The National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) Minnesota Chapter recognized Tomco President Tom Schiebout last night for marking 40 years in business this month. Tom’s fellow NARI Roundtable II remodeling contractors presented him with a special saw blade inscribed with “Still sharp after 40 years!” It was signed by the Roundtable members present at the highly attended event at Union Depot in St. Paul.
“Tomco Company has been a member of our NARI chapter for 20 years. Participation in the Roundtables is an essential benefit of NARI membership. The initiative Roundtable II showed to recognize Tom’s 40 years in business tonight illustrates the fraternal spirit that makes our association both valuable and fun. We congratulate Tomco Company,” said NARI MN Executive Director Beatrice Owen.
When Tom started Tomco Company in 1979 he didn’t imagine where his construction career journey would land four decades later.
“I was six months into doing siding on my own and my brother said he could get a deal if we bought two trucks. It was the first new vehicle I ever bought. The loan officer asked me for the name of my company and I made up Tomco for Tom’s company on the spot,” Tom recalled.
The name stuck and served him well, first as Tomco Siding Company and later as Tomco Company Inc. when he incorporated in 1993. As the business grew, Tom continued to draw on his farm kid work ethic and natural talent for building and fixing stuff to become one of the most highly certified and experienced remodeling contractors in Minnesota.
Today Tomco reminds me of the insurance commercial that says, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.” Tom’s one of only three Master Certified Remodelers (MCR) in Minnesota. He also is a Certified Kitchen and Bath Remodeler, Certified Aging in Place Specialist (CAPS) and certified Lead Safe Renovator.
Tom’s early years
Tom initially launched his construction career by simply taking jobs to pay the bills and discovering along the way what he didn’t like so much.
He majored in electrical engineering at Iowa State and did an internship at his brother’s company but soon concluded it wasn’t for him. “After one summer, I decided I didn’t want to sit in a cube – or work for my brother — the rest of my life,” Tom explained.
Next, Tom worked for various construction companies. He operated a metal-forming brake to fabricate pole barns, set huge warehouse trusses with a crane, welded steel beams into place, built entire homes and installed a lot of siding.
“I was a farm kid so I knew how to weld and run cranes and fork lifts. I was being groomed for superintendent but decided it would be tough for a 22-year-old kid to be supervising 50-year-old block layers,” Tom said.
Tomco built on Integrity
After the experience of working for other contractors, Tom decided he was better suited to be his own boss so he could adhere to the core values that guided the rest of his life. He still recalls walking off one crane job because of unsafe conditions (the crane was underpowered). And he bristled when a homebuilder suggested he cut corners on framing because he could not charge extra for stuff that didn’t show.
After he got laid off from a big commercial job just a month short of unemployment compensation eligibility, Tom resolved to make personal loyalty and fairness priorities in his own business.
With Tomco Company, Tom set a high bar for doing the right thing and earned a reputation for straight talk, honest pricing and resourceful problem solving. A colleague on his National Association of the Remodeling Industry roundtable puts it this way, “Tom doesn’t talk a lot, but when he speaks we all listen.”
Although the size of the Tomco staff fluctuated with the economy, Tom has had no trouble keeping busy, even while recuperating from two knee replacements over a year. Repeat clients continue to fuel new projects to this day.
Lessons from 40 years of construction
Tom would be the first to admit he learned some business lessons the hard way, like the time he forgot to include the cost of the foundation in an addition he built 15 years ago. “It was my mistake, so I ate the $12,000 expense. The client never knew. I didn’t make any money on that job, but I never made that mistake again,” he said.
Although cliché, Tom’s advice to remodeling clients rings true: “You get what you pay for.” He recently told me of a guy who asked what he could do to lower the price. He told him, ‘Well, there are some $10/hour carpenters up in Ham Lake.’ And his wife chimed in, ‘We don’t want $10/hour carpenters building our new kitchen!’ Neither did I,” he said. They signed the contract.
Tom’s advice to young people considering careers in the building trades was even more pointed. “Go to work for a company that’s been in business a long time and employs true craftsmen who can mentor you. If you join a crew that builds starter homes where good enough is the quality standard, you will never learn how to do it right and become a true craftsman yourself.”
He credits Cliff Kommendahl and Buzzy Peterson for supporting his own professional development. Kommendahl gave him his start in commercial construction and Peterson taught him the finer points of finish carpentry while building a V-notch log cabin for his brother. “To this day I have no trouble scribing an 8-ft-long board to fit tightly against a brick fireplace,” he said.
Tom also suggests young remodelers participate in professional associations such as NARI (The National Association of the Remodeling Industry) to learn best practices.
“When you join NARI you take an oath to serve your clients with integrity. Take it seriously. I got some of the biggest and best insights on how to run a business from NARI,” he said.
“The oath and the organization suit my DNA,” he continued. “I have met a lot of people in NARI with principles and morals, who really do care about their clients and not just the almighty dollar and getting the job done.
Still satisfying after 40 years
After 40 years, Tom admits that it is becoming a little harder to head back to work after a weekend at the family cabin, but he still gets a lot of joy making his clients’ homes measurably sweeter.
“When we add a 3-season porch or improve a kitchen layout or make a bathroom accessible or create a nice basement hang-out space for the kids, we know it is going to have a huge impact on how those families enjoy their homes,” Tom said. “I still get a kick out of saying we did that.”
The best part of the job? “Definitely interacting with my clients and making them happy,” Tom said.
Tom also credits the supreme carpenter for guiding him throughout his building career. “I do the work, but I know I’m not really in control. A higher power is watching over me.
Here’s to a short punch list.