The House of Stewart

To Don Stewart, running a construction project is like conducting a symphony

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Don StewartWhen Don Stewart came to Vermont with his wife in 1987 to continue, part time, his work with a Christian organization, he needed another part-time job, and was hired to help install kitchens. When he was laid off eight months later, he and his wife launched Stewart Construction in Essex Junction, incorporating the ethos of his Christian past with his own idea of how life should be.

When Don Stewart expresses thanks for living in a place where handshake agreements are still common and honored, he knows whom to thank. His God is never far from his mind and heart. 

Stewart is the president of Stewart Construction Inc. in Essex Junction, a regional general contracting company he started in 1988, a year after he, his wife, Anne, and their four children came to Vermont. A minister by training, he had worked for years for a nonprofit Christian organization that focused on helping people understand the Scriptures, he says. “I did it through college — in a leadership training program — full time for eight years.” The move to Vermont represented a shift in focus. 

A native of Wilmette, Ill., Stewart had graduated from high school and was working to save money to travel overseas when he met Anne Swanson in 1971. “I was a townie,” he says with a chuckle, “and had decided I did not want to start college right away. She was at Northwestern University, and one of my best friends was on the same floor with her.” 

Not long after they met, Stewart left for his year overseas. After he returned, their relationship blossomed. They married in 1975. He earned an associate’s degree in theology, then a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Wisconsin in 1978. 

“It gets a little crazy,” he says. “A lot of things are conjoined here: college and marriage and the Christian work we did, all in the early and mid-’70s and from that point on.”

By 1987, they were living in Las Vegas, and, although he loved his work, Stewart says he had decided it was time for him “to go out and work a job like everybody else did.

“We also wanted to come north,” he continues. He and Anne, who is from Wisconsin, missed the seasons. “We had an opportunity to come to Vermont and work for the organization in a different — part-time — capacity.

“I had the most wonderful job in the world already, working with people I loved and who loved me, with the opportunity to serve God full time, but I wanted to apply what I had learned as best I could in a working environment as well. I felt that was an important aspect for me to grow personally.”

Coming to Vermont, Stewart says, was a wonderful experience for the “down-to-earth Midwesterners. “We found that people here were very real. There was no facade: They didn’t tell you they were going to do something and then do something else.” 

He needed a part-time job. He had done carpentry work on Chicago high-rises to help cover college expenses, and in 1973, just back from overseas, he spent three or four months with relatives in North Carolina and worked construction there. “I didn’t really want to go back into the construction business, but it just sort of happened,” he says.

Ted Cleary, Roger Mason, Larry LeFebvre, Cody Goodwin, Steve Sturgis, and Tim SeymourStewart does a lot of work for schools, hospitals, and nonprofit housing organizations. About 20 employees work in the field. Ted Cleary (left) is a carpenter; Roger Mason is a foreman; Larry LeFebvre is a project superintendent; and Cody Goodwin, Steve Sturgis, and Tim Seymour are carpenters

He landed work helping install kitchens with Clem Stine, a local contractor, for whom he worked for eight months. “Then he hired his brother and let me go, which is pretty funny,” says Stewart, laughing, “because some years later, Clem ended up working for Stewart Construction!”

Jobless, and having left his paid Christian work, Stewart realized that he could build on his construction background and start his own company. “Where we are today is a direct result of a couple things my wife and I did pretty much off the bat,” he says.

“We sat down and asked ourselves, What would we want in a construction company that we hired? We decided we would want quality, integrity, and service, and we have tried over these 20 years to hold to those three basic principles, and they have stood up under the test of time.”

Integrity, he says, means, among other things, placing oneself in the other person’s shoes — to understand what the other person is trying to accomplish; to understand that everybody needs to come out ahead. 

They launched the company in 1988, and by Jan. 1, 1990, it was incorporated. They ran things out of their basement for the first few years. “We were living in Essex Junction” he says. “The garage was the storage space for the construction company.”

Around 1994, the operation moved into a little office on Main Street in Essex Junction. “At that point,” says Stewart, “I realized that for the company to grow, I needed to have somebody run the projects, and I would concentrate on developing business relationships and estimating and acquiring the projects.” He found that somebody in Ed Henderson, who worked for the company until his death a couple of years ago. Stewart still mourns the loss, but was warmed by his employees’ response.

“I lost a guy I had worked arm-in-arm with for 15 years. It was a real shock to the system, but I had people in the company just step up and say, ‘I will take over here; I’ll step up.’ And they did.”

That attitude, he says, is part of what has helped him grow the company. From day one, his approach has been to find what people are capable of doing — what they do well and enjoy — “and we as a company try to put them in that situation.” 

He’s not necessarily describing hearts and flowers. “In a way, we throw them into the deep end, because it’s very important that work challenges people and that they grow,” he says. “We’re going to push you to make the right decisions, so whether it’s with me or another employee or somebody on the outside, do the right thing, make the right decision, and everything else follows along.”

This approach, he says, is one of the reasons a company of his size can get by with only five people in the office supporting the 20 or so in the field.

In 1995, the part-time bookkeeper, Martha Stewart (“Martha-no-relation-to-me-Stewart,” he quips), came on full time as the chief financial officer. Growth continued, and in 1999, the company bought property near Five Corners and built its headquarters. 

Early on, the company did both residential and commercial projects, but these days, projects are almost all commercial. Stewart speaks proudly of the fact that the company thrives on seeking the most challenging projects possible.

One such project was renovating a 1916 warehouse building at 47 Maple Street in Burlington about 15 years ago. “He was able to take an old warehouse building that was structurally sound, but pretty much everything else had to be done, and in a period of six weeks, we had to move in,” says David Kemp, one of the owners of Jagger DiPaolo Kemp Design, which had bought the building for its headquarters. 

“It could have been a nightmare,” Kemp continues, “but he handled it with great dispatch and got us in there on time — did a very fast job, working with Tyler Scott, an architect in Essex, who did the design.”

Stewart compares his company’s approach to a construction project to conducting a symphony. “We don’t write the piece of music; we don’t design the project; we didn’t commission the design. Our job is to conduct the symphony. Every part has to be played correctly, and we are the conductors.”

That’s why, he says, on a daily basis, he spends time “talking with other people about how to run a successful, ethical, and in my case, a godly business to the best of my ability. We have to reach some kind of common accord on how we choose to approach things.”

The company pursues work in Vermont, New York, and New Hampshire, but 95 percent of the projects have been in Vermont. Most of the clients are nonprofits — a lot of school and hospital work, “a tremendous amount of work for Housing Vermont and offshoots, and a lot of church work,” he says.

He and Anne live in North Hero, where, he says in reply to a question about outside interests, he enjoys “a certain amount of lake activity, watching the lake freeze and unfreeze, and watching the shore birds. 

Martha Stewart, Shevy Dolan, Lance Triebel and George HolcombIn 2000, the company moved into its current space near Five Corners. Only four people work in the office with Stewart, wearing many hats. Martha Stewart (left) is chief financial officer; Shevy Dolan is assistant project manager; Lance Triebel is senior estimator; and George Holcomb is project manager.

“I read voraciously, but read the Scriptures on a daily basis. I spend time in study and thought about the issues I think are important spiritually in life; I take time for my family; and that’s most of it,” he says. “I still am involved to some extent in ministerial service in other areas, and I have an elderly mother in North Carolina I look after.” 

Asked about the future, he replies quickly, “Heck if I know! Here’s my plan: I want my company to be better in what it does a year from now than it is today. I’ve never had a money goal for the company. Goals have always been for me, personally, to honor God and for our business to be a fair representation of what’s the right way to do things as much as we know how.”

“Asked what’s changed in the last 20 years, he’s again quick to reply. “Let me tell you what has not changed. None of the buildings erected in the past 20 years were built in China and shipped here. There may be components that come from other places, but the buildings can’t be outsourced. 

What has changed is the speed at which people expect projects to be done; and the amount of responsibility placed on the general contractor has dreamatically increased.

Last year was the best year Stewart Construction has had. “We worked on the Stowe Mountain Lodge,” he says, “completed a new town hall for Colchester; finished the first phase of Proctor Hall at Middlebury College and started the second; did the women’s lacrosse locker room for the University of Vermont; started a project for the Air Guard, and we’re building a 50-agent border protection facility up in Richford for U.S. Customs & Border Protection.”

That said, this year finds him with not quite the breadth of work as in the past, “but the ones we have are good, high-quality projects, just as large as we want and as complicated as we like, driven by all the factors of need for getting things done quickly — and with challenges!” he adds enthusiastically. 

“They’re great, those jobs, because, man, if you blink, you’d better duck, because something’s coming.” •