He’s been called the “Indiana Jones of contractors” for scouring the globe in search of rare materials to satisfy the at times insatiable demands of his discerning clientele – business tycoons, celebrities and foreign billionaires among them. John Finton, a self-made man, learned his craft as a young apprentice on construction sites. This hard-earned, hands-on building expertise, coupled with a global network of contacts, has made Finton the go-to builder for high-end custom homes for everyone from Russian oil oligarchs to eco-conscious Hollywood heavyweights.

Finton Construction manages about 30 ongoing projects a year, with a staff of 45 working out of offices in Los Angeles and Orange County. Finton himself, though, is often in transit – overseeing projects in Western Europe, sourcing material in China and spearheading many high-profile builds throughout North America – including a sustainable resort community in Loreto Bay, Mexico, and a 10,000-square foot eco-friendly Malibu mansion for entertainment mogul Keenen Ivory Wayans.

TORO recently talked to Finton about his burgeoning business, worldwide travels, affluent clientele – and finding rare moments to captain his 65-foot fishing boat between California and Mexico.

Q: How has the economic meltdown affected the upper-strata market that you cater to?
A: Well, certainly it is affecting things. In some respects almost in a positive way, meaning that the community of subcontractors has slowed down enough that it’s easier to manage. Two years ago you couldn’t get guys to return your phone calls. And I always tell people, the one thing that most affluent people cannot buy – they can buy anything they want – except for health and time. Most wealthy people want these projects completed very quickly. And for the last several years that’s been difficult to do, because everybody was so busy. But now people are less busy, and we’re seeing a 10 to 20 per cent decrease in pricing. It’s certainly not going up. So it’s almost an easier time to do what we’re doing. Now our prices are less than they were a year ago, in terms of our fee structure – but I’ve done that in an effort to stay busy. I figured I’ll just control more of the market. As a result, I’m working harder. I certainly didn’t think I’d be working this hard [laughs]. I’m working in a broader range of areas and doing a broader range of things, but at the same time I’m able to do it successfully.

Q: How much of your time is spent travelling the world for your discerning clientele? You’ve been dubbed in some of the press material as the “Indiana Jones of Builders,” and I’m curious how you manage that.
A: It’s a highly competitive business. So the guy that can deliver the greatest service with the most reasonable pricing is the winner – and also able to deliver a quality project at the end of the day. It’s more of an art than a science. And you’re dealing with business, and you’ve got an entourage of people that you’re dealing with. You’ve got a designer or an architect, an accountant, the client themselves – which may be a husband and a wife, maybe not. And we have one project where we have our weekly meetings and there’s 25 people there, literally. There’s three or four owner representatives – if not the owner, his people. So you’re balancing the whole process to make it pleasant for everyone. And part of that is being able to deliver product at the correct price, and that means researching and finding out how to buy wholesale. And then making sure that you know what you’re buying. And the only way to do that is really research and be hands-on – and we’ve learned the hard way that we think we’re buying a stone that’s coming from France and it’s really coming from Portugal. And it’s supposed to be from a certain quarry, but it really has nothing to do with that quarry, and the guy didn’t get paid and now he’s not delivering the rest of the material. And you’ve paid the guy here in L.A., and now he’s vanished. And especially in today’s economic climate, you have to be even more careful – because even good businesses are going out of business like crazy. So you need to know who you’re doing business with, you need to have researched them, and in my opinion to have a personal relationship with them – you know where the guy lives, you know his family, hopefully I’ve done business with him before. And if I haven’t, I’m going to go and make sure that I see the whites of his eyes.

Q: That’s interesting. And you find that’s just a necessity of doing that sort of high-end business, where there’s a lot at stake on every deal.
A: I think to do it successfully. We live in a very litigious society. So to be able to do it and to be able to represent to a client that we know where the product comes from, we know where it’s being fabricated or made, and to say that with confidence. Because we’ve seen in our neighbourhood here a handful of contractors get themselves in trouble, and in some cases go out of business, where they’ve represented something to be fact and it was proven not to be the case. It doesn’t work out well in the end. So I’ve learned that I want to personally make sure that things are right.

Q: Talk to me about your discovery of China as a resource for materials and fabrication.
A: Discovering that was kind of an accident as well. We were doing a project here on a famous house here in Los Angeles that was at one time owned by Saudi royalty. Well, that house burned down and our client bought it and we’re now building a fairly palatial house – it’s clad with hand-cut Portuguese limestone, it’s very complicated actually – and initially we were dealing with a French company that was supplying all the material, and when I asked to go to the factory to inspect the goods prior to signing the contract, they let me know that even though it was the largest stone fabricator in all of France, and maybe all of Europe, that the actual fabrication was being done in China. So I thought, “Well, gosh. We thought we were paying for French.” So the reality was that we ended up dealing with the Chinese directly ourselves and we ended up saving about 20 per cent, probably. So the fact of the matter is, if I didn’t know that – unless eventually you looked at the bills of lading, and you saw where the material game from – and then the client could have a feeling that they’ve overpaid, because everybody knows that it’s less in China. And they would be looking for a refund and I would be caught in the middle. So it pays to really do your homework.

Q: And is there a market in China for the palatial mansions that you’re now seeing a demand for in places like Russia?
A: Yes. There’s a demand in both countries actually. One of the architects that I’m working with in Russia is also designing a 100,000-square-foot home in Shanghai.

Q: Now let me ask you something. I understand that space is a luxury, and that whole line of thinking, but 100,000 square feet ... is there a point where it just becomes nonsensical? I mean it’s hard to even conceive of a 100,000-square-foot home.
A: Well, if you haven’t been around extremely affluent people then it is hard to imagine. But such an entourage of people come along with someone affluent. There may be a stylist, a luxury lifestyle consultant that’s full-time, and they’re arranging who knows what. There are party planning people. There can be a staff of 30 people. And they may have offices there and, of course, a handful of children and their nannies. And we’ve had a client who was a wealthy entertainer who home-schooled five of his children. So we built a school on the property. And they’re also highly security conscious. A lot of things you take for granted – for instance, bowling has become popular here in Los Angeles. There’s a new place called Lucky Strike, and that’s the trendy thing to do is have these bars with bowling lanes and it’s like a nightclub. Well, if you’re a recognizable celebrity you just can’t do that. So we have houses that have bowling alleys. We have houses that have recording studios, indoor swimming pools, nightclubs.

Q: So it’s like they’re building environments that contain all the things that most people could find throughout their city, but these extremely wealthy and/or famous people have to incorporate it all into their homes.
A: Yes, exactly. Things will be sent over by department stores, like Neiman Marcus or Barneys sending over clothes and jewelry or whatever, because they just can’t go themselves. We’ve had clients with a full-time personal shopper for their family.

Q: I read a report not too long ago that wealthy people in New York were going to high-end stores and asking that their purchases be wrapped in brown paper bags, so as not to be seen as insensitive or callous during the economic meltdown. And I’m wondering if any of that attitude has appeared among your clientele.
A: I think people are trying to be quiet about it. Many of the homes that we’re doing you can’t see from the street. And the idea of travelling in a limousine, for example, has fallen by the wayside. I don’t have one client that travels in a limousine. It’s very unpopular. They travel instead in black SUVs. And they have a driver, and sometimes travel in a Mercedes 500 or a regular Rolls-Royce, but 90 per cent of the time it’s in a black SUV. They’re popular, understated, and limousines these days are really relegated to high school kids going to a prom. And they also just don’t want to be seen as overspending for anything. I think that people misunderstand, thinking that someone who is affluent doesn’t necessarily like their money anymore. I think just the opposite: they know where they got their first penny from. And they want as much of a value as anyone else on the planet, if not more. They certainly don’t want to be perceived as being lighthearted with their cash.

Q: Talk to me about the eco-friendly yet opulent 10,000-square-foot residence that you’re currently building for entertainment mogul Keenen Ivory Wayans. I’m curious to know how it will be as lavish as it sounds, yet produce a very small carbon footprint.
A: He’s obviously concerned about it or he wouldn’t be doing it. But here’s again a man who’s going to run part of the production aspect of his movie business out of his house. And his kids are musically talented, so he’s going to have recording facilities set up as well. He’s not a big traveller so his home is very important to him – he plans to spend a lot of time there, and he wants to do it in a responsible way and really just do his part for the environment. He’s also health conscious, in terms of his diet and exercise and a commitment to keeping in great shape, and so building a home that’s healthier to live in is also a big consideration to him. So having non-allergenic products around him, and the million different things that can go into a house that are just not healthy for us. For instance, his children have allergies. That’s a big portion of what he’s going to do.

Q: Is this a trend – one that might start among celebrities and then trickle down?
A: No question. We’re also doing a project in Loreto, Mexico, just north of Cabo. And when it’s finished there will be no roads that you can drive cars on, just electric golf carts. And there’s going to be a path of canals that go around the community that don’t have anything other than canoes and kayaks. And the community itself will generate more power than it uses. People seem to be more conscious, and while it may not be for everybody, there are a growing number of people interested in this alternative. For instance, the original developer was from just outside Vancouver and there are a lot of Canadians interested in coming down. And a lot of people from all across the United States. Also a handful of Mexicans, but mostly Canadians and Americans. And it’s been popular, they’ve sold out about 700 or 800 homes already.

Q: But is it just a trend, or do you think it’s here to stay?
A: It’s here to stay. Absolutely. And whether you’re an entertainer and we’re building a house for you in the Hollywood Hills that you’re going to use for parties and entertaining other celebrities, or you’re building a place in Mexico where you’re going to retire with your family and you’re looking for something that’s more sustainable, or you’re Keenan who is building in Malibu and you want something that’s healthy for your family to live in and that’s environmentally responsible – everybody’s different, and everybody’s game plan is different. And it’s our role to figure out what you’re program is.

Q: Are you primarily a custom builder?
A: We don’t do any subdivisions. We’re a custom builder, but I build about 30 projects at a time. I’ve got a staff of about 45 people and we do about $65 or $70 million a year in construction revenue.

Q: I have to ask: we’ve been talking about homes and different styles of homes, but where and what is your principal residence right now?
A: It’s in Pasadena which is a suburb of Los Angeles. And I do travel a lot, sourcing materials for clients – with projects now in Moscow (a 60,000-square-foot house) and France, and two outside of London, and our work in Mexico. And I keep a 65-foot fishing boat that travels between Mexico and California, so my point is that I’m not home a lot, so for me to have a 15,000-square-foot house doesn’t make a lot of sense. So I have a small historic house in Pasadena built in the 1920s that I’ve restored. And for me it works perfectly. Keeping my personal life pretty simple and fairly flexible and nimble has been really important to me.

Q: So small can be beautiful too?
A: Small can be beautiful too. Absolutely.

William Morassutti is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of TORO. Prior to joining TORO, he worked in Canadian broadcasting as a writer, producer, director, reporter and host.