Brian Haas, president of VIS Construction

Keeping An “I” On Construction

The “I” in VIS Construction Consultants stands for inspection, and that’s what the company does, but in many forms

by Keith Morrill

Brian Haas is president of VIS Construction Consulting, a multi-faceted service for contractors in South Burlington. His partnership with Linc Prescott has created what they define as a three-dimensional company born from their diverse backgrounds.

Brian Haas and Lincoln Prescott met in the most unlikely of places. Not at a business meeting or on the job, but accompanying their wives to birthing classes during the pregnancies for their first children.

At the time Haas was the owner of a small business called Vermont Property Inspection Services, and Prescott worked as an architectural representative serving northern New England. Neither imagined it would lead to a business partnership, but when Haas decided shortly thereafter to expand his business by taking on a partner, all the pieces fell into place and Prescott joined him. In the meantime, unbeknownst to one another, both had named their firstborns Andrew.

Nearly 25 years later, the partnership they formed has proved to be dynamic. “Linc tends to be a bit more conservative in his fiscal approach,” says Haas. “I tend to be a bit more maverick and liberal.” But the push and pull of that “Odd Couple” pairing works, with Haas acting as president of the company and Prescott as vice president.

Prescott further explains their working relationship. “He’ll listen to me and I’ll listen to him. We either agree or disagree, and somehow always come to an amiable solution.”

Perhaps it’s their diverse backgrounds that give the company its three-dimensional nature.

Haas, a native of Iowa, has building in his blood. “My grandfather on my dad’s side was a blacksmith, my grandfather on my mom’s side was a ship’s carpenter, and my father was a mechanical engineer,” he explains, “so I just grew up building things.”

He continued the family trend after studying political science, philosophy and economics at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, finding work in a cabinetmaker’s shop and learning the art of fine woodworking. At the behest of a fellow crafter, he moved to Colorado where he applied for a state job as county building inspector. The move to Vermont came when he and his wife, Suzy, wanted to be closer to her New York–based family. Once here, he found work with local architects and landed a few clerk-of-the-works jobs, one in Ferrisburgh, another in Vergennes. Then in 1980, he purchased Vermont Property Inspection Services and ran it solo and part-time until Prescott joined him in 1990.

Prescott grew up in Massachusetts and Connecticut. His family belonged to the Hartford Ski Club at Mad River Glen, “so we were always coming to Vermont,” he says. He studied biology and environmental planning at Johnson State College, took forestry at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York, and earned his master’s degree in environmental education at Antioch New England in Keene, N.H., “when I was a ski bum.”

He moved to Vermont to teach biology and earth science at Missisquoi Valley Union High School. Prescott’s current line of work might seem unlikely, considering he began his career in the classroom, but he grew up around this sort of business.

“My father was a hardware sales rep throughout New England,” he says, “so I always knew a lot of the construction projects that were going on.” After realizing he didn’t want to make a lifelong career of teaching, Prescott looked for ways to get into the line of work he grew up with. “I became an architectural representative,” he says, recalling his next career move.

Their varied backgrounds have allowed Haas and Prescott to offer a wide range of services to their clients, and in 2004, they changed the company’s name to VIS Construction Consulting, a moniker that, according to Prescott, more correctly describes the types of services the company is capable of rendering.

Linc PrescottLinc Prescott was working as an architect’s representative when he and Haas reconnected and he joined Vermont Property Inspection Services as a partner. They changed the name of their company to VIS Construction Consultants in 2004.

Those services include project management, clerk-of-the-works, and owner’s representation. “We are allies for owners in the construction zone,” says Haas. “We are extremely strong advocates for the owners’ interests, and we will go toe-to-toe with anyone who is working at cross purposes with the owners.”

With that dedication comes a steady rationale and sense of teamwork that they recognize as essential for quality work. Haas adds, “We always talk about the issues, and really keep away from interpersonal conflict. We think that there’s a way of doing construction and construction project management that allows everybody to be successful — the architect, the contractor, the owner, and ourselves — to walk away with respect for one another, and each having made a dollar in the process, and to turn out a good project, without anyone getting a black eye in the process. We try hard at that.”

VIS also has the technical expertise necessary to guide clients. “We know the technology of construction; we know the process of getting it done correctly; and so we help building owners get through that process in a successful way.”

A key piece of their business is skillful planning and management at all stages of a project, from conception to completion.

“Our goal is to always save the client at least as much as we cost them, if not a good deal more,” says Haas. That’s more important than ever, considering the ever-increasing costs of construction projects. “It used to be that a one- or two-million-dollar project was a big project, and now there’s 30, 40, 50 and a hundred-million-dollar projects,” says Prescott.

In the larger projects, Prescott continues, where there’s so much money at stake, a misstep anywhere along the way could cost a client easily two to three times what it costs to hire an expert. “It’s like taking a good guide with you when you’re going trekking in the Amazon.”

In the jungle that is the construction world, VIS has blazed the trail for countless clients. It’s doubtful that many Vermonters haven’t set foot into at least one building that VIS has had a hand in. A few better-known clients include Fletcher Allen Health Care, schools in nearly every Vermont district, and, more recently, the University of Vermont and Champlain College. The partners also split time between projects in Vermont while maintaining relationships with their out-of-state clients, such as Dartmouth College.

Matt Purcell, associate director of construction at Dartmouth, has worked directly with VIS for several years, as they continue to provide clerk-of-the-works services for numerous major campus construction projects. “They have been just great to work with,” says Purcell. “They really know the business and stay on top of issues. When they’re on a project, it’s going to get done right.”

The VIS portfolio doesn’t stop with on-site management. They work with banks, for which they provide pre-purchase inspections of residential homes and small commercial buildings and act as eyes for banks on larger projects.

“When banks are loaning out money and requisitions come in monthly, I go out and look at all the projects and make sure that they’re there,” says Prescott. He recounts one extreme example as a reason banks look for this sort of service. “We found one developer who actually asked for money for a building that wasn’t even there. Banks like that information,” he adds drolly.

The company employs five other full-time staff, all of whom Haas and Prescott are quick to praise. The other staff members include associates John Dawson, Tom Atkins and Paul Bick, as well as building inspector Bruce Simmons. Another essential member of that team is office manager Danyelle Brownlee. “Danyelle is here every day keeping everything together as far as finances, invoices, payroll, even taking in our clients,” says Haas. “Each of these people works independently.”

The company also employs a number of temporary workers brought on for specific jobs. Depending on the number of projects, there can be as many as 10 people working under the company name.

Additional staffing has been one of the biggest challenges Haas and Prescott have faced over the years. “I think the toughest thing for us is having the employee with the correct skill set available in the right geographic area at the right time when a client needs a specific type of service,” says Haas.

Danyelle BrownleeAs office manager, Danyelle Brownlee handles finances, invoices and payroll and even takes in clients, says Linc Prescott.

Another challenge is the professional headaches inflicted by Act 250, Vermont’s land-use and development law. “It’s overwhelming sometimes,” says Prescott. “You think you have a project, and you don’t have a project. You have another project, and you don’t have a project. It’s that overall business climate that we find very frustrating at times.”

Haas adds, “It’s difficult to plan for it, and it’s difficult to staff for it.”

Fortunately, Haas and Prescott have lives outside the office and are able to unwind from such stresses.

Haas and Suzy’s son, Andrew, is in college. Haas spends a lot of his free time at Malletts Bay. “I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with a wooden boat,” he says, speaking of the 1952 Lyman Islander originally purchased by his father-in-law. “It’s a wonderful heirloom for the family, but it takes a tremendous amount of work to keep it in good condition and running. I’m constantly tinkering and fixing and repairing and refinishing.”

Every summer, he turns into something of a rock star. In high school back in the ’60s, Haas was a member of the garage band Grandma’s Rockers. “We still get together 40 years later and play almost every summer,” he says.

Haas tries to downplay it, but Prescott won’t let it go at that. “He’s being modest. Back in the ’60s, his garage band was one of the top garage bands in the whole country.”

Haas gives in a little. “Our album we put together the year we broke up has become a collector’s item,” he concedes. “It’s worth over a thousand dollars if you can find one.”

Prescott spends his spare time managing his own love/hate relationship —with his golf game — mostly because, as he says, “It’s up and down all the time.” He and his wife, Elayne, also get out on the lake in their sailboat every weekend whenever possible. Their two children, Andrew, 21, and Susan, 18, are in college. In winter, Prescott breaks out his skis and heads to the mountains. “I’ve been on the Mad River Ski Patrol for, I believe, 34 years now.”

The same persistence they’ve shown in play has paid off in their work, which continues to expand to include a growing number of Vermont municipalities. For the future, they hope to offer their services to clients throughout Albany, N.Y., New Hampshire, and even into Maine. “We’d like to become a northern New England company,” says Prescott, a goal they seem to be well on their way to achieving. •