Building Good Relations

Jeanne Morrissey favors a team-oriented approach at South Burlington construction company J.A. Morrissey Inc.

by Portland Helmich

Jeanne Morrissey is content. Her commercial construction company in South Burlington, J.A. Morrissey Inc., has enough work to take it through the end of the year. Uninterested in growth, Morrissey is satisfied that each of her employees is working full-time. "Historically, this industry has rewarded the people at the top," notes the 41-year-old president, "and construction workers have just accepted that they'll be working on and off because business is cyclical."

Jeanne Morrissey blends public and private sector work at J.A. Morrissey Inc. in South Burlington, but calls projects for non-profit organizations her "heart's desire." She says, "I'm interested in projects that have a positive impact on neighborhoods and communities."

At J.A. Morrissey, however, full-time employment is a corporate goal. Morrissey knows that if she were to expand beyond her core group of 14 employees, some would occasionally be without work. In an effort to take care of her workers and to stay apprised of all the goings-on in the company, Morrissey has chosen to remain small.

Being small does not mean the company only takes on small projects, however. Nearly three years ago, J.A. Morrissey completed renovations on NECI Commons, a $1.7 million project that renovated the space inside a former downtown clothing store to accommodate the New England Culinary Institute's new cafe and restaurant. Morrissey says NECI was the most demanding and fulfilling experience in her company's seven-year history.

The building at 25 Church St. had to be gutted from top to bottom. The basement was made up of two levels, one of which was less than 6 feet high. In order to create more space and to stabilize the foundation, that area was excavated by hand. The facade of the building was torn off, and a new roof was added, as was built-in furniture, cabinetry, and shelving. Intensive heating/ ventilating/ air conditioning systems were installed, while NECI's decision to use gas-fired chillers for its freezers and coolers necessitated close coordination with Vermont Gas Systems to integrate the system. At times, as many as 50 people were working on the project, which took eight months and was completed on schedule in August 1997.

J.A. Morrissey's projects are a combination of public and private sector work. "We need a good balance for the longevity of the company," says Morrissey. She has a special interest in non-profit projects, which she calls her "heart's desire." In February, the company finished building the Mill View Apartments, 12 units of affordable housing on Riverside Avenue.

Morrissey and her crew built the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf and the Multigenerational Building in Burlington's Old North End; they also did renovations for Vermont Legal Aid and the Rose Street Artists Co-op, to name a few. "I'm interested in projects that have a positive impact on neighborhoods and communities," she says.

Morrissey's interest in public works was sparked when she moved to Los Angeles after graduating from the University of Vermont with a bachelor of science in civil engineering in 1981. While working as a project engineer for the Los Angeles County Flood Control District, Morrissey began to understand the impact of her work on the community. "My job was to get approvals from residents and business owners to tear up the streets to build intricate flood control systems in their communities," she says. Businesses temporarily gave up their front entrances, and residents lost convenient parking while the system was being installed. "We really took the time to listen and talk to the people in the communities," she goes on to say. "For me, that project was public service at its best. It showed me how much good can result from people focusing on a common goal."

Morrissey's interest in cooperation over hierarchy has likely resulted in her company's motto: "The dream is in the team." Many of her workers are cross-trained, functioning as supervisors on some projects and carpenters on others. "There's not a lot of ego here," she notes. The Burlington native believes that everyone involved in a construction project -- owners, architects, subcontractors, and employees -- matter equally. Furthermore, she maintains positive and productive relationships with her clients and her staff by focusing on personal responsibility and problem-solving over fault-finding. "You find better solutions to problems when you take blame out of the equation," she explains.

Architect Michael Wisniewski has experienced Morrissey's professional maturity. They have worked together on several projects, including the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf and the Rose Street Artists Co-op, and he has consistently found Morrissey's working style unique. "In a standard owner-architect-contractor relationship, everybody is usually out to protect their own turf. The art of construction is an imperfect process, and there's a tendency to say, 'It's not my fault -- it's your fault,'" Wisniewski says. "With Jeanne, though, that's not an issue. She finds a way to resolve problems by working cooperatively rather than adversarially."

Eric Seidel, the New England Culinary Institute's facilities director and the owner's agent on NECI Commons' renovations, has worked with J.A. Morrissey on many occasions since the Church Street project. "I wouldn't use anyone else," he says. "Jeanne surrounds herself with unusually competent people. The thing I remember most about NECI Commons is that they all made it fun. They always had smiles on their faces, and they took pride in their work."

Jill Allaire, office manager at the company's Twin Oaks Terrace headquarters, appreciates working for a hands-on president: "Jeanne has a gift for relating to people. Even though she's the president, she always considers everyone else's needs and opinions."

Morrissey's ability to establish loyal and supportive relationships with her work force results in greater efficiency, as well. Jim Benware has noticed this each time J.A. Morrissey has built one of Benware & Company's McDonald's restaurants or playplaces. Benware, who will be operating 17 McDonald's restaurants in Vermont once Morrissey finishes building an Enosburg Falls restaurant in June, says he feels J.A. Morrissey does business the old-fashioned way. "If a subcontractor doesn't complete something, for example, they'll have him on the job the next day to finish up. That doesn't often happen with other companies. That means they're not only treating you well, but they're also treating their subcontractors well when they respond that quickly."

Morrissey's approach to team-oriented over top-down management creates a relaxed environment in the company's modest office on Twin Oaks Terrace. Office manager Jill Allaire appreciates working for a hands-on company president. "She'll answer the phone or go sweep and clean on a project if that's what needs to be done," says Allaire. "Jeanne has a gift for relating to people. Even though she's the president, she always considers everyone else's needs and opinions."

John Atherton, one of Morrissey's field project managers, is so satisfied working at J.A. Morrissey that he plans to be there until he retires. "I've worked for a number of other construction companies, and I've also worked for myself," he says, "and Jeanne does a much better job than I did." Atherton offers an example of Morrissey's sensitivity and loyalty to her colleagues: "My 20-year-old son recently passed away," he says, "and she closed the company the day of the funeral."

Peter Smejkal, one of the company's two vice presidents (along with Morrissey's younger brother, Jim), chimes in with Allaire and Atherton. "She's as good as it gets," he states without hesitation. "I've never gotten so much moral support at any other place. Any job is a challenge, so you need to be surrounded by people who are on the same page with you -- people who care. Jeanne cares."

Morrissey does not attribute her interpersonal skills to anything specific. "That's who I am," she explains. "I've always liked people and viewed them as equals. That means treating everyone with dignity." Being a woman in an industry traditionally dominated by men is also a non-issue for her. "A young girl asked me once if I ever found that people wouldn't hire me because I'm a woman," Morrissey offers. "I told her that I didn't know because I don't work with those kinds of people."

The third of six children, Morrissey put herself through college while working for her father at Wright & Morrissey Inc., a general contracting business in South Burlington founded by her grandfather in 1934. She says her decision to go into construction was motivated by a decision she made in the sixth grade. "I had a lot of older friends at that time, and none of them really knew what they wanted to do when they grew up. I didn't like that idea, so I decided that I would build my own house and then ponder what I wanted to do with my life. When it came time to look at college majors, I picked civil engineering because I thought it would facilitate my house-building endeavor," she chuckles.

Full-time employment for Jeanne Morrissey's staff is a corporate goal. She's strategically managed her company's growth to assure employees enjoy steady work. From left: John Atherton, Jim Morrissey, Lexi Morrissey, Jeff Densmore, Andrew Seaver and Jeanne Morrissey.

After Morrissey returned from Los Angeles in 1986, she worked for the city of Burlington as a project engineer for one year. She had a multitude of internal jobs, like running the city's paving and sidewalk reconstruction programs. Quickly, though, she tired of the long hours and the stress that came with such tasks as coordinating snow removal projects after major winter storms. When her elder brother, Dan, the president of Wright & Morrissey, asked her to join the family business, she agreed.

She began working as a project manager and was promoted to vice president. She enjoyed working with her brother, with whom she is close, but also came to recognize that she had a slightly different corporate vision. "Over the seven years that I was there, I developed a sense of how I'd like to do things," she says, "and I knew that to be happy, I had to be in charge." While J.A. Morrissey is a $5-million-a-year company, Wright & Morrissey is four to five times that size. Smaller is better for Jeanne, who takes on only projects to which she can give "complete and total attention."

Morrissey's desire to work closely not only with her staff, but with owners and architects, serves her well, as construction management, an industry trend, is on the rise. In general contracting, owners hire architects to develop construction plans, which are then put out to contractors, who bid on the projects. When a contractor is chosen, a lump sum agreement is decided upon. If the project goes over the lump sum, the contractor takes the loss; if it falls under the agreed-upon price, the contractor keeps the gain. In construction management, however, there is no set price in the initial stage of a project. Construction managers are hired as part of a design team early on so that they can offer input and do continuous estimating. As the project takes shape, the construction manager begins to offer an estimate. Once the estimate has been finalized, a guaranteed maximum price is set. If the contractor goes over that amount, he or she takes the loss; if the project falls under the guaranteed price, the remaining funds go back to the owner.

Some years, approximately half of Morrissey's work is made up of construction management projects. "I like construction management because it puts us on the same side of the table as owners and architects," she says. In addition, there is usually less financial risk because contractors have time to discuss plans in detail before contracts are drawn. Atherton believes construction management is popular because owners are looking for contractors with whom they feel comfortable today, and Morrissey's team approach to projects is an advantage, he says.

Over the last three years, another trend in the construction industry has been a surplus of work, making Morrissey's goal of full-time employment for all easy to achieve. "It's a workers' market right now," she says. With more work available than laborers to perform it, Morrissey says it can sometimes be tougher to get materials and subcontractors to arrive on time. In general, she concedes that that is the most difficult aspect of her work. "Sometimes an item isn't delivered on time or it doesn't work, and we're scrambling to address the problem."

J.A. Morrissey Inc. has built or renovated several McDonald's restaurants including this one in University Mall. It will finish construction on an Enosburg Falls McDonald's in June. Foreground: Andrew Seaver (left) and Peter Smejkal.

As she looks to the future, she realizes that she will be contending with an aging work force that might not be able to handle the physical prowess construction work demands. "We may have to restructure and grow at some point down the line," she admits. "That is an issue." What is not an issue is her loyalty to those who have been loyal to her.

Morrissey's staff values her so much that they help support her self-proclaimed new addiction: golf. "They've bought me a golf membership, a traveling golf bag, and rain gear, and they make sure that I can get out and play in the warmer months," she remarks with appreciation. "That's an indication of how good they are to me."

They would surely say it works both ways.

Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer who produces programming about wellness and spirituality for Oxygen Media Inc., a new women's cable television network in New York City.