Great Northern Exposure

Since 1976, Bob Schwartz's Great Northern Construction Co. in Burlington has been changing the faces (and some of the innards) of familiar and historic structures in Chittenden County.

by Jason Koornick

Bob Schwartz founded his Burlington construction company in 1976 as Great Northern Woodworks. In '84, he changed the name to Great Northern Construction to better reflect the company's focus.

The owner of Great Northern Construction Co. says he built his business on the "small and smart philosophy." It's an attitude that still governs how Bob Schwartz and longtime employee Dixie O'Connor manage the firm from an unassuming two-room office on lower Church Street in Burlington.

"As a two-person office, we are comfortable putting out a couple million dollars worth of construction projects each year," 51-year old Schwartz says. GNC works on a mix of residential and commercial projects, although the jobs are "slanted more toward residential right now," he says. "Since the beginning, the balance between residential and commercial has shifted depending on the market." The company can handle up to three jobs simultaneously.

"After 20 years in the business, we've decided that we like remodeling because of the satisfaction," 49-year old O'Connor says.

"There's nothing like getting to the end of a project and being proud of the work," Schwartz agrees.

Since 1976, Schwartz and the Great Northern team have worked on hundreds of homes and businesses. Some of the commercial work has been on familiar buildings throughout Chittenden County, such as the King Street Youth Center, the Howard Opera House, Burlington Square Mall and the Old Round Church in Richmond. They renovated and expanded the Milton Veterinary Hospital and repaired the fire-damaged building two doors from the Flynn Theatre in what Schwartz calls "one of my favorite projects."

GNC's specialty, however, is high-end residential renovation and remodeling. Its custom work on private homes has earned the company numerous distinctions and awards, including two top finishes in the 2000 Better Homes Awards sponsored by the Northern Vermont Home Builders and Remodelers Association. This year, the company has four projects entered in the competition.

Schwartz, who grew up in Providence, R.I., gained his first experience in the contracting business when he moved to southern California in 1970 after one year at Roger Williams College in Rhode Island. He worked for an established contractor and learned the intricacies of home building in a part of the country that requires a high level of attention to detail in its construction methods.

"You'd have a house overlooking the ocean that was practically balanced on a stick," he says. "They were huge engineering feats." Each project had to adhere to strict building regulations that would allow the buildings to withstand earthquakes. "They even inspected our nailing patterns," he says. Schwartz believes the challenges of building in southern California prepared him for the historic preservation work he would do in Vermont.

Dixie O'Connor began life with Great Northern in 1979 as a part-time bookkeeper, going full-time in 1985. When the firm lost a project manager, she stepped in and has never looked back. She and Schwartz run the firm from a two-room office on lower Church Street.

He met his first wife while living in Laguna Beach and brought her to Vermont in 1975 for the "clean air and country living." Soon after arriving in Winooski, Schwartz started GNC's predecessor, Great Northern Woodworks "out of the back of a pickup truck." For a few years, he migrated back to California during the winters. Great Northern Woodworks' initial focus was on older buildings, Schwartz explains. During the late '70s, were grants were available for historic preservation work throughout Vermont. Schwartz says he was drawn to the older buildings and liked doing restoration work under the preservation guidelines. Some of his early projects included redoing the foundation of the Old Round Church as well as restoration work on some of Winooski's oldest buildings. He also worked on the Chimney Point Tavern in Addison.

The original Great Northern Woodworks was a small company "just myself and a couple of people," Schwartz recalls. During the busiest times, the company would employ up to 15 subcontractors.

Schwartz met O'Connor when he hired her as a part-time bookkeeper in 1979. She was Dixie Foley then. She had been a manager at the historic Wilson Hotel (across the street from the GNC office) with her former husband. She had little accounting experience but quickly learned the cash accounting system and took accounting classes at Champlain College.

In the early days, O'Connor did tax work, accounting and some human resource duties. She assumed secretarial and administrative duties and went to full-time in 1985. When the firm lost a project manager, O'Connor stepped in to fill his shoes and has never looked back. "Most of what I learned was through on-the-job training" she says.

After a few years of doing business as Great Northern Woodworks, Schwartz realized the name had to be changed, because "people called thinking we were a cabinet shop." The name became Great Northern Construction in 1984.

Due to what Schwartz calls "mostly political factors," the funding and tax credits for historic preservation dried up in the early '80s, but their experience on such projects prepared them for the residential and commercial work that followed.

"In the early '80s, we were trying to find our sea legs," Schwartz remembers. "I feel that we have always been excellent contractors, but these days we are a much better business than we were then. We thought that the more people we had out there in the field, the better the business. Now we are making more good decisions."

O'Connor agrees. "There was a lot of trial-and-error then. We were growing and learning at the same time," she says. "Now we are able to manage the crews better by staffing them around a lead carpenter on each job."

Through the 1980s, GNC worked on myriad commercial and residential projects while building the company's reputation. The rosy economic climate of the late '80s and early '90s led the company to hire up to 15 carpenters and take on speculative work to keep them busy. Schwartz calls the market fluctuations of the early '90s "a reality check because we ended up with spec houses built and unsold."

"Now we are doing it at our own pace," he says.

Schwartz met his wife, Dianne Villa, in 1989 while on vacation in Jamaica. They married two years later. When he's not managing construction projects, Schwartz likes to restore old sports cars, ride a mountain bike and spend time with his wife and her daughter.

Kari Greenbaum is Great Northern's only full-time lead carpenter; the others are subcontractors. Here, she works on a South Burlington addition and renovation project.

During the '90s, the firm found a comfortable balance between size and the amount of work to which it could commit. To this day, the routine is to continue to assign one lead carpenter to each job and use subcontractors to fill out the team, some with whom they have worked for more than 15 years. Schwartz and O'Connor manage the crews and work closely with the customers from the early stages of project planning.

"We are a full-service design-build contractor," Schwartz says. "We work with local architects and keep a hand in both the design and building of a project. We alter whatever needs to be altered and retrofit the space to suit the client's needs."

Schwartz points out that permitting and zoning processes have become a Great Northern specialty. "We have been kicking around this town for a while, so we have a good rapport with the officials. They know our work."

He says that permitting is often "challenging." He stresses the importance of working closely with the designers to satisfy the design and review boards. "The design concerns vary from to town, but there are common threads," he says. "Although some of the regulations are strict, it is for the good of the community. All in all, it speaks to the quality of life and safety of living here. While I don't always agree with every official's point of view, I know that I need to play by their rules."

O'Connor has a personal reason to take Burlington's building codes seriously she is married to Ray O'Connor, the city's chief code enforcement officer. "I know I have to do it right or I'll get in trouble when I get home," she jokes. O'Connor met her future husband when he was a project manager at GNC. They married in 1998.

Besides permitting, Schwartz says the company specializes in custom projects that some builders would be reluctant to undertake. "We seem to do well with the odd, unique twists like antique doors and other special requests," he says.

GNC is not a standard construction company, he says. "Most of our projects involve some engineering work and a lot of specialized techniques."

Schwartz says that GNC will continue to work in its niche of high-end custom remodeling and renovation and general commercial contracting. He says most of the company's business comes by word of mouth and referrals from previous customers. "We don't compete with other contractors," he says, pointing out that they don't bid on projects or offer free estimates. "98 percent of our work is negotiated."

Schwartz recalls repairing the fire-damaged O'Brien Building on Main Street near the Flynn Theatre as one of his favorite projects.

Like other remodelers, the firm does a free initial consultation with a prospective client, then requires a retainer to begin work. If a project moves forward, the retainer is credited against the first bill.

O'Connor is working to complete a certification program from the National Association of Homebuilders and Remodelers. When she finishes the three-year program, she will be the only female Certified Graduate Remodeler in New England. The comprehensive program includes training in business skills such as legal work and estimating. She says the designation will "separate us from other contractors."

Schwartz and O'Connor jointly chair the Remodelers Council Vermont chapter. "A big focus of our work with the council is trying to raise the level of professionalism in the industry," she says.

John Wadhams, vice president of development at Bruegger's Bagels, has used GNC for construction and renovation projects for 12 years, including fit-up of the Church Street location and renovation of the company's Howard Opera House offices. "Their strengths are well-managed jobs, good estimating and budgeting and timely delivery," he says. "They have an eye for detail and are good at taking care of all the small things. With any construction project there are a lot of loose ends and they are there to the very end."

Wadhams praises the company's operating style. "Their employee and subcontractor groups are highly skilled, and they have the management side, which is important." He adds: "GNC is just the right size."

Originally published in October 2002 Business People-Vermont