Builder at the
Top of Vermont

Grant Spates opted out of college to join his father's construction business so he could buy a sugarbush and make syrup; now he runs both businesses

by Rosalyn Graham

Grant Spates, president of Spates Construction Co. in Derby, and his brothers, Dana and Lee, worked for their family business, Spates Construction Co., from high school; they bought the family business from their father four years ago.

If Grant Spates were a boastful kind of guy, he could have an extremely unhumble but accurate slogan for his business: "The First Con-struction Company in the United States." Of course his hunting, fishing and sugaring friends would be quick to point out that if one were driving north on Beebe Road instead of south, Spates Construction would be the last construction company in the United States.

It's only about a mile and a half to the Canadian border from the Spates homestead, headquarters for the construction company since Spates' father, Frank, moved it there in 1981, which could have constrained the outreach of the company. Labor laws and trade restrictions make it virtually impossible to take on contracts north of the border. As Spates says, "Most companies draw a circle with themselves as the hub. We draw a semi-circle."

That semi-circle doesn't seem to have limited the growth or impact of the company Frank bought in 1974. He had worked for the firm, A. Joyal Inc., for two years, combining construction with dairy farming. For a while, Frank operated as A. Joyal doing business as Spates

In 1981, Frank moved the operation to the Beebe Road farm, and changed the company's name to Spates Construction in 1991. His wife, Jeannette, was the company's secretary, and as their three sons, Grant, Dana and Lee, finished school, they joined the team.

"It was the classic on-the-job training you find in so many construction companies," Spates says. "The apprenticeship program of father to son or daughter you learn it one piece at a time till you put them all together. I know that success in the construction business isn't just in getting the building built; it's managing cash flow, billing on time, paying subs timely. I saw my parents doing it over the years and just picked up from them."

Through the years the company grew and the roles were defined. Dana and Lee are superintendents, on the jobs, running the crews. "That's what I used to do, and then I got pulled into the office," Spates says. "As we were getting bigger and bigger, Dad needed someone in the office doing estimating and project management. I miss being in the field, but when it's 20 below or muggy and 80, the office isn't a bad place to be."

When Frank retired four years ago, he turned over the reins to his sons, arranging the sale of the business to ensure an income for himself, while eliminating the need for his sons to borrow a large amount of money. Frank and Jeannette continue to live in the family home, which shares an entrance area with the company headquarters. The company leases its space from them. "It's a good arrangement," says Spates.

With Grant as president, Dana as vice president and Lee as corporate secretary, a family business atmosphere permeates the organization. Carole Pouliot-Piper joined the company in 1996 as Jeannette was retiring, bringing expertise in banking and real estate developing and creating a key role for herself as office manager. She helps with the bidding process, tracks projects, communicates with subcontractors, and does the accounting. She also handles human resources, benefits administration, corporate and employee insurance policies and some marketing.

Project manager and purchasing specialist Oscar Thayer worked for Spates Construction in the summers when he was a college student. After graduation he headed south for a few years, but returned to Spates, bringing computer expertise that has been a key part of the company's evolution. It has become a business that tries to make the most of every technical advance from fax machines and digital cameras, which smooth communications with architects and subcontractors, to the new lift equipment that reduces the trips up and down ladders.

All five supervisors in the company have followed similar career paths: They started as framing carpenters, advanced to finish carpenters and then to management. They and their crews averaging as many as 20 to 25 in the busy summer pride themselves on their wide-ranging expertise, turning their hands to hanging drywall, putting up steel and installing roofing. "They know the industry from the bottom up," Spates says.

Spates recognizes the importance of subbing specialty work out to contractors who have expertise, local knowledge and specialized equipment. "When we go into an area to do a contract, we look for the local painter, or the local site-work contractor," Spates says. "It saves us from tying up money in equipment, it's safer and efficient, and it lets everybody do what they do best."

Spates' sugarhouse is the last place in Derby Line before the Holland town line. Although he works at construction full time, sugaring remains an important part of his life.

With its semi-circle of business blanketing northern Vermont, Spates Construction has completed some very large projects and some quite small most of them commercial, although the company has done some residential building.

The biggest project was the $4.5 million Springfield state office building in 1998, renovating several old mill buildings to bring all the area's state offices under one roof. "That was a challenge logistics-wise," Spates says. "It was hard for our crews, because it takes over two hours to get down there. It's tough to manage a job when you know that if there's a problem, you can jump in your truck but you won't be there for two hours."

The company has just completed the Derby Line ambulance headquarters and the Lyndon public safety building that will house the police and fire departments. It did a small renovation on the Island Pond library, and it has built more than 10 schools, the St. Albans courthouse, and prisons in St. Johnsbury, Newport and St. Albans. The company recently won the 2004 Master Builder award from Star Buildings for the Northeastern Vermont Development Association structure in the Lyndon-St. Johnsbury Industrial Park.

Cory Poulin of Poulin Lumber in Derby has worked with Spates for years, as did his father, Peter Poulin, before him.

"They are so dedicated to the local community," says Poulin. "You see Grant's name listed left and right he's been on the school board and the high school board; he's very involved in the community and very respected."

Spates is also a business representative on the North Country Career Center Regional Advisory Board, a volunteer position that fits neatly with his commitment to encouraging young people to consider careers in the construction industry.

While he is concerned about the drop in the number of high school students entering the field, he is aware that it is a challenging career, and believes that practical, hands-on, on-the-job training is the best preparation.

"Our industry is a tough one. It's not a nice environment we work in some days. A kid needs to know either they like this industry when they are working out in the cold in the winter or they don't."

Spates is clear that what he loves about the construction industry is that every day presents a different challenge. "You've got to have the right mental attitude," he says. "If you don't get the job you were bidding on, you pick up your marbles and start rolling out plans for a new job. You have to be resilient. You never do the same job twice; you always have different plans, different sites."

Dave Allard of Lyndon Furniture has been a longtime customer. "They built parts of all three of my factories. I've always been impressed with their being willing to go beyond what I thought they needed to. There is always something that has to be adjusted when you build a new building, and they are always very good about taking care of those things."

Spates is clear that the part of the construction industry he loves is that every day presents a different challenge.

Carole Pouliot-Piper joined the company in 1996. As office manager, she helps with the bidding process, tracks projects, communicates with subcontractors, and handles the accounting, human resources, benefits, corporate and employee insurance policies and some marketing. She's pictured on the stairway Spates built to reach the second-floor conference room.

Spates' wife, Jeanne, fits the "ready for a new challenge" description. They were classmates in high school and began dating after graduation. After they were married and had three daughters, Jeanne decided to return to school, graduating as a teacher from Lyndon State at the top of her class. She's wrapping up her master's degree in education, specializing in math, which she teaches at Derby Elementary .

While Spates and his brothers segued into the family business, it's doubtful that any of Spates' three daughters will follow suit. Rachel, a graduate of Boston University, is teaching sports management at Amherst; Emily is in the Navy "You teach your kids to play with computers and now she launches Tomahawks for the Navy," says Spates and Sarah is studying philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, prompting her father to wryly comment, "Great. You can come back and work full-time for the construction industry."

It remains to be seen whether his brothers' children still young will follow in their fathers' footsteps.

Meanwhile, Spates is committed to a philosophy of working hard and playing harder. He skis and, like the rest of his crew, he hunts. Each spring and fall, he and his brothers take their boats to Lake Ontario to fish for king salmon, accompanied by as many of his workers as want to join the fun.

Allard admits to sharing something with Spates beyond a client relationship, what Allard calls "our sugarhouse interest."

Sugaring is a recurring theme in Spates' story that brings to mind Robert Frost's line, "Two roads diverged in the woods." In 1975 Spates was a high school senior who had been accepted at the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College, but he was also a teenager who had fallen in love with sugaring. He had rented a sugarbush that spring, and staying in Derby to work with his father in the construction business would fit with his plan to buy the sugarbush and make syrup every year. He made his decision, he says, "and that has made all the difference."

Thirty years later, Spates still makes sugaring an important part of the yearly cycle, although he notes that times have changed from the days when the construction industry was slow and everyone cut firewood and sugared until after mud season, when they were back in the construction business. Now the construction business is year-round, and Spates has made many changes in the sugarbush in the interest of efficiency: tubing to gather the sap; piggy-back pans; blowers and air-tight doors that reduce the number of hours spent in the sugarhouse. He admits the sugaring habit would be hard to shake.

"The sugarbush is nice because it's a different kind of work, changing some tubing, doing some thinning. It's a different level than when you're engaged with subcontractors in day-to-day stuff. The maple trees listen better than subcontractors. They don't talk back. And when you cut one down, the others really get in line."

Originally published in May 2005 Business People-Vermont