Tom Harmon’s work life is built around the construction industry, but his strength lies in another kind of building project — his community.
Spend a little time with this Columbus CEO, who leads Taylor Brothers Construction, and you won’t hear a lot about profit numbers or company revenue projections.
You will learn about how much he cares about his family, the people who work for his company, and the people in his hometown — and how constructing buildings in Columbus is one of his favorite things to do because he sees the future of his hometown happening inside the walls his company constructs.
“It’s a nice feeling as a contractor, to look out at the Columbus Learning Center, to watch as we put students and teachers in it. We’re building the fabric of this community,” he said in an interview from his boardroom at the Taylor Construction headquarters on Middle Road this week. “That’s what’s nice about being a builder.”
The idea behind the Learning Center — where education, business and the community work together to create more college graduates — is another example of Harmon’s view of how all aspects of the community can work together for the common good.
Yes, his company constructed the building, but he espouses the idea of finding ways to bring together diverse parts of the community to utilize their expertise to help solve problems and to make other people’s journeys easier.
That’s just one of the reasons Harmon will receive the 2014 William R. Laws Human Rights Award on April 9 at the Columbus Human Rights Commission’s annual dinner at The Commons.
He’s being honored for a multitude of initiatives, “quietly knitting together groups or individuals, making connections, providing financial support and breaking down barriers that might otherwise stop people from working together,” according to the announcement from the commission.
Among those initiatives are his leadership of CAMEO, the Columbus Area Multi-Ethnic Organization, working closely with Columbus Young Professionals and Leadership Bartholomew County. He brought together several families, including his own, to form the African American Fund of Bartholomew County. The fund provides grants to educate, inspire and equip African-
Americans in Bartholomew County in education, leadership development, economic and career development, health awareness, and arts and culture.
‘Dripping with degrees, potential’
Richard Gold, who has been a friend of Harmon’s since the two met while working at Cummins in the early 1980s, said one of Harmon’s strengths is to see beyond the immediate situation into the possibilities.
“Having been raised as an African-American male, and all the experiences that go with that, he’s able to see a broader and bigger picture,” Gold said. “He doesn’t think solely in black and white. His involvement with CAMEO and the African American Fund — he’s trying to have a broader platform to affect where we work and live.”
His involvement in CAMEO started when he was asked to represent the African-American groups in the organization, Harmon said. Once he got involved, he was captivated by meeting people of such diverse backgrounds.
And builder that he is, he saw all the potential there that was just waiting to be tapped for Columbus’ benefit.
“They are the very brightest, the most educated, and they are coming here for Cummins and other jobs,” he said. “They bring a lot to this community. The companies are bringing them here to work eight hours a day. But if we don’t capture some of their talent when they’re not working, we’re missing out.
“They’re just dripping with degrees and potential. We need to get them involved in the community.”
Harmon has a great love for Columbus, saying he enjoys living here immensely and is proud to call it home.
He and wife, Mary, raised two daughters here, Marja Harmon and Chasten Harmon. Both of his daughters had their start in the Indianapolis Children’s Choir and now are seen on and off Broadway. Marja has appeared in “The Lion King” and Chasten in “Les Miserables” in New York. Harmon often jokes that more people know about him through his famous daughters, and he said he doesn’t miss a show.
‘A good thing to give back’
Harmon has been a lifetime resident of this area, growing up in North Vernon where his father owned Harmon Construction and served on the school board in Jennings County.
He received his undergraduate degree from Indiana University and his MBA from the University of Louisville. He then joined Cummins Inc. and worked for eight years in industrial and automotive marketing before deciding to join his father in construction to grow the family business into what it has become today. In addition to serving as CEO of Taylor Brothers Construction, he is vice president of Harmon Construction and president of Harmon Steel.
His company is a union shop. It is one of the contractors Target uses nationwide to convert its stores to new configurations and add grocery areas in expansions.
He also serves as president of the Columbus Regional Health Foundation, chairman of the Heritage Fund’s Outreach Committee and member of the Columbus Area Sports Advisory Committee.
One of his most recent endeavors was to organize a group of families who have become the Harmon family’s closest friends over the years to give something back to the community.
In 2013, the Harmons, along with Gil and Dawn Palmer, Dennis and Paulette Roberts, Charles and Lorraine Smith, Ben Downing and Lori Thompson and Donald and Shirley Trapp, created the African American Fund of Bartholomew County.
“We are of like minds and thought it would be a good thing to give back,” he said of the group.
The families made a five-year commitment to the fund. Harmon said that with community donations, the fund already is exceeding their hopes for it.
“All of these folks — every one of them — they have amazing histories,” he said of the families who started the fund. “They are vice presidents at Cummins, teachers, entrepreneurs, business owners. But making Columbus home is their common thread.”
‘Tom is a leader’
Among those stories is one that Dennis Roberts tells about being in college and meeting Harmon when he was 12 — a friendship that has endured.
“I tell him nobody else would play with him, so I did,” Roberts said laughing.
They go to baseball and football games together and enjoy getting together for breakfast now and then.
“Tom is just an outstanding young man,” he said of his friend, adding that he always puts other people before himself and he doesn’t turn anyone down who needs help.
Roberts, a retired Cummins executive, decided to join his friend in creating the African American Fund because it was something that was long overdue.
“Tom is a leader,” he said. “I’m not saying everyone doesn’t realize how important this would be, but Tom stretched out his hand and moved forward and there was never any question that we were going to get this done.
“When he sees a problem, he attempts to fix the problem.”
The fund is a way that the families hope to alter a lot of people’s lives in a positive way, said Roberts, who doesn’t believe it would have happened without his friend’s leadership.
Harmon said he is humbled by the human rights award, particularly after reading the names of those who have received it before him.
“I have known over 20 of those people personally — had relationships with them,” he said. “I think all of these folks provided a level of mentorship and are examples of people I’ve admired.”
‘A good role model’
Harmon also thinks about his father, who died in 1989, remembered by his family as a man who set an example of giving back to his community and becoming friends with all those he met in North Vernon.
“I was fortunate to have such a good role model,” he said.
From his father, William, and his family, he learned that how you treat people and how you communicate is the difference in being a leader, he said. Sometimes the role of leader is from circumstances, and sometimes, like it or not, you’re just the leader, he said.
“I always tell people I enjoy what I do,” he said. And some of that is mentoring the leaders of the future, both at work and in organizations such as CAMEO or at the Heritage Fund.
Part of what he learned, when awards are being given and accolades are being offered, is that credit is due to those who are working with you to make whatever endeavor you are attempting a success, he said. It’s true of his construction business and true of his work in the community, he said.
“Once people learn to be proud of what they’re doing, once you get that going, you can sit back and go along for the ride,” he said. “Once they’ve got it, it just gets exponential. It keeps going.”