AVON, Colorado - Kevin O'Donnell didn't expect his first job out of college would become his career. But that's the way things often work at Beck Building Company.
O'Donnell joined the company in 1996, right out of college. But O'Donnell is among the youngest of the long-timers at Beck. Company CEO Frank Payne started building homes with founder Andy Beck in the 1970s.
Speaking of Beck, he's more of a company mentor these days. A few years ago, Beck created an exit strategy for himself, and offered to let employees buy into the company. The company started in 1972, the year after Beck, fresh from military duty, decided he'd like to come to Vail to ski for a while.
That first summer, Beck went to work for Mitch Hoyt, one of Vail's first custom-home builders. Working for Hoyt put Beck in touch with Gordon Pierce and other architects in the valley, and Beck was soon in business for himself, in a company that's mostly been in the custom-home business.
Like any number of young people who came to Vail in its formative years, Beck was often learning on the fly.
"There were times I had to read the night before about what I'd do the next day," Beck said. "When you're an entrepreneur, you just figure out what you've got to do."
While any number of builders in the valley would work on the mountain in winter, then pick up their tool belts in the summer, Beck and Payne soon found themselves with year 'round work, mostly on custom homes.
Of course, a "high end" Vail home in the 1970s cost $200,000 or so.
Over the years, custom home prices have risen, but they've also become bigger and more sophisticated, a reflection of the people paying the bills.
"There's been an expectation of quality," Beck said. "With a clientele that well traveled, it brings expectations... It's been astounding what we get to build here."
Those expectations have to be met by general contractors, of course, but people running a project are only as good as the people who work for them. Beck said the subcontractors in the valley are as good as they come.
"We don't have to go outside the valley (for subcontractors)," Beck said. "I think we build some of the best projects in the country."
Ups and downs
Any business that's survived 40 years has seen highs and lows in the economy. In Beck Building's case, there haven't always been custom homes to build.
During the first dip, in the mid-1970s, Payne said the company "did some odds and ends for the school district.
"We did some work for the town of Vail, and did the water system for the school at McCoy. We just learned how to get by."
Then there were the high times, the highest of which came in the middle of the last decade. Homes were being built and people were working, but, O'Donnell said, it about 2007, "something didn't feel right."
That something turned out to be the virtual collapse of the valley's construction business, which spelled the end for a lot of area companies.
"We had a slide in 2009 and '10," O'Donnell said. "We didn't know when it would stop. But we had a decent year in 2010, and a better year (in 2011)."
Beck had a better year still in 2012. But, O'Donnell said, "it's not like it was."
Payne said that like the first slow time, the latest slump has made Beck a better company.
"We really had to look at what we're doing," he said.
While Beck is growing again, O'Donnell said the company is "growing like a bonsai," meaning small steps with a tight focus.
Part of that future growth is in the homes the company is building now. Some of those homes are smaller in size. But, O'Donnell said, those smaller spaces still have rich details.
"It isn't just a matter of size reduction," Beck said. "Clients are becoming more responsible."
In many cases, that means people are taking a hard look at the operational costs of their part-time residences. Efficiency and healthy materials in a home make bottom-line sense these days.
Looking into the new year, O'Donnell said the construction picture is becoming more clear.
"We have a decent amount of work," he said. "But it's different in terms of how and when you have your year's work down - I'm reasonably optimistic."
A slower pace also suits Beck, who sees the company going back to its roots.
"We like to match up with a client," he said. "When you have that good initial relationship, the process is really fun. When you find the right client and a great project, there's a real challenge and reward."
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or email@example.com.