Happy Home Maker

A Vermont manufacturer

by Holly Hungerford

Connor_homes_jc_68Mike Connor’s company, Connor Homes LLC, designs and manufactures reproductions of Early American homes in a 118,000-square-foot facility that formerly housed Standard Register Co. in Middlebury. Frames, trim, and cabinetry are made in the company’s headquarters and delivered to the site, where the home is erected by local contractors.

How does a young man fresh out of Providence College with a degree in psychology end up founding an award-winning panelized-housing company?

If the young man is Mike Connor of Connor Homes in Middlebury, he follows a deep interest and a desire to enjoy his chosen field of work.

“When I started I didn’t know anything about building a house, but I was very interested in architecture and thought it would be a fun way to make a living,” Connor recalls, smiling.

Connor — one of 12 children — is a Rhode Island native whose family moved to a dairy farm in Bridport when he was 14. Back in Vermont after college in 1969, he went to work in his father’s real estate office.

“Pretty quickly after we came up here,” says Connor, “my dad went into real estate, I think because, when he worked for the Soil Conservation Service in Rhode Island, he knew so many farmers who were moving to Vermont to buy dairy farms.”

Connor adds that his father, Leo Connor, “was probably doing three to four jobs at the same time.” Although he continued dairy farming, within a year of the move to Vermont, Leo took a job with the state advising struggling farm families, and in 1972, he even ran for lieutenant governor.

Also working for the real estate company was Linda Bull, a California transplant whom Connor would marry.

Connor’s interest in architecture led him to open a Middlebury dealership for Northern Homes of Hudson Falls, N.Y., a company that made kit homes and could provide a lot of support to neophyte general contractors. Before long, he and Linda began designing homes.

“Northern Homes was doing a very nice house, but it didn’t have the historic character that I was really interested in,” says Connor. The couple would create a design and send it to Northern Homes, which built the frame for it. Connor then put up the frame and did all the detailing.

In the early 1980s, Connor decided to go off on his own as Connor Building Co., manufacturing his own designs and erecting them. The focus of the company turned exclusively to the manufacturing of mill-built architecture in 2005.

Connor’s houses are reproductions of Early American homes. The company is best known for its New England–style homes. They include Georgian, Federal, and Greek Revival.

Recently, Connor has branched out and begun designing and building homes in the Mid-Atlantic style. “What we’ve learned is that classical architecture that applies to New England in many cases also applies to Mid-Atlantic,” he says. “Of course there are regional differences and you have to learn what they are, but that’s the fun part.

“We’ve become the company that people can turn to when they’re interested in doing vernacular architecture in any region. If we haven’t already done it, we’re more than happy to study it. We love vernacular architecture.”

Manufacturing of the frames, trim, and cabinetry takes place in the company’s 118,000-square-foot facility, formerly the home of Standard Register Co. on U.S. 7 in Middlebury.

Before moving into the facility in August 2007, operations had been in a building on Exchange Street in Middlebury. “We’d outgrown the 15,000-square-foot place and planned to build a new 30,000-square-foot facility. Then this place came on the market and we were able to buy it,” says Connor.

Although the new facility was much bigger than he had in mind, the extra space allowed the company to try initiatives that weren’t possible before. “We’ve expanded our company vision, which is pretty exciting,” Connor says. “We’re doing around 40 or 50 houses a year, depending on the size. We could probably do 150 to 200 houses in this building without changing anything.”

The time it takes from beginning the design phase to delivering a house to the site is typically two to three months. The pieces are precut and preassembled, so putting it together is fairly easy. “If you can build a Lego house, you can build one of ours,” says Connor with a chuckle.

Once the house is delivered, a local contractor erects it with support from the company as needed. “We invite builders to come here; we take them through the shop. If they’re not comfortable with what they see here, we’ll oftentimes send somebody to the job site,” says Connor.

The company offers a program for builders called the Master Builder Program, which developed out of customer requests for recommendations of builders capable of erecting a Connor home.

“We thought it would be a good idea to set up a network of builders who we know can get the job done well,” says Connor. To become a Master Builder, a contractor must apply and meet certain criteria.

“First off, the applicant has to be a competent builder,” says Connor. “He has to be someone his customers would endorse to do the work. We look at business ethics and the way they deal with customers. We check references. Finally, they have to have built a Connor home.”

The typical Connor home is 2,000 to 3,000 square feet, although the company has built one as large as 10,000 square feet and as small as 600 or 700 square feet. The work done on a finished house accounts for about a third of the total cost.

A high-end Greek Revival home with frame, trim, and cabinetry would cost about $165 to $200 a square foot, he says.

Connor says this out-prices the same house framed and built on-site by 25 percent or more, in large part because of efficiency. “We’re able to do it because, in that kind of a house, it’s labor-intensive to do high-end detailing, but in the factory we can do so many things ahead of time. We do so much of the same kind of thing over and over again, our guys are really good at it.”

Connor employs 45 people, many of whom are builders and former general contractors. Twenty to 25 employees work in the cavernous shop with the remainder covering design service, estimates, and sales.

“We are a collection of very experienced builders and general contractors,” says Connor. “We’re able to provide a lot of support that’s not usually available from a manufacturer.”

Like most sectors of the economy, the company was not immune to the effects of the recession. “2008 and 2009 were tough years,” says Connor. “Our total was down about 34 percent, but within our industry, the average was down 70 percent, so we fared pretty well compared to most in our industry.” 2010 has brought an upswing, but he questions whether it is sustainable in this fragile economy.

Elise and Jim Cashen of Hudson, N.Y., bought and built their Connor home in 2007, but their first encounter with the company came 15 years earlier. “When we were first married,” says Elise, “we thought we would be moving from Vermont to upstate New York so we started looking at all kinds of house plans. I fell in love with Connor Homes. The move didn’t happen at that time, but I saved the old black-and-white catalog. Fifteen years later, when we were ready to build in upstate New York, I pulled it out. The whole project couldn’t have gone more smoothly given it was a building project. They were awesome to work with.”

Connor’s first customer thought pretty highly of him, too. He and his then-partner, who later married one of his sisters, built Linda Bull a little house.

“To this day, she was the most enthusiastic customer I’ve ever had,” he says. “And that was back in the day when I really didn’t know what I was doing!”

Twenty-seven years ago Connor and Bull were married and together raised two girls in that house. “I did double it in size after a while,” he says, laughing.

When he’s not at work, Connor relaxes by playing banjo in a bluegrass band. He and his longtime friend Greg Humphrey started Snake Mountain Bluegrass 25 years ago. The band plays gigs around Addison County, many of which are at the Ball and Chain in Brandon.

Says Connor with a laugh, “We’ve got a huge, huge fan base between Leicester and Brandon.” Not quite enough to quit his day job, though. “I’m having way too much fun.” •