Joint Maneuvers

‘Now,’ says Kevin Hastings, is the best time of his life

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Kevin HastingsIt hasn’t always been easy, but since 1992, Kevin Hastings has grown his Colchester company, Amoskeag Woodworking, into a solid and busy contractor for commercial and residential millwork.

Kevin Hastings started his woodworking career at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., where he was earning a bachelor of arts with a major in computer science. His work-study job was in the wood shop. This wasn’t as strange a match-up as it might seem. 

“Coming from a family of eight siblings” — Hastings is the fifth in line — “we always did our own stuff around the house. We didn’t know what a repairman was; didn’t realize people came to the house to fix things.” His father, he adds, also went to St. Anselm and worked in the carpenter shop when he was there. 

Hastings graduated from St. Anselm, but his time in the wood shop had got under his skin. His first job out of college was with a friend who was a contractor building houses in Auburn, N.H., not far from Bedford, where he grew up.

“As is often the case when you’re young and impressionable,” Hastings says, “I wanted him to teach me to build houses. He was quite an entrepreneur — had a little building supply business. He said, ‘Come to work in my building supply business, and I will teach you to build houses.’ 

“What I learned was accounting, because I ended up running the show, doing the books, as he took off anywhere and everywhere.” As Hastings would later realize, this experience would serve him well in the construction trade.

About four years later, in 1988, he moved to Vermont, following his oldest brother, Chris, who was a builder living in Essex Junction. “I was looking for a change — wanted to get out of my home town,” he says. 

After a couple of projects together, they had paired off somewhat, and Hastings had started building a spec house. It was 1989, when the housing market in Vermont took a dive. “I was paying 14 percent interest rates, had a house on the market that was about $180,000, and every cent I would earn went to pay that mortgage.

“I finally sold it and said to myself, ‘I’m never going to have that kind of exposure again — having a debt load of $180,000.’” He went to work for friends who owned Farrington Construction in Shelburne. 

The Farringtons were starting a wood shop, and Hastings was drawn there. About 1992, encouraged by Dave Farrington Jr., he decided to start his own workshop. Amoskeag Woodworking was born.

He began by doing his projects in the Farringtons’ shop after hours and working for them during the day. Then he worked from the basement of his rented Colchester home. He tried a partnership for a while, “and that was a disaster,” he says, adding, “The incubation period lasted probably from 1992 to 1995.”

Shawn Hatin, Bill Metcalf and Bernie LipkaAmoskeag Woodworking has 20 employees. Shawn Hatin (left), hired in 1995, was the first. Bill Metcalfe and Bernie Lipka are cabinetmakers.

Finally ready for prime time, in 1995, Hastings rented 2,600 square feet on Prim Road in Colchester from Diane Handy. “She was very encouraging, and I said to her, ‘I’ll never need all this space.’ Famous last words. She looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll grow into it.’ Today we have 13,000 square feet.”

Six months later, he found himself with lots of work and not enough hands. Enter Shawn Hatin. Hatin had been working for a Burlington businessman who had moved his operation to Cambridge. “This guy walked in my door and said he was looking for a job, because he didn’t want to drive to Cambridge,” Hastings recalls. “I said, ‘Can you start today?’ He said, ‘I wanted to give my notice, but I can work weekends.’”

In 2000, needing more space, Hastings bought the company’s current property on Elm Court, a half mile down Prim Road. The building was a wreck, he says, and required complete remodeling. It took three months to fit it up. “I’d come here every afternoon and evening and work on the property. I look back now and think, ‘How did I do that?’”

The property had a 1,500-square-foot storage shed, which the company refurbished in 2005; then a year later, Hastings rented a warehouse across the street, adding another 5,000 square feet. This expansion made it possible to separate the company’s three shops: the main, or millwork, shop — managed by Hatin — which produces specialty windows, doors, reception desks, nurses’ stations, etc.; the commercial, or box, shop — managed by Steve Kreissle —  which produces large cabinetry for clients such as banks, hospitals, and research labs; and the studio shop — managed by Lars Larsen — where high-end residential furniture is created. 

Recently, in response to clients’ requests for professional installation of Amoskeag’s work, Hastings has added a three-man installation crew. “From the general contractor’s point of view,” he says, “you often get the millwork from somebody, have the finish guy put it in, and if there’s a problem, who do you have redo it? Now, if Bread Loaf or Engelberth or DEW has a job, they’ll ask me to put an installation figure into the quote.”

Another reason for offering installation is that qualified help is hard to find. “That could mean that someone who’s not quite qualified would be putting in our work,” says Hastings.

“Everyone always thinks that woodworking in Vermont is a very glamorous occupation, and sometimes it is, but we have a very hard time finding qualified woodworkers. Most high schools don’t teach it any more.” The Department of Labor in Vermont is working to put together an apprenticeship program for cabinetmakers, he continues, but is having difficulty finding a bona fide woodworking school to teach the coursework. “We’re almost ready to teach our own course if we could get funding.”

Amoskeag’s millwork can be found in many public spaces. The main reception desk at Casey Family Services in Winooski is an Amoskeag project. So is the custom millwork for Merchants Bank branches, including the new one going up on Shelburne Road. A perfect example of the company’s millwork can be seen in the maple-lined entrance hallway at Colchester’s new town hall. 

Hastings belongs to the Vermont Wood Manufacturers Association, the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont, and the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, although he confesses he participates “peripherally.” 

Kim BalserusAmoskeag often works with designers at area architectural firms, but also has designers on staff. Kim Balserus is a draftsperson.

Time is the issue, especially these days. “I really don’t do any woodworking any more,” he says. Things changed a bit in 1999, when he married Christina Reiss. Hastings went from working all the time — “I liked work, had a good work ethic, and had a lot of energy,” he says — to having a family: Reiss’ two daughters, and, a year after his marriage, another girl.

“I went from being able to work all hours of the day to getting married, step one; having kids and responsibilities, step two; and having my own kid. Then, my wife became a district court judge, and her first assignment was Addison County, after being a Burlington attorney. All of a sudden, my day went from 7 to 7, to 8 to 4:30.”

In his typical go-with-the-flow fashion, Hastings found a benefit. “It forced me to work less and delegate more, and really helped me a lot in running the business,” he says.

It’s not as if Hastings quit working; he just changed his after-hours focus. “People will say I’ve got attention deficit disorder,” he jokes. “I do all kinds of things, from remodeling our house and gardening — we have a little vineyard of 70 vines we just put in — to working on our wooden boat, a 1967 Lyman power boat.”

He also has a 1975 Airstream trailer that he completely rebuilt. “I don’t have time to do all these things professionally, but if I can sneak in on a Saturday, I will.”

Learning to delegate obviously didn’t harm the business. Sales have been steadily climbing, although Hastings is a bit concerned about the economy. 

 “Kevin’s always enthusiastic,” says Glen Seifert, the manager of the Royalton office of North Pacific Group Inc., a national wholesale distributor of plywood. “He’s got a good attitude about things.”

Seifert says he has known Hastings since the beginning, when “he was in the most cluttered garage shop of all the shops I called on. but he’s just done extremely well over the years.

“Right now we’re all concerned about the economy and what’s going to happen. I think he’s got plenty of work. Kevin’s one of those survivors, and he’s done well. I think a lot has to do with his organization and his tenacity.”

Asked what was the best time of his life, Hastings doesn’t hesitate to reply. “I’d better say, ‘Now.’ As I said before about when I got out of construction because I didn’t want to have this debt out there — well, now we have a job that’s $650,000 — that’s a single job — and we’ll do over a million and a half in business this year. If you had told me that five years ago, I’d have said you were crazy.”

Vermont is a great place for having craftsmen, says Hastings, “people working out of their basements and their homes like I did. People will ask us to bid on a job, and they’ll say, ‘Well, I can get it cheaper from that guy,’ and I’ll tell them, ‘Great. That guy needs the work, too.’”•