On a shelf in Garco Construction’s Spokane Valley headquarters is a photograph of two men who appear to be playing chess as they straddle a massive steel beam high above the ground.
One of the men is Tim Welsh.
And he’s not playing chess.
Welsh – 50 years old when the photo was taken in 1995 – is placing bolts in the last major truss atop Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
“I didn’t tell anyone,” recalled Welsh, Garco’s CEO. “It was just something I wanted to do.
“I used to walk the iron a lot in the old days – before harnesses or tie-offs – just so the guys would know it didn’t bother me.”
These days, Welsh prefers swinging an iron to walking it – that is, when he’s not taking care of business at Garco and his other company, Acme Concrete Paving.
During a recent interview, Welsh discussed giving back to the community, career opportunities, and cussing.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Welsh: Here in Spokane. I went to St. Aloysius grade school and Gonzaga Prep.
S-R: What were your interests back then?
Welsh: Sports. And I read a lot – mostly historical stuff, which I still read.
S-R: Did you have a favorite class?
Welsh: Math was always pretty easy for me.
S-R: What were your goals?
Welsh: I wanted to play football, so I went to (the University of) Idaho. I played linebacker as a freshman, but got hurt and didn’t play anymore.
S-R: Was there a particular event that changed the direction of your life?
Welsh: Getting drafted. (laugh) That straightened me out a bit.
S-R: Tell me more.
Welsh: I quit college after two years and was going to take a trip to Europe when I got drafted. So I went to Officer Candidate School, got my commission, and ended up in an engineer battalion in Vietnam.
S-R: What does an engineer battalion do?
Welsh: They blow up trees and build portable Bailey bridges for river crossings, so troops can get where they need to go.
S-R: Was that your introduction to construction?
Welsh: No. After my father died when I was 15, I went to work on a Washington Water Power line crew.
S-R: At 15?
Welsh: You were supposed to be at least 18, but George Brunzell, the president of Washington Water Power, was one of my dad’s fraternity brothers, so he found me a summer job as a favor to our family, and I worked two seasons.
S-R: And you continued learning about construction in Vietnam?
Welsh: Yes. We built all sorts of things – roads, heliports, a 3,600-foot runway. It was a great learning experience for me. Even now, I don’t have the impact I did when I was a 22-year-old platoon leader and company commander.
S-R: Did you see combat?
Welsh: We weren’t out in the boonies with the infantry, but we got shot at and shelled, and we all carried weapons.
S-R: What did you do after leaving the military?
Welsh: While my wife, Jackie, was finishing her teaching degree at Eastern, I enrolled at GU, worked at the racetrack and tended bar.
S-R: Did you graduate from Gonzaga?
Welsh: No. I transferred to the University of Washington and earned a civil engineering degree in 1971.
S-R: Then what?
Welsh: I got into a management training program with Kaiser Engineers in Oakland. Two years later we decided to come back to Spokane, and I was project engineer on the (Expo ’74) U.S. Pavilion. I was working for a small rigging company when Wayne Garceau (who founded Garco in 1958) hired me. Wayne sold the company in 1976, and two partners and I bought it in ’78.
S-R: What was its focus?
Welsh: Mostly pre-engineered steel buildings. But I had some connections to mining – my grandfather was killed in the Hercules Mine in Burke, Idaho, and my uncle worked for Hecla – so we started getting a lot of work in North Idaho, and that led to mine-related jobs in Alaska.
S-R: You bought the company just before the economy famously tanked.
Welsh: (laugh) Yeah, 20 percent interest! It was pretty scary. But I was 34 years old and didn’t have anything to lose, which helped us persevere. In 1981, we cut everybody’s salary 20 percent to avoid layoffs. By the end of the year, we’d made enough money to pay everybody back, and gradually business picked up.
S-R: How did the company evolve?
Welsh: We developed our own design-build department, which gave us an edge over most other general contractors. And my goal has always been to grow the company. You either get better or worse – you don’t stay the same.
S-R: What lessons learned on previous jobs helped you succeed?
Welsh: Interpersonal skills made me different from a lot of owners who just went to college and hadn’t worked in the field or had military experience.
S-R: Any other lessons?
Welsh: Surround yourself with good people. When I started here, I couldn’t read a financial statement. So right off the bat I hired a good accountant who’s been with me ever since.
S-R: How much did the recent recession impact your business?
Welsh: In February 2008, I told our staff this was going to be the worst hard time we’d ever seen, and that we needed to bid everything we could right away. That year we lined up around $250 million worth of work, which took us through 2010 with good margins. By 2011 – when a lot of people were really suffering – we still had some residual. So even though our volume dropped from $240 million to $120 million, I didn’t let anyone go.
S-R: What factors besides the economy affect your business?
Welsh: When I started out, if a field guy in Cusick, Washington, needed to order concrete, he had to drive (18 miles) to Newport to make a phone call. With today’s technology, if a guy has a problem with a steel connection, he takes a picture with his iPad, sends it to his project manager, they get the engineer on the phone and – boom – problem solved.
S-R: How many project managers do you have?
S-R: How many are women?
Welsh: None. But our industry is predominantly male.
S-R: Why is that?
Welsh: Fieldwork is physically very difficult. And very few women go into engineering or construction management, which is primarily where we get our project management people.
S-R: What’s your typical workday?
Welsh: I spend a lot of time with Acme, which I bought in 2001. Jackie says I work as hard today as I ever have.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Welsh: I love building things – competing for work and collaborating with clients.
S-R: What do you like least?
Welsh: It’s hard to ask people with families to fly off to Alaska for four weeks at a time.
S-R: What are you most proud of?
Welsh: Giving back to the community. As an organization, we support the Y and Second Harvest and GU. We’ve endowed a bunch of scholarships at Gonzaga Prep, and gave them a weight room.
S-R: Looking back, what surprises you most?
Welsh: That both our sons work at Garco, and our daughter works at Acme. Not all kids want to join the family business.
S-R: What distinguishes Garco from other general contractors?
Welsh: We self-perform more than any other contractor in the area. We do all our own steel erection, all our own concrete work, most of our carpentry.
S-R: When bidding a job, how many competitors might you face?
Welsh: As many as 15, although we tend not to do that if we’re busy. And some owners only want to work with us.
S-R: Are there common misperceptions about your business?
Welsh: People think that our work is hard and dirty, and that we cuss a lot.
S-R: What part of that isn’t true?
Welsh: (laugh) Well … OK. But some of our young laborers – kids in their early 20s – have already made $40,000 this year, and get a heck of a benefits package.
S-R: What’s the career outlook?
Welsh: The industry has shrunk. Almost all of the second- and third-generation companies that were around when I started are gone. And we have an aging workforce. But America’s infrastructure is failing. Hopefully instead of spending money on wars, we’ll spend it on infrastructure, which will create a lot of opportunities.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for a career in this industry?
Welsh: You’ve gotta want to work hard and get along with people.
S-R: And cuss?
S-R: Nine years ago, you talked about retiring. What happened?
Welsh: At one time I thought I’d retire at 50. Then 55. Then 60. Now I’m 71, but I still enjoy working – particularly the people. I don’t interfere with how the kids are structuring the business – I’m more the cheerleader and oversight guy. Acme is a different deal. I’ve got great people there, but I need to be more involved.
S-R: What would you change about yourself?
Welsh: Sometimes I can be pretty blunt. I need to cultivate a softer side.
S-R: What’s at the top of your bucket list?
Welsh: I actually started a list 25 years ago. No. 1 was to have a happy and loving marriage. We just celebrated our 50th anniversary, and I’m still working on it.
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to be profiled, contact Michael Guilfoil at firstname.lastname@example.org