Rural Builder Hall of Fame: Glen Thomsen

Glen founded Thomsen Construction & Supply in 1974, and has spent his life working in the construction industry, specifically commercial, light industrial, suburban residential, and ag buildings. He received NFBA’s honorary member award in 2003, and has served several terms on the board of directors for both NFBA and the Michigan Frame Builders Association. Glen has also earned several Building of the Year awards from both organizations.

Rural Builder: Tell me about what you’re doing nowadays.
Glen Thomsen: We’re slow in Michigan. We’ve got some work coming up if the weather cooperates, but it has not been the greatest year. Some segments are going strong. Right now we’re working in some areas we hardly ever get into, HUD work, an 88-unit apartment house rehab job. I probably wouldn’t be doing that if we had a full schedule.

RB: What is the near-term outlook for Michigan?
GT: Michigan was a big industrial state, but everything is moving out, a lot of it related to the auto industry. Everybody is going to China or Mexico, and a lot of the satellite suppliers are dying. We also have an individual business tax, which is not totally based on earnings or profit, but on volume and other things, so you could be losing money and still be paying a business tax. Michigan is a union state, and it’s hard to overcome that.

RB: How are things for your company in particular?
GT: We’re a design-build company, we do very little bidding. We usually try to design the project, then sell the design service as well as the building project. We do some construction management, primarily of post-frame buildings when we’re involved and doing the building. We solicit the help of architects and engineers when we need them, but don’t have anyone on staff.
The last few years we’ve probably been about 70 to 80 percent commercial, the rest residential and maybe 10 percent ag. We’re seeing a little bit of activity in the ag market, glad to see that.

RB: How did you get involved in the industry?
GT: In the ’50s I worked for my cousin, who did ag work and housing. After getting out of the service, I worked for him again, and farmed with my folks. I started selling buildings in 1964 part-time, as my time with farming allowed. Pole buildings were getting more popular, and after answering an ad I was hired as a part-time salesperson for Smiley Buildings in Denver, Ind. It was mostly ag at that time, but a little commercial work.

RB: When you were putting up that first building, did you ever expect it to become your career?
GT: I guess that was the best job available at that time. I had some background in construction, but wasn’t sure how long I was going to be doing it.

RB: When did you branch out on your own?
GT: I moved to Michigan in 1966, working for Smiley Buildings. After a heavy snowstorm in the winter of ’67, I worked with Freemon Borkholder on truss plans for a trailer factory that had collapsed. Afterward, Freemon said, “What about starting a company up there in Michigan? We’ll be partners in the business.” He didn’t know us, we didn’t know him, but we started a business with three partners, Borkholder Buildings of Michigan. Five years later, we had been fairly successful, but our goals had changed quite a bit and I didn’t agree entirely with the changes they wanted to make. They bought my interest, I signed a non-compete for a couple years, and worked for them for a couple years. After my non-compete expired I was dumb enough to start in on my own! That was in 1974, when I started as Thomsen Construction & Supply.

RB: When you look back at the products and techniques you used back then, are you surprised those buildings made it as long as they did?
GT: It is surprising that those buildings are all standing, with one exception. It was a failure that we had, and the owners called in Dr. Boyd from Michigan State to determine the cause of failure. It took three or four months for him to come back with a cause of failure, and today you could probably have that information in 20 minutes.

RB: What drove the improvements in products and techniques?
GT: More technical information that became available. We have a lot more codes, more inspections, more plan reviews, and that probably forced people to prove their designs.

RB: What has it been like working with your family?
GT: When Doug was 7-years-old he started picking up nails, cleaning up jobsites. My wife does all of our bookkeeping and secretarial work.
I think it’s great, we get along real well and don’t have a lot of arguing and bickering.

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