A Hard Day’s Work

This family’s job gets harder and harder

by Will Lindner

harrison0512Janet (left) and James Harrison (right), the founders and vice presidents of Harrison Concrete Construction Inc. and Harrison Redi-Mix Corp., have created a family enterprise in Georgia worthy of the name. Their son, Kevin, is president; and their daughter Kathy Harrison Rabtoy is safety manager and corporate secretary.

Everyone knows building something strong and lasting, with structural integrity, requires starting with a good foundation.

Jim and Janet Harrison of Georgia are in the foundation business. Their companies — Harrison Concrete Construction Inc. and Harrison Redi-Mix Corp. — have built the foundations for thousands of homes, factories, schools, warehouses, agricultural structures, and commercial buildings around the state.

The Harrisons have participated in some of Vermont’s highest-profile and most interesting development projects — undertakings as diverse as James M. Jeffords Hall at the University of Vermont, the already-famous Pump House Indoor Water Park at Jay Peak Resort that opened last December, and the 21-turbine Kingdom Community Wind project under construction on Lowell Mountain. They did the concrete work for Ben & Jerry’s manufacturing and distribution center in St. Albans in 2002, and have constructed the concrete containers for a large percentage of the methane digesters that are now turning manure into electricity on a growing number of Vermont dairy farms.

That would be an impressive corporate resume if it stopped there, but it doesn’t. They have spun off a number of other enterprises, some more and some less connected to the concrete business. In the “more” category are the numerous housing subdivisions they have planned and developed over the years (all needing foundations, patios, and garages, of course).

In the “less” category are Foundations to Success, a Level II daycare in Georgia that the company built primarily for the children of its employees; Georgia Mountain Maples, a new commercial sugarhouse in Milton; and Georgia Mountain Community Wind — Jim Harrison’s baby — a four-turbine, 10-megawatt wind farm on 600 acres of family-owned land, which he has pursued diligently through a nearly six-year development and permitting process.

Construction is scheduled for this spring, and he expects Georgia Wind to be in production before the end of 2012, providing clean, renewable energy for the Burlington Electric Department.

With this level of activity and this range of commitments, the Harrisons have plainly extended the principle of “starting with a good foundation” to the companies they own. They are built on the solid foundation of hard work, trustworthiness, and family.

As for “hard work,” companies with this much going on could only be run by people who thrive on having lots of balls in the air. But even after 30 years of doing business with the Harrisons, Peter Cross, of Cross Consulting Engineers PC in St. Albans, can still be impressed.

“I’ll come to work at 7:30 and I’ll have a message that Jim left at quarter of five in the morning, asking questions and telling me the things he needs me to do that day,” says Cross. “They have so much energy, their hands in so many things. Like the wind project. That’s unique — somebody that owns a concrete business wants to put wind turbines on top of a mountain. You don’t see that every day. It’s just been great working with them.”

Their trustworthiness also is well-known to their business partners.

“They’ve done many substantial projects for us,” says Bob Miller, of REM Development Group in Williston, a real estate development company that has used the Harrisons’ concrete businesses often over the years. “You can go to the site and Jim will get out of the ditch himself to talk to you. It doesn’t get any closer than that. He’s one of the best concrete laborers in the business. They live up to their word and they’re always on schedule.”

As for the “family” part of the Harrisons’ business foundation, testimony lies in the roster of employees. Harrison Concrete Construction and Harrison Redi-Mix have grown to be pretty large companies, employing around 100 people in the busy summertime.

Among them, in addition to Jim and Janet, who are vice presidents, are their son, Kevin, who has taken the title of president, and daughter Kathy Harrison Rabtoy, safety manager and corporate secretary. Kathy’s husband, Marty Rabtoy, and her sister, Kim’s, husband, Rick Fielding, are project supervisors (Kim — Jim and Janet’s oldest child — is a stay-at-home mom). Janet’s brothers Billy and Doug Beyor are also with the company, in operations positions.

That makes a good foundation, for a company that’s all about foundations.

All this started 44 years ago with a $600 loan and a 1963 Ford pickup truck. Jim’s father was a farm worker — on a small farm in East Highgate when Jim was born, and later on a large dairy operation in Sheldon — but Jim, then 21, wanted something different. His first job off the farm was for a now-defunct concrete company in Swanton.

“I liked what I saw of that, and decided I’d give it a try,” he recalls. So he and a partner borrowed the $600 (with difficulty, given their ages) and set out to do concrete construction work out of the back of the ’63 pickup.

Janet, 18 at the time, was already in the picture. She grew up in Highgate and the families knew each other (Jim hung around with her brother Doug, she says). Jim and his co-worker launched their business on September 9, 1968, and Jim and Janet were married on September 21. They took a $45-a-month apartment in St. Albans.

Janet kept her job as a teller at the Franklin-Lamoille Bank because, she says, “that’s what we lived on. Pretty much everything Jim made went back into the company.”

Things began to take off when IBM, which had come to Essex Junction in 1957, started expanding. “That was a major situation for us,” says Jim. “The employees needed housing.”

As the company began growing, so did their family. Janet left the bank, and the couple threw everything they had into a lifestyle centered around their children and Jim’s concrete-construction business. (Jim and his partner separated after a decade or so.)

While the residential market was good for Harrison Concrete Construction, Jim moved into the agricultural and commercial sectors, too — another smart move.

“At any given moment one of those markets is depressed,” he explains, “but probably not all of them at one time. So it’s good to diversify, and that’s what we did.”

Over the years, each of the markets has gone through its own changes, and Harrison Concrete has accommodated. The homes in residential subdivisions have increased and decreased in size and value relative to the economy, so that now, to Jim’s educated eye, they’re something like layer cakes.

“I can drive around in a given development and tell what the economy was like at different times by the way the houses were being built,” says Jim, “because the development will fluctuate as you go through.”

Kevin — who at 37 has taken the reins of president as his father turns more of his attention to particular projects that interest him — says the agricultural market for concrete has gone through its own evolution. He cites free-stall barns, those large, often open-sided structures that house the larger herds common in today’s dairy operations. The tall vertical silos of old have been replaced by concrete bunkers, and there are no stalls in the traditional sense, but vast, horizontal swaths of floor area that call for plenty of concrete.

Kevin has been a part of Harrison Concrete as long as he can remember.

“At 5 or 6 years old I started going to work with my father,” he says. “I had a hammer and holster, and they dragged on the ground. That’s how small I was. Dad would put me in the truck for my naps.”

After graduating from high school Kevin lasted just one semester at the University of Vermont. “I said, ‘I want to go back to work,’ and that’s all she wrote.”

He now lives in Sheldon with his wife, Shannon (who works in her own family’s restaurant and food-service business, the Abbey Group), and their children. As if working together weren’t enough, the whole clan participates in joint vacations and summer barbecues.

“The guys are big into fishing on Lake Champlain, and they go on hunting trips out west in the fall,” says Janet. “The girls are all about family, and there are a lot of young ones now, so that keeps us busy.”

What the Harrisons feel sets them apart is their forward-looking approach to business. They purchased a portable second plant for their Redi-Mix operation, which they keep in Morrisville to supply the concrete they transport to Jay and Lowell. And they are proud of what Jim calls “our backward truck,” a front-discharge concrete truck that enables the driver to operate the chute more accurately and efficiently than the customary rear-discharge vehicles because he can see what he’s doing. They own 18 of them.

One big motivator of the family business is to keep its loyal employees — some of whom have been with the Harrisons nearly 40 years — working year-round. The housing subdivisions and Georgia Mountain Maples were sound business ventures, but just as important, say Kevin, “We kept people working in winter that normally we would have had to lay off.”

From the new sugarhouse, the summit where the wind turbines will go is clear against the sky. In fact, the logo for the sugar operation includes the outline of a wind turbine against the red shape of a maple leaf. As always, the Harrisons are looking forward — to the way things will be done, not the way things used to be. •