PHOTOGRAPHY: CARTER FISH
With Carlos, there are no pretenses. “I was born in Guatemala in 1981, and I have a younger sister and brother,” he explains with a calm smile that says he’s at peace with his history and with himself. “When I was little, my father, Willmar, made an annual trek on a work visa to a seasonal construction job in Louisiana, and we lived in the cycle of him leaving home in Guatemala to work in the U.S. and then return home for what seemed like a visit. When I was 11, my dad got a full-time construction job in Riverside, Connecticut, and we all moved to the United States. We were 5 people in one 1,000 square foot basement room in Stamford. While my dad was working construction, my mom, Tita, who had been a Teacher in Guatemala, started cleaning houses. As I was the older brother, my job was to take care of my sister and brother.”
In what sounds like an immigrant’s story that could have just as easily taken place 100 years earlier, Carlos continues, “When I was 14, I got a fake I.D. and started working, but was still only allowed to work 20 hours a week under child labor laws. My first job was at a sausage packing factory in Stamford, working from 3 A.M. to 7:30 A.M. I would walk home, pick-up my sister and brother, and walk to school. When I got a little older I had a second job I would walk to after school, at the Gap, where I would do unpacking, racking, labeling, mail, and the garbage. I worked my way up until I became an Assistant Store Supervisor at the Gap and then Old Navy, and eventually a Manager at Aeropostale. When I was 16 I bought my first car – with my own money. I shared a fascination with cars with my dad. I started fixing and selling cars and could make a couple of thousand dollars flipping each one. And I still had the job at the sausage factory on the lobster shift. But, because I only had 2 jobs while I was in high school, I also managed to play varsity soccer. My parents put a heavy emphasis on education and I was expected to do well. But, because my dad was always working and my mom was busy cleaning about eight houses a day, they never got to come to any of my soccer games or anything like that.”
Carlos explains plainly, “Growing up poor made me envious, but not angry. It gave me the drive and ambition, and motivated me to work hard, save money, and invest. Living in America, we felt like we had already hit the jackpot. Even when we were all living in that one basement room. In America you are safe and free! It’s more fundamental than anything else!”
“My parents were determined that I should be the first in the family to go to college, and I enrolled in Norwalk Community College. Then I used a $500 Home Depot Credit Card to buy a $275 mower and a wacker and a blower, loaded the stuff up in the back of my Honda, and started to mow lawns. $25 per mow – no matter what size. …And I was still working at the sausage factory on the lobster shift for extra cash,” Carlos says – still smiling! “I knocked on a lot of doors, started to build a mowing business, and hired a group of guys to do the mowing. And I transferred to the University of Connecticut and got a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science, with a minor in Finance. …And I quit my job at the sausage factory!”
“I tried working in IT, but no matter how well I did on anything from data entry to managing networks, I wasn’t making much, and went through a layoff after 9/11. I ramped up the mowing business, got a degree in Landscape Science from a program at the New York Botanical Gardens, and expanded into the landscaping business,” Carlos recalls. “It’s funny, but all the time my mom was cleaning houses around here, and even when she eventually worked exclusively for the Williams family in New Canaan, all I could think about when we used to drive past all these big houses when we were picking my mom up or something, was how ‘I want to mow those lawns someday’. It was a long time before I even began to imagine that one day I would live in one! …As I grew the mowing and landscaping businesses, it gave me a special pleasure to get a house where my mom used to work as one of my clients, and even more so if it was the same people living in the house. To this day, I mow and landscape for some folks my mom used to work for – and not all of them have made the connection.”
Carlos met his wife, Zoali, in 2007, when a mutual friend introduced them while Carlos was back in Guatemala for a visit. She is gracious, sweet and demure…but is, at the same time, much more in control of just about everything than it would outwardly appear. Though Zoali came to America with Carlos, her parents still live in Guatemala, and in circumstances which Carlos and Zoali describe as generally unsafe. Carlos and Zoali had their first child, Mathias, in 2009. They started in a rental apartment in Bridgeport, then acquired their first property in Bridgeport, an apartment – with 105% financing. Zoali joined Carlos’ mom working in the house cleaning business which Carlos was running – alongside the mowing and landscaping businesses. They had a second son, Nicholas, in 2013. And in 2015, Carlos and Zoali purchased their first house in New Canaan! Now, Mathias is a 8th grader at Saxe Middle School and plays lacrosse, and Nicholas is a 6th grader at Greens Farms Academy, where he plays soccer and football. …And, in 2021, Carlos and Zoali were blessed with a daughter, Valeria, who’s quite obviously the apple of their eyes.
While Zoali is now very much a full-time Mom, she still has a hand in each of the family businesses, and takes primary responsibility for design aspects of the construction projects …and still finds time for gourmet cooking and regular exercise.
The family now live in their New Canaan residence – a 6 bedroom, 8,600+ square foot house with a pool on over 2 flat acres – in a most desirable location atop Brushy Ridge – that’s a showpiece for what Carlos and Zoali can do. They took a Classic Colonial built in 1996, and did a gut renovation, to produce a big and open home that looks and feels new and fresh. Inside, the two-story entry features a front-to-back view of the stunning property and pool and entertainment areas in the parklike backyard. New oversized windows make the large formal living room and dining rooms feel elegant and grand. There’s a spectacular two-story library/den/study – that serves as Carlos’ ‘command central’. And Carlos removed internal walls to create an open floor-plan between the family room, breakfast room, and kitchen. Upstairs, Carlos added the new Master Wing, which features an oversized bedroom and sitting area with vaulted ceiling and a fireplace, a loft, and a glamorous bath that has the tub sitting in front of a wall of glass. Zoali’s design touches, like the oversized marble island in the kitchen, the custom-designed woodcraft fireplace accent wall in the livingroom, and her choice of soaking tub and Swiss shower in the bath, give the entire home a fresh, clean, light, modern, and sophisticated feel. The property even includes a chicken coop – and of course Carlos has the boys involved in the venture of selling the eggs.
“I went into the construction business back in 2005, and at first mostly as an extension of my growing landscaping business. I took a loan to buy some equipment and started doing excavation and masonry. But then I started buying single and multi-family houses and using my construction company to improve the properties. I bought the first investment property, in 2010, in Bridgeport, for $60,000, sight unseen, and with people living in it. After an eviction and investing another $40,000 in the property, I sold for $160,000. I bought two houses with that money…and used the profits to buy three more. I’ve never used financing in any of it. One year I flipped 12 houses, and I’m sure I’ve bought and sold 50 houses in the last 10 years. I bought a lot of the projects that nobody else wanted, but I’ve done pretty well working all around Fairfield County. In New Canaan, I’ve bought and sold properties on Parade Hill, Cheese Spring, Sheridan, and North Wilton, to name a few. Over the years, my construction business grew to the point where we started to do contract jobs – everything from a kitchen to an entire residence – and got a reputation for quality work and reasonable pricing.
Now most of my projects are in the $3 to $5 million range, with a focus in and around New Canaan, and I have the facility to do whatever build or renovation may be required. I think I’ve earned a reputation for doing top quality work at a reasonable price. I put a lot in being trustworthy!
Right now, I have a newly constructed Modern at 772 North Wilton Road for sale for $3.4 million, and a complete renovation of a house I’m doing on Mariomi Road.” “Of course, we also still have business cleaning houses… which my mom still manages! And in the middle of the pandemic – because everyone else was taking a break – I opened a stone and construction supply company, called West Stone Supply, with two locations in Stamford. I’d been buying all our construction supplies at another place in Stamford and was getting treated like I was second-class, so I opened our own store!” Carlos says, making each aspect of the conglomerate he’s running seem so simple. “All in all, I think I have 28 full-time employees in my construction, construction supply, and cleaning business, and another 8 full-time in the mowing and landscaping businesses, plus a bunch of seasonal workers. And that doesn’t count my wife…who manages all the spending, directs all the interior design we do… and really oversees everything as I run around putting out fires.”
Laughing at himself, Carlos says, “I work just about all the time…we took a vacation to Turks & Caicos in 2022 to celebrate 15 years together – and it was the first real vacation like that we’ve had since our honeymoon! I only have a few friends and I spend whatever extra time I have on my cars, tinkering on them with my boys, like I did with my dad when I was a kid. I have a SCCA license that allows me to drive on track, and right now I have a 1971 Nissan Skyline that I’ve been driving up at Lime Rock. We’ve done some work on it, and eventually I’ll trade it in for the next toy. …Zoali says I’m like that ‘battery bunny’.”
The Alvarez’ own home is a great example of Carlos’ expertise as a builder and Zoali’s brilliant interior design.
Carlos reflects. “Of course it makes me feel good to be living in New Canaan! But what makes me most proud is to be watching my boys grow up in this environment, and with a confidence I didn’t have! I like that the boys’ friends are always hanging out at our house. And both boys do well in school, and are always very polite. They don’t have to work like I always did, but they do enjoy coming to our construction sites and helping- out on Saturdays, and I’ll probably give them each a job working in the store when they’re in high school. The first thing I did when I started making money was put enough away to pay for their college – I’m still paying off my own student loans! But despite the advantage we’ve given them, they’re both very ambitious. It would give me great pleasure if they would someday come into one of our businesses and work as ‘Daddy’s Right-Hand Men’, but you know how it is…right now Mathias says he wants to be a plastic surgeon! I love that my boys believe that they can be whatever they want to be – but know that they’re going to have to work for it.” Carlos continues, “We’re Catholic, we believe Jesus is always at the table, and the family goes to St. Aloysius every Sunday. We take a percentage of the profits from all our businesses and give to support ‘Carlos’ Kids’ in a school in Guatemala that my Aunt started. But I’d say the number one benefit of our success is that we’re getting to spend more and more time together as a family, and that, at least with Valeria, we’re going to be able to slow down and enjoy it even more.”
“We are extremely grateful,” Carlos declares. “I want to continue to grow my businesses, and build bigger and better houses, but the truth is that I’ve got plenty of work, and I’m already booked through 2023. I’m living the American dream, and I’m proof that there’s plenty of opportunity if you’re willing to work hard,” Carlos says, sounding somewhat satisfied if not, at the age of only 42, yet content. “We’re even thinking about finding a second-home somewhere on the beach where it’s warm. We like boating and fishing, and I love a view of the water. We talk about passing time fishing, playing in the surf, and taking bike rides on the beach… but, instead, I’d probably be opening a bike rental shop to make full use of my time and take full advantage of the business opportunity. …A little stress is good, and I tend to struggle on weekends if there’s not enough to do,” Carlos jokes. “The reality is that we’ve got our roots planted in New Canaan and we plan to be living and working here for a long time!”