June 06, 2020

Constructing a point of view Brewer businessman’s philosophy may be behind his new national profile

Jack Kelley likes to build up the construction industry. There’s more to it, he says, than bricks and mortar, bids and budgets. All buildings, if put up correctly, have an intrinsic value that soothes yet caters to the occupants.

These days, the 23-year president of Nickerson & O’Day Inc. in Brewer has a new soapbox from which to air his philosophies on the value of the industry.

This spring, Kelley was elected president of Associated General Contractors of America, a national trade group.

And these days, Kelley travels the country dispensing his ideologies to the organization’s 101 chapters and 33,000 member firms.

Kelley, who said his company and ideals are representative of the construction industry nationwide, keeps his messages simple. They include phrases such as: “The best way is not always the easiest way”; “Be true to yourself besides the building”; and “Don’t take a project such as a casino just to make money when you’re ethically opposed to what goes on in the building.”

“You keep your head down, you do the right thing, and you manage risk,” Kelley said.

Kelley admits that he’s a bit flabbergasted by his new title. Sure, he’s moved up the organization’s ranks for more than a decade, but he said he still considers himself to be the president of a medium-sized construction company that’s located at the end of a dirt road next to the Brewer airport. The headquarters is comfortably simple, not a multistory luxury office building like ones occupy by some of his fellow members.

“That’s not the way we do things in Maine,” Kelley said. “People don’t show off their wealth or accomplishments that much.”

At Nickerson & O’Day, Kelley said, he is a stickler for operating his business in a way that may not be an industry standard, but nonetheless has worked well for the company. Nickerson & O’Day takes only projects that are within 100 miles of its Brewer office because “our workers tend to be in better shape if they can go home every night.”

And the company takes only projects that benefit a community and add value to the people who work within the walls. He said it’s too easy just to win the low bid on a project, put up a building and walk away with the money. A low bid isn’t always the right bid, he said, because there are other costs to consider, primarily the health of the workers inside who will be affected by incorrect air flow, improper use of space and uncomfortable seating arrangements.

He compares his attitude about building a complete building to that of a physician – the doctor may be working on one part, but he sees a whole person.

“Maybe that’s what we do, holistic construction,” Kelley said.

Bids are impersonal and only on paper, he said, so constructors need to become involved in the business by listening to who will be occupying the building.

“What I like about my business is that you get to see a little bit of everybody else’s business,” Kelley said.

While Kelley has his philosophies, he also has his complaints. His biggest one relates to how communities, nonprofit organizations and the state’s universities and governmental agencies award construction bids, particularly those paid for by bond money or taxes.

“One of my pet peeves, if that’s what you would call it, is that the jobs are open to all,” Kelley said. “I get upset when I see out-of-state contractors doing Maine work.”

He said that if a project is being paid for by state taxpayer money, every effort should be made to try to award the construction project to a company located in the state, whether it’s Nickerson & O’Day or not. Also, any nonprofit or business that asks a construction company for money during a fund-raising campaign should then consider hiring that construction company when a building project is planned, he said.

“There’s nothing wrong with Maine projects for Maine people,” Kelley said.

But Kelley doesn’t believe a state law should be enacted to require all construction projects, public and private, be awarded to Maine companies. If that were to happen, he said, Maine construction companies that work on projects out of state would be blacklisted in those states.

The state’s construction market is tough these days, he said. Boston’s market is waning and companies there are looking for work wherever they can get it, including Maine. In the meantime, Maine’s small- to medium-sized businesses are competing heavily here to get and complete projects, he said.

“The small guys are scrambling [for the projects], yet the big guys like Cianbro can get the work but they can’t get the people,” Kelley said. At a recent national trade association meeting, he said, Cianbro President Peter Vigue told the audience that his Pittsfield-based firm was “really looking for people, hunting for people” to fill skilled labor positions.

At Nickerson & O’Day, Kelley said, business tends to “ebb and flow when the economy of the area ebbs and flows.” This year, though, despite the weak economy, the company is handling about 40 projects, with at least five of them in the $10 million to $15 million range. Bids are out on roughly another five projects, he said.

“We don’t just build them in one year; they take several years to complete,” Kelley said.

Nickerson & O’Day has worked on some of the most visible construction projects in the area in recent years. The company was involved in the renovations of the Bangor Public Library, the expansion of The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, and the newly completed Northeast Cardiology building in Bangor.

But Kelley said that of all of the projects, his “most favorite” was the renovation of the Camden Public Library. A quarry stone wall adjacent to the building was dismantled and reassembled to support the renovation and an addition underneath the original building.

The project was written up in Architectural Digest, The New York Times, and Building Stone magazine, and Nickerson & O’Day received numerous awards, including the Build Maine award in 1997.

Kelley said there are a number of features he particularly likes about the building. He enjoys the children’s garden with a reading bench supported by sculptured stone books that represent children’s classics written by Maine authors. And he enjoys the glass-enclosed gazebo on the lawn which allows natural light into the underground addition.

Nickerson & O’Day is working on an “eclectic mix” of projects, including a film storage vault for Bucksport-based Northeast Historic Film, a munitions storage facility at the Maine National Guard in Bangor, and the renovation of the Center Theater in Dover-Foxcroft.

And that makes Kelley happy.

“Things like that are fun to do,” he said.

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