Rock & Roll

This 80-year-old family company helps keep us on the road

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

barrett_trucking_2014Joe Barrett (center), president; his brother Brian (left); and their cousin Scott Barrett are the third generation at the helm of Barrett Trucking Co. Inc., founded almost 80 years ago in Burlington as Barrett Coal and Ice Co. by their grandfather U.J. Barrett.

Back in 2006, Burlington Electric’s Queen City Park substation went down, putting most of the city in darkness, including Fletcher Allen hospital, which was running on a generator, says George Barrett, the retired president of Barrett Trucking Co. in Burlington. “UVM had an extra transformer behind Centennial Field. That’s a picture of one of our trucks transporting the transformer from behind Centennial Field to Queen City Park so power could be restored.”

George is full of stories like this, and there’s pride in his voice as he points to the photo, one of several that grace the walls of Barrett Trucking’s reception area. George is a member of the second generation of Barretts to run the company started by his father, U.J. (stands for Ulederic Joseph) Barrett, in 1935 as Barrett Coal and Ice Co.

In 1972, U.J.’s three sons, George, John, and Jim, assumed control of the company and ran it for over 30 years. When John developed cancer in 2007, they began thinking about succession.

“John was a smart boy,” says George. “He wanted to make sure his sons stayed in the business, and my brother Jimmy and I put that together so that John could go knowing he left a legacy behind.”

When John died in 2012, his sons Joe and Brian and George’s son Scott bought his 33 percent ownership. In July of last year, they bought the shares of the other two partners.

Although officially retired, George and Jim maintain a presence. With a large, framed drawing of U.J. and a variety of mementos such as the deep red “ice cards” that were once left to notify customers of their deliveries, George’s office has the flavor of a mini museum.

He keeps memorabilia, such as birth certificates for his parents and their marriage certificate, in a briefcase, and is the source of family history.

The family has its roots in Chicoutimi, Quebec, where U.J. was born. George’s grandfather was hired to take care of a Catholic school in Newport and brought U.J. to Vermont with him. “My dad’s mother died at his birth,” says George.

U.J. came from Newport to Burlington around 1933 to work for the Burlington Coal and Ice Co. “He met my mother there; she was running the scales to weigh out ice and coal.” After they were married in 1935, U.J. launched Barrett Coal and Ice with his father.

The original ice house was at the corner of Ferguson and Foster streets, where it remained until 1968 when the company moved to Austin Drive. The next year, the company began selling salt.

By then, U.J.’s sons were working with him full time. “I was the one that started the salt business,” says George. “Jay Wolfson of Vermont Railway said, ‘You ought to get in that business.’ I said I didn’t want to ruin my trucks. Finally, after a couple of weeks, I said OK. And you know what? For handling salt, we’re probably in the top five on the East Coast.

“We’re a big player in the salt industry in Vermont, New Hampshire, and northern New York. It comes from two places: Goderich, Ontario, the world’s largest salt mine, where they mine about 8 million tons a year, and Cargill in Ithaca, N.Y.”

The company provides salt to municipalities and contractors and owns four salt sheds — in Stark, N.H., and Bellows Falls, Ely, White River Junction, and Rutland— and uses one in Burlington owned by Vermont Railway.

When U.J.’s sons bought the business in 1972, they changed the name to Barrett Trucking Co. Although the ice business no longer required cutting ice blocks from Lake Champlain and area ponds, they continued selling ice, which they bought in Montreal and sold to package stores. They sold that part of the business to Creed Ice Co. in 1993.

George’s son Scott and John’s son Joe, who’s now the president, have worked for the company summers and weekends since childhood. “Brian is 14 years younger than I am,” says Joe, so he came in later on.” His brother Tim is the office manager and rounds out the family members involved, although others have occasionally come and gone.

Joe is the only one of the three partners to have gone to college. He majored in business administration at St. Michael’s. Division of work has been easy, he says. “Uncle George handled the day-to-day operations, my father was in maintenance, and Jim was in sales, on the road, and would occasionally drive. We have just naturally continued that. I’m in the office for daily operations, Scott handles the maintenance side, and Brian handles sales.”

Joe and Scott are married with families, and Brian recently became engaged. All three multitask, as is often the case with family businesses. For example, Brian does special projects such as unloading the road salt. “If we get some big heavy moves, I end up going on those. I do a lot of the escorting for our oversized loads.”

Scott oversees the shop and its four mechanics. “I make sure the mechanics are here on time,” he says, “and do what projects are needed during the day when the trucks are out, work on loaders in the summertime, and the conveyors for the salt facilities. It’s 50-50 hands-on and management.” His son, Ryan, works for him during the summer.

Having both winter and summer activities helps keep things going and all 38 employees working, says Joe. The focus in winter is the salt — for municipalities and contractors. Summers, construction hauling is the largest activity.

Major customers include Wood’s CRW, Nortrax, Beauregard Equipment, and Milton Cat, says Joe. “Those are the big ones as far as moving the equipment. On the contractor side there’s Ireland, Whitcomb, and Pike. We’re unique in the sense that we work for competitors — people who compete against one another. Most companies would use one hauler exclusively; we haul for all of them because we do such a good job.”

“CRW is a regional construction equipment distributor for cranes, forklifts, excavators, and loaders,” says Albert Curtis, the rental/logistics manager for CRW’s Williston headquarters, who has dealt with the Barretts for nine years. “My job is to service our customers — to get machines to jobsites quickly, safely, and cost-effectively — and that’s where Joe and I interact.

“They’re great people to work with. If there is an issue, they take care of it. For example, if for any reason a machine gets damaged in transit, most of the time they’ll let me know what happened and say to just fix it and send them a bill. And they’ve helped us with customers who call and say, ‘I need it now. What can you do for me?’ I’ll call Joe, and he’s come through for us whenever he can.”

On Joe’s desk is a bank of monitors, including a vertical one that tracks the location of every one of the company’s 29 trucks on a map in real-time. Another monitor shows nine shots of locations around the yard, which are especially useful in winter, says Joe, when landscapers line up to get salt for their maintenance projects. “It lets us know where people are, who’s heading for the scale, etc.”

Scott Burns, the dispatcher at Engineers Construction Inc., appreciates this efficiency. “I talk with Joey at least once or twice a day,” he says, “mostly in the summertime. He supplies me with trucks, mostly asphalt, but also dirt trucks for hauling aggregates. They do a lot of moving equipment for us, too, so if my trucks are busy and I’m in a bind, he shuffles his stuff around to help us out.”

“In winter, we’re here at 5,” Joe Says. “In the summer we open at 6, come in and get all the drivers headed in the right directions, handle customers calling in, route the drivers, schedule for the next day. They usually start coming back around 4:30, 5, 6 o’clock, and if we’re lucky, around 7 we get to go home.”

“Honestly, there’s very little I do that people don’t know about. My cell phone is 24/7, and I’ll bet you the majority of my customers have that number. If they call between 6 in the morning and 6 at night, and somebody says I’m not here, number one, they’re worried; and two, they’re curious. They’ll call and say, ‘What are you doing?’”

Many of the challenges of his job concern changing regulations and the cost of the constantly shifting nature of equipment. “Years ago, people did it with six-wheel dump trucks and would haul whatever amounts, and nobody cared about fuel. That’s the part that has changed. Currently a contractual dump truck costs upwards of $180,000.”

Every Saturday, the partners meet in the office and talk, “get caught up,” Joe says. “During the week, Scott, Brian, and myself, with different things going on, don’t have a chance to talk about where we want to go, what to do.”

The Barretts have a longtime commitment to community activities, including three trips to Huntington Gorge to divert the river’s flow so the rescue workers could retrieve bodies. Joe is vice president of the Vermont Truck & Bus Association. George and Jim served on city commissions.

“My brother John started the Chittenden South youth hockey program from Shelburne,” says George, “and I’m on the board of the Truck & Bus Association, sat for three years on the Rail Council, and now have a seat on the Highway Safety Council. You gotta pay back.”