Boards of Trade

Lumber, hardware, and community service are key to this businessman’s craft

by Doug Pomeroy
with Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Gordon Winters, the president of Swanton Lumber Co., joined the family business full time in 1992, right out of college. Since then, he has opened two Ace Hardware stores and a real estate development company, and is well on the way to opening a third Ace Hardware.

It makes perfect sense that Gordon Winters, the president of Swanton Lumber Co., was named for his grandfather: He’s in the lumber business. The earlier Gordon was the first member of the Winters family to deal in lumber.

“He was in the wholesale lumber business,” says Winters. “He would go to Canada by train, go to a farmer’s forest and, for lack of a better term, buy the trees — the wood lot — and have the wood cut and milled. Sometimes, he’d have the logs shipped to Vermont to mill, or he would buy finish-grade lumber and sell it.”

In 1954, Winters’ grandfather bought Swanton Lumber Co., in those days, a small operation dealing in coal deliveries and other things a small community needed to keep going.

It wasn’t long before his two sons, Alan and John, joined him in the business. John stayed on until the late ’80s, and Alan, whose son would eventually run the business, continued on. The elder Gordon died at 92 in 2001.

Today’s Gordon Winters grew up with the business, working summers in the yard driving trucks while he was in high school and into college. In 1992, having earned a degree in business administration from the University of North Florida, he returned to Vermont and joined Swanton Lumber full time.

His father gave him a lot of latitude and control from the beginning to learn the business — a “jumping in the fire” education, as he puts it. That seems to be a family trait, he says, adding, “We don’t sit around and talk about it for hours; we just do it.

“In ’92, I probably did become an owner on paper,” says Winters, “but I wasn’t running the store by any means — just started getting ownership.”

By 1996, becoming more involved in operations, he was made general manager, and, in 2002, was named president.

That same year, Winters expanded his interests and opened an Ace Hardware store in St. Albans. In 2007, he opened Ace Hardware in Champlain, N.Y., and one is in the works for Milton.

“We haven’t started the building,” says Winters. “We have a purchase-and-sale and some land; have gone through state and local permits; and are in the process of filing building permits.”

Through another corporation, GAW Real Estate, Winters manages a portfolio of homes and apartment houses. “I don’t build or sell houses,” he says, “because I don’t want to be the competition of my subcontracting customers.”

This kind of strategic thoughtfulness appears to be an element in everything Winters does.

John Abbale, Winters’ Ace Hardware’s district manager for five years, and now the owner of an Ace Hardware store in Clifton Park, N.Y., says he found Winters to be open-minded and decisive when making business moves.

photo Swanton Lumber has about 50 employees and a fleet of trucks that deliver materials to contractors around the region. John Simard (left) is manager/dispatcher, John Young is yard foreman, and Richard Stahl is manager.

“His wisdom is beyond that of most 39-year-olds,” says Abbale, adding that when Winters gets involved with a project, he follows through, is very detail-conscious, and is very approachable, setting a good example for his workers. “With 50 employees, delegating responsibility is a key to getting things done. He doesn’t sit up in the ivory tower; he is on the sales floor and seems to enjoy working with customers.”

In February 2008, Winters married Debbie Lawton in a ceremony on a beach near Cancun, Mexico. “We took 30 people with us — family and a few friends,” he says. “It was a good experience.”

He met Debbie on a blind date after she had returned from Boston to help her mother in the family business, FireTech Sprinklers, in Colchester. “One of her foremen is my dad’s good friend,” says Winters, “and they introduced us. My dad had tried to hook me up several times with a lot of people, and the guy I would have least suspected would be my matchmaker was.”

His dad, at 70, remains a key player in running the company, working with the sawmills and buying commodities. “Without him,” he says, “a whole other layer of management would be needed.”

photo In the company’s kitchen, bath, and flooring division, Kiley Boutah is designer/saleswoman, and Jody A. Gamache is manager.

Winters describes his business philosophy as seeking a one-on-one relationship with the customer. “Being in a small, close-knit town means that half the people you drive past in town you wave to,” he says. “When helping a customer, you are helping your neighbor.”

“Helping your neighbor” doesn’t stop at the town limits. Winters inherited a family affinity for politics and community action — his Uncle John served in the Vermont Legislature — and confesses he is very interested in politics.

When it comes to the state budget, he believes Vermont politics should move back toward the center. “Many people have had enough and are moving out of state and taking their money with them. Vermont is one of the top-taxed states in the country.”

A former director and president of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Winters also served on the boards of the Timmy’s Kids Foundation and the John LeClair Foundation. He is a trustee on the Vermont State College board and a member of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisors.

“This is a group of very important individuals to our governor,” says Dennise Casey, deputy chief of staff to Gov. James Douglas. “Appointments are made by the governor with no terms, because they are not established in statute. Most recent governors have used a council of economic advisers as a broad group that meets quarterly to advise the governor, not specifically on economic development, but rather on the economy.”

Winters embodies what is so great about Vermont, Casey continues. “He represents the experience and the perspective of countless Vermonters when it comes to important issues like job creation strategy, taxes, government regulation, things like that. It’s so easy, as a business leader, to say, ‘I’m too busy for this committee; I have a business to run,’ but people like Gordon really do help keep state government running in the right direction. He is that kind of leader Vermont is so lucky to have.”

Winters seems to be optimistic about the future of his companies. Seventy-five percent of Swanton Lumber’s customers are contractors, he says. A fleet of trucks makes ongoing deliveries to them. Business slows down in winter, but he manages for downturns, preparing for the ups and downs of seasonal building fluctuations.

This summer his employees were working overtime, and during the economic slowdown of recent months, no one has been laid off. “A couple of years ago when building was at a peak, we could have added more trucks and hired more employees, but it worked out for the best that we did not. 2009 is turning out to be a decent year — better than we expected it to be,” he says.

As busy as he is, Winters still finds time to enjoy golf in the summer, once or twice a week if he is lucky, and basketball in the winter. He plays in two men’s leagues. There are autographed pictures of Celtics great Larry Bird on his office wall — “I definitely am a Celtics fan,” he says — and one of his friends is an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers pro basketball team.

He and Debbie have no children, but they do have a dog — a rescued black Lab mix named Lucy. Vacations are not easy to fit into their lives. “Most vacations are around hardware shows or fire sprinkler shows; lumber shows,” says Winter.

“My wife is better at knowing when it is time for some time off,” Winters confesses, adding that three-day weekends work best for them. Still, for each of the last two years, they have returned to Mexico for five or six days to celebrate their anniversary.

His strategic thoughtfulness crops up again, as he says, grinning, “Being married to a businesswoman makes it easier, because she understands.” •