Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

One small Italian town, one huge building boom

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One little town in Italy has put its mark on the lives of thousands of Winnipeg families who bought a new home over the last half century.

That's because four of the city's home-building companies -- A & S Homes, Gino's Homes, Artista Homes and KDR Design Builders Inc. -- trace their roots back to the southern Italian town of San Roberto.

A & S, Gino's and Artista were all founded by men who grew up in San Roberto and immigrated to Winnipeg in the 1960s.

And KDR was founded by the daughter and son-in-law of Gino's founder Gino Cotroneo.

Joe Bova -- another native of San Roberto and co-founder of one of the province's largest construction companies, Manshield Construction -- pointed out the connection while pondering recently why so many Italian men who came here in the 1960s and '70s wound up in the construction business.

 

Bova's theory is many of them arrived with little money, and back then, you didn't need a lot of capital to start up a small construction company.

"All you needed was your skills and your tools and a willingness to work hard," Bova said.

It was Gino Cotroneo who got the ball rolling. And ironically, when he arrived in 1967, he had no intention of staying, according to his son Robert Cotroneo.

Robert, who now runs Gino's Homes with his brother Frank, said their father had a successful construction company back in San Roberto and only came to Winnipeg because his fiancée and her family had immigrated here.

"His idea was to come here, get married and return to Italy (with his new bride, Angelina). But I guess my mother had other plans," Robert said with a chuckle.

Somehow she convinced their father to stay, and he teamed up with one of Robert's uncles, Antonio Spezzano, to launch G & A Homes.

Gino and Antonio remained partners for seven or eight years, Robert said, before deciding to branch out on their own. Antonio started A & S Homes, and Gino started Gino's Homes.

Another uncle, Antonio Cotroneo, started Artista. That firm is now run by four of his sons -- Tony, Enzo, Frank and Gino Cotroneo.

Then Robert's sister and her carpenter husband, Diego Vassallo, took the entrepreneurial plunge and started KDR.

"The family dinners are definitely interesting," Robert said.

"We're all in competition with each other with regards to business, but we're all family. And there is enough work out there to keep everybody busy."

Bova never intended to go into the construction business. He immigrated to Winnipeg in 1962 as a 15-year-old, earned a political science and economics degree from the University of Winnipeg, worked for the Liberal Party for a couple of years, then kicked around Europe with his wife for about six months. Then he found himself back in Winnipeg without a job.

One day an uncle, a tile setter who still didn't have a good command of the English language, asked Bova to be his translator for a meeting with a client. Bova agreed, and before he knew it, they launched their own company -- Torino Tile.

Then he launched a second company, B & F Masonry, with a friend, Terry Ferraro, and later still founded Gibraltar Concrete, then Manshield Construction.

"Manshield gave us the opportunity to go do work with the really big guys and in much bigger volumes," Bova said. It's now one of the largest construction companies in Western Canada and probably one of the 15 largest in Canada, he said.

He said he and fellow Italian immigrants who went on to found successful businesses here owe a debt of gratitude to their adopted country.

"Where else in the world could you find a place where this ragtag group of people could come and become what they've become? They came here with nothing but the clothes on their backs and built these incredibly successful enterprises that now employ thousands of people and pay millions of dollars in taxes every year," he said.

"There is no place in the world where I would rather be. Not even in Italy."

murray.mcneill@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 j16

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