Building on Experience

by Keith Morrill

At age 50, Tom Mackin said, ‘Enough waiting,’ and took the plunge

Tom Mackin was trying to get away from paperwork and spend more time in the field 30 years ago, when he left an engineering firm to work for a construction company. Twenty years later, he struck out on his own and opened TFM Construction in Colchester. He still deals with paperwork, but he likes running his own company.

It took me a few years to figure out where I rightly belonged,” recalls Thomas Mackin, looking back over his career. He has been many things: student, engineer, vice president, and now president. The last title is one he’s proudly held since March of 1998, when he founded TFM Construction, a company that performs as contractor, finish subcontractor, and construction manager. 

Mackin started his career as an engineer. A native of Burlington, he studied at the University of Vermont in the late ’60s. In 1969, two summers before graduating, he had the opportunity to work for Murray & Blake Construction, which contacted the engineering department at UVM looking for anyone willing to serve as a field engineer at a sewage treatment plant in Kittery, Maine. The experience gave him his first glance at the kind of hands-on work that would guide him in his career. 

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Mackin spent a few years working for two engineering outfits, Webster-Martin and Jennison Engineering. While he enjoyed the work, he longed to get away from the paperwork and be more involved in the field. The construction industry seemed the ideal place to do it. With that aim, he interviewed at Pizzagalli Construction for the position of engineer in training. 

“You make a job change because you think you get away from the paperwork and want to get hands-on,” muses Mackin. “But no matter what you get good with, you have to deal with paperwork.” 

Paperwork definitely seemed a part of Mackin’s destiny, as he excelled within the company. After 10 years with Pizzagalli, Mackin moved up to the position of vice president. 

Over the years, TFM Construction has developed close relationships with clients such as Lake Champlain Chocolates and IBM. Travis Brousseau is a project manager, and WenDee Gilmond is the office manager.

Still, striking out on his own was something that had always lingered in the back of Mackin’s mind, but it wouldn’t be until he was 50 — 10 years after becoming VP — that he would make the jump from his job as vice president to that of head of his own company. 

“A lot of people questioned why I did what I did,” Mackin recalls. “I didn’t want to get to the end of the road and say would’ve-should’ve-could’ve. I guess in retrospect, I should have done it a lot sooner. But you’re not ready till you’re ready.”

His timing was uncanny: Jim Denning was closing his business, Denning Construction. Though not looking to sell the entity, Denning offered a wealth of resources for Mackin’s budding venture: a cache of tools and a wealth of skilled employees looking for work, as well as a warehouse on Birchcliff Parkway in Burlington ideal for the sort of business Mackin was looking to start. 

The change did come with its own challenges. “When I was working for Pizzagalli Construction, I was handling a lot more people in a lot bigger organization,” says Mackin. “When I started the business, I knew what I could do, but it takes a while to really understand who can do what best, and try to teach them your ways without being too micromanaging.” 

TFM Construction began working primarily with clients in the downtown Burlington area, and during that time, developed a close relationship with Lake Champlain Chocolates. Mackin has done work for the chocolatier’s two buildings on Pine Street in Burlington, its retail space on the Church Street Marketplace, and its store in Waterbury. Jim Lampman, founder and CEO of Lake Champlain Chocolates, says of Mackin, “He’s true to his word, and really there for the owner. We are very particular, and his passion for his profession is very pervasive; it trickles right down through his company, and they do good work.” 

One of the projects TFM did was to fully renovate Green Mountain Chocolate’s building at 444 Pine Street to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Lampman says Mackin “really took the reins and led the project through and did an excellent job. He should really be commended for it. Renovating a building such as that, and turning it into a green building that’s LEED certified is quite an undertaking.” 

The effort was rewarded. In 2006, TFM won the Best Builder Award from the Associated General Contractors of Vermont. A year later the company would win the award again for renovation of another large Pine Street project:Dealer.com.

Additionally, TFM has done work for larger clients in the area such as St. Michael’s College, Champlain College, and UVM. Since the first, the company has worked with IBM, “almost continuously,” Mackin says, on an assortment of projects. 

TFM employs about 38 individuals. Though he admits it’s higher than the industry standard for his volume of business, it’s not without reason. “We try to self-perform most of what we do so we can control our own destiny,” he says. For example, he continues, TFM Construction is able to provide full-service carpet finishing without the aid of a subcontractor. 

TFM employs about 38 people. Mark Manley (left) and Sean Mulcahy are project managers.

He confesses that his strong workforce is something of a ticking time bomb. In a few years, he anticipates worker shortages due to an aging workforce, a problem that looms over the entire industry. He estimates that half of his employees are between the ages of 50 and 60. He attributes the impending shortage to fading interest in trades among younger people. “We’re headed down a tough road,” he says,” and we’re going to have to make some changes in how we do things, and what we do them with and who we do them with.” 

In the more immediate future, Mackin anticipates an uncharacteristic shortage of work as budgets tighten and the nation holds its breath and its budgets waiting for the presidential election in November. He expects business will start to normalize by mid 2009, and be brisk again by winter. 

Perhaps a looser schedule will allow Mackin to pursue his other interest in life. An avid fisherman, he’s trolled and cast his line from the northern regions of Canada all the way down to Florida, where he spends a few weeks a year. He gets out on Lake Champlain, too, but all in all, he says, he doesn’t spend as much time fishing as he’d like. 

Mackin has two sons, Seamus, a doctor residing in Durham, N.C., and Padraick, a Vermonter employed at Country Home Products in Shelburne. One is a fisherman, and one isn’t, he says with a laugh.

Mackin sees himself retiring in the next five or 10 years, but he plans to ensure the survival of his company — with his name attached or not — long after he’s retired, perhaps to a life of fishing. 

“We’re one big family, and I want the company to succeed for the employees. That’s the challenge that will be in the next decade for me,” says Mackin. “To make a smooth and orderly transition so that they will have a future. That’s probably the most important thing to me.” 

For now, he plans to continue leading his company with the same passion he’s brought to the site for the last 10 years. “There’s always a lot of excitement when you get a new job, a fresh start,” he says.•