Macomber to go out of business after 103 years
Boston Business Journal - January 19, 2007
by Michelle Hillman - Journal Staff
Macomber Builders will close its doors at the end of the month after 103 years in business.
There will be just six employees left to shutter the operation on Jan. 31 -- down from what was once a 500-person construction company that built Boston landmarks such as Faneuil Hall Marketplace.
President John D. Macomber kept the wheels on the business as long as he could -- just long enough to finish its remaining projects. When he pays the last of the receivables, packs up important documents and company records, he'll turn off the lights. He expects he'll cry.
The company will close with losses in the "high seven figures," said Macomber, declining to provide specifics.
It wasn't what he envisioned when management of the company was transferred to an outsider in 2002. Under Gordon Knapp, Macomber Builders took on four construction jobs significantly below cost resulting in "seven-digit losses," said Macomber. Then there was last year's tragic accident at a construction site on Boylston Street where scaffolding collapsed and killed the people.
Macomber has had to shoulder a lot since April, when a subcontractor's error led to the collapse of scaffolding at a Macomber project at Emerson College.
Two workers and a physician stuck in traffic on Boylston Street were killed.
"Other than hoping the guys didn't pull the pin on that scaffolding, I'm not sure what we would've done different," said Macomber, who attended both of the construction workers' funerals personally. The doctor's funeral was private.
After the accident, Macomber received calls from the industry's top construction firms, and his competitors, including John Fish from Suffolk Construction Co. Inc.
"You never want to see that happen to anybody," said Fish. "Very few companies would behave the way Macomber has."
At one point Macomber thought he could make it through the difficult time that followed the accident. He still had "millions" in cash and the company was still solvent. The plan was to shrink Macomber Builders down and grow it when the time was right.
Last June he realized he couldn't finish one of the company's largest remaining jobs -- the $76 million WGBH headquarters project. At that moment, Macomber realized the writing was on the wall, he said.
The project was transitioned from Macomber to Turner Construction Co. the next month.
"He was very upfront with us and very cooperative," said Henry Becton, chief executive officer of WGBH. "We certainly felt he was looking out for the best interests, not only of his business and his people, but of WGBH."
Not all of the projects Macomber was in charge of opened on time.
The Institute of Contemporary Art's new $41 million waterfront museum opened three months behind schedule in December.
Macomber doesn't dwell in self pity even though history would note the fourth-generation company would close on his watch. If he does, he does it privately. He was more public in outlining his exit vision.
Some of the subcontractors waited to hear from Macomber personally before finding other work. Macomber personally visited project sites to say goodbye to loyal tradesmen. He offered bonuses (and put the money in escrow) totaling more than $1 million to employees who stayed to help close-out projects.
He made sure projects like the new Woburn High School finished on time and on budget -- a hard task given most of his top professionals had left by the end of last summer.
The high school opened in September and was dedicated in October. At the dedication ceremony, Mayor Thomas McLaughlin said Macomber was a symbol of integrity.
"If they decide to go out of business tomorrow, I think someone could turn the page and say they had a sterling 100-year run," McLaughlin said in a phone interview this week.
Al Santoro is one of the subcontractors who has known and worked with the Macomber family for more than 30 years. He worked on both sides of the table, most recently as head of Santoro Associates Inc.
"It's never pleasant to see the people you grew up with in the industry depart the scene," said Santoro.
Already, Macomber is lamenting the demise of the company he has built and lost. He is mourning the three men killed in the accident last year. Macomber makes sure every time he walks by the Emerson dorm, now full of life with students bustling in and out, he brushes his hand across the names on a plaque outside: Robert Beane. Romildo Silva. Michael Tsan Ty.
He pauses when he thinks about the goodwill that's been shown to him by his competitors, staff and subcontractors. At the same time, Macomber is proud that the company's final chapter will be an honorable one. He was able to pay vendors and find employees new jobs.
"Everybody wanted it to work out," said Macomber.
Michelle Hillman can be reached at email@example.com