Gorham Sand & Gravel: A Foundation of Excellence and Hard Work
BUXTON – Tom and Jim Shaw didn’t have toy trucks when they were growing up; they played with the real thing instead. In addition to their lifelong on-the-job experience, the brothers’ upbringing has helped to shape the flavor and future of Gorham Sand & Gravel. Celebrating 35 years in the business, Gorham Sand & Gravel has made its way to success on a foundation of simple – but firm – principles. First and foremost, Gorham Sand & Gravel enjoys a reputation as honest and hard working, core values that even the company’s most ardent competitors would agree are true. And, if you talk to employees – or even former employees – you’ll find that even though they might not be related, each and every person at the company is treated as family. The Beginning: Teenage Businessmen
It’s not that construction is necessarily in the Shaw family bloodline, but hard work and entrepreneurship must be in their genetic code. Tom and Jim were two of nine children on a rambling farm in Gorham. Their father, Dewayn, always had a venture going: the farm, a hardware store, and always, always building. Throughout their childhood and adolescence, Tom and Jim worked for either their father or older brothers, Jon and Dan, who own Shaw Brothers Construction Co. By the time they were 4 or 5, the brothers already had been on tractors and the like, and they were well acquainted with heavy equipment – actually working the stuff – by the time they were 10 or so. “Our father didn’t have much fear,” Tom said. Even as young boys, Tom and Jim displayed an eye for business – they would, for example, often walk to a nearby auction and bring home items for their mother, or ride the ponies to auction. “There were no Saturday morning cartoons for us when we were kids – it wasn’t like that,” said Kitty Faulkner, a sister. “They worked all the time – it’s what they liked to do.”
As with many successful businesses, the brothers had an unyielding focus on doing a job well. Jim’s wife, Kathleen, tells the story of meeting her husband in 1987, right when the company was getting off the ground – or into it, rather – and getting picked up for their second date in a low-bed tractor trailer. “In 2005, on the way to my birthday dinner in the pouring rain, Jim had a phone call,” she recalled. “We had to stop at a job in Portland to fix a drainage problem in the street caused by the flooding rain. I sat in the car for about 20 minutes while Jim ran equipment. I realized, with a grin, that some things never change. Later we continued on to dinner like nothing happened, aside from Jim being more wet than when we left the house.”
These days, the slim and uncertain start of Gorham Sand & Gravel is the stuff of lore: these two teenage brothers, 17 and 19, who already had a valued work ethic, decided to strike out on their own shortly after Jim graduated from high school. From the start, they were business savvy, with a clear direction and sense of purpose.
That first year, the brothers said, the company might’ve earned $100,000 or so, and equipment was slim. Tom purchased a dump truck and some concrete panels, and soon after, the brothers bought Standish Sanitary, a garbage collection company. By 1994, the brothers had sold Standish Sanitary and the foundation portion of the business to focus on earthwork.
The construction industry during those years was enjoying a housing boom, and there was little competition. “They got into it at a time when it made sense,” said Mark Curtis, GSG’s operations manager. When times were lean, Jim would recall his father’s mantra: “What are they gonna do, take away your birthday?” And so on they went, working harder and harder, each brother running a crew and bidding as low as they dared on contracts to earn jobs that would grow the business.
“They didn’t have much back then,” said Deb Sawyer, an original Gorham Sand & Gravel employee who did the books – and about everything else. There were times, Sawyer said, that neither brother could pay himself, but they made sure the few employees who started out with the company were treated well.
Lisa Allen, a sister, is part owner of V&M Rental, located in the original Gorham Sand & Gravel building – which also had been owned by their father. “I’ve come full circle,” she said. “When I walk through here, I remember the old days when it was just Deb pretty much running the whole show.”
GSG Grows…and grows
It didn’t take long, though, for all of the hard work to pay off with business success. “It was great watching them grow – because they grew really fast,” said Sawyer, who gave the company a one-year notice when she decided to move to New Hampshire. “If they needed me tomorrow, I’d be there for them.”
From those early days, the company has emerged as a powerhouse in the construction industry, the go-to guys for earthwork; lines for sewer, storm drains, water and utilities; excavation and backfill for foundations, gravel for roads, parking lots, and sidewalks. They’ve gone from a handful of employees to more than 50, and owning 450 acres, including three gravel pits.
Recently, revenues topped more than $15 million – not bad for a pair of brothers who still poke at each other as if they were back home on the farm. And, though they used to get jobs by being the low bidder, Gorham Sand & Gravel has forged a reputation for being on time, efficient, fair, and for performing great work. Contractors now call on them for important jobs; some 40% of their business, Jim said, comes from repeat customers and referrals.
“The whole organization, from the guy in the hole to the guy running the shop, their commitment is what makes them different,” said Greg Patterson, owner of PATCO Construction Co. Central to the company’s philosophy is a strong belief in the Maine work ethic and values. Business often is done with a handshake, nothing is bought unless it’s necessary, and the company makes a priority of paying its bills on time. Independent contractors, in fact, often are paid within days of their work, and the company has always had a goal of being debt-free. “With Gorham Sand & Gravel, it is what it is – you can take their word to the bank more than any piece of paper,” Patterson said.
Speaking of Banks and paper…
Both brothers now marvel at what is now company lore – how their mother helped to finance the birth of the company. As the story goes, in 1987, Tom, then all of 19, knew he needed some capital to buy a backhoe, so he turned first to his father. Dewayn, however, wanted to charge a higher-than-usual interest rate on the loan. The brothers then went to their mother to co-sign a loan, who considered the request overnight before agreeing to put her house up for collateral – the house that was built by her now-divorced husband, Dewayn. “That was a good lesson for us,” Jim said, chuckling. “He wasn’t going to give us anything – we didn’t expect him to, anyway.” Their mother, Sally, still lives in the house. On the wall is the note, framed, and presented to her years later by her sons.
Working Hard – and Smart
Gorham Sand & Gravel also works smart – every project is tackled with a variety of strategies to overcome any obstacles and can continue to work efficiently. And while Tom and Jim have retained their character, they’ve also looked ahead to new technologies. Years ago, for example, a job site was outlined with wooden stakes, which these days more often than not are replaced with hand-held GPS devices that clearly map out the terrain, including all existing facilities and proposed improvements.
“One thing you can say about those boys – they’re not slow,” Patterson said. “They’re smarter than heck.” Some of Gorham Sand & Gravel’s highest praise comes from two competitors – Jon and Dan Shaw. Jim and Tom began working for their brothers at an early age – seven or eight – and soon learned the value of working hard. “It’s pretty rare to see two guys start out with nothing and do as good as they have done,” said Dan Shaw. Perhaps what it boils down to, Jon said, is Tom and Jim’s way of treating people, and their value of working hard. They are, he said, tough to compete against. “During the day, we’re not brothers, we’re competing against each other,” Jon said. “At night, after work, it’s over with, and we all have a beer together.”
A Reputation for Taking Care of People
It’s this ability to treat people right that has earned Gorham Sand and Gravel a strong reputation. “All four of my brothers feel it wasn’t them who made their businesses what they are, it was their employees,” Kitty said. “It takes a whole family to run a business.” If you talk to employees, the owners are the key to the success. If you talk to the owners, the employees are the foundation. “We have great people here,” Jim said. “If you ask me, we have the best people in the business.” Many employees have been with the company for 15 years or so, Tom said, adding that they consider employees as extended family. Jim and Tom also have been known to help out employees who have left the company – offering business advice. “Employees leave these guys and they help them with business?” Patterson said, impressed. “Who does that? No one does that!” Or, in Deb Sawyer’s case, Tom spotted her at a restaurant one day and paid for her lunch. “If you ever need anything they’d make sure they were there for you,” she said.
The company’s graciousness extends beyond employees: Gorham Sand & Gravel believes strongly in giving back to the community. Each year, they donate thousands of dollars to good causes; in 2007 alone, they contributed to local schools, youth sports teams, Camp Sunshine, Habitat for Humanity, and the Gorham Women’s Club, and many others.
Jim Roberts, a longtime employee, left Gorham Sand & Gravel for a while, and then returned to the company, in part because of the brothers’ commitment to employees and excellence, and to the greater community. “If you have a good attitude and work hard and want to get it done, they make it worth your while,” he said.
Perhaps that’s the key: Jim and Tom do want to get it done. Perhaps that’s why these boys who once played with oversized backyard toys started what is now listed by Mainebiz as one of the largest construction firms in Maine. Perhaps that explains how they went from being the low-bidder on small jobs to being offered larger jobs because of their reputation. Perhaps that’s how they went from having one truck to now owning 10 dump trucks, two tractor-trailers, 14 excavators, seven bulldozers and nine bucket loaders…
“We never dreamed we’d be this big,” Jim said, shaking his head. “It’s all people – we’ve just got some unbelievable people.” “Two decades into the business”, brother Jon said, “and Gorham Sand & Gravel is just getting going.” “I don’t think they’ve hit their prime yet,” he said.