Man of Steel

An indefatigable work ethic, a down-to-Earth personality and love of challenge have help Don Cameron of Cameron Construction build his business in Vermont

by Sean Toussaint

Don Cameron, owner of Cameron Construction of North Ferrisburg, in front of one of his company's two cranes. Cameron's fleet includes three aerial platforms, two rough-terrain forklifts, an excavator and a tractor.

Shortly after graduating from South Burlington High School and boasting a construction resume he started when he was 13 years old, Don Cameron landed a job with Pizzagalli Construction Co. in South Burlington. He enrolled in the company's carpenter apprentice program and polished his carpentry skills while earning a full-time pay check. Despite a 40-hour workweek plus overtime, Don found time to take on side construction work and continue his singing career.

He worked for Pizzagalli during the day and sang at the Burlington Ramada Inn five nights a week and 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. on the weekends. "I was living up in the Islands that was a long way to some of the job sites, so I used to drive to the job from the Ramada and sleep in my car. I gave a buddy of mine a buck for him to get me a cup of coffee and wake me up each morning."

Things were shaping up nicely for Don: he was earning a master carpenter's wage, was singing a love he developed in the church choir and had recently married Gail Bessette. Then, Pizzagalli laid him off. Looking to cut back its work force in 1979, Don says the company laid off workers with the least seniority. "I might have been the hardest-working guy there, but that had nothing to do with it," Don says. "When you're working for someone else, you're not really in control. I didn't like that. When I left that day, I thought, 'That will be the last time someone lays me off.' "

It could have been worse, Don admits. Gail had a full-time job and Don had side work lined up, and his father in-law, a fellow carpenter, introduced him to a friend who wanted to sell his insulation equipment. With the last $500 in their checking account, the Camerons drove to New Hampshire to buy the tools. "We were driving an old Dodge 15-seat passenger van we had converted for work," Don says. "It was so old, it would leak oil. We had to put a quart of oil in it every 22 miles or so. I remember we were in Montpelier, and we needed two quarts of oil to get back home. We only had two bucks left. The guy gave us a quart for free and we made it home."

For the next few years, Don remodeled and insulated houses in Greater Burlington; Gail worked part-time and helped run the office side of the business. Having put all of his money into his construction company, however, meant Don needed to take just about any job that came his way.

Don grew up in a house in South Hero that didn't have indoor plumbing until he was 13 years old. "We were dirt poor, but it's not something you realize, you know? I don't think I ever knew how poor we were, but it was a good thing because you learn to make do with what you have."

One of the first commercial jobs Don accepted a couple of years after incorporating Cameron Construction in 1980 was pouring new foundations for a string of houses at risk of falling down near the landfill in Burlington. The buildings had no basements, only two-foot crawl spaces. For $2,000 a house, Don crawled on his belly thousands of times, pouring concrete from a bucket. "That was one of the ungodliest things I've ever done," Don says with a reminiscent smile and a shake of his head. "And, you know what? Those houses are still standing."

Almost 20 years after the landfill job, Don has traded in his concrete bucket for a fleet of construction equipment that includes three aerial platforms, two cranes, two rough-terrain forklifts, an excavator and a tractor. He has a little more flexibility in deciding which jobs to take in large part because Cameron Construction is recognized as the largest builder of prefabricated steel buildings in Vermont. In March, Don and Gail flew to Fort Collins, Colo., to accept the award from Butler Manufacturing Co. for selling $5 million worth of Butler products in five years. Butler is the largest manufacturer of prefabricated steel buildings in the world and the company Don has been partnered with for the past five years. As Don jokes, it's like the Kleenex of the steel industry.

"He got off to a fast start," says Dave MacQueen, a Butler representative. "A guy like Don, who cares about the product and the job he does, is exactly what Butler is looking for. He's salt of the Earth. He won the award by working extremely long hours. He hits the bricks every day like it's the first time."

This award comes two years after Cameron won the 1999 Butler Builder of the Year Award in the Northeast, beating out 250 Butler Builders. MacQueen says regional managers choose the builder they want fellow Butler Builders to emulate. He says Cameron was chosen in part because of a system Don developed that helps steel workers visualize intricate parts of the frame they're building. Using a CAD program, Gail prints detailed 3-dimensional renderings so Don can show his workers every angle of the job. MacQueen says Butler is looking to incorporate the process into their corporate guidelines.

"Don's a thinker and an innovator," MacQueen says. "He's always looking at a way to do things better. By taking our drawings and putting them out there for everybody to see in 3-D, he's streamlining the building process. That's one of the things that's made him a leader in the steel building network."

Gail and Don Cameron have been a team in life and work for 21 years. She runs the office while he runs the job.

"It's really Don's show," Gail says. "I've just been trying to keep up with him for the past 21 years." For all of the energy Don brings to the job site, Gail backs him up at the office with her unique flare. While Gail started with Cameron Construction to help out, as the company grew so did her role. Today, with very few exceptions, she's the first contact most have with Cameron Construction. She handles the day-to-day tasks of the office, including payroll, and helps Don with estimating, bids and project management. "Don and Gail are two of the most intense people you'll ever meet," MacQueen says.

Don's reputation started to grow around Burlington after a few residential jobs. About that time, a physician heard about his work and hired Don to remodel his home. That started a string of jobs Don started with Burlington doctors. "The clientele of doctors in general is that they're very focused on their jobs. They have to be. They want someone they can trust," Don says. "I had free rein to do just about anything I wanted to do with a job. I got a chance to use my imagination."

Gail had saved about 30 letters from clients' gushing over the job Don had done. The Camerons credit those letters for making an impression at area home shows.

One of those customers was Paul McNamee, an employee of IBM. "Don took a room that was basically all sheet rock and turned it into this beautiful wood-paneled family room with built-in cabinets and paneling; it's the showpiece of the house."

Don enjoyed the hard work and creativity, but he felt like he needed to move in a direction where he didn't have to be so involved with every task. "I could only make money with these two hands," Don says while displaying the girth of his two calloused hands. "I was spending so much time on these jobs. I felt I needed a way that I could make 10 hands work."

Don said he needed to find a line of work that was simplified, repetitious and cost-effective not so hands-on. He called Pizzagalli and offered his services to Jeff A. Davis, an acquaintance at the time. "Jeff asked me if I knew anything about vinyl siding," Don says. "I told him I could do that, even though I'd never done it before. I knew I could do it, though." So began Cameron Construction's foray into vinyl siding a service the company still offers.

Davis remembers Don as a hard worker just getting started in commercial construction. He says Don wasn't comfortable enough with estimating, so Pizzagalli paid him each week by the square foot. "His work ethic was exceptional," says Davis, who is now the vice president of operations for DEW Construction. "He had this ability to motivate people that was contagious."

Fred Powers, installing vinyl siding at R.R. Charlebois Inc. in Colchester, has worked with Cameron Construction for 10 years. Powers says the company is "busy all the time, and there's

Don and Davis recalled the toughest part of that first vinyl-siding job: an eight-sided cupola for the Sheraton Burlington Hotel and Conference Center. "It was gruesome. I loved every minute of it," Don says while running his hands over an imaginary angle of the cupola. "It was a total concept piece. I loved the math I had to do to make sure every single piece fit. I had to have a vision and make it into something I thought they wanted me to make."

Following the Sheraton job, Don landed a siding job at an affordable housing complex and then to the 64-unit Hampton Inn in South Burlington. Right when Cameron Construction was finding a new groove, in the early 1990s the construction market in Vermont fell through the floor. It was tough going for a while, Don admits, but his versatility and growing confidence in his abilities proved redeemable traits in skirting a recession that took a heavy toll on commercial real estate. "You know how construction trucks have advertisements on the side that say something like, excavation, carpentry and other? For a while, I was the 'other' guy."

His first big job during the slowing economy was also his first experience with steel building, something that would eventually define Cameron Construction. He was hired to build a pre-engineered steel building in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and even though he had never done one before, he didn't think twice about taking the job. "When times were tough, I figured I'd do just about anything for work."

After that job, Don visited a foreman's trailer and offered his services to the Colchester Costco Wholesale building. He started by cutting holes into the cement walls to make room for 38-foot columns. Because he finished the work well before the foreman had expected, Don was kept on to install the building's skylights. Then, he was paid to finish some of the masonry work. "I worked at Costco for six months around the clock," Don says. "That's about a 2 1/2-acre building. I wore out three pairs of those $100 heavy-duty Rockports." When Don started at Costco, he says the building plan was six weeks behind schedule. When he finished, it was three weeks ahead.

Having stunned the brass at Costco, Don went on to build a steel-framed addition to a medical support building in Glens Falls, N.Y. In the process, he teamed up with Bread Loaf Construction Corp. to erect pre-engineered steel buildings for Danforth Pewterers Ltd. in Middlebury, Burton Snowboards in Burlington and the Vermont Teddy Bear factory in Shelburne, to name a few.

About a year into dedicating his efforts toward steel construction, Don said, the company he distributed for hired another distributor in the Burlington area without telling him, so Don severed ties. He asked Gail to find out if Butler Manufacturing needed a distributor in the Burlington area. "Butler is the largest steel building company in the whole world, and Don's asking me to see if they have a dealer in Vermont," Gail remembers. "I'm thinking, 'Yeah, right.' "

Don says he could have never gotten to where he is without the help of a countless number of people. "I've always had people helping me along the way whether it was someone I got to bounce my ideas off or a friend patting me on the back."

He says he's most thankful for his wife and 12-year-old son, Daniel. "Oh, he's great. He's my hero. He comes out and helps me out all of the time. We were in the office a couple weekends ago framing a wall. He wants to be an engineer, but who knows? I'm not one of those guys who tries to make their kids like them."

Until this year, Cameron Construction worked out of an office in the Camerons' North Ferrisburg home but moved down the road on U.S. 7 into 200-year-old barn they renovated. Don is putting the finishing touches on his side of the building and started interior work on another part Don hopes to rent out. A ground floor office is already occupied by The Adirondack Guide Boat Co.

With a permanent staff of eight employees, which swells to more than 20 during construction season, Cameron Construction hit about $4 million in sales last year, meeting a goal Don had set for himself.

Current jobs include construction of the "Collector's House" at the Shelburne Museum. He started working at the site in the beginning of April, even though the ground was too wet to start construction. "I agreed to do the excavation work last year, not knowing what this spring was going to be like," Don says. "But, if we couldn't do stuff like that, we wouldn't be doing anything over there right now."

Don doesn't seem too worried about a possible recession and is looking forward to what might loom on the horizon. "Whatever the next challenge is," he says, "I'm sure it'll make me happy. Whatever happens, the one thing you got to be able to know is that you're never defeated. I'm a firm believer in the saying that when one door closes another one opens up."

Originally published in May 2001 Business People-Vermont