After 30 years in the contracting business, Fred Saia, CEL ’88, muses on the irony of his success despite being turned down for his first job out of college.
“The best thing that happened to me was not getting the job at Great Lakes Laboratories when I graduated. There was a recession, and they chose someone with a master’s degree,” he says. So Saia continued developing the installation business he’d begun as a part-time venture as an undergraduate at UB.
Today, his company, Oneida Sales and Services, is an $18 million enterprise that provides trucking, fencing, concrete, and steel reinforcements to many residential and high-profile projects in Western New York, including HSBC Arena, the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, the Peace Bridge, and the New York State Thruway. And now with more than 40 employees, Oneida Sales continues to diversify. Two years ago, Saia, a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, opened Heron’s Landing, a very successful tobacco outlet and gas station, on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in Irving, N.Y.
Saia’s father, who was also a contractor, helped him land his first gig – installing furnace humidifiers for Sears in 1974. From there the business expanded, with the younger Saia adding garage door openers, heating and cooling and fencing.
In 1987, Saia enrolled in the first class at UB’s Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership (he is now CEL’s chairman of the board). The one-year program had an immediate impact. “What they taught me was to focus on the company,” he says. “They told me, ‘Fred, you are doing too many things. Pick one of these things and either do it well or don’t do it.’” Saia chose to focus on the fencing division of the company, which had flourished despite being relegated to the back burner.
Over the years, Saia continued to build the business, expanding into concrete in 1994. Five years later he and his brother Tom started Iroquois Bar Corp., a reinforcing steel company. Recently Oneida sold the fencing division and moved into the trucking business. As Saia says “It’s a case of focusing again. The fence company didn’t fit into our mix of companies. The trucking fits in with what we’re doing.” Saia’s vision has paid off. “We have been in business 30 years and the last 10 have been the most successful,” he says. In June Saia’s entrepreneurial talent was recognized when he was awarded the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award for Upstate New York.
Saia recalls his days at UB with fondness. A sophomore transfer student in history, Saia surprised himself by switching to geology after taking a 100-level course for his science requirement. He says, “I enjoyed geology at UB immensely. Dr. King was probably my favorite. I bet a lot of students remember him. He led the field camps in Wyoming.” A member of the Geology Club, Saia explored the unique opportunities offered by his department. “Dr. Gordan Kanaley was another professor that I was really close with,” he says. “I spent two summers down in Mexico with him doing field camps and research. Getting a geology degree was pretty cool because you got to see the world and a lot of cool little places.” Although he was a commuter, Saia says, “I had a lot of friends on campus and the school was very active at that time.” It was at UB that his entrepreneurial side emerged. “I used to make leather belts and sell them in Norton Union,” Saia recalls. “That is how I got through college.”
These days Saia devotes much of his time to another educational venture. In 2000 he helped found the Charter School for Applied Technologies in Kenmore, NY and is president of their Board of Trustees. The K-9 school, which enrolls more than 1,000 students and boasts a lengthy waiting list, is the largest charter school in New York State. Saia is passionate about the school’s function: “We have lost a whole generation of craftspeople in this country,” he says. “Our school is for career development. It is not a vocational school. From grammar school on we’re giving our kids as many exposures to jobs, careers and colleges as we can.” These experiences include speakers, field trips to local firms and internships. The charter school is one of the most successful in the state; over the next three years it will add grades 10, 11 and 12 and will open a new high school facility in September 2005.
Saia’s community involvement also includes membership on the boards of directors for Erie County Industrial Development Agency and the Buffalo Zoological Gardens. In his free time he is an avid fisherman. But Saia, who is married with three daughters, isn’t looking to slow down anytime soon. He would like to stay involved with the Charter School at least through the first graduating class. After that? “I doubt that I will take it easy,” Saia says. “My wife and I are not ready to retire. I probably will never retire. I will always find something to do.”
Written by Jessica Dudek