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A Family Calling

Treating a community like family has been good for business

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Kim Gates MaynardKim Gates Maynard is the fourth generation of her family to manage Franklin Telephone Co. in the small town of Franklin, nestled against the Canadian border at the top of Vermont.

Kim Gates Maynard says the brick building housing the Franklin Telephone Co. on Main Street in Franklin is often mistaken for the post office. “That’s because the post office building is also on Main Street, and we have the American flag and the Vermont flag hanging outside,” she says.

“It’s always interesting, the people who wander in. When we tell them we’re a phone company, it’s disbelief that you can have a phone company you can walk into.” Those moments are never annoying, though, says Maynard. “It breaks up the day, so you’re not crunching numbers all day, and they end up chatting for 20 minutes. That’s small-town Vermont.”

“Small-town Vermont” is something Maynard knows. She runs Franklin Telephone, the fourth generation of her family to do so. Hers is a family with deep roots in the Green Mountain State and a history of community service that far exceeds telephones.

Maynard’s great-grandfather, Charles W. Gates, founded the company around 1894. He was running the Farmer’s Exchange in Franklin, she says, and needed a way to communicate with the railroad five miles away. That’s the same Charles W. (for Winslow) Gates who, after terms in both houses of the Vermont Legislature and 10 years as a highway commissioner, served as governor of Vermont from 1915 to 1917, although Maynard did not mention that detail. 

Nor did she mention the deep commitment shown by her father, Hugh — her predecessor at the helm of Franklin Telephone and still president of the corporation — who worked tirelessly to secure housing for the elderly in their town.

That reticence is typical, says Nat Worman, friend and customer, freelance writer and St. Albans Messenger correspondent. “My wife, Nini, and I have been here since 1960,” Worman says. “We’ve known her parents, Hugh and Cynthia Gates; we’re not close friends, but have always known the family over the years.

“Did she tell you that she’s a justice of the peace? As a justice of the peace, Kimberly married our son, Christian, and his wife, Valbona.”

She’s also been a Franklin Selectboard member and served the town as E-911 coordinator and weigher of coal. Her husband, Burt Maynard, also serves the town: as tree and fire warden, keeper of street lights and constable.

In the early 1920s, back from fighting in World War I, Charles Gates’ son Paul — Maynard’s grandfather — took the reins of the phone company and eventually started Franklin Electric Light Co., which he and his wife ran for a number of years. “He even opened a second electric company, called the Lake Electric Co.,” says Hugh, “when his board of directors wasn’t interested in expanding the first one. He and a friend operated that one; the two companies were very interconnected.”

It wasn’t until Hugh followed his own father as the manager that the electric companies were merged — a condition, he says, of taking the reins, “because there was too much paperwork.”

Burt Maynard and Gregg GatesBurt Maynard (front) is Kim Gates Maynard’s husband and the company’s crew chief. Gregg Gates, Kim’s cousin, is the crew.

Hugh had grown up on the family’s dairy farm, the youngest of eight children, two of whom had died in infancy. After their father’s death, his brother Charles had been running the company, and he and Hugh had the family farm as a partnership. 

“But my brother’s first love was the farm — the cows,” says Hugh. “I enjoyed them, but I hadn’t really been exposed to the cattle and farming as a boy. After my father’s passing, my brother and his wife — they more or less became my mentors.” Hugh returned in 1962 from serving in the Navy to take the reins of the company and allow Charles to return to farming. 

In the 1960s, the company still had crank telephones and a longtime operator named Ruth Toof who routed calls and answered questions, says Worman. “My wife, Nini, wanted to know how to plant potatoes, so she called Ruth and Ruth hooked her up with somebody to get the advice.”

The phone company was in a great deal of flux at the time, says Maynard. “There needed to be major upgrades to the plant and major investments. My father was just out of the Navy, with a family, and farming and trying to get lines built and cows fed and kids fed.” Times were tough financially.

“One of the things that happened — and he can tell you if you pull it out of him” Maynard continues — “is that he wanted to run cable and called Clifford of Vermont in Bethel to get a price on it. A week later, it showed up. He said, ‘I just called for a price. I don’t have any money, and I can’t pay you,’ and Ted Clifford said, ‘You pay as you go.’ He put up the cable and paid him off as best we could, and that helped keep us in business.”

Hugh and Cynthia bought a small Jersey farm of their own, which Cynthia ran while Hugh ran the phone company. “My wife may not agree with me, but I enjoyed those years on that little farm as much as anything, I think. We were very much a close family.”

Maynard grew up on that farm doing chores, raising animals and haying, but fondly recalls traveling, as a child, with her father in the old International Scout he drove on repair calls. “Most of my childhood memories are of going out with him on power outages. Because of that, I knew all the good spots to stop for cold sodas and ice cream.”

Linda HartmanLinda Hartman, the customer service representative, joined Franklin Telephone about 20 years ago, when Kim Gates Maynard was still attending college classes and needed someone to cover the office part time.

Maynard studied agricultural communications at Oklahoma State University before transferring to Johnson State College to major in business with an accounting focus. She started at the company “as a gofer at the bottom of the pole,” she says, “flagging cars down, getting the tools and stuff. Now I’m more the technical person with our switch: I do the translations and programming, and I do the accounting for the business, and the regulatory.”

In 1993, spurred on by the growing regulatory requirements of the state’s energy-efficiency program and the transfer of responsibility for it from the Department of Public Service to the power companies, the family sold the electric company to Citizens Utilities, which has since been sold to Vermont Electric Co-op. 

“You know, hindsight is always 20-20,” says Maynard, “but I think the biggest challenge was when we sold the electric company — it’s a part of you, even though you know it’s for the best. It was like losing a family member: extremely heart-wrenching.”

Asked how long she’s been at the helm, Maynard laughs. “I’ve been working here 22 years now, and I’m not sure how long I’ve been manager now. You know, it’s family; you try discussing things and stuff, so it’s not like all of a sudden a formal changing of the guard takes place. I’ve been doing it for a while now, though.”

Asked when her dad retired, she laughs again. “That’s sort of seeping in,” she says. “They’ve been taking vacations each winter. It started out at three weeks, then four; and this is the first winter they’ve gone away for most of it.”

This is not a company stuck in its history. Broadband Internet is available to all of its lines: 35 business and about 900 residential. “That was much easier than anticipated,” Maynard says. “We’re about to go into the second phase, and that’s not going to be so easy. The new equipment offers higher speed, but it’s more sensitive to the wiring of a house.” In the last 10 years, she says, the operation has shifted from being a “dial tone business to being a data business.”

Franklin Telephone Co. is a corporation, and Maynard, her parents and her three sisters are the primary stockholders. Hugh is president. Five people, including Maynard, do the work. “There’s my cousin Gregg Gates; my husband, Burt; Linda Hartman; and my father and I,” Maynard says. 

“Burt, what’s your title?” she calls out. “Burt’s the crew chief; Gregg gets to be the crew. Linda’s been here long enough that we call her family. She’s the customer service representative. When he’s here, my father will man the office for me so I can do different repairs or technical or go to meetings.” 

Meetings are often about regulatory matters, and sometimes their requirements are not realistic for small companies, says Maynard. “We’re members of the Telephone Association of Vermont. We’re fortunate we have a good working group, so I don’t have to go to Montpelier too often. 

Maynard has four children ranging in ages from 7 to 14. She is an avid skier and helps run the ski program at the elementary school. Summers, the family enjoys time at their camp on Lake Carmi.

“One of the things my kids do is hand-deliver the bills in the village of Franklin. It’s one of the things I did when I was younger,” she says. She’s unsure whether any of them will follow in her footsteps. “You know, I want them to do what they love.”

It’s clear this is a company that has managed to keep the personal touch with its customers. The office closes for lunch, although someone is usually there. “We like to post it that way in case I have to run an errand or have to be at a meeting,” says Maynard.

Hugh, speaking from Arizona, guesses he’s missed most on Saturday mornings. “We keep our office open then; it’s not very busy, and I usually do that. That seems to be my primary job,” he adds, then chuckles gleefully. •

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