Fall/Winter 2016-2017 Business Travel Guide

Into Outbuildings

Building a second-generation family business

By Will Lindner

little_house_0816Andre (left) and Jamey Plouffe took up the tools of their Colchester family business, Little House by Andre, in 1995, after their father, Andre, contracted ALS. They make and sell sturdy backyard sheds and the occasional gazebo.

Andre Joseph Plouffe’s legacy in Colchester, is in good hands. Andre Michael Plouffe is carrying it on, in partnership with his older brother, Jamey, less than a mile down the hill from where their parents, Andre Joseph and Nancy, started the business at the family farm in 1980. And who knows? Someday it might pass into the hands of Andre Everett Plouffe, who is now 18.

Andre Everett, who is Andre Michael’s son, has a sister, Allison (19), and a brother, Sam (9). There could come a time when Little House by Andre could become their livelihood. But if so, the example set by their elders proves that they’ll have to work for it.

Andre Joseph Plouffe was a carpenter, born in Canada but raised in Vermont from a young age. His father, Aime, took up farming at Elm Hill Farm in Colchester. Andre worked around the farm, acquiring skills with hand tools.

He met Nancy Bossi through a friend in Burlington, and they married in 1967. He and Nancy bought property from Aime across the road from the farm, where they raised their sons. Andre Joseph continued to work on the farm and do carpentry.

When their boys were about 6 and 3, they left Vermont for Albuquerque, New Mexico, to travel and work, but returned after a year or so.

Their father was a hard worker, say the brothers. He worked for local contractors, and in the evenings and on weekends built things in their garage: wishing wells, picnic tables, wooden benches. He’d put them out by the roadside and before long someone would stop to buy them.

Things changed, however, when the senior Andre built a shed — the kind of shed people use for storing lawn equipment, gardening tools, generators and fuel cans, extra lumber. They’re utilitarian, for sure, but they’ve got to look nice because they become part of the homestead.

“When he built that first shed, it went quickly,” Jamey recalls. So the elder Plouffe built more. Over the next couple of years, he tried out different models to see what sold. He developed a line of well-crafted sheds of varying sizes and designs, and Little House by Andre was born.

He moved the business across the road to his father’s farm and took up space in a barn, which provided more room than his garage. Nancy managed the business end of things — the books, the billing, and the taxes — but she also learned to cut the tongue-and-groove pine boards for the siding and the two-by-fours for framing, which expedited construction, and she helped with deliveries. They put some of their sheds out in the farmyard for marketing purposes, where they became part of the local scenery.

Growing up, Jamey, who was born in 1967, and Andre Michael, born in 1970, helped out in the business, but neither expected to make a career of it. Both graduated from Colchester High School. Andre followed that with a two-year general business course of study at Champlain College. As for Jamey, soon after his high school graduation he took off for Florida — the family had taken vacations there when he was growing up. He became a licensed electrician, and stayed in Florida for 10 years.

What brought him home was the news that his father was ill. Andre Joseph had contracted ALS. Both sons turned their focus on their parents and the family business, and they all pulled together. Andre Joseph died in November 1995. He was 50 years old.

But Little House by Andre lives on. Nancy, now president, officially owns the company, and she still does the majority of the bookkeeping.

“But it’s their business now,” she says of her sons. “I always liked it, though. I went on a lot of deliveries, and you meet some really nice people that way.”

Since Jamey and Andre Michael took over, there have been two significant changes to the business. One is its location. Five years ago the brothers moved their operation down the hill, leasing space at Creek Farm Plaza, just off Ethan Allen Highway (Vermont Route 2). It’s a good location — slightly less rural so there’s more commercial traffic, and with a 30- by 40-foot shop area attached to their small office. That’s where construction takes place. There’s also a broad space outside to display their products. Those include a gazebo or two and the occasional outdoor furniture, but mostly the sheds that are the backbone of their business.

It’s an arrangement that works well for Chet Thabault, who represents the property owner, South Burlington Realty Co.

“They’ve been great tenants,” says Thabault. “They’re standup guys. And they have that display area in the field. Those are nice products they show there, and I think it helps draw in visitors to the shopping area.”

The other major change the sons have instituted is the addition of a well-known line of Amish sheds and outdoor structures manufactured by a Lancaster, Pennsylvania–based company.

“We wanted to expand our offerings,” Jamey explains, “so we got in touch with them and we’ve had them since 2010. The sidings and features are different from our sheds, and some of their models are larger than ours. It was a way for us to offer people more choices.”

“We did our research,” Andre adds. “We called some other dealers, and visited a few.”

“But we always wanted to keep doing our own,” says his brother. “To me, that’s what our business was founded on. And it’s why we liked the space here, because we wanted to have a shop and not switch over completely to the Amish line.”

The Plouffes estimate that a little more than half of their sales are the Amish sheds. The rest are from what Little House calls its Garden Signature Series Sheds. There are models with barn-style double doors, providing a wide entryway, and others with single doors. The doors can be built into the long side of the shed or the gable end. Roof designs vary, and some models include windows.

Sheds are offered in a range of sizes, some as small as four by seven feet, and some as large as 10 by 16 feet. The vast majority are constructed entirely in the shop (assembly at the customer’s home can happen, but it’s rare), and almost always delivered “unfinished” — that is, without staining, which customers often prefer to do.

“It’s just us two building them,” says Andre. “They’re mostly pine tongue-and-groove, because the other woods make them a little pricey for people. Sometimes we’ll do a little with cedar.

“And they’re not pre-fab,” he emphasizes. “Every one is hand-built, and hand-nailed, which is unheard of! There’s not anybody that hand-nails anymore.”

Ron Lamell, proprietor of Lamell Lumber in Essex, has been supplying their wood and building materials for years. Before him, his father provided it. Back in the mid-1980s, Lamell says, the elder Andre Plouffe ordered his lumber from New Hampshire.

“My father said, ‘Why don’t you give us a try? Whatever differences you want for pattern, tongue and groove, we can do that.’ So we did what they needed and got the job done, and we’ve been with them ever since.” Jamey and Andre, he says, “are honest and they’re fair. They come from a hard-working family.”

They do find time for other pursuits. Andre and his wife, Jennifer, who works in the revenue department at UVM Medical Center, live with their family in Milton. Andre enjoys hunting and fishing, but says he’s mostly happy doing projects around the house. Jamey is single and lives in Essex. He’s an outdoorsman, enjoying hiking and skiing.

Come Monday, though, they’re back in the shop, especially in the busy seasons of spring, summer, and fall, when it’s a challenge, they say, to keep up with their orders for “little houses.”

But all that hard work leads up to what both brothers say is one of the most enjoyable parts of their business: delivering a new shed. It’s a very involved process, as might be expected with a product that can weigh 3,600 pounds or more.

“Our father invented a system of jacks for lifting the shed onto a trailer,” says Jamey. Twenty years of technological advances has made the task easier. The brothers employ a specialized trailer behind their one-ton pickup truck, with “lots of bells and whistles,” including a center pin with a plate on it that can lift and spin the building.

Then it’s a slow and deliberate task, driving a shed to its new owner, whether that’s in Chittenden, Addison, or Lamoille County, or farther afield. When they arrive, the site is usually ready, as they’ve advised customers ahead of time to find a relatively level and accessible piece of land and to avoid overhead wires and trees.

The “bells and whistles” then go into action in reverse, unloading the customer’s new building, with the Plouffe brothers maneuvering it into position. Jamey finds a lot of satisfaction in standing back and looking at the shed they’ve constructed in their shop, nestled into place in its new home.

“When we deliver the products that we’ve actually made, and we see the customer so happy with it … I really like that,” he says.