Hamilton business survives, thrives in changing economy

2013-12-22T00:00:00Z Hamilton business survives, thrives in changing economyPERRY BACKUS Ravalli Republic The Billings Gazette
December 22, 2013 12:00 am  • 

HAMILTON – Timber framers are like farmers.

“We’re not salesmen,” said Mark Gantt of Hamilton. “We’re craftsmen. We tend to undervalue our product in a business that’s very competitive and not highly profitable.”

And so when the bottom dropped out of the housing market at the beginning of the Great Recession, people like Gantt did everything they could to hold on.

Many didn’t survive.

“This last downturn was pretty painful for people in my business,” he said. “Our old clients helped us get through it. We luckily had some large projects in the pipeline that kept us afloat.”

Now Gantt and his partner, John Perry, are seeing an uptick in the kind of upscale construction that drives timber-framing operations like theirs. Their business is called "Timber Builders."

Over the years, the partners have built a home for Tom Cruise, a barn for Harrison Ford and a Maui getaway for the director of the “Lethal Weapon” series.

“He had Danny Glover’s old boat in his driveway,” Gantt remembered. “We’ve also worked for a lot of people that no one has ever heard of who are much more wealthy than that.”

The partners built their 26-year-old business on service and quality of craftsmanship.

That combination is what has helped them survive the periodic swings of the economy.

On a recent morning, Gantt’s small crew of gifted craftsmen was busily using a variety of hand tools to turn thick beams into works of art. Inside the plain two-story heated shop, the dried Douglas fir beams — some a century old — were carefully notched, shaved and sanded in preparation for placement in a new high-end home at the Yellowstone Club.

“The day the market dropped, we saw our business change,” Gantt remembered. “It seemed like we were still bidding on jobs, but clients weren’t ready to move.”

“In a good market, we get about 90 percent of the jobs we bid on and lose the other 10 percent,” he said. “It completely flipped when the recession started. We were getting about 10 percent of the jobs. The architects were still out there trying to sell people, but the projects weren’t happening.”

That all started to change about a year ago.

“We’ve definitely had a lot more projects to bid on and there is more construction of high-end homes happening,” he said. “We’re starting to get back to where we were before the downturn.”

The partners are cautious. Their crew is half of what it was during the heyday when they took on more of the construction work themselves.

Instead of adding to their workforce, they employ contractors to do some of the construction work.

“We used to do it all, but we are a little bit more careful now,” he said. “This higher-end construction does seem to be more sensitive to political and financial news. Right now, it seems like a lot of the people who have been waiting to do a project are moving forward.”

Today’s project is being accomplished using recycled timbers that come from all parts of the continent via the Bozeman-based business, Montana Reclaimed Lumber.

The most sought-after timber for the most expensive timber-framed buildings is well-aged Douglas fir that’s been reclaimed from buildings mostly found on the East Coast.

“Drier is better in this business,” he said. “It also costs more.”

Some bone-dry beams can cost thousands of dollars. To ensure that not a one is wasted, the partners have developed a system that uses sophisticated drawings that show exactly how everything fits together.

“It’s one of the things our clients like about working with us,” he said. “If you make a mistake on a job that’s thousands of miles away, it can cost you thousands of dollars.”

“My name is on the job,” he said. “It matters to me that it all comes together just like we said it would. That’s how we’ve been able to stay in business all these years.”

Perry Backus is a reporter for the Ravalli Republic. He can be reached at (406) 363-3300, ext. 30, or by email at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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