Men of Iron

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

An accidental artist and a tinkerer joined forces to create a product that combines the best of handcrafting and manufacturing

In hindsight, it’s not hard to see how George Chandler — whose name, by the way, means candle maker or seller — ended up in an artistic profession. The president of Hubbardton Forge, a Castleton company that makes hand-forged, elegantly designed lighting fixtures and accessories, seems a natural. Until three years ago, Chandler says, he was the design team.

In 1972, George Chandler (left) and Reed Hampton met in an art class at UVM, which each was taking as a lark. Encouraged by their instructor, they founded Hubbardton Forge, now in Castleton. Don Merkle joined them as a partner a few years ago.

Thirty-three years ago, however, when he and the company’s co-founder, Reed Hampton, met as juniors at the University of Vermont, Chandler was studying interpersonal communications, and Hampton had just switched to political science from pre-veterinary medicine.

The two were dating girls who were roommates, but didn’t really get to know each other well until they happened to land in Paul Aschenbach’s studio sculpting class. Chandler was there at his mother’s urging, as a way to relieve stress. “I’ve always been a hands-on learner,” he confesses. “I did miserably in school where it required a tremendous amount of rote memorization without experiential studies. A studio class is a hundred percent experiential study.”

The seeds of creativity were dormant inside Chandler, just waiting to be fertilized. His mother and grandmother, he says, were “very good artists”; and Betsy, one of his two sisters, has left the advertising world, where she was the first female art director for the J. Walter Thompson Agency, to pursue a painting career full time.

Hampton, a Rhode Islander whose roommate was a fine arts major, says he was often “hanging around in the art studio.” A self-confessed tinkerer, Hampton enjoyed working with metals and wood.

Toward the end of their senior year, Chandler’s draft number had been called, and his deferment wasn’t going to last long past graduation. He and Hampton were applying to graduate schools. “Then the war ended,” says Chandler, “and suddenly, you could say, ‘What the heck?’” With Aschenbach’s blessing, they decided to open Hubbardton Forge & Woodworking, a company that would take advantage of their strengths in both mediums.

“We put a business plan together on one sheet of paper, left school about two months before it was over,” says Chandler, “and started working on where we were going to set the place up. We went back for papers and final exams, and that was sort of the end of things. We never did get to graduation.”

Although he lives in a place where four generations of his family have lived, Chandler was not born in Vermont. His father, a Rutland native, had gone into manufacturing after naval service in World War II, and the family “moved every eight months,” he says. He was born in Reading, Pa.

In 1973, the partners began clearing out an old barn on property in Hubbardton where Chandler’s great-uncle Lyman had lived, “with no electricity or facilities, a three-holer out back, and that was it. There was nothing when we got there other than thousands and thousands of bats,” says Chandler.

The plan was to put the forge in the lower part of the barn, which was full of horse manure, shoveled there from the upper floor when Lyman, who died in 1962 at age 92, had grown too frail to get rid of it.”“When we got there, it was close to three or four feet from the ceiling.”

The partners hauled off the manure and put in a rudimentary shop. In the winter of 1974, they were awarded their first project by the town of Hubbardton.

“Obviously, we weren’t making any money, so we were doing construction jobs and moonlighting on the town crew during snowstorms,” he says. “They had some very old equipment, including a wing plow. The big, heavy, two-inch steel push arm on the plow had been bent by somebody. We had just gotten the forge rolling, so we heated it up, straightened it out and charged twenty bucks to do it.”

By 1976, they introduced their first product line, comprising candlesticks, fireplace screens and accessories. They followed the craft circuit for a few years, researching markets and advertising in upscale catalogs and magazines such as Yankee. Betsy helped create the ads and brochures they mailed out.

Things grew slowly those first years, says Hampton, “and of course, neither one of us managed to walk away from UVM with a business course. I think I had one: How to Lie With Statistics,” he says laughing. “It was slow, a lot of starving, a lot of mistakes.”

They hit on the lighting focus when Country Loft catalog asked them to make a lamp, then ordered 1,000, and the partners realized they might be able to fill a market niche for wrought-iron lighting.

Their first expansion was in 1978, when they built a bigger barn and hired employees. To help pay for it, they continued their construction and handyman moonlighting. By 1980, they were able to concentrate on the business full time.

One of their construction jobs had paid off for Chandler in another way. He met and married Carolyn “Sam” Ringquist, whose family was managing the restaurant at a hotel he was working on. They now have two sons, Alex and Geoff.

In the years since establishing the company, the number of employees has risen to 230. Kevin Jones, one of the assemblers, works in a sea of hanging lamps.

When Country Loft ran into financial problems, the partners persevered. “We learned we didn’t want to have our eggs in one basket, so we worked developing a wider customer base,” says Hampton. In 1984, they built an addition to the barn. By 1988, things were going so well, they moved to the property in Castleton where they could have both factory space and a small office.

Their lack of business savvy came back to bite them after a merger, in 1990, with a competitor. It lasted a year and ended in “a divorce,” says Chandler. Enter Don Merkle, a consultant. “We hired him as a sort of rent-a-controller,” Chandler says. He started in January 1992.

While Chandler and Hampton were building their company, Merkle was gaining experience of another kind, partly in “the school of hard knocks,” he says. The Mount Vernon, N.Y., native has lived in Vermont for 58 of his 63 years, since his parents moved to Bartonville, near Bellows Falls.

Following high school, he went to UVM.”“I knew all the answers,” he says with a laugh. “I wasn’t invited back.”

Merkle worked for a while, then entered the Army for three years. He returned and joined the ski patrol at Killington, “so I was a ski bum,” he says. He met Donna Rogers, who worked in the ski shop. In March 1969, they were married.

“When you’re a ski bum, in the summertime you pound nails,” says Merkle, who went to work in construction at Hawk Mountain that June. In October, he continues,”“suddenly, Hawk Mountain, which had gone through five superintendents in five years, said to me, ‘Do you want the job?’ I thought, ‘What a great opportunity to learn!’”

With no management experience, Merkle decided to compensate by working long hours. Using the GI Bill, he enrolled in a night school program in business administration with a focus on management. “I was working 60 hours a week and going to night school forever,” commuting from Rochester to Castleton for his studies. “I would read the chapter at night about interviewing, then next day I’d go interview somebody to hire them.”

Merkle continued like this for nearly five years before quitting his day job to attend school full time.” By then, he and Donna had a son, Chris, with their daughter, Sonja, on the way. They moved from Rochester to Rutland to be closer to school. He opened a small construction company to help with income.

Adam GeBo, a process specialist in the forge department with an apprenticeship in the prototype departments, works at bending iron.

Following graduation, he followed a mentor’s advice and went to work selling life insurance to gain sales and marketing experience.’“I was the top sales agent in the North Atlantic region. I achieved what I wanted, and I quit,” he says.

In 1980, Merkle opened his consulting business, “helping people earn and keep more money from their business by using the numbers to manage the business better. I’ve been blessed,” he says. “Although I don’t have that sharp entrepreneurial spirit, I’m very good at administration, and I’m fantastic on cost.”

Hired as a consultant for Hubbardton Forge, Merkle began by working one day a week. “Then it was two, then three; and in maybe 1994, I gave up my business and became a partner. What happened was the Pygmalion effect, where you fall in love with your creation. I kind of fell in love with Hubbardton Forge.

“When I started in ’92, Hubbardton Forge was doing a million and a half,” he says. “We’ll do $25 million this year.” The company sells directly to lighting and furniture showrooms and galleries, bypassing the need for sales representatives.

Merkle has developed an extensive costing system. “We know every product down to the penny, exactly what it costs us and what it does to profit margins.” His area also includes intellectual property issues, doing battle with companies that try to copy Hubbardton Forge’s designs.

Planning ahead, he’s training his replacement, wanting to retire next year. “Two years ago, I hired a controller, Scott Smith, to handle the finances. He is my heir apparent. Last year,” he continues, “we hired Sue Melvin, because I was doing all the human resources when we were small. She worked for GE and wanted out of that more sterile corporate world.”

Three years ago, Chandler began adding people to the design team. Hal Brown, a design engineer and, says Chandler, “sort of my right-hand person in design,” works with Hampton, who creates the technology and structures for Brown.

Hampton, the tinkerer, plays with the process, “figuring out how you’re going to make a handcrafted product, but in a manufacturing environment; and we do it in an intrinsically safe way for employees and the environment. We just finished three years with no lost work-time injuries,” says Hampton. The company has won three Governor’s Environmental awards and is nominated for a fourth this year.

Besides tinkering with process and equipment — for example, using a tractor wheel to help turn a lathe — Hampton has overseen most of the expansions. They include eight at the company’s current site, growing from 10,000 to 117,000 square feet. Right now, the company has about 230 employees. “It’s pretty inevitable we’re going to have to do something again,” says Hampton. This could involve buying adjacent land or moving to a larger property to house a 60,000-foot fulfillment center.

Hampton has been working on his own house for 21 years — “kind of a work in process,” he says. He lives there with his wife of five years, Vanessa, and her children, a daughter, Kedi, and a son, Torben.

Merkle might be retiring, but Chandler and Hampton have no such plans. Both agree that this is the perfect place for them, although they are working on a succession plan, says Chandler, “in case one of us gets hit by the Wonder Bread truck.” •

Originally published in September 2005 Business People-Vermont