Dan Tishman Nails It: ‘I Think We Have a Resetting of Our World’

Location: I was reading you used to live on a llama farm in Maine.

Mr. Tishman: I still own a llama farm, and I reside there some of the time.


You lived in the Northeast for how long?

When I was in college I set up a scientific research station in southern South America, under a grant from National Geographic Society; we were studying the wild predecessor to llamas. … So when I came back to the States, I ended up buying this farm in Maine for next to nothing. And what do you do when you have a farm? You have to put something on it; so my wife is an animal enthusiast, so we started raising llamas. …  And before we knew it, it was the largest breeding herd of llamas in New England.

 

What inspired the return to the family business?

I kind of decided that I was working for Audubon, I was going to go to graduate school and get my Ph.D. in wildlife biology; and was very involved in wildlife stuff, very involved in science stuff. And I had a house built, and I realized when I had the house built—this was back in 1982—and I realized that this guy who was building the house was a really good craftsman and a really bad businessman. And back then I thought I was a pretty good businessperson, and I ended up saying, ‘Listen, you’re never going to get done with this house. I’m not going to be happy; I think you’re a good craftsman. Let me handle the business side of this deal, and you just finish building the house.’ And we became partners. And we built our little business up in Maine up to one of the larger residential construction companies and light commercial construction companies.

Then, some people who worked for my father, who were his partners, asked if they could come and have breakfast with me, and gave me the ‘You’re the next generation, there isn’t really anybody else’ and ‘Would you be interested in giving it a try?’

 

How are things going these days?

I’m not a contrarian when it comes to the economy. I think we have a very tough road ahead of us. I think we have a resetting of our world, and certainly our industry. So thankfully for us, as a company, we’ve been fairly conservative about the things we’ve done over the last 20 years.

 

How so? You guys build everything.

We didn’t take on a lot of debt. … We’ve resisted the temptation to do what a lot of companies do in this boom time and that is expand wildly and not put the right management structure in place.

 

How much did you have going at the peak?

You have to define the peak, because in reality, a firm like ours has—if you’re operating well, you have a backlog. … You’re talking about a four-year horizon from when you actually get awarded a job to when you finish a job. So we’re actually, in 2008 and 2009, still well into some of the midpoint of our backlog.

 

So do you have as much going now as you did a year or two ago?

We have as much going on today as we did two years ago, although if two years ago, the projects were at their 25 percent line, today they’re at their 75 percent line. And, clearly, what we do see is that going out to mid-2010, that the volume of projects to replace the backlog that we had in 2009 isn’t there.

 

Would you try to shift to more public [sector projects]?

We’re pretty diversified, so unlike some other companies, we didn’t bet the ranch on the residential high-rise industry. That was a part of our book of business, but when that disappeared—it may have been 15 percent of our business as opposed to 60 or 70 percent of our business, and those firms today that did almost all of their book of business in the last two years in the high-rise condominium business, and either had experience in commercial work or public work or didn’t prior, got so tied up in the rush to get all of that stuff done, they’re really having problems.

We’ve been pretty diversified, so even though we’re pretty associated with the majority of the high-rise construction in New York over the last few years, we’ve also, because we’re a big company, we’ve also focused a lot on being diversified. So we probably have 40 percent of our book of business as public work. That might be up from 30, but it’s always been a significant enough percentage of our work that it helps balance.

 

You got Javits [a $463 million renovation of the Javits Center]?

We got Javits and the Freedom Tower is a public project. And a project called PSAC,  which is the emergency call center of the city of New York.

Dan Tishman Nails It: ‘I Think We Have a Resetting of Our World’