by Andy Duback
Where the bottom line has soul
by Thomas Weaver
Steve Conant calls it funk. Jim Lampman calls it charisma. And Kevin
Owens calls it a place for those who arent slaves to the 90-degree
angle. The intangible they struggle to define is Pine Street, Burlingtons
historic industrial corridor. This stretch of black-top spans the citys
South End and unites a cadre of entrepreneurial UVM alumni who have
built successful businesses through keen eyes for the right niche
the market kind, and more literally, that hole in the wall where a start-up
can get a foothold.
Je ne sais quoi gets tossed around when youre searching for the
right word, but it seems a bit much for a neighborhood notable for rambling
warehouses of red brick and corrugated metal, crossed by long derelict
spurs of railroad track. A 150-year business history would offer up
an eclectic index of stuff produced here syrup and chocolate,
Venetian blinds and brush bristles, wooden bobbins and woven cotton,
machine guns and motion picture film. And if youre of the right
vintage you may remember television commercials I want
my Maypo for Pine Streets most famous product.
In its latest incarnation, greater Pine has emerged as a place where
historic character and creative commerce blend in a mix that has earned
the humble neighborhood a lofty nickname: Burlingtons SoHo.
CONANT CUSTOM BRASS
Steve Conant 78
Leaving home is seldom easy. Theres a critical moment in the lives
of many entrepreneurs when they step out of the garage/kitchen/basement/den
and into rented space. For Steve Conant, that transition came in 1981.
I had a $700 loan from the Bank of Vermont, and was looking at
paying a deposit on a space and a months rent, buying a badly
needed buffing machine, and doing an ad in the paper, Conant recalls.
Pine Street was an affordable industrial environment. He
signed the lease on 600 square feet in a business incubator known as
the Howard Space, joining a handful of other start-ups who called themselves
the Alley Cats.
More than 20 years later, Conant is still an alley cat at heart, one
committed to the potential of cheap space and creative minds. Hes
also something of an affable alpha cat, board president of the South
End Arts and Business Association and owner of Pine Square, a 47,000-square-foot
incubator complex that is among the neighborhoods anchors.
What a gray suit is to a Wall Street banker, Steve Conants Carhartt
vest and blue jeans are to a Pine Street businessman. Its about
function and lack of pretense, and a little comfort is fine as long
as nobody gets hurt. The small room where Conant sits and discusses
the evolution of Conant Custom Brass, from a solo venture to some 30
employees, is decorated in a kind of Pine Street provincial. The conference
table has legs made from scrap I-beams and is topped by a thick sheet
of glass salvaged from the nearby Recycle North store.
Conant came to Burlington in the 1970s with a plan to earn a degree
in wildlife biology then leave to attend art school to prepare for a
career in scientific illustration. Things changed when he met his future
wife, Maggie 71, in a painting class about the same time he was
also falling in love with Burlington. That part of the plan about going
away to art school didnt look so good anymore.
As an undergrad, Conant was also putting his art, ingenuity, and trade
skills to work creating lighting and decorative metal work for the erstwhile
Déjà Vu Café on Pearl Street. When Déjà
Vu opened and other restaurateurs saw his work, suddenly Conant was
With many employees, a major investment in Pine Square, and a multi-faceted
business to oversee, Conant has come a long way from his days as a one-man
shop. Its all good. I like a lot of moving pieces and Ive
got that, he says. While his business has changed dramatically,
he says the spirit that initially attracted him to Pine Street remains
steady. Its still got that energy, creativity, enthusiasm,
and, as if revealing the secret ingredient of entrepreneurial success,
Conant adds, that blindness.
Jim Lampman 72
Its doubtful that the guys stirring the Maypo in vats (or whatever
one did to make the malted cereal), had to worry about tourists looking
over their shoulders. Not so in 21st century Vermont where the tourist
industry may center around mountains, snow, and maple leaves, but also
often includes a side-trip to watch teddy bear stuffing, cider pressing,
or sap boiling. When Jim Lampman, who owns Champlain Chocolates together
with his wife, Anne 71, renovated a building on Pine Street, it
was with a mind to creating a retail and manufacturing space with a
sense of theater.
Large windows in the retail area look out on the production floor, one
of those clean, well-lit places of white-clad workers and stainless
steel. In the store, its all russet and cream colors, all about
chocolate. Theres a certain irony in Lampmans skill for
creating a place to draw customers, because one of Pine Streets
initial attractions was that he thought it would be an easy place for
a business to get lost.
When Lampman began to develop his chocolate business in the early 1980s
it was a sideline to the consuming work of owning a restaurant, the
Ice House, located on Burlingtons Battery Street. He wanted a
space nearby with cheap rent, and preferably one that would allow him
to develop a wholesale business instead of a mom and pop retail candy
store. One-thousand square feet with no windows in a back alley was
just the thing.
Customers found their way to him, nonetheless, and Lampman soon figured
that a little cash flow from a retail operation wasnt such a bad
thing. In one move to the Maltex Building, then a later move south on
Pine to the former George Little Press building, Lampman has renovated
to create that sense of retail theatrics.
In 2004, Champlain Chocolates is at home in 35,000 square feet of space
and Lampman has blueprints on his desk to knock out the back wall and
add 18,000 more. When the bunnies or the hearts or the standards are
in production, his business goes through 10,000 pounds of chocolate
a day. With some 90 employees, Lampman says Champlain has arrived at
a stable point where hes making a solid enough profit to put it
back into the business and his staff.
These days, Lampman estimates that 65 percent of his sales are beyond
Vermont, but credits local customers for helping his business get off
the ground. Lampman says he owes a lot to Burlingtons sophistication,
where, yes, a number of people drive Volvos, drink lattes, and were
willing to pay $20 per pound for top-drawer chocolate in 1983.
BURLINGTON FUTON COMPANY
Mark Binkhorst 84
Of all the success stories lining Pine Street, Mark Binkhorsts
stands out as one that particularly springs from the singular ecosystem
of the North American college town. Take a place that is long on students
who are short on cash and there is likely to be a market for the humble
futon affordable, minimalist, and, you know, kind of cool.
Binkhorst was a new UVM graduate in 1984 with thoughts of a career in
international diplomacy, but first a little cash was in order. His plan:
buy 14 futons in Boston, pile them in a U-Haul, drive north, staple
signs around campus, and set up shop in a makeshift storefront on North
Winooski. With a line at the door, Binkhorst quickly sold out at $99
each (a $34 profit per piece). Long-term, this launched the beginning
of the Burlington Futon Company, going strong 20 years later with 30
employees, a retail store, and a major focus on manufacturing nationally
marketed futon covers. Short-term, it meant that Binkhorst would come
to have names for all of the trees along Interstate 89 as he drove
the Burlington-Boston route, building his business 14 futons at a time.
Binkhorst soon realized the limits of a business with a clientele as
narrow as college students who, he jokes, only have money two
weeks out of the year. That has meant elevating both the quality
and the image of the futon to widen the demographic appeal. To re-purpose
the phrase, its not your first apartments futon that Binkhorst
is selling anymore. His Burlington store isnt about bare-bones
frames but real furniture, a good deal of it made by Vermont manufacturers,
much of it contemporary and hip.
His products seem a good fit for the space where they are sold
a kind of dream loft. Burlington Futon Companys wood floors are
well-scarred, the beams are exposed, and the walls are red brick. Binkhorst
says he likes the spaces patina of 100 years of manufacturing.
In the early days in the building, that patina literally oozed out of
the structure. Vermont Maid Syrup was manufactured here years ago and
has proven a tough memory to erase. Refinishing the floors gummed up
the sandpaper with syrup, and a good rainstorm once conjured sweet drips
from the ceiling.
The challenges have grown with the business. Leaks are relatively easy
compared to coping with the global economy. Binkhorst has built the
futon cover manufacturing aspect of his business with distinctive design,
top quality, and efficiency, and credits the skill of local workers
with helping maintain that market niche. But he admits that balancing
the strong wage he pays in Burlington against what many of his competitors
pay overseas is difficult.
Binkhorst has learned to accept such evolving questions as the nature
of his profession. Its the entrepreneurs rule that the business
grows up and you are running after it, Binkhorst says. In
a dynamic business, nothing is ever right where it is supposed to be.
Youre never totally at peace.
Jeff Beer 87 and Kevin Owens 87
Walk in the front door of Select Design and the first face that greets
you is made from cast-off cogs and scrap iron, a wall sculpture with
a lop-sided smile. Its one of several pieces of post-industrial
chic that decorate Selects 60,000-square foot brick building on
Flynn Avenue, just off Pine Street in Burlingtons South End. Theres
a kind of understated triumph to the expression on the metal face that
mirrors the spirit of co-owners Jeff Beer and Kevin Owens, a pair of
UVM college pals who have built Select into a 60-employee, $10 million
business from its unambitious origins a scheme to sell a few
T-shirts at the 1988 NCAA Ski Championships to finance a ski trip of
Select Design has been very successful at helping other businesses and
organizations build an image and market it. Nationally that means clients
like Pepsi, Timberland, MTV, Major League Baseball, Viacom, the New
York City Marathon, the United States Ski Team; and a number of locally
based national clients such as Ben and Jerrys, Phish, and Burton
Not unexpectedly, Select exudes a strong image of its own. Showing off
the second-floor design and business space, Owens says they dont
like 90 degree angles here. Its a place where a dog named Angus
comes up and gives your hand a friendly sniff, where an old elevator
shaft is furnished with a red Everlast punching bag, but where business
also hums along at a fast pace. Upstairs, designers are intent on crafting
the designs that will sell the image that will sell the product. Downstairs
in production, screenprinters and embroidery machines are churning out
hats and shirts for Sierra Mist, Vermont Lacrosse, and the Army National
Guard, among other clients.
Beer oversees the financial aspects and sales staff; Owens is focused
on general oversight and growing the company. Plenty is shared and,
after years in business together, the longtime friends maintain the
easy rapport of guys who met playing basketball on the courts behind
Upon graduation, Owens and Beer both had hazy plans to stay in the area
which began to come into focus after their ski championship shirt sales
plan worked. Soon, one screenprint project led to another. After outgrowing
rental space in the Kilburn and Gates building on Pine Street, they
took the leap to building ownership in 2000 when they purchased the
Flynn property from Elan Skis. They immediately set to work sandblasting
walls and floors to recapture the original surfaces in the building,
which was originally home to the Vermont Milk Chocolate Company, a major
supplier during World War I. Owens says, It feels good to be able
to own property with this kind of character. Its real, solid,
a little funky.
and Owens say though there are places they could run their business
less expensively at this point, the benefits outweigh the costs. We
desperately wanted to stay in Burlington, Owens says. Its
where we started, where we went to school, its really part of
the heritage of our business.