It’s All in the Family

In pursuit of longevity

by Keith Morrill

tatro_lead_0516Greg and Dawn Tatro are carrying on the legacy of G.W. Tatro Construction Co., the Jeffersonville business begun by Greg’s father, Gerald, 60 years ago.

Greg and Dawn Tatro believe in building more than just man-made structures. They believe in building individuals and in building communities.

This idea is at the core of their business, G.W. Tatro Construction, based in the heart of Jeffersonville. Greg, company president, and Dawn, vice president, say their aim is to create a company that will long outlast them, and that the only way they know how to do it is to create an atmosphere where employees feel less like coworkers and more like family.

The company tackles large-scale projects focusing on civil construction and work at ski resorts. Its diverse portfolio includes services such as roadwork, site development, and erosion control; renewable-energy projects such as installing hydroelectric works and windmills; and mountain projects like building trails and snowmaking systems. “We’re pretty diversified and I think that’s what makes us so successful,” says Dawn. Equipment World magazine recently named G.W. Tatro its Contractor of the Year.

The Tatros count among their clients a number of municipalities throughout Vermont, and the largest ski resorts in the area, including Smugglers’ Notch, Stowe, Killington, and Mount Snow, “our hugest project ever,” Dawn says. “We have even done some work in Lake Placid”.

G.W. Tatro has had a longstanding relationship with Smuggs in particular, and Tatro and company regularly provides the resort with the full gamut of its services, even doing a bit of plowing in the winter. Greg’s father was involved in clearing Smugglers’ first trails and held the distinction of being the first worker to summit Sterling Mountain in a bulldozer.

Mark Delany, chief planning and development officer for Smuggs, has worked with Greg and Dawn for nearly 40 years. He lauds the skill and professionalism the company has displayed over that time, saying the Tatros and their crew have bailed Smuggs out of more crises than he cares to count.

In January of last year, a fire at the resort destroyed a pump house essential to snowmaking operations. “Tatro was there to help us on that same day,” says Delaney. “They were instrumental in getting the facility back online so we could get right back to making snow without missing a beat.”

G.W. Tatro has a large team backing its efforts. In the summer season the company employs 50 to 60 individuals, and in the winter it scales back to between 20 and 25. In the early days of the business, winter meant a lot of idle time, but the Tatros say it now simply means a shift in focus and energy as the team performs maintenance and repairs on vehicles and bids on jobs, all in preparation for the coming season.

The year-round hustle seems a fitting homage to Greg’s father, Gerald, who founded the business in 1956. Greg describes his father as a pillar of the community, the sort of honest, hardworking man people looked up to.

When he was in high school, Greg spent his summers laboring for his father at the business. “I worked my way up from running a hand shovel and a rake to running the company,” he says. He recalls that his father was an exceptional mentor. “He taught a lot without really trying to teach. He just had a good way of leading and you learned.”

Greg and Dawn met as students at Lamoille Union High School and started dating a year or two after they graduated in 1981. They are celebrating 30 years of marriage this year.

While Greg went to work right away for his father after high school, Dawn’s path to the company was a little less straightforward. The daughter of Johnson dairy farmers, she graduated from Champlain College in ’86 with a degree in accounting. She honed her skills working for accounting firms, and over the years has kept the books for several side businesses the couple owned. These include sand-and-gravel businesses and Tatro Pipeline, one of the first companies in the United States to use Zap-Lok technology to assemble snowmaking systems.

Dawn also bred Morgan horses, including a few world champions. Eventually, Greg persuaded her to step away from breeding horses and put her degree to work running the books for G.W. Tatro Construction.

When Greg’s father died in 2002, the company was left to Greg, his brother, Gerry, and their sister, Gayle. But Gerry and Gayle were interested in other pursuits, and in 2004, Dawn and Greg purchased the company and assumed sole ownership. Reflecting upon that monumental decision to assume the helm, Dawn recalls the immense sense of responsibility they felt toward the company’s employees.

“If we’d decided just to sell the company, then they would have no jobs,” she says. “We knew that we would take a big risk, because we would take on a huge debt load, but they were really important to us. That’s what drove us in the beginning and that’s what keeps driving us.”

Greg admits that their employee-centered approach may be a luxury of having a business that has done well for itself over the years. “In the beginning we were probably pushing harder for profits,” he explains. “But as things got better and debts got paid off, then we could stand back and say, ‘Hey, what’s most important here now?’ It’s the people.”

Walter Culver, a sales rep for Ferguson Waterworks in Colchester, echoes the sentiment. “They have done such a great job keeping the company the way the father started it. It was always a reasonably priced job, good quality work, and it seems they’ve kept that going through the years, which is sometimes hard to do.”

The intent, according to the Tatros, is to keep that going indefinitely. They are now in the process of reorganizing to ensure the company’s longevity. “The object here is to keep this thing going for 50 years, even if I’m gone for 30 of them,” explains Greg.

To that end, they have brought in Flip Brown, a Burlington business consultant, to guide them in restructuring. “This is hopefully going to make us look more like owners than part of the work force,” Greg says.

According to Dawn, it represents a new way of operating. She explains, “That’s really new for the company, because Greg and I are always so hands on.” The Tatros recognize that as the company grows and they’re looking to scale back their own involvement, such a model isn’t sustainable.

For Greg, stepping back means spending less time in the field and empowering project managers to take responsibility for the workers in their charge. For Dawn, it means training administrative staff to take on increasing responsibility in running the company’s finances. And for the company as a whole, it means finding young talent, nurturing it, and growing the next generation at the company.

To facilitate this, the Tatros have supported local schools by providing, in memory of Greg’s father, an annual $2,000 scholarship to a deserving Lamoille Union student interested in technical trades. They say doing so is a quality investment both for the business and for Vermont communities.

“The teacher will pick the person they think would most benefit from it,” says Dawn. “And when they get in school the following year, we invite them to come back here and do an internship.”

The Tatros have also scouted local tech colleges for qualified individuals to serve as interns and employees. “We have a great upcoming engineer — he’s a foreman right now,” says Dawn.

The hope is that this will allow Greg and Dawn to pursue other business ventures and more time to enjoy the fruits of their labor — the wooded trails behind their Johnson home, winter vacations in Costa Rica, and more time with family.

In recent years, Greg has begun to actively pursue real estate development as a business venture. He has had a hand in a number of Vermont developments, including locations near Smugglers’ Notch Resort and in Richmond. He’s currently involved in a development project in Las Catalinas, Costa Rica.

They also want to spend more time with their two children, 23-year-old Jenna and 27-year-old Gregory, who works in human relations at the company. Gregory’s wife, Amy, also works in the office, says Dawn. “She’s head of the administration here. I’m grooming her to take my place.”

The trick to pulling off the restructuring and growth, the Tatros say, is to ensure that the business doesn’t lose its familial feel. They believe that’s where good business starts: with their employees. “We really want to take care of them,” says Dawn.

Greg adds that doing so is simply good business. “You take care of these guys, they take care of the customers. And if you’re honest, you work hard, and you do good work, life’s pretty simple.” •