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photo by Andy Duback

On Pine
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 aren’t slaves to the 90-degree angle. The intangible they struggle to define is Pine Street, Burlington’s historic industrial corridor. This stretch of black-top spans the city’s 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 you’re 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 you’re of the right vintage you may remember television commercials — “I want my Maypo” — for Pine Street’s 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: Burlington’s SoHo.

Steve Conant ’78

Leaving home is seldom easy. There’s 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 month’s 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. He’s 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 neighborhood’s anchors.

What a gray suit is to a Wall Street banker, Steve Conant’s Carhartt vest and blue jeans are to a Pine Street businessman. It’s 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 didn’t 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 in business.

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. “It’s all good. I like a lot of moving pieces and I’ve got that,” he says. While his business has changed dramatically, he says the spirit that initially attracted him to Pine Street remains steady. “It’s still got that energy, creativity, enthusiasm,” and, as if revealing the secret ingredient of entrepreneurial success, Conant adds, “that blindness.”

Jim Lampman ’72

It’s 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, it’s all russet and cream colors, all about chocolate. There’s a certain irony in Lampman’s skill for creating a place to draw customers, because one of Pine Street’s 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 Burlington’s 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 wasn’t 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 he’s 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 Burlington’s 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.

Mark Binkhorst ’84

Of all the success stories lining Pine Street, Mark Binkhorst’s 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, it’s not your first apartment’s futon that Binkhorst is selling anymore. His Burlington store isn’t 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 Company’s wood floors are well-scarred, the beams are exposed, and the walls are red brick. Binkhorst says he likes the space’s “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. “It’s 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. You’re 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. It’s one of several pieces of post-industrial chic that decorate Select’s 60,000-square foot brick building on Flynn Avenue, just off Pine Street in Burlington’s South End. There’s 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 their own.

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 Jerry’s, Phish, and Burton Snowboards.

Not unexpectedly, Select exudes a strong image of its own. Showing off the second-floor design and business space, Owens says they don’t like 90 degree angles here. It’s 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 Wills Hall.

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. It’s real, solid, a little funky.”

Beer 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. “It’s where we started, where we went to school, it’s really part of the heritage of our business.”