Heavy Duty

The Foster brothers help municipalities and contractors keep truckin' at Vermont Municipal Truck Equipment & Supplies Inc. in Williamstown

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

"We have 150 years of experience here in this company," says Herndon Foster Jr., owner and president of Vermont Municipal Truck Equipment & Supplies Inc., "and that's just at management level. There's probably the same amount of experience in the shop." Vermont Municipal, housed in an inconspicuous building off Vermont 14 in Williamstown, a small community hidden in the folds of the mountains south of Barre, is one of the state's biggest suppliers of truck equipment. There's a good chance the first snowplow you see this winter was supplied and fitted by the company. As its name suggests, Vermont Municipal sells "to municipalities, contractors or truck dealers and all our equipment basically ends up with municipals or contractors," Herndon explains, standing amid huge snowplow blades and truck bodies in his company's yard on a cold October morning.

Art Foster manages the Williamstown location of Vermont Municipal Truck Equipment & Supplies Inc. for his brother, Herndon, who also owns New Hampshire Municipal in Ashland; and Maine Municipal in Norridgewock.

Herndon's two brothers work for the company: Paul, who until recently was shop foreman, has just taken the position of head of sales for northern Vermont. Art is general manager. The three brothers were born in Cabot, and have lived in or near Williamstown for much of their lives. "I've been in the business since I was 16," says Herndon, who started with a truck equipment company in Barre. "Then I spent 10 years working for another business in West Lebanon, N.H."

As well as Vermont Municipal, Herndon owns sister operations New Hampshire Municipal in Ashland, and Maine Municipal in Norridgewock. These days, he spends much of his time at the Ashland operation or on the road, but he maintains a very hands-on connection with Williamstown. The three companies sell and mount heavy truck equipment: snowplows, sanders and spreaders, platform beds, cranes, sweepers, dump bodies and service bodies.

"We sell plows by Fisher, Wausau, Valley and Viking," says Herndon, gesturing around the yard. "MG side-dumps, Heil side-dumps, Flink spreaders, Parkhurst platform bodies, Rugby conversion hoists, Kennametal carbide-insert plow blades, Galion dump bodies, Smith dump bodies -- which are stainless steel dump bodies -- Thieman lift gates, Silent Drive third axles, Pewag chains," he says, before pausing. Then he dashes off to make sure a departing customer is satisfied. Everything is in order, so he hurries back. "We build a lot of custom stuff as well -- platform bodies and plow hitches," he continues. "We custom-source for people all the time, things like van bodies, and we have custom-built equipment for people as well." With such a variety of products to offer, what sells best? "We sell mostly truck bodies," Herndon says. "Between the three companies, we probably sell 200, 300 a year."

Someone approaches Herndon with a question about a piece of equipment resting at the edge of the yard. "It's sold," he says instantly, explaining, "That's a lift and a third axle. The wheels go down to give the truck extra stability while it's dumping a big load." Art comes out of the office with Paul, and the brothers are off again, conferring with another customer.

There is a lot of activity: Customers come and go, big vehicles back in and out of the workshop, welders crackle. Today, workers in the shop operate on plow trucks destined for the towns of Williston and Hartford. The trucks, new Internationals, are surrounded by people welding and bolting parts together. "The plow and hitch are ready-made," Paul says, "but they have to be welded onto the body of the truck and there's some fabrication work that we do for that." Vermont Municipal provides a full service. Equipment is mounted and installed to the customer's specifications, and serviced by the company as well.

"We custom-build everything to the driver," Paul explains. "All the levers and switches are positioned to be comfortable." At the back of the shop, a one-ton Ford pickup truck is being fitted with a combination dump and service body. "That's basically our one-ton package," says Paul.

The trucks, Art explains, are supplied by truck dealers. "With municipalities, we put in bids for the equipment and fitting, and the dealers bid for the trucks." There are 11 people on the shop floor, and a job like the Williston plow truck "can take from 120 to 150 hours of fit time, depending on what options they want," says Paul. "It can cost anything from $18,000 to $33,000."

There is one problem with selling heavy-duty equipment like this. "We have to service what we sell," says Herndon, "but this stuff lasts a long time! I've seen 30-year-old plows out there. Everything we sell lasts a minimum of 12 years."

Luckily, as Art points out, Vermont's severe winters mean even the toughest equipment will suffer wear and tear. "We also sell all the associated parts and new items," he says, "like chains, sprockets, cable, valving, hoses."

Vermont Municipal "serves all of Vermont, western Massachusetts and eastern New York state," says Herndon, "and we also do a lot of work in New Jersey -- just because I've been doing this for so long, people know that if they can't find something somewhere else, they can come to me." The operations in New Hampshire and Maine serve those states. Vermont Municipal employs 17 people, as does New Hampshire Municipal. The Maine operation has a staff of between five and 10, "depending on business," says Herndon.

Paul Foster is the third brother in the business. After 18 years on the shop floor, he recently was named head of sales for northern Vermont. "I think I can get us even more business," he says.

As the new equipment on view in the Vermont Municipal lot testifies, "inventory is a big factor in this business," explains Art. "We have to keep a lot of inventory. We have a fast turnover. Also, if a customer can come in and put his hand on a piece of equipment that he wants, there's a good chance he'll buy it. That's a big advantage over a company that has to put up with long waiting periods for an item."

Ironically, for a business that deals with snowplows as one of its specialties, Vermont Municipal's slowest period is the time between Christmas and Town Meeting Day, in March. "It's busy, busy all the time," Herndon laughs, "but January and February can be quiet."

"Municipalities usually have their plows bought and serviced before the snow comes," explains Art. "Budgets are approved ... (in March), so that's when towns start looking for bids on new equipment."

After 18 years on the shop floor, Paul has taken on the position of head of sales for northern Vermont. "I was the first shop employee," he says. "I ran it up until last week, but I'm looking forward to my new position. I think I can get us even more business." Paul knows the business from the nuts and bolts up, and he relishes the next challenge. He has two children: 8-year-old Amanda, and Aaron, 7. When not at work he likes to spend time outdoors. "I like to fish, go boating, camping, and I love snowmobiling," he adds.

Art, who lives in nearby Barre City, runs the Vermont operation. "I've been in this business since I was 15," he says. He has two daughters: Lynn -- "She works at Bombardier in Barre, and she gave me a granddaughter, Katelyn, early last spring" -- and 17-year-old Elizabeth, who lives in Durham, N.H. Art's son, Arthur D. Foster, is "married (to Karen Pelletier) and living in Colorado Springs, and has two daughters, Christa and Mikayla. He's in the tanker division of the U.S. Army, coming up for his E5 promotion, which is rare for a 20-year-old," he says with pride.

Herndon lives in Williamstown. He and his wife, Deborah, have two children: BJ, 17, and Brandon, 15. Although he doesn't seem like a man who takes much time off, "I play a lot of golf," he says, "and I take my family to Florida every year. I own a place in Orlando, and we always go down the last two weeks of February."

Vermont Municipal is a family affair, but there's more than just family loyalty at work in the company. "Bob Duchaine does our one-ton package. He's been with us longer than 12 years," says Art. "Ken Morris, our shop foreman, has been with the Foster family for probably 12 years as well," and there are many other employees who bring enviable experience to the job. "Mike Merrill is our new service manager -- he's been with us a week," Art continues. "He came from Bellavance Trucking where he was responsible for about 250 pieces of rolling equipment. He was there for 25 years."

"I've had this place since 1990," Herndon says, looking around the three-acre lot. "I've had the place in Ashland for five years, and the Maine company for three." Although the company maintains a high profile, "competition is always hard," says Herndon. "We sell against a lot of Canadian products -- the weakness of their dollar represents a big chunk of competition. We do sell some Canadian stuff, but there are five other supply companies in Vermont, so marketing is very important." Vermont Municipal and New Hampshire Municipal have two salesmen each, on the road full-time, and the Maine operation employs one.

Chris Thomas, head of sales for southern Vermont, has nearly two decades of truck equipment experience.

Business is good for Foster's three-state empire. "We do about $2.8 to $3 million a year here in Vermont," he says. "I don't want to grow much. I've been as high as four million, but that wasn't fun. New Hampshire Municipal's turnover is about the same, and in Maine it's around 1.5 million. I have to keep up with the Joneses," he continues. "You can't keep your vendors happy at one million. You have to supply enough to keep them happy."

It's only the beginning of October, but snow is falling on Camel's Hump and Mount Mansfield. The bright yellow blades of snowplows stacked in Vermont Municipal's yard might have looked rather out of place a week or so ago, but now they are a reminder that winter is just around the corner. Paul looks up at the lead-colored sky and smiles. "I like the snow," he says. "It's our business."

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.