Heavy Lifting

Fifty-six years of heavy construction equipment sales

by Will Lindner

woods_crw0518In 1992, Chris Palmer left the world of finance and came back to Vermont to join his stepfather and stepbrother at Wood’s CRW Corp., their heavy-equipment distributorship in Williston. His stepfather died in 2012, and since health problems caused his stepbrother to resign in 2016, Palmer has led the company.

For a lot of our customers,” says Chris Palmer, president of Wood’s CRW Corp. in Williston, “outside, maybe, of their home, their equipment fleet is the most valuable, biggest asset they have. So when they put their trust in us — buying their equipment from us and relying on us to keep it up and running — that’s a big responsibility. We have to take care of those people; otherwise they won’t come back.”

He’s also cognizant that for many of his customers, these costly machines weigh heavily on their bottom lines. Even for larger customers, expenditures that can reach $3.5 million for the most rugged, versatile, and well-equipped cranes are never inconsequential.

Wood’s CRW sells, services, and rents heavy construction equipment. Its sales teams work in two distinct product lines. One line is earth-moving equipment, such as loaders and excavators (on wheels or on tracks), compactors (with heavy rollers for leveling asphalt or soil), and skid steers (relatively small, highly mobile machines with attachments for multiple purposes). The other consists of crane-and-lifting equipment.

The earthmoving division operates exclusively in Vermont, out of the company’s Williston location. The crane-and-lifting division — which deals in the most costly equipment the company rents — operates also out of its facilities in south-central Massachusetts; Oswego County, New York; and near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Despite the high cost of entry into these industries, Palmer insists that there are “mom-and-pop” heavy construction companies. Because his own company was founded locally in 1961 by his stepfather, Charles R. “Bob” Wood — thus the CRW in the company’s title — Palmer and his crew identify strongly with small, entrepreneurial construction and excavation companies in Vermont.

“Sometimes we’ve started a customer with a small piece of equipment — it might be a skid steer. And we sell a lot of used equipment because we try to provide different price points for people.”

With its 56 years of experience, CRW can also provide guidance for new or modest-sized companies.

“They’ll often come to our team and say, ‘Here’s what I’ve got for a problem. What have you got for a suggestion?’” says Palmer. “We get very much involved, and that’s the part that, quite honestly, is the most gratifying. I’ve had situations where you sit down with a husband-and-wife team and talk through what they’re trying to do, what they can afford, and what makes sense. And if it doesn’t make sense we’ve got to come up with another option.”

That describes Bert Kennedy’s experience to a T. In 2006, he left his job as an equipment operator for S.D. Ireland Brothers in Burlington and went into business for himself, founding Kennedy Excavation, now in Williston. Still small (presently five employees), the company performs excavating tasks throughout Vermont for roads and driveways, house foundations, drainpipes and sewer lines, and utility corridors.

“I bought my first machine from CRW,” Kennedy says, “a used Volvo EC55 excavator. Then I bought a Volvo skid steer on wheels.”

Over the years, Kennedy has purchased several machines from CRW, trading in his old ones for new ones, “like you would for a car,” he explains.

He appreciates the Volvo equipment (CRW has the Volvo franchise in Vermont, and it has become the company’s signature brand). “But what really keeps me coming back is their service. When I have an issue — like a tricky project that requires something I don’t have — they’ll help me figure out what it should be and find it, even if they’re not carrying it themselves. They treat you like you’re their best customer, even though I know I’m really not.”

That kind of personal attention and collaboration is no less important to PC Construction Corp. in South Burlington, an employee-owned company with 1,200 workers and projects throughout the eastern United States. Its needs run more to CRW’s lifting division, and the fact that the two Vermont-based companies share a larger geographic footprint is an asset.

“We’re working on a project in Binghamton, New York, and we use their store near Syracuse as a resource,” says PC’s director of equipment operations, Keith Barrett. “The same goes for their Pennsylvania store, which we use for our Mid-Atlantic work. And the Williston store here locally.”

Barrett turned to CRW, and to Palmer personally, in 2008 when he set about upgrading the company’s crane fleet. Barrett particularly values CRW’s knowledge of the resources available for financing these costly purchases, which can include the manufacturer’s own financing divisions.

“When you’re purchasing a million-and-a-half-dollar crane, you’re probably going to write paper, not a check,” says Barrett. “Chris has the ability to work one product line into the financial institutions of another product line, or tap into a third party. He really goes to bat for you.”

Palmer describes CRW’s relations with its customers as “partnerships” and credits his stepfather, who died in 2012, for instituting that approach from the start.

“He called his best customers ‘partners,’ and he was very genuine about it,” Palmer says. “These were people he was very friendly with before and after 5 o’clock.”

Wood and Palmer’s mother, Roberta (“Chick”), were married in the mid-1970s, when Palmer was about 10 years old. He worked frequently during summers and weekends for the business, which was then located on Williston Road and handled a tremendous variety of construction-related paraphernalia in addition to selling and renting large equipment.

“We had nuts, bolts, washers, PVC pipe, wheelbarrows, chainsaws, lawnmowers, water pumps, trash pumps …”

But Palmer envisioned a different career for himself. He graduated from the University of Vermont in 1988 with a degree in business administration, focusing on finance, and headed off to Boston for a job with a commercial bank. However, he became disillusioned with the “large-company politics” he discovered in the banking and corporate world. An avid skier and outdoorsman, he also missed those features of his home state, so he was persuadable when his mother and stepfather urged him to return to Vermont and take over CRW Corp. along with his stepbrother, Bob Wood Jr. (“Bobby”), in 1992.

One of their early decisions was to discontinue the small-equipment offerings, where they were competing with hardware stores and national home-improvement chains, and focus on what Palmer calls “the bigger iron” — construction and earth-moving equipment. The year 2000 was a significant one for the company, as it moved into its newly built location on Marshall Avenue.

“It’s a great retail spot,” Palmer says, “and a well-equipped and safe space to [provide mechanical service] and attract new employees. 2000 was also when we took on the Volvo line.”

Volvo is a prestigious brand for earth-moving machinery, he says. “Their core competencies — safety, quality, fuel efficiency, and care for the environment, as many of Volvo’s machines are made from 100 percent recyclable products — align well with Vermont values and certainly with our organization.”

Similarly, Link Belt, a prominent brand headquartered in Kentucky, provided opportunities for the stepbrothers to expand their crane-and-lifting division so that CRW now serves territories in eight states. This division also offers products from National Crane, among others.

Wood’s CRW experienced a shock in 2016, when Bobby suffered health problems and decided to resign from the company. Since then, Palmer and his staff have made changes to the way the business is run — changing the roles of key people and adding key management members, “using technology to make our team more efficient,” he says. A benefit of this effort was that the team discovered, and has instituted, modern management-assessment practices that Palmer believes will strengthen his company heading into the future.

A side benefit of owning a heavy-equipment distributorship is that it provides Palmer the opportunity to take some of the smaller machines home occasionally on weekends and “dub around” on the 18 acres he and his wife, Kathy, own in Shelburne. He’s a rank amateur, he insists, but it’s given him a pastime he enjoys almost as much as skiing, hunting game birds, and boating on Lake Champlain. (The Palmers own a lakeside camp in North Ferrisburgh.)

Kathy, a Massachusetts native whom he met during his sojourn in Boston, works part time in the insurance industry. Their daughter, Grace, a senior at Rice Memorial High School, is 18 and making college plans. Owen, their 16-year-old son, is a sophomore at Rice.

Also important to Palmer is a fund that he, his parents, and friends established in memory of his brother, Tyler Palmer, an environmental engineer, who died in a skiing accident in California 10 years ago. Tyler was an enthusiastic participant in projects undertaken by Engineers Without Borders. With an annual grant to EWB focusing on renewable energy, the fund has supported projects in Africa, South America, and Haiti.

“They’ve done some great work,” says Palmer. “It’s gratifying to be a part of it in a small way.”

Closer to home, Palmer and Bobby have kept Bob Wood Sr.’s spirit alive, too, by dedicating, in Bob’s memory, the renovation of a nationally celebrated gallery of waterfowl images at the Dorset House at Shelburne Museum, one of many donations. The renovations developed a welcoming handicap-accessible entry (Bob Sr. developed mobility issues in his later years). Almost poetically, that entry faces south.

“It looks over toward his home in Charlotte, which he loved,” says Palmer.

His stepfather’s name remains the company brand; the renovated gallery is a quieter way of paying tribute. •