Blade Runner

This family business works on the literal cutting edge

by Will Lindner

vtconcreteJohn Anderson started his Barre business, Vermont Concrete Cutting & Concrete Solutions, in 1989 when a customer who owed him money gave him a job opportunity in payment.

Concrete: It’s the very symbol of permanence — of stubborn, bulky resistance. When something is made of concrete it’s for a reason; that slab, that foundation wall, that support pillar, that bridge abutment, is not going anywhere. The Hoover Dam is made of concrete, and so is the dome of the Roman Pantheon, some 2,000 years old.

So what do people do when they want to move concrete? Maybe to change concrete to fit their needs — say, a merchant has leased retail space in a mall and wants to reconfigure the plumbing and wiring that runs beneath the floor in channels grooved into the concrete slab. Or to revamp a city’s subterranean infrastructure, much of it built of concrete, like the “big dig” project in Barre in 2011 and 2012. How about when the state highway department wants to build a new bridge and has to make the old bridge — substantially of concrete — go away?

A lot of people in these situations contact John and Doug Anderson of Vermont Concrete Cutting & Concrete Solutions in Barre. To the Andersons (father and son), and to others in the trade, concrete isn’t quite the intransigent material it is for the rest of us. It can be altered: cored, drilled, sawn, ground, and smoothed. It can be mended — for example, if a sewage treatment plant should develop a crack or fault of some kind.

Windows and doorways can be carved out of solid concrete walls when an industrial building is converted to residential use. And if a bridge, an underground 19th-century culvert, or an old foundation needs to be removed, with the right equipment, that concrete can be demolished, rendering the structure not so permanent after all.

Doug, the son, cackles at the idea that anyone would purposely go into this line of work. “It’s not like I said, ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do!’”

But it made perfect sense for his father, John, who founded the company in 1989. Pretty much since he graduated from the University of Massachusetts over half a century ago, John has followed his nose and his instincts, rarely looking for something he had a true passion for doing but keeping his eye out for a niche, a need, a service he could provide that would in turn provide him with a steady market.

It’s been a bit of a journey, John says — “Quite a story.”

He was born in Massachusetts 74 years ago to a family in the dairy business. “I was brought up on a dairy farm,” he says, “and when we moved into town (Southbridge, Mass.) I would go to my uncle’s farm in the summer, down in Connecticut. I always liked it.”

John wanted to be a farmer, but his doctors advised against it. John explains that when he was a month old he contracted an infection in his hip that “rotted out” the bone and socket; when he began walking, his thigh bone slipped up into the damaged socket, which made one leg three inches shorter than the other. It was a painful condition, and not conducive to the arduous life of a farmer who is on his feet all day.

So John studied dairy technology at UMass, rather than agriculture. It led, after graduation, to a job as a milk inspector for the state of Massachusetts, and this led him to Vermont.

“We moved up here in 1964,” he says, referring to himself and his wife, Natalie, whom he met in high school in Southbridge. (They’ve been married 54 years.) “They transferred me to Vermont to inspect the dairy farms that were shipping milk to them.”

To get from milk inspection to concrete remedial services (Vermont Concrete Cutting & Concrete Solutions is not a concrete-pouring company, John explains, aside from using the odd bag of Sakrete for a repair project), follow the bouncing ball — an apt analogy, because young John Anderson suffered a series of setbacks and disappointments, but always bounced back again and tried his hand at something else.

In 1968 John “got ambitious,” as he puts it, and bought a dairy farm in Berlin, the heck with the doctors. This venture didn’t last long; he was selling his milk to the Granite City Co-op in Barre. “They went bankrupt,” he says, “and that put me out of business.

“From there, I got into sales.”

Specifically, he got into selling cleaning chemicals to farmers and dairy plants for a national company. “That was going beautifully,” he recalls, until the company sold the division to a Canadian firm that closed down the Vermont operation. John was offered positions in Philadelphia and Chicago, but he and Natalie wanted to stay in Vermont.

Eventually, he began selling lasers to construction companies. It’s a specialized technology used in elevation work — the red beam from the laser providing the pathway and graduated depth for laying sewer pipe, for example. Now a connection begins to emerge: the facility to learn new skills on the fly, and be self-sufficient.

“If you’re a dairy farmer there isn’t much you don’t do or have experience in,” says John. “It educates you. It was the same with the laser; you go out and see how different contractors are doing things with it, and you get very self-educated.”

Tired of working for others, he made a sideways move, staying in construction, but now selling supplies, such as lasers, hand tools, Skil saws, and the like. One of the lines of tools he carried was concrete-cutting equipment. A customer had run up a large debt, and when he went to collect, the customer was unable to pay; however, he had been offered a concrete-cutting job and he suggested that John take that job instead.

John had not actually cut concrete, he says, “but I had the equipment to sell, so I put it to work. Of course, I had to buy it myself.”

As he acquired the skills, his new business grew slowly but steadily. Doug, then a student at Lyndon State College, worked with him during the summers. In those days — 1989 and into the early 1990s — it was Vermont Concrete Cutting Inc. “Concrete Solutions” would come later.

Around 1991 Doug was invited by a college friend to visit a ski chalet in Colorado. “He took off in January to ski for a couple of weeks, and he stayed there,” John recalls.

Doug is a little more emphatic: “I had an opportunity to live, basically, right next to a gondola!” he exclaims. “It was something I wanted to experience.” He also got married in Colorado, to an Australian named Janelle.

Wanting to raise a family in Vermont, in 1995 Doug asked his father if there would be work for him if he returned. There certainly was.

By then, the business was thriving. And Doug would not be the only Anderson offspring to work there. His sister, Heidi, had begun working for their father in 1994. She had attended Johnson State College as an education major, but was employed at a day care when John told her, “Whatever job you can get as a teacher I will pay you more if you watch my checkbook for me.”

These days Heidi, whose married name is Gerrish, and her small dog, Bella, can be found in the office of the company’s quarters in an old granite shed tucked under a shady wooded hillside beside the Stevens Branch (which flooded the company out in the Memorial Day weekend flood of 2011 and again that summer in Tropical Storm Irene).

Also in the office is Christie Sanders, who provides office support for Concrete Solutions — a new line of work. Concrete Solutions specializes in basement dewatering and related services for basements, such as wall anchoring, moisture control, and creating vapor barriers — expertise much in demand for Vermont’s old housing stock.

Vermont Concrete Cutting & Concrete Solutions employs a crew of eight to 10 workers. The labor is arduous and requires getting comfortable with the tools of the trade, but Doug says that, given the material they work with, attitude is as important as experience.

“I’ve figured out in the last 20 years that there are some people cut out for this job and some people who aren’t. You look at a piece of concrete, and if you don’t have in your mind that you’re going to move that concrete, you probably won’t.”

Doug and Heidi now run the business, at least between October and April when their parents journey south in their RV — destination, Zephyrhills, Fla. — for plenty of golf in a warm, but fairly rural, setting.

Doug travels 1,000 miles a week sometimes, lining up jobs in an area stretching from eastern New York state to New Hampshire and Maine. Then in early spring, Dad shows up again, still wearing his Florida shorts and eying the Stevens Branch warily. The company has set large concrete blocks along the streamside for a barrier, and constructed an aerial pipeline for pumping out their building if the need arises.

Some of the qualities of concrete seem to have rubbed off on the family-owned company. It’s solid and stubborn, and at least for now, it’s not going anywhere.