-day Viking Village— and throughout his formative years, the Norwegian culture has shaped how he lived, worked and eventually established a company engrained with hard work and honesty. As a settler from Norway, Aitken’s grandfather, Ingvald Dalland, among others, was known for his inherent skilled wood craftsmanship even though he was not officially a builder by trade. In fact, most of the men in the village earned a living by working as fishermen, and then, in their downtime, they came together as neighbors and church members to quite literally build the community by erecting some of the earlier homes, the firehouse and the Lutheran Church (which still stands today) in the area (We will discuss in more detail the history of Viking Village within the Fall issue of bay magazine.)
After seeing some of the award-winning carpentry put forth by Aitken and his team, one would be remiss not to appreciate that Rick certainly inherited Grandfather Ingvald’s woodworking talents. The Aitken homebuilding firm offers clients unmatched quality, with a unique opportunity to create art in the home—as in, art that is a part of the home. Whereas the common impression of art is something that is hung a wall, the Aitkens’ create art that is actually built into the home, sourcing craftsman-artists and wood sculptors from across the country to fashion magical pieces of art for homeowners. What distinguishes this homebuilder is his level of taste and curiosity for the art of woodworking along with a sense of adventure and the vision to realize a client’s wants and needs through impeccable execution.
“I wasn’t built to be the type of engineer that sits behind a desk,” Aitken notes of his creative side. He prides himself in visualizing the artistic side of homebuilding. Heavily inspired by the work of the late “Godfather of the Studio Craft Movement,” Wharton Esherick, Rick Aitken’s modus operandi is a distinctive one. When a client makes a special request, “If I can draw it, then I can build it,” Rick tells of his enthusiasm for pushing creative boundaries in the construction industry. Take the example of a homeowner who wanted a custom walnut and maple staircase installed with no posts. Within a few weeks of mapping out the request, Rick had commissioned a seasoned wood artist to hand carve and ship the staircase in sections, which he then installed on-site. The designer happened to be a Seattle native who is the famous sculptor behind the breathtaking exclusive bathtubs made from sustainable and exotic hardwoods.
Craftsperson Nathie Katzoff uses his background in ship woodworking and restoration to create these striking wooden bathtubs, which have won the most prestige design awards and have made headlines in countless home design and architectural magazines. What’s interesting about this artist is the bathtubs aren’t even the most popular item he sells—the wooden staircases are the favorite, and his collaboration with Aitken’s team for this handcrafted staircase is precisely what swept 4 out of 5 “Best Staircase” awards from the Stairway Manufacturers’ Association recently (the organization of the leading stair builders in North America).
As a large local employer, another fascinating aspect behind the scenes of Aitken’s company is the succession planning—as his daughter, Heather, is grooming herself to assume eventual leadership of the business her father built. Rick discloses that he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon though, as he rather enjoys working—particularly alongside his daughter—and relishes in continuing this gratifying course for the foreseeable future. “My father started this company when I was just learning to walk, so for as long as I can remember my world smelled of sawdust. As a teenager, I started out cleaning jobsites and final cleaning when the projects were complete. Falling in love with our finish work and the beautiful kitchens and baths, I later moved on to assisting with customer selections and design,” Heather recalls of her earliest of experiences within the family business. The construction industry may be one of the most male-dominated industries in the world (with 9.1% of construction workers in the U.S. being female; even more unbalanced is the percentage of females in the construction trades, which is only 3.4%), but Heather hopes to break these gender barriers by building and taking on the tough jobs as her father does. Advocating for women in construction and proving herself as a leader at work time and again, Rick makes it very clear that he is elated with the countless achievements Heather has undertaken since joining the firm in 2004.
But the company is not all about building one house and then moving on to the next—Aitken and team pride themselves with building both a home and a relationship with its occupants that will last throughout the generations. Dedicating a 12-person division of the firm entirely to service and property management, Aitken still has the key to the first home he has ever built—“Key #1” as it is referred to—as well as an additional 850 keys for homes on the island with which homeowners have entrusted his team for maintenance and care throughout the years. The running list of property management duties include things such as ductwork cleaning and winterizing homes, to kitchen and bath remodels, to installing elevator towers and other custom features, even keeping tabs on manufacture warranties for maintenance and safety purposes.
“Many of our clients end up becoming lifelong friends,” Rick cheerfully notes, adding that “trust and honor” is everything in this type of relationship. Surrounding himself with the best of the best in the industry, the approach of the Aitken team is focusing on homeowners’ contentment first and foremost. And that happiness sure is contagious, as the Norwegian culture has consistently ranked in the top spot in the United Nations’ World Happiness Report. The mission at A. Richard Aitken Builders is to offer clients peace of mind – whether building their castle in the sand, upgrading it with a major renovation, or providing routine services – by knowing that they have chosen a builder who will stand by them in the years to come. After all, building custom homes and lasting relationships within the community of Long Beach Island is what they do best; it runs in the family.