Paper Tiger

Bill Tremblay knocks on opportunity’s door ...

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Bill Tremblay (third from right) runs St. Johnsbury Paper, a family enterprise that continues to expand to meet the market. Helping him are, from left, his son Mark; Mark's wife, Liz; Linda Stephan, Tremblay’s secretary, but considered family; his wife, Betty; and his son Tom. His son Stephen was on the road when the photo was taken.

Ask Bill Tremblay, the president of St. Johnsbury Paper Co., how he got into the paper business and he doesn’t miss a beat. “I don’t know. That’s all I know is paper. I’ve been at it a long time.”

The answer appears to be classic Tremblay: straightforward, from the gut, unrehearsed kind of like he runs his business. He is, though, an astute businessman who knows how to read his market and take advantage of opportunities.

Ask him what products he carries, and he launches into a list that sounds like he’s heard the question before.

“We’re what we call a coarse paper house,” he begins, “which means we sell paper products to restaurants, institutions, fast-food companies, delis, grocery stores, industry just about anybody hotels, motels, resorts. They’re napkins, towels, toilet tissue, all kinds of restaurant paper items. Oh, and we also carry industrial packing products like bubble wrap, poly foam and peanuts.”

He pauses; the list seems finished. Perhaps it’s time to move on to other questions.

“Oh, and we also carry this is kind of important along with paper products, we are a distributor of five-gallon bottles of water.” It’s a private-label product, with the words “SJP Artesian Water” and a photo of Willoughby Lake on the label.

That “Oh, and we also carry ...” turns out to be Tremblay’s theme song, and it, too, sounds straightforward, from the gut and unrehearsed, every time he says it. He does seem to have as much fun remembering each additional product or service as the listener has being surprised by them; and they sure spread beyond paper products.

Tremblay truly does know paper. The New Hampshire native’s first job was with Central Paper Co. in Manchester. He had married Elizabeth King, his grade-school sweetheart, in 1960, the same year he entered military service for two years, leaving his studies at the University of New Hampshire. The couple lived in Keene while Tremblay was with Central Paper. When White River Paper Co. made him an offer, he accepted and they moved to Lebanon, N.H., where they would live and raise their family for 17 years.

By 1984, Tremblay was vice president of White River. He and Betty had four children Thomas, Marie, Mark and Steve and things were going pretty well. Tremblay had a yen, however, to run his own show.

He was covering the North Country all the way to Newport for White River, and St. Johnsbury seemed a logical place to start his own paper business. His departure from the company was amiable. “We’re on good terms,” he says, “still competitors, but still talking.”

The tough part was moving the family. “It was pulling the rug right out from underneath Betty,” Tremblay says. “Here we are, old, established Lebanon people picking up and moving to St. Johnsbury, hardly knowing anybody, but we did it. I gave her an interest in the company at no charge just for coming with me,” he says with a grin, “in case something happened between us, she’d have some clout and she’d get her percentage.

“Betty, she’s a sticker,” says Bill Tremblay about his wife, who left their home of 17 years in Lebanon, N.H., when he decided to start his own paper company in St. Johnsbury. Betty is the corporate treasurer and helps with sales two days a week.

“You know, it’s not always easy working with family, because you’re living with them, then you’re working with them. You know that everything isn’t peaches and cream; every family has its ups and downs. But Betty, she’s a sticker!” he says, explaining that’s an old Vermont term.

Betty is listed as the company’s treasurer and works three days a week doing local sales. The Tremblays’ three sons also work for the company. “Tom runs the warehouse and does delivering and ordering,” says Tremblay; “Mark is strictly sales, does a little bit inside; and Steve is in sales and also delivering.” Mark’s wife, Liz, works several days a week as office manager.

The word “family” also seems to include Linda Stephan, Tremblay’s secretary, who isn’t related, but of whom he speaks highly. There are seven staff members in all.

Tremblay pauses again. “Oh, in addition to water, we carry a full line of office supplies,” he says. “We’re not a big player in that field. We carry the basic items. We have a catalog from United Stationers, and we sell out of that and get merchandise in every week ... so it’s coarse and fine paper, water, office supplies, and you can also put coffee. We have our own private label.”

The company has sold office supplies since its inception, says Tremblay. He thinks the company has sold water “maybe three years, or maybe two,” and he’s carried coffee for “about 15 years. I have a hard time with years,” he admits, adding wryly, “It’s because I’m having so much fun, things are flying by.”

Tremblay does recall that his company bought Oxbow Distributing, which had an existing coffee customer base, around 15 years ago. St. J. Paper buys coffee from Superior in Concord, N.H., and sells it and leases coffee-makers to institutional customers and offices.

The company does business in about a 60-mile radius from St. Johnsbury, Tremblay says, with customers in the Burlington/Winooski/Essex area as well as some in Newport, Bradford, Derby Line, Barre-Montpelier, Morrisville, Stowe, Island Pond and White River Junction in Vermont and Lebanon and the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

St. J. Paper is housed in a 23,000-square-foot building on Bay Street, underneath the Portland Street bridge in St. Johnsbury. It’s been there since moving from another Bay Street address five years ago. There are two entrance levels. On the lower level is the entrance to the offices and the lower warehouse floor, where the company stores supplies. Off this warehouse is what Tremblay calls the “tall warehouse,” where the packing materials are stored in huge bags.

Tremblay shares a long office space with two of his sons, but he’s surrounded by family in other ways, as well. On the wall behind his desk is a large, framed 1947 sepia photo of Ted Williams at bat. “My brother, Leo, who’s no longer with us, was a fan,” he says, telling the story of how the photo was acquired.

Tremblay’s favorite pastimes outside of work are golf and fly-fishing. Framed prints of several kinds of trout grace the walls, along with a framed illustration depicting golf great Bobby Jones. Rosie, a chocolate Lab, and Minou, “the warehouse cat,” wander in and out during the day.

His paneled mahogany desk, an Art Deco–period chair and a credenza were bought from St. Johnsbury Trucking Co. when it closed. In the credenza, Tremblay found several illustrations of St. Johnsbury trucks and a large logo image, which he had framed and hung in the warehouse.

Behind the offices is another of Tremblay’s ventures, The Party Store. It’s a “kind of” retail establishment, he says, although he doesn’t advertise it, and it has no windows or door to the street. “The pricing is somewhere between retail and wholesale,” says Tremblay. Inside are rows of shelves with catering ware such as napkins, paper plates, tablecloths, table skirts and cups in 15 basic colors plus other party supplies, and a shelf of office supplies.

Mark Tremblay does sales for the company. His wife, Liz (left), was hired not long ago as office manager. They are expecting a baby in a few months. Linda Stephan is Bill Tremblay’s secretary.

In the warehouse proper, Tremblay points to boxes of Franklin cleaning chemicals for floors and “finishes for commercial kitchens,” he says. “Oh, and we also carry cones and toppings for dairy bars.”

Pepperidge Farms uses Tremblay’s warehouse as a drop-off for products, which trucks pick up a couple of times a week and distribute to retail stores; and cases of elegant empty bottles await drivers from Vermont Spirits in Passumpsic, who pick them up three or four times a week and take them to be filled with premium Vermont vodka.

On the back of the building at the upper level entrance is an overhead door where cars can drive in, and that’s just what happens. Tremblay has turned this former auto garage, machine shop, paint store, Hagar Hardware store and recycling center into a storage warehouse for automobiles eight are stored there household goods, a 40-inch-wide canoe he uses for fishing, and a power boat. It’s barely more than half full.

“It’s a neat thing,” he says. “This is low-maintenance. We don’t heat it, and it never goes below 30 degrees. I advertised last fall, and the response was quite good, actually. Word’s getting out. People like to store their furniture here, because it’s dry up there, not one of those storage units where the weather fluctuates. It helps to pay the mortgage.”

After 20 years, the Tremblays are well situated in their community. He has been active in Rotary and is on the executive committee of the American Legion. “We’re doing OK,” he says, “but of course, I always think I can do better, and we can. We’re all making a pretty good living.”

One last question for Tremblay: Are there any other products he carries? “I can’t think of any,” he says. “Of course, we do a lot of what we call ‘special print work.’ Like bakery bags or in retail stores, the bags you see that are printed shopping bags, plastic bags, T-shirt bags, grocery bags, pizza boxes, lots of those things we do. Like Gardener’s Supply. They buy printed shopping bags from us, a millinery bag that they send out to customers. That’s a very good business for us. Usually, an average order like that would repeat four or five years. It’s good, profitable business.

“When you’re in Vermont, you’ve got to sell a lot of things to make a living.”

Originally published in April 2004 Business People-Vermont