A Conversation with Tedd Benson About the Road from Fine Carpenter to Fine Businessmancomments (2) March 1st, 2013 in Blogs
Tedd Benson, one of the most celebrated homebuilders in America, has been a leader in reintroducing the art of timber framing, and has continued to develop it using modern technology to create structures of lasting beauty and high efficiency. He also built a successful business, stalwart enough to sail through the Great Recession and expand. I recently had the opportunity talk with Tedd Benson and learn about his background, his business, and his plans for the future.
Tell us about your background, and how you discovered timber-framing.
I grew up in Colorado, the sixth of 11 children in a lower-income family, so I worked through high school doing construction, mostly heavy-equipment operation. This got me into the new developments around town where the carpentry was going on, which appealed to me. Back then, just being a young buck that could swing a big hammer was all it took get a job on a construction crew. I learned the rudiments of carpentry, but mostly how to swear and other crude things I didn't learn at home. But it wasn't until I moved to Boston where I had the chance to work with old-world craftsmen on historical buildings that I discovered the art of fine carpentry. We rehabilitated buildings 200 and 300 years old, lovingly repairing them because they were worth it. They were beautiful and functional, as all buildings should be.
I became enthralled with the large timbers, nail-free joinery, framing with the tolerances of fine furniture. I asked all the questions, who did this, what kind of tools did they use, why aren't we doing this anymore? The guys knew the answers. They had inherited tools from their grandfathers and my keen interest sparked renewed interest among them. But they were older, and lives don't last forever. Those experiences and connections led to another job, and then another, and before I knew it, without a plan, I was working for myself. I didn't think I was in business, but I was.
I had decided I wanted to build with timber frames, as this craft should never have died, so I devoted myself to it in 1974. Five years later, I wrote a book about it, Building the Timber Frame House: The Revival of a Forgotten Art (Scribners, 1981). The purpose of the book was to get the word out, we were one of very few companies doing it back then, and we wanted many others to do it, too. For timber-framing to become a viable and living art, we needed an industry, not a few scattered zealots.
How did you develop such a high-profile brand and solid business?
Some of the most important things we do in life, like parenting and being a husband, we do with no education. This is what happened to me in business. I had no background, no education, and I even denied being in business. I would come into the office to answer the phone with my carpenter's belt on. But I surrounded myself with really good people that filled in my gaps and helped me to overcome my deficits. Then a big thing happened in the late 1980s. I found myself stuck in a rut. After so much passion, I had lost my inspiration. It was getting heavy, and the business started getting in the way of our passion and progress. Two guys I had worked with for many years, really my best employees, came in late and dragging, and I was about to go into a rant and chew them out. And then, I don't know why, I stopped myself and realized that the problem was me. We had built great homes, but not a good business.
I called my employees together and confessed my concerns about our business and my role. I announced I would take a sabbatical to figure it out. We had to create a good business, as well as do great craft. I thought it would take me about 10 days, but it was four months.
This was 1989. There was a lot of good literature about business then. It was the heyday of professional business management, and through reading and reading, I got as excited about the craft of business as I had become about timber-framing. I realized I was a good craftsman at heart, and this was another craft that I also could master. I did my own self-taught MBA.
When I came back to work, I pleaded guilty to my employees: "All these years, you have been doing things my way. I have been a bad leader. You have followed me, and I taught you the craft, but I also became a dictator." I was a benevolent dictator, but we did not have a democratic structure. I said, "I don't want to do this my way anymore, I want to find our way." I reasoned that if timber-framing was an expression of a philosophy of life, we had to define our mission together and figure out what do we wanted to next and how.
posted in: Blogs, business, green building, framing; timber framing; Tedd Benson
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