It’s All Relative
John Skutel and Matt Jensen appear to have found the ideal mix of work and family
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
John Skutel spent 22 years at Pizzagalli Construction before teaming up with son-in-law Matt Jensen to form Cedar Ledge Builders in South Hero. The name Cedar Ledge was inspired by lettering on an old mailbox.
John Skutel and Matt Jensen are the first to admit that they have a pretty good life. The owners of Cedar Ledge Builders, a home-building and remodeling contractor in South Hero, they have crafted a comfortable niche that’s paying dividends beyond the financial. Now in their fifth year of operation, and still hoping to remain small, annual sales have risen from $400,000 to the $3 million range projected for this year.
The partners met in the late 1990s, when Jensen accompanied Skutel’s daughter, Maya, home from Oberlin College. “John was the first superintendent at Pizzagalli to have a computer on his desk,” says Jensen. It would be several years later, after Jensen and Maia were married, that the father- and son-in-law decided to have a go at a business partnership.
Both Skutel and Jensen can claim some kind of construction connection in their early lives. Skutel grew up in a Connecticut boatyard and, by 10 years of age, was running a lathe, sanding boats, and repairing wood. After graduation from Fairfield Prep — a Jesuit high school in Connecticut — and a year at John Carroll University in the Cleveland area, he registered at St. Michael’s College. Asked why the shift, he says, with a chuckle, “I’m not sure. It was a school I could get into.”
It was 1969, the first year of the Vietnam War draft lottery, and he drew a low number. “I spent two years in the Navy Seabees,” he says,” and luckily did not have to go to Vietnam. I was a heavy equipment operator.”
He had liked Vermont and returned here following his time in the service. He worked heavy construction as a crane operator, and, for a while in the early 1970s, he owned, with two partners, a residential and light commercial building business called Home Builders Guild. “We did quite a bit of work through Burlington, architectural and woodworking — Overlake condos, stairs, finish work, the renovation of the Champlain Mill, homes, and stuff like that. Then in the late ’70s, the bottom dropped out of the business.”
Skutel went to work for “various other endeavors,” he says, before landing a job with Pizzagalli Construction, where he was a field engineer and superintendent for 22 years.
Jensen is a California native, from Tam Valley north of San Francisco. During high school, he worked for the National Parks Service. “My first job was on the Youth Conservation Corps out in Point Reyes,” he says, and I was there all through college and for two years after college, doing field maintenance, building bridges. I always loved to work and had some good carpentry experience.
He met Maia at Oberlin, where he earned a bachelor of arts in anthropology. “I’m a potter,” he says, “so I did a lot of pottery there — got an education on how to learn, I guess, more than anything.”
When it came time to decide where to settle down, the Jensens had an easy decision to come to Vermont. He worked for the Dock Doctors in Charlotte for a time, and at S.D. Ireland, doing site work layout for a year. Then, he was hired as parks manager for the Winooski Valley Parks District, a job he held for three years. “At that point, John and I decided to start the company,” he says.
Skutel felt the time was right for such a venture. “I had a medical issue,” he says, adding, “I’m a cancer survivor, or so far anyway, and so I said enough of the high stress. My last job with Pizzagalli was downtown Winooski. That’s the type of jobs I was doing. I took some time off and when I came out the other end, Matt said, ‘Hey, let’s start building some decks and stuff!’ I said, ‘OK, that’s a good idea.’”
“John had all sorts of tools and the office was in his house,” says Jensen, “so there were not really any startup costs. We put ourselves out there a little bit, though.”
The name Cedar Ledge was inspired by lettering on an old mailbox found in the upper part of the garage on a piece of property on a cliff in North Hero that the Skutels had bought while their daughters were at college. “We were trying to think of a name for the business,” says Skutel. “Do we call it John & Matt?”
“... and we could do all our invoicing on napkins,” jokes Jensen, interrupting, “but we decided to call it cedar ledge and go professional.”
Back in the ’70s, Skutel had designed a lot of super-insulated homes, “before it was green,” he says. “Even at Pizzagalli, I would manage projects with people doing owner-built homes. When a lot of people learned I was building again, we started getting busier than we wanted to be.”
Skutel believes that one thing in particular has helped spur this growth. “When this started happening, I had tapped into what I learned at Pizzagalli doing construction management,” he says. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll take the commercial process and apply it to residential.’ It’s kind of an open book kind of thing, and it’s really paid off.”
In short, he has applied commercial critical path method (CPM) techniques to residential projects. He was quite experienced with it, having done it by hand before computers, and taught scheduling, among other courses, for the Associated General Contractors for several years.
“The owner gets to see all the receipts, and we do a full itemized budget,” says Skutel. “So the business model I brought out of commercial construction and applied to residential work has gone over big. I had this business in the 70s with 40 employees and, honestly, if we’d had this business model then, it would have been very successful, and we didn’t have a clue. We were 30 years old: very good craftsmen, terrible businessmen and terrible marketers. Now, we have our system set up so that on any day I can see where we are, where we stand, and give it to the client.”
“There’s a lot of work involved in that,” says Jensen, and people feel very comfortable with the experience that John brings and the whole picture they get from us. We’ve talked to a number of people up here who have been really screwed over by builders in the past. They see all our documentation, the invoices, and take that back to their original budget, and it’s good.”
The partners are also spending a lot of money on advertising, Jensen continues. This includes attending trade shows and chamber of commerce events. “So the business model is one reason for our success, but it’s also the amount of leg work we’re doing.”
Two years ago, they moved the business into a building in South Hero owned by CLB Properties, a partnership of Skutel, Jensen, and a third party. CLB also owns the building that houses C.I.D.E.R., an organization assisting seniors in the Champlain Islands.
The office and a storage shop take about 800 square feet. Most equipment is in trailers, which are parked in back, if not on job sites. Running the office is Nancy Appleton, whom Skutel calls “the heartbeat of the place.” Skutel is in the office about 60 percent of the time, and Jenson runs most of the jobs in the field, where there are typically three crews operating on two to three jobs at a time.
Away from work, the partners lead active lifestyles. Skutel and his wife, Mary (nicknamed Berney), a teacher, motorcycle together. He does a lot of kayaking and skiing and teaches t’ai chi in the Islands. “We ski, but not as much as we used to,” he says, adding that he was a ski instructor at Smugglers’ Notch quite a number of years.
“I work a lot,” says Jensen, who, with his wife, recently bought a house, his main project. “I did a lot of pottery in college and taught a course in Burlington — facilitated for the family drop-in with Burlington City Arts. I ride a motorcycle, hang out with my daughter, Ava and wife, who’s expecting our second any day now.” (That’s what he said during the interview, as of June 22, he has an infant son named Griffin Ovi (Ovi for his Danish grandfather). They also enjoy hiking with their two dogs, Husky mixes.
Asked where they go from here generates laughs from both of them. “We built a really big house last year and we said, ‘Well, we don’t want anything bigger than this.’ Then we got a bigger one, and you can’t turn it away.”
We’re trying to be smart about it; trying not to overextend ourselves,” Skutel adds.
“You’ve gotta do that once in a while,” counters Jensen.
“We’re talking right now about do we bring on an architect rather than my doing all the design,” says Skutel. “We’re weeding through that process to figure out where we want to be and what size we want to be. When we started out, we said, ‘Well, two to three guys would be great; 12 would be OK; 15 would be maximum.’”
“... and this year, we’re going to have 15 or 19!” Jensen exclaims.
“I don’t know where we’re going,” says Skutel. “I’m trying to retire. Sometimes I look at this as my secret retirement plan: As Matt does more, I’m doing less and less.” He laughs.
On a more serious note, he adds that they have explored succession planning, but have decided that they’ll keep it a family thing, taking care of one another. •