Jack Be Nimble

Jack McKernon knows that thriving in business in Vermont requires a willingness to embrace versatility

Jack McKernan (left) stands at the entrance to the massive barn his company, The McKernon Group, refurbished on the grounds of the former Brandon Training School. With him are Carol Betz, the company's vice president and chief financial officer, and Kevin Birchmore, vice president and chief operating officer.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Jack McKernon, president of the Brandon design/build firm The McKernon Group, did his first building project when he was 6 the only way he could be made to sit still for a portrait was to let him build a birdhouse.

McKernon builds much more than birdhouses these days, 62 years and what could be deemed several lifetimes later, but the job of crafting a structure and its environment can still hold his attention. For the last 10 years, The McKernon Group has been renovating structures on the grounds of the former Brandon Training School, where it owns 32 acres and four major buildings, with options on two more. "We bought it for a song," he says, "all run-down, a terrible, terrible mess."

The company spent a year on the mammoth old barn that is now its headquarters but had been the maintenance building for the training school. The former sugarhouse is McKernon's forge, where the company makes hardware for the custom cabinets crafted in the wood shop, located in the former food service building. The construction yard is on the site of the former sewer plant. Everything on the campus has the look of quality and care, which McKernon ensures, because his company also does the lawn work, snowplowing and maintenance.

"To succeed in business in Vermont," he says, "you have to be diverse enough to do all the little things." While it hardly begins to describe him, diversity has been part of his life from the beginning.

McKernon was 10 when he took on his second building project: a carriage shed, working for his next-door neighbor in New Canaan, Conn., an Army colonel who had bought an old house for the lumber to build the shed. McKernon worked 12-hour days for 50 cents an hour.

By 13, getting to be an old hand at building, he hired out for 85 cents an hour to hand-dig a foundation for a porch extension, pouring all the footings and laying up the walls. "After that, I started my own business."

That business was felling elms dying from Dutch elm disease. He was 15. He bought a couple of chain saws the colonel had taught him how to use one "and his mother would take me from dead elm tree to dead elm tree, and I'd cut them down." After he turned 16, he drove himself and his crew of four employees around looking for jobs.

McKernon comes from a prosperous family. His father worked for Union Carbide in New York City. McKernon attended The Gunnery, a prep school in Connecticut, spent time in the Army, stationed in Germany, then returned to attend Dean Junior College outside of Boston, followed by New York University "at night for my finish courses." In all, he had "three and a half years of college education and a business background. I got married and all that stuff, so I had to go to work," he quips.

The McKernon Group designs and builds high-end homes and does "anything else it takes to keep people employed," says McKernon. From left, architectural design team members Adam Ginsburg, Juan Rodriguez and David Martin stand near one of the cardboard models they build to give clients a three-dimensional image.

He landed a job with Pan American World Airways in New York, rising quickly to become the New York agency sales coordinator for all the agencies on the East Coast. After a couple of years, though, New York was wearing on the McKernons. His parents had moved to Salisbury, Conn., in 1954, when he was 18, and he and Judy, his wife, headed back there where he continued his tree business.

A recycler even then, McKernon saved all the logs that looked good. One year, "in about 1962," he had those logs milled into boards so he could build himself a house. "Butternut stairwells, black walnut trim in some spots, I used quite a few woods. Red oak floors, wide-board pine."

Using a plan by Royal Barry Wills, a well-known architect of authentic New England Colonials from that area, "I got the house done, and the neighbors said to me, 'Why don't you build me a house?' and that's how I got into the construction business."

By 1968, his business was grossing about $1 million in sales. "We owned our own construction yard, lumber mill, finish shop. We could do everything from start to finish. I had plumbers, electricians, masons, finish people 65 people working for me."

Occasionally, with a kind of self-consciousness, McKernon shifts to speaking of himself in the third person. "Everything was fine," he says, "until we had an economic downturn, and Jack took the proverbial dive went bankrupt in 1970 basically because I was underfunded. We had all kinds of things going, but we had to close it down."

Down, but not out, however. Ever the versatile entrepreneur, in a year's time McKernon would regain everything he had lost.

He saw a commercial about a new material from Union Carbide. "It showed a helicopter flying to a little sandy island with one palm tree. They flew in, blew up a balloon, sprayed foam on it, cut a door and showed this little house."

McKernon was so intrigued that, taking hope from the fact that his father had worked for the company, he went to Union Carbide's headquarters in New York, got on the elevator, "pushed the 52nd floor button and went to the president's office, where I was greeted by two guards with tommy guns."

Undaunted, he asked for and was granted five minutes with Bernie Mason, the president. That afternoon, McKernon was on a plane to Charleston, S.C., where the company's chemical scientists were working with urethane foam. "They taught me what they knew, I taught them what I knew about how to use this product in construction, and I came back and started my own company: Urethane Foam Operations (UFO).

The company grew quickly, "but this time, I didn't get into a big labor pool; I ended up franchising. We had franchisees in Vermont; Hartford, Conn.; Memphis Tenn., "and we did foaming all over the East Coast."

McKernon did so well in the foam insulation business that, in 1976, he sold it, took the profits and retired for a year. "I took my family to Medellin, Colombia, of all places. Drove the Pan American Highway; the kids became fluent in Spanish; I ended up playing tennis; thoroughly enjoyed myself, but went nuts after a year of doing nothing."

"Delirious from retirement," the self-described workaholic swore he'd never retire again.

The McKernons landed in Vermont because The Mountain School in Vershire had suffered a devastating fire. Planning to send his son there, McKernon volunteered to help rebuild it and ended up being business manager. He was there for two years.

The McKernons lived in Charlotte; he did some remodeling jobs; they bought a house, fixed it up and sold it. "No crew," he says, "just one person working for me."

With a recent master's degree in psychology, Judy was offered a job in Springfield, and they moved to Cavendish, where McKernon remodeled their house. The neighbors asked him to take a job as town manager. He agreed, but only if he could do it part-time. During his watch, Cavendish and Proctorsville merged their governments, and when he left the job after two years, he says, there were no delinquent taxes.

Next, the McKernons and another couple from Connecticut bought a run-down, 575-acre farm in Sudbury, where he met Kevin Birchmore, who's now his partner and chief operating officer of The McKernon Group. Birchmore's father managed a neighboring farm, and McKernon needed some slate work done. "Kevin was off in Texas doing slate work and came home, and his father said, 'Hey, you ought to go down and see Jack.'"

For 10 years, McKernon and Birchmore worked rebuilding the farm. They moved 18 buildings, "and turned that farm into a picture-perfect place," he says.

Helping them was another neighbor, Candy Marcoux, who, he says, is the hardest-working person he ever knew. "She was right out of high school and wanted to paint. I'd give her the side of a barn to paint, and she'd say, 'What's next?' In the winter, we'd cut brush, and she'd drag it. We'd split wood, and she'd stack." Marcoux also continues to work with him today, he says, "training young employees how to work into the company."

When the job was nearing completion, says McKernon, slipping into third person again, "Jack gets major cancer. I had lymphoma and spent nine months on my death bed. I got out on the living side."

"My wife was wonderful to me, brought me through it all," he says, but that nine months had changed him. He and Judy sat down at the kitchen table and, at the end of the conversation, "we agreed to go our own ways."

Judy lives in Connecticut now, and they remain close friends, often spending time together, says McKernon, who claims he'll never marry again.

To keep his workers employed, McKernon bought and rehabilitated a chunk of downtown Brandon. These photos show before (2001, below) and after (2003) views of the block.

Getting divorced meant other difficult decisions, such as selling the farm they had put so much into. Their partners were anxious to sell and took an offer that was "way too low," says McKernon, "and forgot that I had right of first refusal." He exercised that right, took a huge mortgage and, to make sure there was income to support him and reassure his wife, he, Birchmore and Marcoux remodeled the barn into three businesses.

On the top floor was Cotswold Furniture Co., run by John Loomis, a furniture builder trained in England. The middle floor had a window business launched by Andy Keeffe, McKernon's son's roommate. It evolved into Green Mountain Window Co., a Rutland firm that the McKernon family and partners still own half of and which supplies windows for the homes McKernon builds. The bottom floor housed McKernon's construction business.

From that point on, the company just "kept on growing and growing," says McKernon.

Eventually, realizing the house was too large for one person, and to get out from under the debt, McKernon sold the farm and bought a smaller one, the 140-acre Home Farm, in Brandon. It was "the same scenario," he says with a grin, "hedgerows needed to be cleaned up; the house needed total remodeling; again a run-down farm."

McKernon set aside a 10-acre parcel across the street, planning on running the company from there, but the company was growing so quickly that it was soon clear he needed more property. "That led us to the state of Vermont and buying the former Brandon Training School." His home, a showpiece for his work, now sits on the 10 acres.

The McKernon Group designs and builds high-end homes steeped in the New England tradition new homes with all the amenities, but with the soul of 200-year-old farmhouses. "We're a green company socially responsible. In everything we do, we try to live within the environment. We use the most energy-conserving products, use water savers; most of the windows are triple-glazed." Water-based stains are used whenever possible, as is recycled lumber; and old window glass adds character to cabinet doors. Although he sold the foam business years ago, his company continues to use polystyrene in its insulating concrete forms.

To keep his employees working year-round, McKernon buys and rehabilitates commercial buildings like the ones in downtown Brandon completed last year.

The construction business is "a lousy business," says McKernon. "There comes a time when there is no work. It is always the wrong time, generally around Christmas, so what you get is, 'Merry Christmas, here's a pink slip.' I had to come up with a way to keep my guys on.

"To do that, we would take the fund we'd saved up over the summer and put it into an old building."

One building he selected was a "drug-infested mess in front of the Town Hall in Shoreham. We bought that, cleaned it up and remodeled it and turned it into an absolutely glorious place. We did a second building across the street from the town office, and that changed the whole Shoreham look," he says.

"So here we are, and every winter we have to do some other, different project." Grateful for the town of Brandon's willingness to give the company five years of tax stabilization when it bought the Training School property "and we grew like mad," he says McKernon decided to thank Brandon by "buying all the junk in town. This sounds like BS," he continues, "but I really felt we owed that back to the town."

Subtle and not-so-subtle humor can be found around every corner of The McKernon Group's headquarters. Peter Lackey, senior project manager, shares his office with a large flying pig. The nameplate on Carol Betz's desk says "Princess."

He acknowledges now that it might have been the worst investment he ever made. "I couldn't get funding," he says. "It turned out we designed a building that was way too rich for Brandon. Brandonites said it looks beautiful, but we're not paying that kind of rent; the banks said if there aren't rents, we're not going to lend any money."

After scaling the project way back, McKernon used his own working capital. "It was very, very painful. Yes, now we're getting kudos, but our finances are still tight, and we still have one more property to lease out. Once that happens, we'll be rosy again," he says, adding, "It was a financial gamble that almost didn't pay off," crediting his chief financial officer, Carol Betz, with keeping the company afloat.

"We're looking a lot better today," says McKernon. The company has opened an office in Glens Falls, N.Y., to be closer to its growing base of Adirondack customers. "The economy's coming back, everybody's fully employed."

McKernon's always thinking of ways to diversify. Besides the company's offices, showroom and design studios, the barn boasts an enormous training room where the company trains other contractors in safety under VOSHA and OSHA guidelines. He says he learned that one way to keep workers' comp expenses down is to keep a company doctor on staff a half day a week and on call anytime.

"I am having fun," McKernon says. "I'm on a new life; I was given the chance to rebuild a company I had built before, but do it, hopefully, the right way this time."

His eye is now toward the future. "Next is for Jack, who's 68 years old, to get the company in a position that it can be run by somebody else," he says. "I plan on retiring at 70." He hopes to travel more, he says, then confesses he'll probably start another company.

Originally published in May 2004 Business People-Vermont