All in the family
R.J. Grondin & Sons celebrates 50 years of dirt and iron
By Kathryn Buxton
Tucked into the rolling countryside of Gorham, Maine, you can still see some traces of the family’s former dairy farm. In fact, the shop is set on the foundation of the old barn and the shop office occupies the old milk room. A visitor half expects to see tractors and cows emerge from its bays rather than excavators and dump trucks.
Inside the company’s modern headquarters, set back into a handsomely landscaped hillside, three generations of Grondins have gathered around a conference table. There’s Phil Grondin, Sr. who founded the company with his brother Bob, his father Robert, Sr. and his mother Laurence in 1959. His wife Bette is there, too. Two of Phil’s sons are at the table – Phil Jr. and Larry – as well as Ken, one of Bob’s four children who are involved in the business.
Phil Sr. and his brother built the construction company from the ground up after they discovered some gravel deposits on the farm. Every morning, the brothers would milk the cows, make deliveries and then head off to high school (Phil Sr. went to Cheverus, Bob went to Gorham). Despite growing up there, farm life did not appeal to them.
“That’s seven days a week you’re tied to the farm. The cows always have to be milked,” recalled Phil Sr. of growing up on the family farm. “We were not planning on being farmers.”
When they found the gravel, the boys pitched their father on an idea. What if they sold some cows and bought a flat body dump truck? Their father was skeptical. He had inherited the farm from his father and worked it with his wife and seven children. It had flourished, and he was reluctant to let it go. But he eventually agreed, and one of Maine’s most successful family-run construction firms was born.
Phil Sr. said the brothers’ first jobs were hauling materials that were close at hand on the farm – “a little gravel . . . a little loam . . . a little cow manure.” The brothers spent the next decade building the business.
The descendants of farmers who flourished on an ability to identify and buy good dairy stock, Bob and Phil developed an eye for a good piece of used equipment – and the ability to fix things when they broke down. “Back then we didn’t have a lot as far as cash flow. You were your own mechanic and everything else,” said Bob. There is the time, now famous in the family, when an old Ford 700 dump truck broke down, and Bob fixed it by using the engine from the family station wagon.
His wife, understandably, was unhappy.
“That didn’t go over so well,” said Bob. “But it worked.”
Their mother – known to many as “Memere” – was their bookkeeper. The brothers worked hard, spending their days on job sites. At nights and on weekends they repaired equipment and tackled estimates. They’d have their kids check their math.
“That’s how I learned my times tables,” joked Phil Jr., who officially joined the company in the early 1990s and now holds the title of assistant treasurer.
R.J. Grondin & Sons began by taking on small jobs as subcontractors. R.J. remembered the big players back then were also family owned operations run by the Acetos, the Romanos and the Dalfonsos. One of the toughest challenges they faced was breaking into an already established industry. The brothers were persistent and, over time, their persistence paid off.
“We subbed work from them and eventually started taking on small jobs of our own,” said Bob.
Southern Maine was growing, and there was plenty of work for the enterprising brothers. Because their operation was lean, they were often low bidder on new road and municipal utility projects. They also had a reputation for honesty and quality work that won them a growing number of repeat customers for work that did not go out to competitive bid.
In the early 1970s, the company was growing quickly – there were eight full-time employees. The jobs were getting bigger, and so was the equipment. In 1972, Grondin purchased the first Caterpillar excavator in Maine (Model 225).
One sign of growth was the need to bring in more family to help manage the company. Bob was the company president. Phil Sr. was vice president and treasurer. Tom Hey, the husband of Phil and Bob’s youngest sister Bess, joined the company in 1971. He was taking classes at night to earn his master of business administration degree to help Memere with the books. Bess joined the company soon thereafter to run the office and serve as credit manager. “Tom and Bess gave the company a strong office, so Bob and Phil could focus on the jobs. Phil Sr. always says, ‘Every company needs a Tom Hey,’” said Phil Jr.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, the firm became known for its construction on recreational properties. Grondin built beaches at Sebago Lake – “you can’t do that now,” quipped Phil Sr. The company also constructed three golf courses: The Woodlands in Falmouth, Sable Oaks in South Portland and the Falmouth Country Club. During the early 2000s, Grondin was one of several contractors to work on the Maine Turnpike widening.
The company’s good work has been recognized throughout the industry. Both Phil Sr. and Bob received the MBTA’s Transportation Achievement Award. The company’s work with the Maine Turnpike Authority on the 30-mile highway expansion project won the firm a national partnering award from the Associated General Contractors. Grondin has also been recognized with a national safety award from the Associated Builders & Contractors (ABC), and the company hopes to pass the 1-million-hour mark without a lost-time incident by the end of this year.
By the 1980s, Grondin employed approximately 200 full-time workers. Over the years, the Grondins acquired land to feed the business’s constant demand for materials. The company bought a Scarborough sand pit in the late 1970s that they worked until it was closed in the mid-1990s. Grondin reclaimed the land, created a breathtaking 30-acre pond and developed the site as a luxury residential community. Another piece of land the company owned in Scarborough was sold to the U.S. Post Office in 2002 for a new postal processing center. R.J. Grondin & Sons, of course, did the sitework for the project.
Today Grondin has a fleet of about 200 trucks and earthmoving equipment and a workforce of about 130. The company currently operates about a dozen quarries and pits at various locations in southern Maine.
The company also has made strategic investments in the communities where they live and work. Phil Grondin, Jr. retired from the MBTA board of directors this year after 11 years; he also served on the board of USM Institute for Family-Owned Business. Phil Jr. and Tom Hey have both served as MBTA presidents. Phil Sr. is one of the founders of the Maine Aggregate Association. Bob III is a past president of the Maine Chapter ABC. Ken is currently in line to become president of the Associated General Contractors of Maine. Bess Hey is on the board at Southern Maine Community College. Larry is on the board of Maine Aggregates Association, and is a past president of the organization.
The Grondins also have given generously to many community causes over the years, just a few of which include the Westbrook Little League, the Bonny Eagle Robotics competition, Project Graduation and Westbrook Together Days. Then, of course, there is the pier project at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland where R.J. Grondin & Sons, working with Cianbro , Sebago Technics and several other MBTA members, includ---ing Phil’s good friend and former MaineDOT Commissioner Roger Mallar, helped build a multi-million dollar pier and marine education facility.
These days, the company’s distinctive red, yellow and black logo can be seen on job sites throughout southern Maine. Grondin has crews working on public water projects in Portland, Yarmouth and Westbrook. The company also has projects underway in York County. Grondin recently broke ground on a $1.4 million paving project in South Portland where they will install a one-third-mile section of porous pavement for MaineDOT near the Payne Road Bridge in the heavily traveled Maine Mall area. MaineDOT plans to test the performance of the pavement to see if it will work in other high density locations.
Family remains central to the firm’s success, and a new generation of Grondins has stepped into key positions. Four of R.J.’s children are involved in the business: Ken is president of the firm; Bob III is vice president of operations and planning; Chris is equipment manager – “he makes sure all the iron keeps going”; and Vicki manages the office and grounds maintenance. Phil Sr. has two sons in the business: Larry is the aggregate manager or “dirt guy”; and Phil Jr., is the company’s assistant treasurer. Chris’s wife Diana has provided office support since the mid 1980s.
Although she retired in the 1970s, Memere, the family matriarch, remained active with the family and integral to the family business well into her 90s. (She died at age 98 in 2007.) R.J. retired in 2001 and Phil Sr. retired in 2004, but their counsel is frequently sought by their sons and nephews.
The secret to their success in keeping the family peace in their family business is recognizing that “everyone has something that they’re good at,” said Phil Jr.
The transition of the business from the parents’ generation to their children was relatively easy, said Ken, “because R.J. and Phil did it right. . . it was pretty easy to step into.”
Phil Jr. adds that “doing it right” meant having a plan. The transfer took place over several years and included professional advice, ending with Phil Sr.’s retirement in 2004. “Our dads started with a shovel and a bank of gravel, we had a little bit bigger leg up.”
A fourth generation is in the wings, as well. Ken’s sons Jeff and Anthony also work for the company, Jeff as a laborer / equipment operator and Anthony during his summer breaks from college. Chris’ son John also works for the company during the summer.
When asked, Phil says he never regretted leaving the farming life behind him. Heavy construction suited him and his brother. “We could see more rewards in it. The more we did, the more we could see a future in it,” said Phil. “We liked dealing with Maine people where a deal could be made with a handshake.”
The business has changed considerably from those early handshake days with more environmental regulation. “I feel like the general who retires. I used to fight all these regulations, and the younger generation comes along and accepts them,” said Phil Sr.
“Now we do wetland mitigation and vernal pool construction,” added Ken.
“It’s either that or you beat your head against the wall,” said Phil Sr.