Wall in a Day’s Work

No job is too small for this practical Scotsman

by Heleigh Bostwick

polliFrom ski bum to painter to residential contractor, Steven Polli of Polli Construction Inc. in Hinesburg has thrived by following the dictates of his heart and his surroundings.

When 21-year-old Steven Polli arrived in Vermont in February 1985, he had 75 cents in his pocket and only one ambition: to be a ski bum.

Now 30 years later, the Glasgow, Scotland, native is owner and president of Polli Construction Inc., a thriving full-service residential contracting business in Hinesburg with clients throughout Chittenden County.

Polli recalls how he landed in Vermont. “When I was 15 years old, my parents took me skiing in the Dolomites in Italy for two weeks. I loved it!” he says, adding that he decided right then and there to be a ski bum after he finished his schooling. He could have gone to Italy, France, or Germany, but he didn’t speak any of those languages, he says. He opted for an English-speaking country: the United States.

“I only ended up in Vermont because I didn’t have enough money to get to Colorado,” he adds with a chuckle.

The day he arrived Polli hitched a ride to Stowe and found a dishwashing job. Three years later he had married an American girl, quit his dishwashing job, and moved to Burlington where he launched Expert Painters.

“I started that business in 1989, and for the first eight years, all I did was paint,” he says. “Over time people began asking me to do other things, and I learned the business slowly but surely.”

Residential contracting work was a trade that was already familiar to him; Polli’s first job at age 15 was hanging wallpaper in Glasgow. Moving to rural Vermont didn’t feel quite so familiar, but it was a change that he says was for the better.

“Country life suits me,” he says cheerfully. “I much prefer driving down the road and waving to people than the impersonal feeling of the big city.”

Polli lives in a 220-year-old farmhouse in Hinesburg with his second wife, Susan O’Kane, and their children, 7-year-old Ella and Tucker, age 4. They moved there five years ago from Essex, O’Kane’s hometown. The couple is slowly renovating the property, which they named “The Wee Farm.”

They met in 2001, just after Sept. 11. At the time, O’Kane was the director of the Chittenden County Humane Society. “I heard they were building a new facility and I went to them offering to donate our painting services,” Polli recalls. O’Kane stayed on as director until 2005, when Ella was born and she became a stay-at-home mom.

Polli spends most of his time on the road or at work sites, but maintains an office in his house where he does the scheduling. His construction equipment, which includes staging equipment, trailers, and an excavator, is stored in one of several barns on the property when it’s not being used on a job. O’Kane helps with paperwork around the office.

About 95 percent of the company’s work, which includes interior and exterior remodeling, new additions, painting, drywall, window and door replacement, and general carpentry, is for residential clients. Occasionally he might do a small storefront, he says, but only if a residential client refers him.

At any given time throughout the year there might be five to six jobs going on, most of which fall within the $100 to $150,000 price range, but the company will happily do jobs for even less than that. “Just last week we billed a client $75,” Polli says.

It’s a strategy that has served him well. He’s seen his business more than double over the last five years. “I had a gut feeling that things were slowing down. It was clear that people were staying in their homes and fixing them up,” he says. “We focused on smaller jobs — small additions, garages, remodels, that sort of thing.

“If someone calls and says, ‘I have a leak,’ we will go and fix it. No job is too small, and often, a client who uses us for a smaller job will call us a few years later with a bigger job.”

That’s exactly what Rich Eagle did. Eagle owns a home in Jericho and called Polli about a roof repair in 2009. “Polli gave me an estimate of $800 and did the repair for the exact amount he said he would,” says Eagle, clearly impressed.

Two years later when it came time to add a third bay to his garage, he called Polli again. “He came up with an estimate and I gave him the go-ahead to build,” says Eagle. “His workmanship is second to none. He stays on his crew and lets them know what needs to be done. He doesn’t skimp on materials either. Most of our house was constructed with 2-by-4s, but Polli used 2-by-6s or 2-by-8s. He went over and above because he wants people to be happy with his work.” Eagle is planning to use Polli Construction again for his next renovation — adding flooring and an island to the kitchen.

Polli gives full credit to his crew of 12, all of whom he keeps on the payroll year-round. “Painters, carpenters and carpenter’s helpers, drywall tapers — my guys are the best,” he says emphatically, “so I find work for them. We do increase our staff in the summertime; we like to get up to about 16.

“You can’t run a small business like mine unless you have great guys working for you.”

Lead man and foreman Jed Ladd for example. Ladd is second in command and started at Polli Construction four years ago, right out of college. “The hiring process is rigorous and we go through a lot of people before we hire anyone,,” says Polli, “but once we hire someone they never leave. All my guys are multi-skilled and prepared to do anything. One day it might be fixing a roof, the next, masonry or painting.”

Polli is serious about safety as well, not only because of liability issues, but also for the health and welfare of his crew. “Every Friday at each of the job sites we have a safety meeting,” he says. “It’s not a state regulation, but it’s something that shows the guys I’m invested in their safety. Plus, as liability insurance gets more expensive, insurers want to know that the contractors are reputable.”

Those safety meetings have paid off. Polli says he’s never had any serious claims.

“Giving to the community is important to me as well,” says Polli. “About 12 years ago I built the first public outdoor squash court in the world at Leddy Park in Burlington. I raised $18,000 for the building materials and built the court for free before donating it to the city.”

Building a squash court wasn’t a simple random act of kindness. “I used to be a professional squash player,” he says. “I played on squash courts around the world representing Scotland and Great Britain. When I was 17, I stopped playing for a while because I realized there wasn’t enough money in it and it wasn’t a career I wanted to pursue.”

He didn’t stay away for too long, though, taking the sport up again when he was 25, but representing the United States. “I was still playing squash when I met Susan 10 years ago,” he says.

As for skiing, Polli says he stopped for a few years, but has started back up again, now that his children are old enough to ski. Susan, he says, is “huge into Zumba” — a passion he doesn’t particularly share — but the family does like to ride bikes together.

At 47, he doesn’t see himself retiring in the near future, but he also doesn’t have any plans to grow the business any bigger than it is. “I’m not looking to expand into a 60-employee venture,” says Polli, who likes to keep a tight ship. “You can’t have this type of business be that large and still do a great job. You need to know when to stop expanding and when to stop growing.”

In the end, Polli says that, as an immigrant without local contacts, one must build something from nothing, and that takes many years of hard work. After 27 years, he is finally at a place where the business is functioning very well. The key, he says, is trust.

“Clients find it really hard to find a reliable contractor, but once the client trusts you, then you’ve got a great relationship — and it’s all about relationships.

“I love doing this ... I have to be honest. I get to drive around and meet new people every day. I know Chittenden County like the back of my hand. As I get older I don’t need the money as much, but I still love the work.

“I’d like to keep it for my kids,” he continues. “They complete my life, and everything I do for the business is for them really. That’s why it’s very important that my name is synonymous with quality.” •