Horse Barn Builder: Growing his own

country woodshedWhen you build nothing but horse barns, they better be good. So for Tom Brown, president of Barns by Country Woodshed in Peyton, Colo., no detail is too small to ensure that local horse owners call him first.

When he started in 1982, Brown took the money he would have spent on a brochure and instead built a model barn. Then for two years he studied local weather patterns to determine which way a barn should face in eastern Colorado, where snow often falls horizontally. “I checked the wind velocity of every single storm by standing outside, throwing balloons, and looking like an idiot,” he recalls, before he decided that facing south or southeast is best.

Nearly 25 years and some 300 barns later, Brown’s emphasis on quality has not waned. For example, he runs a rigorous apprenticeship program to ensure his employees can meet his standards without supervision. Today all his employees are either current apprentices or graduates of the program.

Ensuring that barn owners have a satisfying experience is the second stage in Brown’s business plan. All barns come with lifetime guarantees. Before each job he asks customers not only basic questions about the barn desired size and uses, but details such as how the owner envisions the barn’s appearance in relationship to the main house. The consultation covers all aspects of the project, from site planning (wind direction, slope) to roofing (gable, gambrel, saltbox, or monitor). Believing that informed consumers are his best customers, he even conducts a well-attended annual seminar that educates horse owners in how to choose a barn builder — whether his own company or another contractor.

“We can build barns full-time here in El Paso County and the surrounding area,” which is about an hour east of Colorado Springs, “because this region is ‘horse heavy’ and there’s a lot of growth,” explains Brown. “In our area, if a woman is buying a house and she’s a horse person, then she’ll look at the barn before the house! So the real reason we can be a full-time horse barn builder is because we’ve earned a great reputation. It’s not an easy business to get into, but we’ve succeeded with quality.”

From start to finish

Brown entered the Army in 1954 and retired 23 years later — after service that included two wartime tours in Vietnam — as a command sergeant major supervising as many as 1,200 men. He and his wife Geralene decided to settle in rural Colorado, where Brown could pursue his hobby as a cabinetmaker and find work as a skilled carpenter. In time, a friend asked him to build a horse barn. “I’d never built one before, but I could also see there weren’t any other barn builders in our county,” Brown remembers. “So I felt there was some real potential to earn a good income.” That was in 1982, when Brown decided to also build a model barn on his own property — and to start throwing balloons during winter storms. Within three years, Barns by Country Woodshed was incorporated with Tom as president and Geralene as vice president.

Under the slogan “Quality, Customization, and Satisfaction,” the company today continues to specialize in post-frame buildings, though metal buildings account for about 10 percent of Brown’s volume. Moreover, he has developed a proprietary building system (“Sorry, it’s a trade secret,” he says) that allows a high-quality horse barn to be erected by himself or a single employee.

“I developed the system because, in the beginning, I couldn’t afford to hire any help!” Brown laughs.

But he is serious about value, believing his wooden pole barns offer a product that goes up quickly with a minimum of waste. With all projects, superior materials are used. Posts are 60 percent pressure-treated, and laminated and pre-engineered for lasting straightness and strength. All nailers are 2×6 and rafters either 2×8 or 2×10. Trusses are seldom used, as steel trusses only become necessary if more than 82 feet of clear span is required.

Today, Barns by Country Woodshed has built equestrian facilities of up to 3,000 square feet with as many as 32 stalls and valued up to $250,000. “But really, our major market is small- to mid-size barns,” Brown reports. “We’ve only built one indoor arena,” he adds, “because they’re beyond our capability. Of the 20 to 30 barns we build in a year, maybe one or two are longer than 100 feet.”

With six employees — including a mechanic, two carpenters, and two part-time workers — the company’s projects primarily range from 24×24 to 36×48 horse barns. Though Barns by Country Woodshed has performed jobs priced as low as $6,000, Brown and his team can go beyond erecting the shell and provide clients with fully customized turnkey facilities that include stalls and tack room.

“Every five or six years we come out with a new barn design of our own,” Brown says, “and our latest one is a Western-style barn.” The 1,296-square-foot facility can be built in 10 days for $24,000, or provided with full interior finishing for $43,000. “The inside of a barn often costs more than the outside,” he points out.

Here, too, detail is important — like an escape string that can be pulled to open Dutch barn doors in case an owner needs to make a hasty exit because of a testy horse. “Safety and convenience are of prime importance to us,” explains Brown, “things such as swing-out doors in horse stalls that allow owners to feed and water the animals without entering the stalls.”

The extra effort has paid off. Business is brisk, with a typical backlog of three to six months.

“Our goal isn’t to be the biggest builder doing the biggest barns,” Brown says. “What I enjoy most is a sense of accomplishment. I’m not about money, but about quality.

“Reputation is what’s important, and it’s not something you can buy. So I take lot of satisfaction in the fact that we’ve set the standards for workmanship in our market.”

Education pays off

Brown’s military background is evident in the organization of his apprenticeship program, which is designed for high school-aged young people. “Very few make it through the third week!” he admits, and so far only three young men have graduated. “Most kids today are attracted to computer jobs,” he says, “but this is a rural area and I felt an apprenticeship program could create some jobs and help our company at the same time.”

Graduates are required to remain with Barns by Country Woodshed for at least five years, “but it’s rare for people to leave us because we pay so well. Our master carpenter makes more than $38 an hour.” In fact, 1997 apprentice graduate Jeff Buckner is still with the company and is helping to train current apprentice Justin Klinkerman.

Apprentices are trained by Brown or Buckner in four phases, starting with unskilled labor at minimum wage. “The second phase goes through the first summer of employment,” says Brown, “and includes a wage increase and more decision-making in tasks they perform. The next summer, which is phase three, apprentices are trained in finish work. Then in phase four they build a 44×24 barn on their own.”

Students learn tool safety, care of tools, how to lay out a building, and basic philosophies of building engineering, as well as engineering mathematics, framing, strengths and weaknesses of barn construction, customer relationships, vehicle safety, loading and unloading equipment, ordering and accepting materials, organization of a worksite, and nailing techniques.

Applicants must be 17 or older, have a background on a ranch or farm or with 4-H, possess good math skills and a construction aptitude, be in school or working toward a GED, have references from other jobs, show evidence of a project they have done, have their own transportation, be in good physical condition, and desire to become a tradesman. Those under 18 must have parental permission.

“The program has a two-part trial period,” Brown continues. “The first is two weeks and the second is four weeks. At the end of week two and again at week six, we evaluate whether the trainee has what it takes to continue the program.” Brown’s annual barn building seminar is another effort to reach into the community, and in the process help his own company. “Attendance is free,” he says, “and so we approach the seminar as a marketing tool, because if a person is informed and aware that’s better for us.”

Timing is part of the marketing plan. “Every January, the Denver Stock Show is a big event for horse people and it starts their juices flowing about possibly building a barn of their own. That’s why we hold our free seminar in February. It makes consumers aware of what a good barn builder should do for them. We even give attendees a checklist.” Though there is no charge, reservations are required. The seminar is usually conducted in three sessions over a Saturday and Sunday.

Brown estimates that about 70 percent of seminar attendees will actually go ahead and build a new barn. These horse owners are invited to attend a second seminar in March where Brown reviews actual construction techniques. “In the end, a lot of people find out that our company can build in six days what it would take them six to 10 weekends to build themselves — and without much difference in the final cost,” he points out. “This also gives us a chance to suggest that we can build the barn, and then let the customer finish the inside.”

Altogether, the range of services offered at Barns by Country Woodshed extends to consulting, layout and design, posthole drilling and post setting, fencing, and the sale of barn hardware, treated posts, weather vanes, cupolas, engraved wooden signage, and steel and trim for metal buildings.

In 2000, after 23 years in the Army and another 23 years in carpentry and construction, Brown admits quit building barns with his own hands. Yet today at age 72 he stays as busy as ever running a thriving company, managing six employees, training apprentices, teaching seminars, and taking a proactive approach to marketing. He knows that “they’re not going to erect any statues when I die,” but is proud that more than 300 horse barns will bear long-lasting testimony of his commitment to quality.

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