Now in its third generation of employee-ownership, a point of pride for 107-year-old Carl A. Nelson & Company is its enduring connection to members of the firm’s founding team.
General Superintendent Mike Harris is a descendant of that team.
Harris traces his roots to CANCO’s founding by way of his uncle, Bob Harris, a longtime construction superintendent and the father of two other current employees, one also a superintendent and the other a project manager. Bob Harris was the son-in-law of Clarence Alter, who worked for Nelson in the early days of the company.
Two of Bob’s brothers, including Mike Harris’ dad, George Harris, also worked for CANCO.
“He worked at Carl Nelson since before I was born,” Mike Harris said of his father, for whom he worked during two summers in high school before getting on full-time at CANCO in 1989.
Until then, it was never a given he would enter what might be described as the family business. It certainly never was pre-ordained. For a high school kid with no bills to pay, he said the money from his summers on the job site was great. But he never took a construction trades class during the school year.
The seeds of a construction career weren’t cultivated until after graduation, a brief flirtation with college and a door-to-door cable TV sales job. Once signed on with his father’s crew, he started working alongside his cousin, Randy Harris (now a project superintendent and CANCO’s longest-serving active employee at 41 years), on construction of the first building at what would become a sprawling Great River Health campus in West Burlington, Iowa; then the Miller Beauty Supply Building in Burlington.
Working alongside his foreman-cousin, he learned the job by doing it, and progressed quickly.
“By the end of the Family Practice Center, I’d moved from sweeping floors and getting water to actually building things, and working,” he said. “And by the time we got over to Miller Beauty Supply, I was doing more carpenter work than laborer work.
“I worked a ton with Randy, when Randy was a foreman. I learned a lot from Randy on just the ins and outs of actually building it. I was doing soffits and casework and ceilings on that (Miller Beauty Supply) job, which was my first job ever with the company.”
His father being superintendent probably helped speed his progression, he said, “but also, I was good at it.”
The work, and the camaraderie with the other members of the construction crew, Harris said, helped cement construction as a career. The jobs kept coming, including a two-year stint on a hospital construction project in Kearney, Nebraska, where his daughters — Ashleigh and Paige — were born in the middle 1990s; and then on an industrial construction project at Roquette America in Keokuk, where he became a field foreman. After a few years, he rose to project foreman, and soon after, was promoted to superintendent and started running jobs. Then just 32, he was told at the time he was CANCO’s youngest-ever superintendent.
“I don’t know if that’s true,” Harris said, but added the person who told him so was in a position to know.
Before advancing to general superintendent five years ago, he ran commercial and industrial jobs around the Midwest and locally. A bitterly cold winter on a job site in Eddyville, Iowa, helped push him to accept the job of general superintendent.
Harris said while he misses the work and camaraderie in the field, he likes having a hand in hiring and building careers. His experience helps him spot talent in prospective hires, and provides him a good understanding of the training the company needs to provide for craftsmen, foremen and superintendents.
The role also put him in a position, he said, to help bridge a disconnect he perceived between the varied work experiences of field and office.
“I liked the idea that I would be involved in things that were happening within the office as far as policies and that kind of thing, because I’d done that,” he said, citing working conditions for field employees such as spending a year in a hotel room, or getting up in the middle of the night and driving five hours to be on the job by 7 a.m. on a Monday morning, and living off per diem.
Among the many hats a general superintendent wears, Harris said the most important is to make sure manpower needs are being met on job sites, whether by hiring, shuffling people or bringing on temp workers. Overall hiring and scheduling training are crucial tasks, too. Included in the hiring role is reaching out to high schools, as well as Southeastern Community College, to help support building trades programs and development of skilled construction trades workers.
“Going out and getting with the schools, it was somewhat enlightening,” he said of what he learned about the efforts by high schools to develop programs.
Eventually, schools started asking Harris for advice about curriculum. He now helps lead a regional organization of shop teachers and trades professionals who meet to discuss career training. Harris also signed on to a Future Ready Iowa-supported apprenticeship program in the building trades involving SCC and Burlington High School. The payoff for CANCO is access to talent, which aids recruitment.
Staying current in the tools of the trades is a challenge Harris faces now being in the office. Getting out in the field helps, and also can provide opportunities for training craftsmen. While formal training programs are now offered, Harris maintains an affinity for hands-on in the field.
“I still believe that’s the best way to learn,” he said.
Away from his office in the CANCO warehouse, or the jobsite, Harris makes his home in Nauvoo, Illinois, with his wife of three years, Erin, and her two children: Jack, 15; and Elise, 12. Harris also is a grandfather, with one granddaughter, Elliott, and another on the way.
A steady stream of home improvements keeps his construction skills sharp as much as anything else, he said. The couple also enjoys trips to Playa del Carmen in Mexico, to Chiefs games in Kansas City and St. Louis Cardinals games, too.
Hunting and golf also are favorite pastimes. When the home improvement schedule allows, that is.
— By Craig Neises, Director of Marketing