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16 Businessexcellence January 08 Almost all construction companies have special projects they point to with pride and are eager to cite as an example of the type of work they are capable of producing. For Tri-North Builders, one of those showcase projects happens to be its own headquarters, a 58,000-squarefoot facility in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, just south of Madison, completed in 2006. The building earned a gold LEED certifi cation from the US Green Building Council, and features bamboo and cork fl oors, pervious concrete, natural lighting, locally made materials and insulation made from recycled blue jeans. It’s forty percent more energy effi cient than a standard building of the same size. The facility refl ects the environmental beliefs of co-founder and owner Thomas Thayer as much as current trends in the building industry and society as a whole, says the company’s marketing manager, Robert Thayer. “When we outgrew our old space by quite a few years, there was no doubt in his mind that we wanted our new headquarters to be a gold certifi ed building,” he says. Tri-North is at home in Wisconsin, but is poised to work in all 50 states for its big-name retail clients. Keith Regan learns from marketing manager, Robert Thayer, why the company is ahead of the industry in green building Topofthe green wave

January 08 Businessexcellence 17 “We were heading down that path even before it became trendy to be green. It really evolved from his philosophy about the way things should be done.” Tri-North was founded in 1981 on the idea that there was a new and better way to do construction. Thomas Thayer and his two partners, Joe Donnino and Donald Jones (who have since retired), began with a focus on small retail projects, building drive-through banks and Radio Shack stores, among others. While the company did just over $100,000 worth of work in its first year of business, it did more than $1 million a year later and before long its retail clients were asking it to perform building work outside of Wisconsin. It grew into the rest of the Midwest and before the end of 2008, Thayer says, the company will be licensed in all 50 states, including California, where he sees significant opportunities in the firm’s retail niche. Less than 20 years after it was founded, Tri-North was a $100 million a year builder and today does around $190 million a year in sales. Though it has begun to see more traction in building churches and health care facilities recently, retail remains the company’s bread and butter. It has built stores for Circuit City, Eddie Bauer, Kohl’s, Jared Jewelers and Marcus Theaters, among others and restaurants for the Midwest chain Granite City Food & Brewery. As much as 85 percent of its work in any given year comes from repeat customers and Thayer cites the company’s “brutally honest” approach to working with clients as a factor. “We don’t like to give a low price and kill a project owner with change orders,” he says. “We prefer to be brutally honest with them up front and work with them to avoid surprises.” Tri-North has also grown its repeat customer base by meeting aggressive construction deadlines. Recently, the Marcus chain asked Tri-North to build a new multi-screen theater and had a specific deadline in mind. They wanted it opened by the time Spiderman 3, the summer blockbuster film, debuted. After only nine months of construction, Tri-North made the deadline with two days to spare. “We’ll tell a client if it’s not feasible, but if it’s in the realm of possibility, we’ll try to meet their expectations on timeliness,” says Thayer. “When you do that consistently, it only enhances your reputation.” Tri-North recognizes that it must attract and retain the best people to make that happen, the marketing manager says, with salaries and benefits packages that rival the best in the industry. The company’s innovative headquarters also includes on-site day care and employees are encouraged to interact with their children during the day. “We are a very open company,” Thayer continues. “If there’s ever something personal in your life, there’s no question—family comes first. Just ask and you’ll get the time you need.” Tri-North has also instituted an employee stock ownership plan to help retain top workers and motivate everyone at the company to strive for excellence. Tri-North’s headquarters have helped make it a physical fixture in the Madison area, but it has long been a solid part of the local community. The company encourages employees to donate their time and talent to charities and the business has become a major backer of United Cerebral Palsy, with founder Tom Thayer receiving the national UCP Volunteer of the Year Award in 2006. “We’re about as well known in the community as a construction company can be,” says Thayer. Some of its current high-profile projects help add to that reputation, such as an MSN data center in Fitchburg (where a webcam will offer the public a view of the two-year-long, phased construction project) and a 14-story hotel being built alongside a mall, which it also helped build, in the Hillfarms section of central Madison. Meanwhile, though it moved quietly into its green headquarters at a time when green wasn’t quite the buzzword it is today, it’s now gaining lots of attention as the environmental movement gathers popular traction. “We get a lot of people stopping in asking for tours and I’m one of the tour guides,” says Thayer. He also spends a lot of his time explaining the benefits of building green—including the fact that it doesn’t cost as much as some think it will. “A lot of the questions I get are not from clients or potential clients, but we feel it’s part of our responsibility as a construction company to educate the public on building green.” GreenBusiness