James Tipton had just wrapped up studies at Gainesville Junior College (now University of North Georgia) in Oakwood when his father asked him a simple question, “What are you going to do next?”
“I blurted it out. I said, ‘I’m tired of going to school,’” Tipton said.
And on that response, Tipton turned from his plans of becoming a CPA, including further studies at Berry College near Rome, and following in the family construction business.
Decades later, that decision would serve him well, in the form of a successful business, which was recently recognized by Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce as 2019-20 Family Business of the Year. Gainesville-based Tipton Construction was one of two recipients – the other being The Collegiate Grill at the chamber’s 2020 gala.
“I tell everybody, ‘If we don’t have somebody answering the phone, if we don’t have somebody doing the books, if we don’t have somebody digging the ditch, we don’t build a building. It takes all of us,” Tipton said in an interview last week in his office at 604 Washington St. NW.
Reflecting on his career and the company’s history, he said, “The Lord just smiled on us. We were in this area of North Georgia at the (right) time. We migrated from Jackson County over to (Gainesville), and (Lake Lanier) just boomed. We started by working for people by the hour, then we started contracting small jobs and just pyramided our way up.”
Tipton, 63, said, “I’ve got folks I’ve worked with for 30-plus years. We try to associate ourselves with good people and stay with them. We don’t have a lot of coming and going.”
The business, which settled in Gainesville in the late 1970s, started with Tipton’s father, a lumber company employee, wanting to do something more with his skills. So, he turned to home building.
“When you wanted to build a house, you’d hire him and three guys, pay them by the hour, and you’d get me for free,” he said, adding that his father “would drag me with him, and I’d pick up and clean. We didn’t use subcontractors until heating and air (conditioning) became popular.”
As the business grew, “we were fortunate to be put with good people,” Tipton said.
“There was a farmer who had about 200 some acres of lake lots, and he would get us to build houses for him. We’d get better and better at it. He wanted us to do better, so he would give us a lake lot – not charge us for it – and let us put a house on it. Then, when it sold, we would pay him for the lot, and we’d get to keep all the profit.”
As Tipton’s brother joined the business and started doing more residential work, “we started branching out into small commercial jobs,” which led to the company working for the University of Georgia’s athletic department. Later, the company went into hotel construction, with jobs around the Southeast.
“We did well with building the hotels, but after about 12 years, us and everybody else had built more hotels than the country could absorb,” said Tipton, who has been company president since 1994.
The company left hotel construction but has continued in commercial construction. Its online portfolio includes medical buildings, churches, warehouses and retail shops.
Times haven’t been all rosy over the years.
The Great Recession of 2007-09 pummeled the housing industry, among other segments.
“When (others) call it a recession, I call it a depression,” Tipton said. “It hit hard. I saw at least half the money that I had made, paid taxes on and saved leave, trying to keep things going. And finally, I had to let some people go and scale down.”
Many people were forced to leave the business. But those who survived, including Tipton, “have been flooded with work,” he said. “There’s more work than what you can do.”
Construction hasn’t let up during the COVID-19 pandemic, except for some supply issues, such as with lumber. Otherwise, development is taking place all around Hall, with plans being laid for future development.
With all the construction in growing Hall County, there is no heated rivalry among builders, Tipton said.
“The construction community here gets along well, but … there are some crooks,” he said. “The good ones all would take the philosophy I’ve got: I’m going to try to get the job, I’m going to try to do it honorably and ethically. But if I don’t (get the job), I’m not going to be mad.”