Originally published in Business Digest, April 1997

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

by Kathryn Trudell

Vermont’s poet laureate Robert Frost once wrote that good fences make good neighbors. It’s a practical philosophy, born of integrity, old-fashioned hard work, and quiet pride in seeing a job completed — that has guided and motivated Ed Hart, president of F.E. Hart Fence Co. Inc. in Williston, and his father, Frank, before him.

Ed Hart wears the philosophy comfortably and unpretentiously, like a favorite work shirt. He and his wife and business partner, Patti, strive to provide the best possible fencing materials and installation, and in the process, they cultivate business relationships that make good neighbors and friends of their customers.

Hart is a plain-spoken man who considers his words and thinks before he speaks. He is proud of the business he took over from his father.

“During the entire life of our business,” he says, “first with my dad and now with Patti, we’ve always tried to give people honest, quality service. I can look any of my customers in the eye and tell them we’ll stand behind the job and products, and do the very best we are capable of. I’m a native Vermonter. My father and my grandfather came from Stowe. We pride ourselves on being local people. We’re not high-pressure. We want people to feel comfortable driving in here and talking to us.”

F.E. Hart Fence Co., located on 2.1 acres of land at 87 Shunpike Road in Williston, has grown considerably from its humble beginnings in a rented garage stall in 1958. Following Frank Hart’s retirement in 1991, Ed become president of the company; Patti is vice president.

The younger Hart, a Burlington native, was in grammar school when his father established the company. “In the winter my father drove a fuel oil delivery truck for Queen City Transport. When summer came along, the fuel oil delivery business always slacked off, and my dad needed to supplement his income. He looked around and saw that no one else in the local area was in the fencing business full time, so he decided to try it. My dad rented a garage stall from my aunt — his sister, Alice Bundy — on Patchen Road in South Burlington. As I recall, when my dad started the business, he borrowed money from his sister to purchase his first order of materials.”

photo In 1991 Ed and Patti Hart took over the reins of F.E. Hart Fence Co., the Williston firm Ed’s father, Frank, established in 1958. Staining fence posts in his back yard after school was Ed’s introduction to the business he has worked in all his life. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

About a year later, his father moved the business to his family home on Malletts Bay Avenue in Winooski. “We’d store the fence materials out in the back yard,” Hart says. “After my brother, Jim, and I got out of school on many days, it was our job to stain the fencing.”

The senior Hart continued to work at Queen City Transport, and spent his evenings and weekends providing fencing estimates and installations, sometimes bringing his young sons with him. It was a family business — even the boys’ grandfather got involved.

“My grandfather would come up from New York in the summertime,” Hart says, “and go to the mills up in Barton to buy the fencing for us. In the early days we pretty much handled only cedar post and rail fencing, picket fences, and a small amount of privacy fencing. No chain link back then — strictly wood.”

It was during these early years that the younger Hart figured out where he was headed. “I knew back then that I wanted to grow up to own and run the business,” he says.

Hart paid his dues in full measure. “Staining and installing all those fences wasn’t always a paying job for us kids at the time. We were contributing our share to support the family.”

It wasn’t long before Frank Hart was able to hire a part-time employee, and concentrate on growing his business to the point where it could support his family full time. “He didn’t have much competition then that I can recall,” notes Hart. “After three or four years of slow but steady growth at the Malletts Bay Avenue location, the business was profitable enough so that Dad was able to resign from his fuel oil delivery job and add full-time employees to the payroll.”

In 1961 Frank moved the business into an old saw mill he purchased on South Brownell Road in Williston. “That location was across the road from where Otter Creek Awnings is now, but back then we were way out in the country among the corn fields and the hay fields,” Hart says with a laugh. “We had our peeler machine out there that we used to debark all the rough logs, our picket pointing machine, rip saws, cutoff saws, and boring and doweling machines. We were able to use the sawmill building that was already there, and build more storage areas on the side of the mill.”

In 1968 the expanding business moved again — this time to a site at 14 Williston Road that provided more storage area. “That’s the biggest problem in a business like ours — the need for storage,” Hart explains. “We needed so much more storage that Dad built a pole barn to handle it.”

On Nov. 1, 1993, the business moved to its present and — barring unforeseen circumstances — permanent location. “Patti and I are comfortable with the business at the size it is now,” Hart explains. “I don’t see it getting much bigger. We’ve had growth in this business every single year for the past 38 years.”

The company’s needs for storage space seem well met in the current location, which features a 40-by-60-foot display showroom and office, and a workshop building that is the same size. There are two large steel pole barns for the storage of lumber and other materials, and a yard for the numerous vehicles owned by the company. Hart estimates that they have a million board feet of inventory in stock.

Although the company is open year round, six days a week, the business is somewhat seasonal, with the heaviest workload occurring during the summer and autumn, tapering off in the winter, then picking up again in the spring.

“Fence work never really dries up,” he observes, “because there is always construction going on. I work like crazy during the construction seasons, and I’m grateful for the more relaxed pace in the winter. By that time, I’m ready for a break. But come spring, I’m raring to go again.”

The fencing company employs 11 people: three two-man installation crews, one delivery driver, two yard men, and inside office personnel. The company offers several styles of cedar post and rail, chain link, PVC and privacy fencing. In addition to the obvious fencing products implied by its name, F.E. Hart stocks and sells snow fencing, arbors, pre-bored lantern posts and all kinds of wooden lawn furniture.

“Residential housing is going up all the time,” Hart says. “People always need fencing. And commercial construction is steady in Chittenden County.” Hart estimates that 80 percent of their work involves residential fencing. The rest is commercial.

Jeanne Morrissey, president of J.A. Morrissey Inc. in South Burlington, has worked with F. E. Hart Fence Co. on several Burlington area projects. Hart and his crews installed a vinyl- coated, chain-link enclosure at the Lake Champlain Basin Science Center, steel picket fencing at the George and Elaine Little Park, and vinyl-coated fencing at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf.

“It’s always a pleasure working with Ed and Patti,” Morrissey notes. “They are professional, knowledgeable, and completely committed to quality. It’s simply a bonus that they are also such pleasant people.”

Patti Hart was born in Burlington and brought up in Colchester. She graduated from Burlington High School in 1966. She and Ed met in Burlington, and married in 1968. They have two daughters, Lisa and Kelly, one grandchild, and two cats, Barney and Baby.

“The cats aren’t house cats,” Patti says. “They are our resident business cats. This is their home and their playground. They love to walk across the tops of the fences in the showroom. They greet the customers and keep their children entertained while the parents are conducting business with us.”

Patti manages the office and works with customers in the showroom. “Like Ed, I do whatever has to be done,” she explains. She started working in the family business in 1985. “Ed’s dad was pretty skeptical when I started, because I didn’t know anything about the fence business. But I learned as I went and now I do just about everything. I’ve even gone out on a couple of picket and chain link installations. I’ll never forget one chain-link fence job I worked on because I got really dehydrated after being out in the sun all day for three straight days. That experience definitely made me more safety-conscious!”

Phil Marcelino, maintenance team leader at the MCHV Campus of Fletcher Allen Health Care, credits the Harts with “excellent workmanship, quality materials, and getting the job done in a timely manner. I select them for jobs because they are reputable and I know their work first hand.”

F.E. Hart installed privacy fencing at the Hope Lodge on East Avenue in Burlington, fencing for a children’s playground, construction of inside material storage cages and tool cribs at the hospital, and screening for some of the hospital’s transformers. “They wove material called evergreen through the chain link fence to camouflage them,” Marcelino says. “It looks like greenery and we never have to trim it. One other thing I have noticed over the years is how hard-working and well-mannered Ed’s crews are. That speaks highly of them and the business they represent.”

Hart is quick to praise his employees. “My employees are a great group of people. I have the highest respect for them. They can make, install, or repair just about anything. We don’t have a high turnover on our crews. I think the employee with the least amount of time with the business has been here eight years.”

Arny Hill, who calls himself a jack of all trades, is a crew foreman who has worked there for 18 years. “I like the outdoor work, and I really like working here,” he says. “I install fence seasonally, and in the winter I’m in the shop repairing equipment and getting ready for spring. Ed is such an honest, hard-working person. I have a very good relationship with my bosses, Ed and Patti both.”

Hart’s business has done some unusual jobs over the years, including building a roofed wolf enclosure in Jeffersonville with an extra security fence to keep onlookers from bothering the animals, or maybe the reverse. They have constructed indoor kennel areas for veterinarians, indoor security fences for bonded areas, and a large PVC fence show ring for horses at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds.

Although their life revolves around the business, the Harts are avid bowlers and motorcycle enthusiasts, who own and ride a Harley-Davidson. In the winter, Hart spends his weekends snowmobile touring in Canada.

Hart tilts his chair back and ponders his final comments. “I don’t get out in the field as much now. My job is estimates, setting the jobs up, assigning the crews, checking that we have all the materials we need for a job, basically making sure that everything runs smoothly. I’m very definitely a hands-on business owner. I still like to get my hands dirty, but it probably isn’t the best use of my time at this stage of the business.

“We’ve been lucky,” Hart concludes. “Have I ever had problems? Sure. Some days if I’m frustrated about something I’d sell the business for a nickel, but the next day I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it.”