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A visionary in Vermont

Since 1992, Kevin Hastings has grown his Vermont woodworking company, Amoskeag Woodworking, into a full-service business for commercial and residential millwork, cabinetry and lumber production.

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The name of the business comes from Amoskeag Mfg. Co., once the world’s largest text mill in Manchester, N.H., where Hastings grew up. Though it has an office in Colchester, Vt., all of the action happens at the company’s production mill in Fairfax, north of Burlington and about 30 minutes from the Canadian border. The 55,000-sq.-ft. production facility was the former home of Milton Bradley Wood Products Co., which made about 1 million Scrabble letter tiles per day for more than 20 years until it closed in 1998.

The enormous shop is airy and bright inside and features automated tooling and CNC machinery. There are currently 25 employees, down from a high of 55. The atmosphere is a mix of traditional craftsmanship and contemporary digital technology. The shop also has a strong focus on sustainable practices using FSC-certified products and environmentally sensitive finishes.

Hastings found his niche in the commercial woodworking industry early on, in part because of the insurmountable competition in residential woodworking that is naturally part of the area.

“In Vermont, everybody’s a woodworker working out of their garage. There’s a very strong woodworking climate here. I didn’t want to do residential work because so many people were doing it, so early on I got involved with commercial work because that’s where my connections were and the business grew and grew,” Hastings says.

It really grew in 2010 with the acquisition of the production mill for Morse Hardwoods and Millwork, but more on that later.

So much for that degree

Hastings earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science at Saint Anslem College in Manchester, N.H. But a part-time job in the school’s woodshop got him interested in pursuing construction work after graduation.

“I knew I couldn’t sit in an office so I went into construction and built houses,” Hastings says. “In 1988 I followed my brother up here to Vermont when I was 25. We worked together until I went out on my own in 1989. But pretty soon the housing market crashed, so I went to work for a small commercial construction company’s woodshop. I went back out on my own in 1995 and rented a little 2,600-sq.-ft. shop in Colchester.”

Amoskeag Woodworking had begun. The jobs poured in and the business grew by word of mouth. Hastings hired his first employee, Shawn Hatin, in 1995 who continues to work for the company.

He expanded the operation in Colchester, then outgrew that 7,000-sq.-ft. space by 2010. That’s when the opportunity to buy the Fairfax facility emerged.

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“I had looked around for nine months and found this place, which back then was Brad Morse Hardwoods, on the market,” Hastings says. “My first reaction was, ‘Wow, it’s way too big. But the housing market that crashed in 2007 had shrunk Brad’s business to a quarter of its size. His guys were only working two days a week. He said if I bought his equipment, he’d give me the business as well. I was in deeper than I had wanted, but I didn’t want to see his (eight) employees go down, too.”

He decided to put the two businesses together and so far it has worked.

“One of the things that has helped us survive is we’re not a one-trick pony. Because Vermont is such a rural area with only about 600,000 people, we do commercial, residential wholesale and contract manufacturing work. That mix brings in enough revenue to keep the business going.”

Architectural millwork accounts for about half the revenue. Morse Hardwoods and Millwork, a retail source for flooring, molding and residential building products, contributes about 30 percent.

“The way that side works is customers will call us and say they’re looking for oak flooring, unfinished in a certain width, or they’ll say they took down lumber on their property and ask us to make it into flooring to put into their house. We also do any kind of molding such as crown molding, base molding and stair parts,” Hastings says.

The remaining revenue comes from contract manufacturing, an agreement with an inventor who needs a product made. Amoskeag is currently manufacturing products for five entrepreneurs, including cutting boards, plant holders, yoga mat kits and other wood components.

“We’ve restructured a little over the past several years and one of the reasons we took on the contract manufacturing was because there was a need and nobody was doing it,” Hastings says.

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Made — and sold — in Vermont

Amoskeag, for the most part, is a regional supplier.

“We probably do 80 percent of our work in Vermont and the other 20 percent in New England or upstate New York, which is just across Lake Champlain. It’s very rare that we will go farther than that geographic radius. Maybe one time a year we will do something in the Bahamas or another state. We did a project for Bruegger’s Bagels at the Mall of America.”

Some of the regular customers include Merchants Bank and the New England Federal Credit Union.

Hastings describes the shop as a nice place to work with a hardworking, team-oriented crew that has low turnover. He isn’t in the shop much anymore with a couple of business to run.

“I’m quite busy overseeing everything and making sure everything is done properly. I usually do all of the initial sales agreements and manage staff. Basically I’m a general manager.

“We can probably handle about 25 jobs at a time. We have drafting, engineering and programing professionals here. Commercial jobs are submitted to us, then to the architect for approval, and then they are engineered to order.”

Hastings says the company’s focus on sustainability has a lot to do with the woods its uses. For example, it is more likely to use local ash over oak that has to come from a great distance.

“There’s this big push in the state legislature to keep farms and forests in business so we don’t look like suburbia. Our company embraces that mentality as well. We believe in supporting local materials,” Hastings says.

As for customer preferences, Hastings is seeing a trend towards rustic woods, like figured brown maple, with a clear finish. “Anything that’s darker and has more character in it or anything unusual like spalted maple or maple with tap holes in them from making syrup. Those are the trends.

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“We use a lot of clear finishes because the work we do on the commercial side requires them. We’ve done some pickled finishes and some painted, but the bulk of what we do is stained and clear,” Hastings says.

Time to start marketing

Hastings just applied for a federal grant to help with sales and marketing, which he hopes to secure in 2016.

“Marketing is the one thing we don’t do very well. Our product has sold itself over the years, but that only takes you so far. We applied for the grant to go out and push the business some more.

“The business we bought was 25 years old so the people would just keep calling. We didn’t advertise on the web or do print marketing. We have seen our market shrink, so with the grant we want to build an e-commerce website to get back out in front of our clients. The funny thing is that I was a computer science major in the 1980s, but I’m not that computer-savvy now.”

Shaking his head, Hastings expresses that he still can’t believe he was able to manage the monstrous facility and keep business going. Instead of being intimidated by it, he now feels that it is not maximizing its full potential because not enough people know about what his business can really offer.

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“Milton Bradley had 75 employees here, so there’s room to grow. We’d like to take advantage of the three kilns here and dry and saw logs. We are always buying logs from Canada or Massachusetts and I know we can support logging trucks and so on. It’s important for us to build that network.”

Contact: Amoskeag Woodworking, 30 Elm Court Colchester, VT 05446. Tel: 802-860-9588.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.

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