Heavy Metal Group

Forging a place in the community

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

trowholdenNorman Akley and his wife, Lauren LaMorte, are president and vice president of Trow and Holden, their family business and a Barre institution since 1861. The company manufactures carbide-tipped hand tools and pneumatic tools used by stonemasons and carvers throughout the world.

A hundred and fifty years of manufacturing history is contained in the rambling brick behemoth at 45 South Main St. in downtown Barre that’s home to Trow and Holden. Founded in 1861 as Stafford and Holden, a manufacturer of agricultural tools such as pitchforks, hay rakes, manure forks, and ice harvesting equipment, since 1890 the company has made tools for stonemasons and stone carvers around the world.

Touring the factory is like moving through the layers of an archaeology dig, only they’re horizontal instead of vertical. In one section, overhead belts still hang from ceilings, harkening back to the company’s origins. Each doorway is like a worm hole that opens onto another era.

At the helm of this enterprise are Norm Akley and his wife, Lauren LaMorte. Akley has a family link to Clarke Holden, one of the founding partners. “The line was Clarke Holden to William Holden,” Akley says. “William’s son was Max Holden, and Max and my father, Jack Akley, were brothers-in-law. My dad worked with Max for many years and owned a share of the company. When Max decided to retire, my father bought the rest of the shares, in 1969, I believe.”

It’s clear that history is a passion for Akley. “All our pneumatic tools have serial numbers etched on them. We own Number 2. Number 1 belongs to a Barre sculptor, Giuliano Cecchinelli, who got it from his father when he was carving in Italy.”

He confesses he has “drawers and drawers and drawers” of history, including an original catalog from 1861, plus 5,000 square feet of warehouse space filled with large machines that are no longer used. Among them is one of the last Fairbanks Morse hammers from around 1860.

Stafford and Holden did a pretty good business in agricultural tools until, with the advent of Cyrus McCormick’s mechanical reaper, farms became mechanized. “That ended the pitchfork business pretty quickly,” Akley says.

The company lay fallow till after the Civil War, when the large metropolitan areas of the East Coast experienced a surge in building construction using stone, a lot of which came from Barre. “Barre had been known for granite,” says Akley, “but until then, it was primarily used for millstones.”

In 1888, William Holden, “an inventor and tinkerer,” says Akley, patented a small pneumatic air hammer for carving stone. “With the introduction of that, people who were carving stone in Barre could become a lot more productive.”

The company was reinvigorated. Clarke sought financing from John Trow, a Barre banker who, Akley says, “put his name on a number of investments in town — we live on Trow Hill.” Trow and Holden was born.

The hammer was a hit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. One of its first large-scale monument applications was for Daniel French’s Lincoln Memorial, says Akley. “A lot of our current business is working with companies restoring these buildings and trying to achieve similar finishes and duplicate work that was done a century ago or more.”

Akley grew up in the business, working weekends and summers while he was in school. He earned a degree in experimental psychology from the University of Vermont — “I use it every day,” he says.

He met LaMorte, an English major and native of Westchester County, N.Y., when she shared an apartment with his sister Patty. The couple worked together for a time on a research grant program in the graduate department at UVM, and married in 1977, the same year that LaMorte graduated and Akley joined Trow and Holden.

LaMorte worked at Sterling Pond Hardwoods for a couple of years, then took a job as a health educator with Planned Parenthood in Barre, where she stayed until joining Trow and Holden in 1991. Jack Akley died not long afterward.

“Lauren was hired by my wife, Nancy Mosher, at Planned Parenthood, and they got to be good friends,” says Will Lindner, a freelance editor and writer (including articles for Business People–Vermont) and a musician with Banjo Dan and the Mid-Nite Plowboys. “Through their friendship, Norm and I met, and we’ve been good friends ever since.”

Lindner praises Akley’s sense of history and connection with the Barre community. “Norm really knows about the role of his company and the role of the granite industry in Barre, and cares very much about that. He helped start a project called the Barre Granite Museum. And Lauren has been dedicated to community activities as long as I’ve known her. She was a guardian ad litem in Washington Court, served on the Washington County Diversion Board along with me, and now is president of the board of the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic.”

This connection to community produces an interesting return. Because Barre remains the center of the world’s granite industry, the company has close associations with customers around town, and, thus, many places to test new tool designs. “The people swinging a hammer 10 hours a day always have good ideas about how to make things better,” says Akley.

Then there’s Randy Potter. “Randy does a lot of workshops, meets our customers a lot, and has opportunities to talk with them,” says LaMorte. “So we’re able to get a lot of feedback, find out what they want. We sometimes make custom tools at their request, and occasionally go into production with those.”

Over the years, the tools have evolved and been modified to work better and last longer, says Akley. “Air tools are guaranteed forever and have been since day one, and anytime we can get an advantage of materials or process, we grab it.”

One such advantage was the development of cemented tungsten carbide by the Germans in the 1940s. “Before World War II and just after,” Akley says, “hand tools and chisels to cut stone were made with steel blades, so every manufacturing plant in town had blacksmiths on their payroll who could reforge and reharden these tools. After the war, we started using carbide on stone-working tools. My dad was pretty instrumental in doing that.”

Possibilities for innovation are always considered. “We started lean production techniques 16 or so years ago with VMEC [Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center],” Akley says. “That’s a great resource for us. We have cellular work areas, where one guy runs two to six machines. Many of the machines are on wheels.”

This has allowed the company to produce almost three times the volume with the same number of people. “I look for 10 percent productivity point,” Akley continues. “If a machine comes up, I’ll buy it.”

This is hard work, and very labor-intensive. “We’re not rocket science here, except maybe for the pneumatic tools — they’re tricky to do, especially if they’re made to last forever. We’re a union plant here. We do all of our training in-house — a four-year apprenticeship program — so we make significant commitments to our people, and it pays off every day.”

His attention to details like this has helped him reinvent processes as innovations come along. “You’d think after a hundred-some years it ought to be on automatic at this point,” he quips. “Well, it’s not. I thought we had pretty good marketing, customer relations, and communications, and then the Internet came along. And wow! Not only did it open things up tremendously, but the immediacy of communications was a real challenge.”

He compares it to the late 1970s, when 800 numbers were introduced. “Before that we sold probably 80 percent to distributors, and to retail customers and users very little. We put in this 800 number, and all these end users called in, and what had been a one- to two-minute conversation with distributors ended up being a 20-minute conference with somebody using our products.”

The Internet has greatly magnified this connection. When LaMorte came on board in 1991, the catalog still had photos but very few descriptions of the tools and their uses. Now, it’s “the most informative catalog in the stonemaking world,” says Akley. “Beyond that, we also have 34 videos on YouTube.”

Trow and Holden has 12 employees, down slightly from about 15 before the economic downturn, due to attrition. Sales have come back steadily, although still down from the peak in 2007. “But getting closer all the time,” Akley says.

Energy has evolved from the days when a big mechanical turbine, powered by the river behind the plant, helped to turn the overhead belts. “A ‘brand new’ company called Green Mountain Power came by and said, ‘We’ll give you free electric motors for your dam,’” says Akley, laughing. “Then they blew it up! We’ve paid for those original electric motors many times over in electric fees. We still have the original motor.”

Now all the parts are made using computer numerical control (CNC) but final assembly and finishing are still done by hand. All the CNC machines are U.S. made, and all of the steel is domestic, although it’s getting harder and harder to source it here, Akley says.

Their two adult children — a daughter working for Northern Power and a son who’s and attorney in Manhatten — do not work for the business, “although we surely keep all those options open,” Akley says. “They let us know they want the company to stay in the family; they grew up just as I did in the company and have a tremendous love for it. They just don’t have their fit yet.” Akley and LaMorte’s membership in the Family Business Initiative at UVM is an important, longtime resource and may help provide answers to how that might work.

“The thing is, the business they have, it could be anywhere,” says Tess Taylor, a longtime friend who was once the executive director of the granite museum, and now represents the city of Barre in the Legislature. “And I think they’ve had offers to be elsewhere that could have been really sweet. They just chose to stay here in Barre, because they know the importance of the history of the family and the industry and the culture here.”

“We are constantly astonished by the number of people who don’t think anything is made anymore,” says Akley, who is tickled to conduct tours of the factory for schoolchildren. “We put them right on the floor, put their safety glasses on, and they love seeing things being made.