Tom Thayer, Tri-North Builders

In 1981, a trio of Madison co-workers – Tom Thayer, Joe Donnino, and Don Jones – struck out on their own to form Tri-North Builders. Donnino and Jones retired years ago. "They were a lot older than me," joked Thayer, who is now in his 18th year as president and CEO of the 220-employee company. On Sept. 16, the trio was reunited at the company's 30th anniversary celebration and charity fundraiser.

At 56, Thayer's success in the construction industry belies the fact that his early college experience went temporarily awry. A student at Colorado State University, he was majoring in forestry until he realized it was more his parents' passion than his own. But there was another problem. "I almost flunked out of college," he admitted. As a wet-behind-the-ears freshman with an older, professional-skier roommate and a partying dorm floor that earned the notorious distinction of having the school's lowest GPA on campus, Thayer simply got sucked into all the fun. "We were doing all the things we shouldn't have been doing," he said, a bit sheepishly. Things turned around long before his senior year – and after he abandoned forestry for a B.S. in industrial construction management. That's when his future began to take shape.

Thayer has experienced much during his tenure at Tri-North, but the last three years, he admits, have been the hardest. "In the past, when we experienced a downturn, Madison was more recession-proof, but the last years have been very tough. We've had to make tough decisions on personnel and look at new avenues of revenue. It's hit Wisconsin very hard." Hard, he said, because of the state's tax structure, multiple units of government, and amount of bureaucracy.

"The states that have done well [economically] have less government and are more willing to work with you," he said. And given the number of construction companies in the state vying for a shrinking number of projects, competition, he explained, is particularly stiff.

Luckily, Tri-North has a long history of nationwide work, and lately has focused on "rollouts and refreshes" for large conglomerates. It worked with McDonald's to create over 100 "McCafes" in just over four months, and when Chase Bank took over Washington Mutual, Tri-North completed about 80 bank conversions in just over three months.

"This was a different type of work for us," Thayer said, "but we already had the infrastructure, and it fit well." The new focus also helped – and continues to help – the company's bottom line.

Despite the challenges, Thayer still loves the job, especially now that his son and daughter work alongside him in the business. He also enjoys being a grandfather to two toddlers.

Thayer is an avid water-skier who once slalomed competitively. He's also a car and truck aficionado who owns 25 antique vehicles – mostly International Harvester trucks – that he hopes he'll have more time for in retirement. But that won't be anytime soon. "I plan on being around for a while," he said, though he'd like to reduce his workload and travel with his wife. "[She] would say I'm a workaholic, but I don't agree with her."

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.