Caciolo (left) and Shupe (right) in the dining room of Caciolo's luxurious home.
Tony Caciolo and Lewis "Chip" Shupe IV, both class of '89 and owners of Monogram Custom Homes in Coopersburg, Pa., build many of the largest, most lavish homes in the Lehigh Valley.
And to hear them tell it, their successful business partnership wouldn't be possible without the bond they formed as teenagers at Lehigh trying to survive classes, cold Lehigh Valley winters, and cramming for finals.
After pursuing completely different majors at Lehigh—Caciolo earned a B.S. in business and engineering and then later an M.B.A., while Shupe got his B.A. in English literature—they tried their hands at other occupations in different states. Over the past decade, they've found a career together that, much like the high-end custom homes they build, fits them perfectly.
Having met during the second semester of their freshman year in a dormitory room at Richards House in 1985, Caciolo and Shupe became fast friends. After graduation, Caciolo headed for corporate life in Ohio at General Motors and then later at Xerox, while Shupe worked at Lubrication Research in Exton, Pa. (a company that produced aftermarket automotive lubrication systems), and then later at Sea & Sea Custom Builders in his hometown of Wilmington, Del.
Although their careers took them in separate directions, they kept in touch.
Caciolo, who grew up in nearby Emmaus, and his wife Penny, a certified public accountant, both missed Pennsylvania terribly and moved back to the Lehigh Valley area. While at Lehigh pursuing his M.B.A., Caciolo acted as his own general contractor for a home he had built for himself and his wife in Schnecksville by hiring a foundation and framing crew. It came together well and after selling it a few years later at a profit, he repeated the process again—getting bitten by the construction bug.
Shupe, who had built a Boston Chicken restaurant in Delaware, came to visit the Caciolos when his job was finished. That's when he and Caciolo decided to build a house together on speculation.
By being nontraditional businessmen and adding extras such as Slant Fin-zoned hot water baseboard heaters, Pella windows, and granite countertops as standards in their model home, they sold it before it was completed. Many other builders in the area were not using these options due to the cost; however, Caciolo and Shupe went directly to the manufacturers, avoiding a middle man—a crucial step in their success.
While they continued building houses, Caciolo, who had completed his M.B.A. and was working for Bell & Howell, would meet with potential new customers on his way to his corporate job. When the Allentown-based Bell & Howell announced that it was moving to North Carolina, it proved to be a turning point for the builders.
Shupe, who had been lining up work with subcontractors, had already been acting as the General Manager of Operations and was getting quite busy. This gave Caciolo the perfect opportunity to trade in the suit job at Bell & Howell (for the record, he was offered the opportunity to relocate to North Carolina) to handle the sales and marketing aspect of Monogram Custom Homes full-time in 1996. They now build 25 custom homes per year.
Having grossed a steady $8-10 million per year, the business partners are certainly successful, yet they humbly credit Lehigh with much of their accomplishments. In addition to getting an excellent foundation in organization and problem-solving skills, Caciolo says, "Lehigh threw a lot of work at you, but also threw a lot of distractions at you. With home building, every job is a completely new experience, and managing situations that arise is what our jobs are all day long."
Communication is vital to their business. Since high-end homes are more complicated to build, both Caciolo and Shupe listen carefully to their customer's needs and concerns, so that the end product is what was expected. Because of this close interaction, they often end up forming friendships with many of their clients.
About 95 percent of their new business each year comes through referrals by former customers. Caciolo attributes this to "having a more open, honest, fairer approach to doing business as opposed to the 'low-ball price and then whack them with extras attitude' of some competitors."
Keeping the customer satisfied is even more impressive, given that the average home they build is a sprawling 4,000 square feet with a price tag of $700,000 on up.
Monogram seeks to buy products in creative ways so they can give customers added value. When they started using granite countertops, for instance, they bought directly from the importer. Now, they are partners in that company.
They did the same with their award-winning heating system. "We found a way of partnering with suppliers," Caciolo says, that has allowed Monogram to become leaders in the industry.
As a way of giving back, the business partners sit on several boards at Lehigh. Why? "Well, Lehigh helped Monogram come together because I wouldn't have met Chip if it weren't for Lehigh University, and that's where we learned many of the skills we use today. There is also a tremendous camaraderie among Lehigh alums, and we've built homes for many of our former classmates, even some professors," Caciolo says.
While their achievements may not be typical for the industry, Shupe says, they are now "competing with the same builders we wanted to compete with when we started."
So, where do they go from here? As they both break into broad grins, the friends say they want to continue building the same quality homes for many years to come. After all, why mess with such a successful blueprint?
Lehigh Alumni Bulletin Online