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The Job Interview: North Branch Construction celebrates 55th anniversary

  • From right: Darrell Wing of Hillsborough and Dave Gelinas of Londonderry work inside Tuckerman Hall in Hooksett on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. North Branch Construction Inc. is putting the final touches on the new dormitory building at Southern New Hampshire University.<br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    From right: Darrell Wing of Hillsborough and Dave Gelinas of Londonderry work inside Tuckerman Hall in Hooksett on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. North Branch Construction Inc. is putting the final touches on the new dormitory building at Southern New Hampshire University.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • Ken Holmes has been working for North Branch Construction, Inc., since 1989. In 2006, Holmes became president of the company. North Branch Construction Inc. is currently putting the final touches on Tuckerman Hall, a new dormitory building at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

    Ken Holmes has been working for North Branch Construction, Inc., since 1989. In 2006, Holmes became president of the company. North Branch Construction Inc. is currently putting the final touches on Tuckerman Hall, a new dormitory building at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett.

    (TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

  • From right: Darrell Wing of Hillsborough and Dave Gelinas of Londonderry work inside Tuckerman Hall in Hooksett on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2013. North Branch Construction Inc. is putting the final touches on the new dormitory building at Southern New Hampshire University.<br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)
  • Ken Holmes has been working for North Branch Construction, Inc., since 1989. In 2006, Holmes became president of the company. North Branch Construction Inc. is currently putting the final touches on Tuckerman Hall, a new dormitory building at Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett. <br/><br/>(TAEHOON KIM / Monitor staff)

The mission of North Branch Construction Inc. is printed on the back of every company business card.

“To provide a level of value, quality and service that is unrivaled in the construction industry. This leads to the highest level of client satisfaction; all else (revenue, profit, reputation, employee morale & quality of life) will follow.”

The firm’s quality-focused motto has proven successful. Last month, North Branch celebrated its 55th anniversary serving New Hampshire communities.

The current driving force behind the firm’s success is Kenneth Holmes, who has served as president of the Concord-based company since 2006. After joining as a project manager in 1989, he quickly climbed ranks to vice president, followed by principal and then general manager, before he assumed his current position. Holmes is joined by three other principals who co-own the firm, a leadership model that Holmes said is central to its success.

Holmes sat down with the Monitor to discuss the company’s recent aims, “green building” and coping with the recession.

How has the company grown over the past 55 years?

North Branch originated as a single-family home, agricultural builder. So back in the day, there were dairy barns, horse arenas, apple orchard storage facilities, all kinds of pole barns. We did quite a bit of that, and some light commercial work.

And then, particularly in the ’70s and ’80s, North Branch expanded into the multiunit housing and larger commercial and institutional work, which is state facilities, town and municipal facilities, police and fire stations, town halls, churches, schools, office buildings. Now we build a very wide range of end-use structures.

What have been some of the main developments in the company during your time as president?

We are a big fish in a small pond. We strictly serve the New Hampshire market, and we provide a very high level of service comparable to regular national or multinational firms, but we do it on a small scale here in New Hampshire. The changes that have occurred in the last 20 years have been in just raising the bar of professionalism in terms of how we manage projects and how we ensure success in those projects.

We’ve also significantly increased our emphasis on safety. Over the years things have changed, and while we certainly always wanted to be safe, we’ve recognized that as construction has become more and more complex, it remains nationwide one of the most dangerous industries to be in. We have a multifaceted safety program. There are nine different elements to it, and they all emphasize safety.

Any other major developments?

We certainly have more and more emphasis on eco-conscious building – some people call it “green building.”

Today we have built more LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) facilities in the state of New Hampshire than any other contractor. We have built more site constructed Energy Star housing units than any other contractor in the state. Our own building is a silver

LEED building, as well as one of the few Energy Star-committed office buildings in the state.

And we hope to be building soon the first passive house in the state of New Hampshire.
. . . A passive house is a certified program for a very, very, very energy efficient home. It takes Energy Star housing and raises the bar that much more.

Does devoting efforts to green building have an economic impact on the company?

Building green does not mean building expensive. It can contribute to costs, but it’s really all about payback.

When we first develop a relationship with our clients, we try to determine what their goals are for their project. Some of our clients want to go beyond the dollars and cents, but even on just the dollars and cents, building green makes sense.

And then some of our clients want to go above and beyond that just of being good stewards of Mother Earth and the community.

Speaking of finances, construction was one of the industries hit the hardest by the recession. Has the downturn significantly affected North Branch?

Our business philosophy is that every project we do has at least one principal of the firm directly assigned to the project.

So that really limits the number of projects we do, from as few as eight to as many as 15 significant projects in a year.

Some of those projects might be $1 million to $2 million projects, and some might be over $50 million. So our volume has traditionally gone up and down.

That being said, the direct answer is yes, undoubtedly and significantly.

It’s been frustrating that over the past five years, while volume has continued to go up and down
. . . what is different is the level of competition, margins, and unfortunately we’ve gone up and down in terms of employment.

Where traditionally we’ve tried to maintain and slowly grow our employment, unfortunately in the last five years we’ve gone up and down a bit like a yo-yo.

How has the level of competition changed?

There are fewer projects out there and just as many firms.

Very few firms have actually gone out of business, so there’s a lot more competition.

If your volume changes so frequently, are you able to tell if the company is approaching a recovery period at all?

The recovery for us would be a stability of employment, a steady backlog of work and higher margins.

This year is actually tougher than last year, but we do see a glimmer of recovery for next year.

A vast majority of our work is under design building or construction management arrangements with our clients, so we’re brought in at the very beginning stages of the project.

So the folks we’re talking to today are for projects that might be a year or two years from now, whereas we could use more work today, more physical work, in-the-ground building.

Is the downturn in the housing market one of main reasons the economic recession has affected the company?

Statewide, housing has certainly slowed down some. On the multiunit affordable housing side it definitely has slowed down.

Certain things, like we’ve done assisted living and independent living and elderly living, those projects have also slowed down in this economy due to what I hear is funding.

That’s one of the reasons we build a wide range. In order to keep busy, we need to be flexible in the types of things we build.

Because some markets are hot while other markets are weak, we have purposefully gone into many markets so we can remain viable even when some markets turn down.But unfortunately, this current downturn in the economy was almost across the board.

What are some of the projects you’re working on in the Concord area?

We do quite a bit of work at St. Paul’s School. We’re currently doing some projects there this summer. . . .

We just completed Parmenter Place, a multiunit affordable housing project.

We are one of the largest, if not the largest, affordable housing contractor in the state of New Hampshire.

We’re also working on the New Hampshire Hospital Acute Psychiatric renovation. And we were just awarded a contact for Community Bridges to build a social service housing project in or near Concord.

(Mel Flanagan can be reached at 369-3321 or
mflanagan@cmonitor.com)

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