This business keeps on running

by Heleigh Bostwick

metevier_lead_5167_fmt In 1983, Hank Metevier took the reins of Metevier Electric Motor Service on North Avenue in Burlington, which his late father, Henry, had launched the day Hank was born. Now Hank’s son and grandson are carrying on the tradition.

Two days a week, on Wednesday and Thursday, Hank Metevier opens the back door to his house on North Avenue in Burlington, walks the dozen or so steps to his shop, and settles in at his desk in the cramped office he’s occupied since he took over the business after his dad, Henry, died in 1983. By then Metevier Electric Motor Service had been around for 40 years.

“My dad started the business the year I was born, in the basement of the family home at 197 Pearl St. in Essex Junction — over by St. Mike’s — but moved here to North Avenue in 1949,” explains Metevier. “The shop was actually a barn, and he used a small part of it for his office. Goss Dodge was across the street, and they used part of the barn to store their tires.”

Metevier is the oldest motor shop in the state, he continues. “We repair and sell electric motors. If the motor burns up we replace the windings; sometimes it’s the bearings that need replacing.”

Metevier’s clients include such Vermont notables as Ben & Jerry’s Homemade and the University of Vermont, plus quite a few heating, ventilating, and air conditioning contractors in the region.

“We don’t install,” he says, adding that his small shop does sell a lot of motors and has received quite a few awards from Leeson Electric for sales performance.

Smaller motors like those used for dental equipment and farm motors for milking machines or cleaning gutters are kept in stock at the front of the shop, but larger motors (up to 500 horsepower) such as air compressors are housed off-site at a storage facility he owns over by the Girls and Boys Club.

That’s also where he keeps his “Santa Claus rig,” a white limo he uses to make appearances around town dressed as Santa during the holiday season. It’s something he’s been involved in for 17 years as a member of the Elks Lodge, where he’s held the position of chaplain for just as long.

“I’m not a holy man,” he says with a chuckle. “I just say the prayers before the meeting.” Metevier is also a member of the Eagles, the American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and is actively involved in fundraising for various charities around the state.

Even though he spends a couple of days a week doing the books, he makes no secret of the fact that he is counting the days until he retires next spring. “On April 17, 2013, I turn 70,” he says. “That’s the day I’m retiring for good.”

The business won’t retire, though. His son, Marty, age 42, will officially take over on that day. “Marty’s in charge most of the time anyway,” he says.

Marty’s son, MJ, 19, also works in the shop. “My grandson is a character. He takes after his Grandpa too much,” says Metevier, recalling how MJ came to him and said he wanted to work in the business, but only for a “livable wage.”

Metevier worked part time for his father, but after high school, he left Vermont to join the Navy and was stationed on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Saratoga in Jacksonville, Fla., for four years. Not long after his discharge in 1965, he was involved in a car accident and headed to California on vacation to recuperate.

That’s where his cousin introduced him to Fran Munoz, his future wife. They married in ’68 and returned to Vermont, where, their first day back in the state, they had another auto accident. “We were in the hospital a long time,” says Metevier. “When we got out, we moved right back to California, because she said she wasn’t staying here.”

They lived in California for about 17 years, during which time Marty was born. Metevier took classes in sociology at Butte College in Chico, courtesy of the GI Bill, but he never completed his degree. Also during those years, he and Fran divorced and married each other a second time. The details of that aren’t clear, but according to Fran, they’ve been together “43 years now.”

The death of Metevier’s father in 1983 triggered the move back to Vermont to take over the business. Metevier recalls how difficult those first few years were.

“When we first started, we were out there from dawn to midnight. Even the wife had to work,” he says, adding that things started leveling out after about three years. “It got easier, but we were still on call 24 hours a day. I remember one time when a ski area motor broke down and we had to work on Christmas. Now people have spare motors so the pressure isn’t there like it used to be.”

Gary Sylvester, purchaser for the maintenance department at the Ben & Jerry’s plant in St. Albans, has nothing but praise for Metevier and Marty, who have been doing motor repairs at the St. Albans facility since it was built in 1994. “They will work on any size motor from a half horsepower up to a hundred horsepower air compressor,” he says. “When I need to have a motor fixed or repaired, Hank will drive up here himself to pick it up, even if it’s a Friday night at 5 p.m. Then he’ll drive it back — all for no charge.”

Sylvester, who does business with multiple vendors, says the Meteviers are “two of the most professional and nicest people I know, and always willing to go the extra mile. I couldn’t ask for two better people to work with.”

Metevier considers his business recession-proof and says gross sales have pretty much stayed the same over the years. His two employees, Keith Gordon, the “winder,” and Mickey Earle, have been with the company for more than 20 years and plan to continue working there after he retires.

“The way we do things now is more technical since we didn’t have electronics when we first started, and tax-related paperwork is more complex, but other than that, things are pretty much the same.” The tax-related paperwork is pretty much the reason Metevier still comes to work two days a week.

When he’s not at the shop, he and Fran can be found at their Alburgh retirement property, 50 acres he says they bought “really cheap” on a whim 19 years ago. “We would have bought more but we couldn’t afford it,” he says.

Metevier also enjoys spending time with his family and heading to Vegas for the occasional trip away. The couple used to belong to the Hannaford Fife and Drum Corps — “she played the fife; I carried the musket” says Metevier — but now spend most of their free time on their Alburgh property.

And of course, Metevier is busy with his numerous Santa Claus appearances that start on the Friday after Thanksgiving and continue until Christmas. “Last year The American Legion organized a party in Alburgh for at least 150 kids. I had no idea there were that many children around,” he says with a smile.

As retirement day approaches, Metevier says he’ll always be around to help Marty with the paperwork if he needs it, but the best piece of advice he has to offer Marty is the one that’s always worked for him. “Make everyone laugh. It works. Keep a little humor in the game. That’s all it takes, because if you can’t live in laughter, you can’t live.”