FOR 57 years, Hill-Martin Corp served the municipal, industrial, and contractor markets in Vermont and New Hampshire, offering a product line including snowplows, sanders, bodies, wheel loaders, and aggregate-processing equipment.
After moving twice in the first 17 years of its existence in Barre, Vermont, the company settled into a charming facility fashioned out of red brick and white siding, built in 1843 and occupying a spot on the National Registry of Historic Sites.
And that was enough. Until February.
Spurred on by the culmination of years of negotiations for a new facility and the necessity of expansion dictated by an increased workload and the company's designation as the official Tenco dealer of Maine, Hill-Martin opened a branch in Berwick, Maine, tucked in the corner of the state a few miles from the New Hampshire border.
“It's one of the most positive steps we've taken in six years,” general manager David Hill says. “The people in Maine and New Hampshire are looking for additional suppliers who will provide them with a quality product at a competitive price. Our largest growth potential comes from southern Maine and New Hampshire, so it makes sense to be over there.
“We've been selling product in that area, but in order to adequately service it, we really needed a facility. We've been getting a good enough reception down there that this move will have an extremely positive effect.”
Barre Shop Handling All It Can
Hill-Martin's shop in Barre has been maxed out since the company was once again awarded the state of Vermont contract, under which it will produce 35 units. While that work occupies the Barre shop, other work can be diverted to the Berwick shop. On top of that, Hill-Martin got the good news from Tenco on Dec 1.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Hill says. “The immediate concern is getting all the tooling in place and getting parts moved over there so we can adequately support the product.
“There's a real challenge from the sales standpoint because the state of Maine has been dominated by Howard P Fairfield, and he's going to be tough competition. He runs a real good operation and provides good products and customer support. But he's basically the only one up there doing that. So unlike here in Vermont, we'll be the new kids on the block up there, which is always a challenge.”
The company has a 20'×40' single-bay garage with space for parts and three acres of outside storage space. Hill expects a yearly production of 25 to 30 fully loaded snowplows in Berwick and a 15% to 20% increase in sales volume for the company.
The shop will be manned by a fabricator/mechanic and managed by salesman Tom Graham, whom Hill has known for 20 years and who served as the best man at Hill's wedding.
Hill says he had flirted with the idea of a Maine salesman for years, nearly hiring one a half-dozen times. He preferred Graham, who has a strong sales and management background in the wholesale hardwood industry and was managing a millhouse. They couldn't put it all together until Graham decided to sell his interest in his business.
“It was the right time for both of us, finally,” Hill says.
Company Has Evolved
In Barre, Hill-Martin has a 20,000-sq-ft facility — 12,000 in service, 5,000 in parts, and 3,000 in the office. The service area is equipped with three overhead cranes (one five-ton and two one-ton), complete welding and cutting capabilities, hydraulic and electrical diagnostic equipment, presses, and a paint room. The company has four people in sales, three in parts, 14 in service, and three in support.
When it was founded by Hill's grandfather, Arthur Sr, and Dick Martin, it sold lawnmowers and chainsaws, and operated a welding shop. It moved into Allis-Chalmers construction equipment and Baker snowplows — becoming the first company to produce a truck-mounted snowblower in Vermont (for the Burlington Airport) — and more recently has become more active in construction equipment, primarily with contractors. It is very active in the municipal market with front-end loaders and graders. Its sales volume now is split evenly between construction equipment, aggregate-processing equipment, and plow trucks.
“As times change and manufacturers' dominance changes, we have been forced to change,” Hill says. “Five or six years ago, the market went to mega equipment dealers. This is a small, family-owned business, so we needed to concentrate more on truck equipment.
“Six years ago, we built three plow trucks. In 2000, we built 80. Six years ago, we did two or three municipal plow trucks. We'll do 35 to 40 municipal packages this year, plus the state work.
“We've seen the market for municipal vehicles go from a conventional dump body with an underbody hoist to side-dump sander bodies and a conventional body with a tailgate sander. There's been a major change in the market. We had the first side-dump sander body in the US, and we let the state of Vermont use it on the toughest roads to handle ski areas.”
Says Art Hill Jr, his father and the company's president, “The state's maintenance people rely on us a lot to work on their equipment. Vermont has only a half-million people. We have to be diverse, while at the same time industry changes are forcing us to concentrate on certain niches. We have not been a municipal equipment supply house. We are going to be a municipal equipment supply house.”
Municipal Market Growing
As a result of discussions with several different manufacturers, Hill-Martin has a new account as Holder tractor dealer for the state of Vermont. Its machinery is geared primarily toward municipalities — a multi-purpose sidewalk tractor — and Hill-Martin hopes to sell five units this year.
The company views the truck equipment municipal market as a prime opportunity because, as David says, “there were basically two players in Vermont.
“If we were going to be in the plow business, we had to really do it,” David says. “With the two or three plow trucks we built, we lost money. It took 270 or 280 hours to build them. Either you're going to be in the business or not in the business. It now takes half that amount of time to build them, and we're building a better product.
“We listened to our customers and determined what they needed. One of the players that was involved was not that reputable and was not giving the customer what he needed. We feel we're at a great place, at a great time, with a great philosophy. So it's taken off pretty good.”
A large portion of Hill-Martin's business comes from outside its northern Vermont base, with the state contract and the expansion of its plow truck distribution to a half-dozen New Hampshire towns.
It has even landed some major contracts overseas, including a $1-million deal under which it supplied the initial processing equipment — crushers, feeders, bar mill — for an Indonesian company that installed a calcium carbonate processing mill. Hill-Martin continues to work on various projects in North and South America, along with selling components to a Korean operation.
Front-end Loaders for Granite Quarry
The local work comes primarily in parts and service provided to the granite industry.
The company works on front-end loaders for Rock of Ages Corp, which has a granite quarry in Barre that is one of the world's largest — 55 acres and 550 ft deep, carved out of the Vermont hillside for the past 116 years. With its annual yield of 1.2 million cubic ft of granite, Rock of Ages Corp is the largest fully integrated retailer, quarrier, and manufacturer of granite memorials in North America, and its granite is world famous.
The quarrying process involves the creation of “benches” — large, six-sided, rectangular blocks of stone. A typical bench is 40'×35'×16'. After blasting, the bench is quarried by separating slabs 5½' wide by jack-hammering a series of shims and wedges into the vertical holes in the top of the bench. The slabs are split from the bench by a front-end loader with a tipping boom used to topple each line down. As each line is toppled, fresh stone is exposed beneath and behind the line. The toppled slabs are split into smaller blocks that are transported by the front-end loader to an area underneath one of the derricks where the block is hoisted out of the quarry.
In addition to the front-end loaders, Hill-Martin does service work on the quarry's hydraulic systems and provides parts and service for its processing plants.
Like a lot of companies in the truck-equipment industry, Hill-Martin is facing a labor dilemma. But the problem is particularly acute in Vermont, where the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, as this year began, was 2.5% — the eighth-lowest in the US, well below a national rate of 4.2% in January that was the highest in 16 months. There were 333,031 employed people in the state, with only 8,629 out of work. Over in New Hampshire, the rate was even lower (2.3%).
The unemployment rate in Vermont has declined from 5.8% since 1993.
Central Vermont is now the second-fastest growing area in the US in manufacturing jobs. With an 11.8% increase in the past four years, it is second only to Laredo, Texas.
In Barre, that growth is coming from Bombardier, which has a finishing plant for rail cars and recently has been awarded several contracts to provide cars for high-speed passenger trains. Bombardier, a Canadian company with assets of $17 billion (Canadian), has taken a huge chunk of the skilled work force by adding machine shops in Barre.
To combat the shortage of available workers, Hill-Martin has been hiring students from the local Vo-Techs over the summer to assist in the component room, help tear down engines and transmissions, service hydraulic pumps, work on pre-assembly of valves and cable controls, and apply decals. The company is hoping this will lead to a situation where those students will join on a full-time basis.
Loaded with History
The Barre facility is a fascinating slice of history. It had the first thermopane windows in the US, and Art Jr adds, possibly in the world. (One of them was shipped to the Smithsonian Institute for a national symposium on windows.)
The company scrapbook chronicles not only the building, but what went on there: a snowblower built by Art Sr in 1935; the first loader snowplow sold by the company (to the town of Cornish, New Hampshire).
Over the past five years, Hill-Martin has changed its shop-space allocation. It formerly had its component room in the shop to handle engines and transmissions. As the volume of component-rebuild work decreased, the company needed more production space for trucks, so that was moved into the parts area, freeing up 1,600 sq ft.
On a tour through the facility, David points out a truck for the city of Burlington that will be set up with electrical and hydraulic controls. A Dickie John sander-control system will automatically regulate the amount of material on the road. If the truck slows down, the amount of material is slowly reduced, while keeping the same spread pattern. If the truck stops at an intersection, the flow of material stops.
“We do a lot of automatic controls,” David says. “There aren't a lot of towns that are going electric over hydraulic. The majority are still using cable controls.”
He says side-dump sander bodies are very popular in Vermont, with many towns veering away from conventional dump bodies with a tailgate sander. Old trucks are being replaced with side-dump sander bodies.
“The advantage is that the center of gravity stays lower,” David says. “You're sanding in front of real wheels, rather than behind them. It's a very rugged body. We've got over 150 of them out in Vermont.”
Hill-Martin also does a lot of pre-assembly of Dickie John sander controls under the state contract, using the ICS 2000 system. The cable is completely sealed going into the control unit.
“The cable consumption with the valve-oil system is 1/10th of what it is with other cable-control systems,” David says.
He says towns are going to tandems with 13' bodies because they are better suited to hauling material — primarily sand and gravel — longer distances, and to Low Pros because they cost less than 35,000 GVW trucks and are more maneuverable.
“The life expectancy is two to three years with a one-ton in a plowing application and seven to 12 years with a Low Pro,” he says.
Hill-Martin produces a package for the town of Jericho — the wing has a 30-degree trip hinge. It's a power-reversing plow with a Joma blade and is equipped with a Bibeau body and SBD Swenson single-auger tailgate sander. He says another major advantage to the load-sensing hydraulic system is that the only time the pump is drawing horsepower off the engine is when the driver is utilizing one of the functions, so most towns are seeing a dramatic decrease in fuel consumption.
“Municipal bodies are becoming more like contractors' bodies,” he says. “A contractor always has been concerned about wear and cost effectiveness. A lot of municipalities were only concerned about the initial purchase cost. But more and more, they are aware it's not just the initial price — it's the total cost over seven to 12 years. A lot of towns' specs are being raised to the next level.”
In another area of the shop, Hill shows a wash bay that doubles as an area for paint prep area and undercoating. In the 20'×40' area, they paint excavators, loaders, school buses, and truck equipment. They have a hydraulic power pack to raise the side dump so they can paint underneath the body.
“One of the biggest problems we faced in gearing up and getting into the truck equipment business was the quality of the paint job,” he says. “Previously, we were painting construction equipment, and everything was yellow and the finish didn't matter. When you put a body on a truck, it becomes part of a truck and they want it to look good. We went through numerous paint suppliers and ended up with PPG.”
Stocking a Variety
Outside, on 3½ acres, the company stocks a variety of equipment: CFC screening and crushing units; Kawasaki loaders (marketed primarily to municipalities and contractors); Tenco Twist ‘n’ Shoot plows; dump bodies; and Swenson spreaders.
Of the Tenco plows, he says: “It provides the benefits of the power-reversing plow but also high-speed plowing. With the hydraulic cylinder on top, you can choke down the nose section and open up the discharge section, so you create a funneling effect that you'd have with a one-way plow. It gives you the characteristics of a one-way plow for either right-hand or left-hand discharge.”
His yard also has one piece of equipment that isn't on the market: a 1938 Allis-Chalmers tow-behind road grader that his grandfather sold new when he worked for that company. David re-acquired it 15 years ago and says he has had more offers from buyers for it than he has had for any other piece of equipment.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “it's not for sale.”
Operating as a small family business, Hill-Martin has adhered to its concept of providing its customers with top-notch service and support. The Hills feel that it's critical, given the consolidations that have made some companies very powerful — like Nortrax's purchase of Grappone's construction equipment division.
“Our perception, as a result of what our customers say, is that with so many of the facility buyouts, they don't seem to be concerned about backup service,” Art Jr says. “As your company grows, your customers should become more important.
“Customers will call us and say they have a machine that's 15 or 20 years old. They'll say, ‘Could you fax us sheets from the service manual? We've got a problem.’ We will do that.
“It's tougher for us to compete against bigger companies, but people voice complaints and come back to us all the time. We're a small company. We're a family company. There are a lot of people who want personalized treatment.”