Heavy Metal

Diagnosis and cure for Mack and Volvo trucks

by Heleigh Bostwick

sheldonThe roots of Sheldon Trucks in Williston were planted over 40 years ago, when Bill Sheldon (left) was having trouble finding parts from the local Mack franchise. In 1972, he left his job, and in 1980, bought the Mack franchise. He’s now retired and his son, Mike Sheldon, runs the business.

When one of our regular clients stops by to pick up a part or have a truck serviced, it’s almost like being on that TV show Cheers, where everybody knows your name,” jokes Mike Sheldon. Mike is president of Sheldon Trucks in Williston, a company specializing in Mack and Volvo truck parts and service for the western part of the state.

He credits that Cheers atmosphere as the key to his company’s 33 years in business. And he gives plenty of credit to his 14 employees, many who have been with the company a long time. “Even our newest employee has been here four years,” he says.

That longevity is important to Chip Percy, owner of Dale E. Percy Inc., an excavation company in Stowe, who has a fleet of 10 Mack trucks and has been a customer of the business for 38 years, since before it was owned by the Sheldons. For most of that time, he’s been dealing with the same parts guy.

“Mike knows the trucks inside and out,” says Percy. “It’s been difficult for them to compete and for Mack trucks to compete [because they are expensive], but Sheldon is a great all-around company to do business with. When I deal with them I know what I am getting for the money.”

The story of how Sheldon Trucks came to be dates back to 1972, when Mike’s father, Bill Sheldon, now 85 and retired, left S.T. Griswold, where he had worked for 15 years.

“I was running the concrete products division at S.T. Griswold and had a fleet of Mack trucks,” Bill recalls. “I was having difficulty getting the parts I needed from the local Mack franchise distributor, which at the time was Brewer Motors, a car dealership located near Battery Park in Burlington.”

Bill persuaded his boss that the smart thing to do would be to obtain the Mack franchise and distributorship for sales, service, and parts. “So we did,” he says. “We set it up in the building we’re in now, and when we got established my boss took the salesman out of my division and made him manager of this business.”

In 1972, Bill, accompanied by Francis Lafayette, the manager, left Griswold, taking the company’s fence and guard rail division with them. Both had been initial stockholders at Griswold, and the division was a separation offering. They called their new company Lafayette-Sheldon Inc.

“In 1973, the guy who was running the Vermont Mack franchise distributorship for Griswold bought Vermont Mack from them,” says Bill. “He ran it for the next seven years or so before over-extending himself, and in 1980 we bought the business.”

Mike, who had joined his father in the business the year before, was working in the fence and guard rail side of the business. In the fall of 1983, he moved over to the Mack truck side. “I wanted to learn the business from the ground up, so I started in the parts room and moved up the ladder from there,” he says.

That same year, Lafayette-Sheldon decided to dissolve the partnership. Lafayette (now deceased) took over the fence and guard rail part of the business, which he renamed F.R. Lafayette, and moved it to Essex where it’s still located. Bill took over the management of Vermont Mack.

“The business was struggling,” says Mike, “and when my dad came in, being a former end user, he knew that a strong parts and service department is what gains customers. The idea was to build up the inventory and get a really good parts and service business going, then aggressively sell trucks that would later need parts and service. That’s where the money is, in parts and service, not selling trucks.”

“Dad’s ‘recipe’ worked,” says Mike proudly. In 1983, the company, which was still known as Vermont Mack, was named Distributor of the Year by Mack Trucks for the northeastern region.

By 1985 they were outgrowing the building they were in and decided to expand by adding a 9,000-square-foot service facility. The old service department became the parts department and the office space was expanded into the old parts room to accommodate more people. There’s also a 3,200-square-foot parts warehouse on the property.

Mike explains that it wasn’t until 2005 that the company changed its name to Sheldon Trucks. “In August or September of 2005, we acquired the Volvo distributorship, so now we had the franchises for both Mack and Volvo. We were still called Vermont Mack, but now they wouldn’t allow Mack or Volvo in the name, so my dad came up with the new name: Sheldon Trucks.”

In 2007 the company acquired a smaller truck parts-and-service franchise from UD trucks. At the time it was part of the Nissan truck group, but now it is owned by parent company Volvo AB.

Volvo AB expects its distributorships to run a certain way and fit a specific profile, says Mike, but despite pressure from the parent company to conform, he has, so far, been able to keep the company as is. “This is northern Vermont and things are done differently here,” he says, adding that it’s a family business and he wants to keep it that way.

Mike grew up in Essex, working at Lafayette-Sheldon summers during high school. After graduation in 1976, he headed to Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center where he earned an associate of arts in civil engineering and highway design in 1979. He joined the business full time right after college. “I’ve never had a job interview,” he says chuckling. “This is the only place I’ve ever worked.”

His wife, Joanne (Laird), also grew up in Essex. “We knew each other in high school,” he says, “but we were too shy to approach each other. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine started dating her older sister that we got together.”

They were married on Aug. 28, 1982. “I only remember the date because 28 is the reverse of 82,” says Mike with a chuckle.

They live in Fletcher in a log cabin they built themselves, using a precut kit. Joanne worked in the office for a while back when they were dating and just after they were married, but when she became pregnant with their daughter, Jennifer, she left to be a stay-at-home mom.

Both of their children grew up in the business, which, Mike says, gave them a strong work ethic. Jennifer, 28, lives in Brandon with her partner and their 6-month-old daughter. Son Matthew, 26, worked in the parts room briefly, but now lives in the Boston area, where he works for Boston Duck Tours.

Mike is usually in the office by 7 a.m. and leaves a little after 5, almost always accompanied by Sam, a black Lab, who hangs out in his office.

“Most of what I do these days is oversee things and make sure everything is going smoothly,” he says. “I talk to the managers to see if there are any problems that need to be resolved. Customers have my cell phone and home number. That is my ‘24/7’ coverage. A lot of our customers are fuel and milk companies with haulers that work 24/7, so we need to be there.”

He still enjoys going out and seeing customers, and is usually the one to deliver new trucks to them. “I have a CDL [commercial drivers license] to drive Class 8 trucks — anything over 26,000 GVW [gross vehicle weight],” he says.

He also test drives the trucks after they’ve been repaired in the shop and says there aren’t many distributors that still do that. “My dad told me years ago that you are never too good to do a job,” he says, adding, “I expect that of my employees, too. If I’m going to sweep the floor, the employees can do that, too.”

Ownership of the company is divided among the family, says Mike. “It’s basically percentages. My wife and I are the major stockholders. Then my sister, Nancy Sheldon McSoley, and her husband, Joe, then to the kids.”

Despite being on call 24 hours a day, he’s recently taken up skiing again, a sport he enjoyed when he was growing up. He and Joanne like to snowmobile in the winter, and meet up with other family members in Pawlet once a year at a deer hunting camp that’s been in his family since 1943.

Also on the list of things to do is travel. “My wife and I bought a 2009 Mustang GT convertible and drove it to Charlotte, N.C., for a Mack Truck conference,” says Mike. “We took our time traveling there and drove the Blue Ridge Parkway and through the Smoky Mountains.” Unfortunately, he adds, it was cloudy and raining so it wasn’t quite the experience they were hoping for. Nonetheless, he and his wife are looking forward to traveling more in their Mustang.

At 54, Mike hasn’t thought much about retiring, but admits that in the past couple of years he’s looked forward to his vacations a lot more. “Eight or 10 years ago that wasn’t the case,” says Mike, who is about to travel north to Canada with Joanne to stay at a friend’s camp and ride ATVs.

“As long as it is still fun I’m still here. That’s the barometer I use.” •