Amherst Construction Company Has a Solid FoundationWhen Donald Teagno was young, he never dreamed he would preside over an award-winning construction firm that would weather three recessions, employ 20 people, and specialize in historic renovations, museum work, and other niche services.
In fact, when the founder and president of Teagno Construction Inc. (TCI) in Amherst graduated from the UMass School of Education in the early ’70s, his plan was to teach English.
“I taught for six months at the junior-high-school level,” he recalled. “But I was in a fairly conservative school district, and I couldn’t use the creative techniques I had been taught at UMass.”
After that experience, he decided to embark upon an entirely different pathway that would allow him to utilize his natural talents. “I had always been pretty handy, and I started working as a carpenter for a developer in Amherst,” he said.
While doing so, Teagno became acquainted with a few local architects who needed work done on their own homes. He accepted one job at a time that included making custom furniture for some of his clients. By 1974, word of mouth had spread, and he began operating under the business name ‘Donald Teagno Building Contractor.’
“I was a lone carpenter and a sole proprietor,” he told BusinessWest. “When I became busier, I took on a partner. And little by little, the jobs got larger until I had three or four people working for me. But I had no preconceived notions that I would end up where I am today.”
However, by 1985, the company had grown substantially, and he incorporated under the name Teagno Construction. But he continued working in the field alongside his employees until it became necessary for him to remain in the office to give estimates and keep up with up with his payroll and other paperwork.
Leaving the construction sites to do office work was not an easy transition for the craftsman. “There are certain times during our company’s history when we made major leaps, and his was one of them,” Teagno explained. “But it was very difficult for me to delegate work to other people; I wanted things done in a certain way with a certain quality. Little by little, I was able to relax, once I was sure my reputation was being supported by my employees. But it was a slow process.”
In the early years, he worked almost exclusively with homeowners, putting on additions and doing interior renovations. “It was almost all negotiated work, but in 1985 I started doing larger jobs and branched out into multi-family work and the competitive market. And after about 10 or 15 years, I had built a reputation by doing unique projects,” he said. “We are not famous for it, but we have jacked up buildings to replace foundations, which we started doing in the ’80s.”
One of those jobs resulted in some recognition. TCI is certified by the state as a historical contractor, and its work on an 18-unit row house on South Street in Northampton won an award for historic preservation.
“We did a total renovation and extensive structural repairs there,” he explained. “The building was sliding down, and we had to pick up the foundation, level it, then pour a new foundation underneath it, which can cause some of the plaster inside to crack. These jobs are especially challenging, as it is really hard to figure out their cost. In the process of picking up a house, you find its weak points, so you have to look at it carefully to determine any problems that may arise. In the worst-case scenario, a project will become cost-prohibitive.”
On the Home Front
TCI’s portfolio is diverse and includes work in museums and local colleges. “We even built a ski lodge — the Swift River Inn in Cummington — which is now a school,” said general manager Louis Gallinaro. “And our marquee project on the industrial side was building All Saints Church in South Hadley.”
But the majority of the company’s projects have always been in the residential setting. It is in this realm where the business began and the reason TCI remains so sensitive to its customers’ ideas, thoughts, and feelings.
“Our residential work all started with my reputation for quality work and attention to people’s needs,” Teagno said.
In fact, almost 90% of his work comes from customer referrals. He does little advertising and relies mainly on word of mouth.
Teagno says he has been able to weather three recessions, two of them quite severe in nature, due to his company’s diversity, his commitment to listen closely to what customers say they want, and his quality work. In fact, these are core values that are adhered to during every project, although, on commercial jobs such as restaurant renovations, timing sometimes takes precedence.
“When you listen to people closely, you are able to do what they want in the way they want it,” Gallinaro explained. “Most homeowners have never done this type of work before, and they want to be educated about the entire process.”
Teagno says his employees take the time to inform and explain exactly what they are doing each step of the way, which helps clients feel comfortable.
“Each customer is a whole new experience. We don’t just build things, we have relationships with our customers. And you can’t put a price on a relationship,” he said.
“We want them to have a good experience, so we do the absolute best job we can. Listening to our customers is not lip service for us, and it’s not always in our best financial interest. It would be easier to cut corners to save money, but we don’t do that.”
He says most homeowners are more concerned about quality workmanship than the length of time a project will take to complete. Working in the industrial/commercial arena is a different story, however, as venues such as restaurants have opening dates and tight timelines.
Competitive bidding for such jobs makes up about 25% of TCI’s portfolio, and results in added benefits for residential customers. “It keeps our pencils sharp and allows us to give more value when we negotiate work with homeowners,” Teagno said.
TCI Inc. has done a considerable amount of work in local museums. Its most noteworthy project was a renovation made to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst.
It was built as a private residence around 1856 and is the site where Dickinson composed the majority of her 1,800 poems. “We helped create the visitor’s room within the structure. One section was renovated extensively, but we left portholes in some of the wall sections so people could see how the building was initially constructed,” Gallinaro said.
He told BusinessWest that it was a privilege to work in such a historic setting. “We got to walk on hallowed ground in a building that is on the state and federal register.”
However, working on such old structures presents a stern set of challenges.
“Historic buildings were not built to the same standards we have today; in order to do the work, you need a good foundation, which is how the whole thing started,” Teagno explained, alluding to his firm’s diverse specialty work and the first time he had to raise a building to lay a new foundation. “I was brought in to make some repairs when I was on my own, and the jobs I got after that became increasingly challenging.”
The company is also responsible for renovating the Words and Pictures Museum in Northampton, which has since closed its doors. “The building had all kinds of structural issues. It had been renovated many times and was compromised over the years,” Teagno said.
TCI has also done work at local colleges, which runs the gamut from dormitory renovations to building new science labs and structures, such as an 18,000-square-foot classroom and administration building for the Bement School in Deerfield. Another noteworthy project was the construction of a 10,000-square-foot day-care center for Mount Holyoke College.
“We have also done a number of renovations for medical and dental facilities,” Gallerino said. “Nine years ago, we converted the gas station across the street into a successful practice. The building had been closed for years before we started the work.”
In addition, the company has built and renovated many area eateries, sometimes working in the same building more than once. “Restaurants are usually complicated because they involve a lot of equipment along with special heating and plumbing requirements and fire-safety issues,” Gallinaro said. “And the people we work with all have different needs.”
But no matter who their client is, their approach remains the same.
Teagno’s employees go in with an ear to the ground, making sure they understand the meaning behind a customer’s words so they can transform their dreams into reality.
It’s an interesting way to do business and perhaps not that far afield from the creative teaching methods Teagno wanted to employ long before he started his unique construction company.