A Yankee in Franklin County

Jim Bryce is the man behind metalworking tools manufacturer Yankee Corp. and Arrowhead Industrial Park developer Bryce Realty

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Just off a tree-lined stretch of road to the north of Arrowhead Mountain Lake in Georgia, Arrowhead Industrial Park seems quiet amid carefully planted evergreens. Apart from the hubbub of new construction from the far end of the site, and the to-and-fro of the occasional tractor-trailer, there's not much industry on show.

In fact, two of the long, low buildings house Yankee Corp., one of the nation's biggest manufacturers of reamers, precision metalworking tools used particularly in the aerospace and automotive industries. Jim Bryce, founder and president of Yankee Corp., is also head of Bryce Realty, which owns, constructs and manages the park's other buildings.

Jim Bryce of Bryce Realty says Arrowhead Industrial Park will be full when two more lots are completed. Construction is under way. The park was started when he moved his manufacturing operation, Yankee Corp., to the site in 1981.

"In the beginning we were just Yankee Corp., tool manufacturers," explains Mike Leech, sales manager of Yankee Corp. and vice president of Bryce Realty. "The business started in 1980, in Jim Bryce's barn in Jeffersonville," he continues.

Bryce emerges from the workshop in plaid shirt and denims. He has a quick smile, a self-effacing manner and a firm handshake. "I was born and bred in Cambridge," he says. "I just had a high school education, then I worked for a company that made reamers. I quit after 14 years, then a month or two later went into business for myself. An interesting time in my life?" He ponders the question, laughing. "To say the least. I wasn't going to get involved in the reamer business, but there were so many distributors out there that I decided to go ahead. We started off with reps who peddled the stuff, then we switched over to (master) distributors eight years ago. That's worked out very well."

Reamers look like very high-tech drill bits -- shining steel rods of many thicknesses and lengths; some look like conventional drills; some are tipped with cones, fins, chamfers. "A drill tears its way through material. It leaves a rough hole," explains Leech. "The reamer bores out that hole to incredibly high tolerances. Drill tolerances are measured in thousandths of an inch. Reamer tolerances are in ten-thousandths. When you're flying in a plane and you look out at the wing, you see hundreds of what look like rivets," he continues. "Each of those holes has to be machined an amazingly accurate degree to cope with all the stresses and strains of flight. That's what many of our products are used for."

Inside the manufacturing plant, which occupies the first building Bryce erected on the Arrowhead site, 12-foot bars of high-speed tool steel are cut and ground. "Jim designed the flute grinders himself," Leech says, pointing to a bank of machines.

"We build some of our own equipment," says Bryce. "We can build a machine for $25,000, which would cost $200,000 to buy, and we also do our own maintenance."

From the manufacturing building the rough product travels across the lawn to another workshop, which shares a unit with the warehouse and offices. Here the pieces are finished, put through quality control tests and packaged. The company sells much of its product through its catalog, but also undertakes work to order. "Sometimes we'll have as much as 30 or 40 percent blueprint work," says Leech. He indicates a batch of tools being ground. "These are going to the automotive industry, for instance," he says.

The plant turns out 10,000 to 12,000 reamers a week. In the beginning, the operation in Bryce's barn produced "2,000 or so a week," remembers Bryce. Yankee sells its tools to corporations that are household names: "Boeing, Grumman, Lockheed," lists Leech. "We also sell to Ford, General Motors, John Deere. We pretty much deal with them all at one time or another." Bryce estimates the company's gross income is about $5 million or $6 million a year -- including Yankee and Bryce Realty. "I'd almost say we're the biggest company out there," ventures Bryce. "We've certainly got the biggest inventory."

It was Yankee Corp.'s need to expand beyond the confines of a small Jeffersonville barn that led to Bryce's second, parallel career as property developer. "We moved down here in 1981 and put up a 4,000-square-foot building for manufacturing," Leech explains. "We've expanded that building twice since then, to 10,000 and then 20,000 square feet. Then in 1991 we built the unit next door, which holds our offices."

Arrowhead Industrial Park covers 52 acres. "We bought roughly half of the present acreage in 1990, the rest in 1994. When we put up this building," says Leech, indicating the unit that houses Yankee's finishing shop and warehouse, as well as offices for Yankee and Bryce Realty, "we needed extra space for the Yankee operation. Sales and warehousing used 2,500 square feet of the space, and we leased the remaining 7,500. We were successful at that, so we started buying the rest of the property out, building a unit a year and leasing it." Construction is under way on the last two building lots, after which the park will be full.

"The contractors took one and a half years to do the first building," says Bryce ruefully. "I said, ... 'If I ever do this again, I'm doing it myself.'" Since then, Bryce has played an active part in the construction side of the business.

Mike Leech displays some of Yankee Corp.'s reamers, used to bore holes to high tolerances. The business produces as many as 12,000 a week for companies such as Boeing, Ford and John Deere.

"We do it all, except for the plumbing, electric and cement work," says Leech, who estimates Bryce Realty forms roughly one-fifth of Yankee Corp.'s business overall -- at present, the realty company is still connected to the manufacturing business. "In the summer, it takes up about half of my time," says Leech. "In the wintertime, there's not much going on in the building trade, but we do some sub-contracting in the off-season with our excavating equipment."

Arrowhead Industrial Park is situated on Vermont 104A in Georgia, a mile or so from Interstate 89. "There are advantages to the location," says Leech: "access to the Interstate and closeness to the Canadian border. Several of our tenants are Canadian companies."

"The fact that we do the building ourselves, plus the cost of land, means that we can be more competitive than Burlington or Williston," Bryce adds, "and the whole of the Route 7 corridor is a big growth area, so we should benefit from that."

"There's always some turnover," says Leech. "Leases run from one to five years, depending on what the customer wants. There's always someone coming or going." The park's tenants are SERAC, the manufacturing arm of Gardeners' Supply Co., which makes greenhouses, sheds and carriers; Canadian clothing maker Ballin; Crossdec USA; Century International; Dominion & Grimm Inc. -- D&G USA, which makes and sells maple syrup equipment; the St. Albans Co-Op creamery; Wyeth; CCM/Maska (hockey equipment); and cabinetmakers Benly.

"Most of our customers are only interested in warehouse space," explains Leech, "so customizing isn't necessary. D&G USA needed a showroom, so we built them one, but usually that side of things is pretty minimal. There have probably been only two cases when we've already had tenants for the unit we're building. The 8,000-square-foot offices we're building now for Century ... (International) is one of those cases."

Bryce, a widower, admits his two businesses don't leave him with a great deal of free time, "but I do keep horses," he says. "I have seven of them, Paso Finos and Morgans."

Leech has lived in Vermont since 1975. "Originally I'm from Chicago," he says. He admits he's never quite gotten used to the weather, but there are compensations: "I love to ski and sail," he says.

Bryce takes a very active role in the running of the businesses. "He's a tireless worker," says Leech. "He's not happy unless he's working. It's relaxing for him."

"I'm hands-on most of the time," confirms Bryce. "I like to get right into it, to work on the machines right along with the rest of them. Enjoy it? Hell, yes! If I get some spare time I'm right there."

"He's very energetic, very demanding of himself," says Bill Russell, president of Russell Supply in South Burlington, who has known Bryce for 25 years. "He's thoughtful, and a very jovial type of person. He could be at work at 5 in the morning -- just one heck of a hard worker."

Pete Gay, general manager of SERAC, concurs. "I give Jim a lot of credit. It's amazing what he's done up here -- a real success story. He's a terrific landlord. I've been in several locations over the last few years, and Jim's far and away the best landlord I've had, very willing to do everything he can to help out. In my opinion he's a genuine old-time Vermonter: a straight shooter, what you see is what you get."

Bryce says he's less hands-on when it comes to construction. "There I'm more involved with coordination," he says.

Twelve-foot bars of steel are cut and ground in the manufacturing plant before they're finished at a workshop that shares space with Yankee Corp.'s warehouse and offices.

"I do the leasing," says Leech. "I find the tenants or they find me. I structure the leases to everyone's benefit, coordinate maintenance, help Jim on the construction end by getting subcontractor bids, dealing with government agencies for permits and that kind of thing."

The two men have worked together since 1980. "Are we a team? Pretty much," says Bryce.

"We each know how the other one thinks," adds Leech.

"Mike's a super right-hand man to Jim," says Russell. "Whatever Jim's doing, Mike's there to pick up the pieces when he moves on to something else."

"Mike wears the business hat a little more," says Gay. "Jim's the doer; Mike keeps it all in line. I can't say enough good things about them."

As to the outlook for Yankee Corp. and Bryce Realty, Bryce combines confidence with realism. "At present we're making 5, 6 million a year (gross) out of Yankee and Bryce Realty. In the reamer business there are only $18 million out there. There used to be about 13 manufacturers in the business, and now that's down to five. I'd like to see our share go up to 7 or 8 million. I'd like us to have at least a third of the market."

And the real estate side, now that Arrowhead Industrial Park is almost full? "There are another six lots available to the east that are zoned commercially," says Bryce, "so I might buy those." In his quiet but determined way, it's clear that Bryce's eyes are fixed very firmly on a bright future for both his businesses. "It'll get better as it goes along," he says with a smile.

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London.