Jon and Dan Shaw have carved a construction empire out of rock and dirt
By Kathryn Buxton
Brothers Dan and Jon Shaw grew up on a farm in Gorham, not far from the 134-acre site on Mosher Road where the brothers’ company, Shaw Brothers Construction, opened the doors of its sprawling new headquarters in 2011.
The site is a one-stop shop for heavy construction. There’s a 48,500-square-foot, two-story, brick office building with an attached shop containing 10 bays for maintenance of the company’s fleet of heavy equipment, including six cranes; and separate shops for welding, washing and painting equipment. The site also includes a separate 25,000-square-foot warehouse. There’s also a 12-by-80-foot, 200-ton scale – one of the largest in New England – for weighing trucks and materials from the Shaw Brothers pit and materials processing plant at the site. There’s a dispatch area with a big-screen TV for monitoring job sites; storage for 65,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline – for the company’s fleet of trucks and heavy equipment; an industrial generator capable of powering the facility through an ice storm, nor’easter or hurricane; three kitchens, a lunchroom and a workout room for employees. The entire complex is heated with waste fuel oil, with a natural gas backup system.
Then there’s the boardroom outfitted with a massive conference table – possibly one of the largest in greater Portland. “We haven’t really used it that much,” confessed Jon Shaw. It is obvious the Shaws aren’t much for sitting around and talking. They are much more comfortable on the move, starting their days early and working hard to oversee the construction empire they began in 1977 with what their web site describes as “two brothers, two employees, a backhoe and a handshake.”
It is obvious from the moment you walk in the door, that the Shaw brothers have big plans for the future of their company. While some may marvel at the company’s impressive new headquarters, the decision to invest in one location where they could consolidate operations that had been spread across several towns, has already proven its worth. The new space has improved organization and efficiency and three shifts, needed at the old plant to “keep equipment maintained,” said Dan, have been reduced to one. The old space was sold to J.P. Noonan, a Massachusetts-based transportation company.
Tom Ellsworth, director of Gorham Economic Development Corp., called the headquarters a “spectacular facility . . . an incredible project for the town.”
Everything about the new building means efficiency. The halls connecting the various departments are wide enough to drive a forklift or loader through, and everything is spotless and well-organized, from the polished concrete floors to the catalogued inventory of equipment parts adjoining the shop where staff maintain the company’s large fleet of heavy equipment to the heating plant that is fueled with waste oil.
“When Caterpillar was building their new regional headquarters in New York, they came for a tour,” said Jon.
More muscle, less equipment
The Shaw Brothers story is one of family, hard work and smart planning. The brothers grew up in a large farm family – in all there were nine Shaw siblings – and were comfortable working with heavy equipment. The Shaws raised dairy cows and planted acres of potatoes and sugar beets. Their father – Dewayn – also started a business building homes.
“Our father did a lot,” said Dan Shaw, explaining how he and his brother learned their strong work ethic. For the young Shaw brothers, the decision to start a construction business came naturally, as well. “There was always a lot of heavy equipment around the farm.”
They started young. The year was 1977, and Dan had just graduated from Gorham high school (Jon had graduated two years earlier). They began with two employees.
Their earliest jobs required considerably more muscle than equipment, because good labor was more affordable than new equipment. Shaw Brothers made its name at first by the brothers pitching customers with the promise that they would do all the site work for a house, from digging the foundations to pouring the concrete to putting in the drains, floors and waterproofing.
“We had to be pretty aggressive to get those first jobs,” recalled Jon. “We used to call it ‘A Package Deal and Guaranteed Dry Cellar.’”
“It took us a long time to get a good customer base,” remembered Dan. “We did hundreds and hundreds of homes. We didn’t have a lot of big equipment. Not like today.”
“We’d do anything that we could,” said Jon.
“We’d put in brick sidewalks for towns, anything that was heavy on the labor,” he recalled. “Today, it’s just the opposite.”
Their business grew in scale when they started taking on projects with municipalities and the utility companies. Still, the work remained labor intensive. By the 1980s, their workforce had grown to nearly 180. Comparatively, they employ about 175 today, though their billings are much higher and jobs are much bigger.
They had timed their entry into the business well, and over the years they have specialized in almost every type of heavy construction imaginable. During the early and mid-1980s, Shaw Brothers installed concrete encased conduits for New England Telephone and underground power lines for CMP. They also served as subcontractors for other construction firms. In the mid-1980s, the housing market began to boom and for several years, the company did site work on many of the condominium projects that sprung up in the region. When a recession hit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Shaw Brothers crews took on more municipal and transportation work, including work on landfills and environmental remediation projects. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, they worked on several “big box” commercial developments in southern Maine.
As Dan described it, they got into the habit of always looking at where the market was headed, and made sure they had the right equipment and know-how to win the next job.
“It’s always about the next job,” said Dan talking about how they grew from just two employees to today’s 175 workers. “We’re always looking ahead to where our next job is going to be.”
Dan also credits their staff for always being there, with the right know-how at the right time. “It’s our people,” said Dan. “They make the difference.”
During the late 1980s, the Shaws purchased their first pit. They wanted to have a reliable source of gravel and other materials for their construction jobs. In fact, over the years, they have collected pits like some people collect baseball cards. Currently, Shaw Brothers owns more than a dozen pits and quarries at locations throughout the region, including the one behind their new offices, the site of a former brickyard. In 2007, Shaw Brothers bought Commercial Paving to test the paving market. They also applied for and received permits to operate an asphalt plant at the new Brickyard site in Gorham. This major expansion into paving was delayed due to the downturn in the economy and the attention needed for the construction of the headquarters, but it may be the next expansion in the future.
Dan is proud to point out that those pits are the company’s long-term strategy for success – ensuring they have the aggregates they need when their customers need them. Having multiple sites also allows them to keep their transportation costs low – and that keeps them competitive when they go out to bid.
“Do you know the rule for success with aggregates?” said Dan, who estimates that Shaw Brothers has enough aggregates to see the company through the next 125 years. “Location, location, location.”
Jon is quick to note that even though they like the big jobs, they are not ones to turn a smaller job away. If someone calls and needs some fill, they will figure out how to fit the delivery into the schedule. They also have developed a reputation for helping cities and towns out in a pinch – say when a water main breaks or a flash flood washes out a road. (On the day before this interview, a Shaw Brothers crew was in Westbrook into the night, helping to repair a broken city water line.)
Shaw Brothers, with its supersized generator that can keep company crews working through all kinds of weather and conditions, also has been designated as an emergency response system for the state.
Shaw Brothers is involved in the professional community. The company is a long-time member of the MBTA, Associated Builders and Contractors of Maine, the Maine Aggregate Association, Maine Asphalt Pavement Association and AGC Maine. Longtime employee Mark Barnes is a past president of MBTA, along with former employee Darren Shiers. Currently Tom Biegel is on the MBTA board of directors. Jon, Dan and their employees have been known to help out in the community, too. Dan and Jon are big supporters of Camp Sunshine in Casco, one of the only camps in the country for families with seriously ill children. They support the ALS Association, Children’s Miracle Network, Maine Handicapped Skiing Program, the Susan Curtis Foundation, Neighbors Helping Neighbors Heating Assistance Program, the Boy Scouts of America Pine Tree Council, the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals, as well as many baseball, softball and other sports teams in the local communities. The Shaws purchased and restored an old fire engine and loan it out for parades and charity fundraising events.
They also support the town of Gorham and Gorham Parks and Recreation. In 2005, Shaw Brothers gave Shaw Park to Gorham Parks and Recreation, a nine-acre park with a baseball diamond and dugouts, concession stands, multipurpose field, boat launch and beachfront on the Presumpscot River.
As always, Jon and Dan are keeping one eye to the future trying to anticipate where the next job will come from and what the next big market for heavy construction will be. Commercial and residential construction still has not recovered from the economic downturn that hit Maine and the country in 2008. Most recently, the company has been busy working on the power grid update for Central Maine Power, as well as several sewer, water and transportation projects.
Like everyone else in the industry, they have been impacted by the recession. They survived by keeping their workforce lean, and were able to put several of their staff, who might have otherwise been laid off, to work constructing the new headquarters in 2010-2011.
“We couldn’t have done that this year,” said Jon.
The Shaws expect the construction market to continue its slow recovery and that work in utilities and transportation will continue to be one of the region’s steadiest markets for a while. “People will always need water, sewer and roads,” said Jon.
At a glance: Shaw Brothers Construction
About: Founded in 1977, Shaw Brothers is one of Southern Maine’s largest earthwork contractors, with 175 employees and hundreds of pieces of equipment. The company owns more than a dozen active pits and quarries in southern Maine, totaling more than 1,350 acres of DEP-permitted resources.
Contact: 341 Mosher Rd, Gorham, Maine 04038; 207-839-2552; fax 207-839-6239; firstname.lastname@example.org