Space Men

Three generations guide this company

by Chris Farnsworth

cedric_demeritt_gordon_demeritt1016Gordon Demeritt (left) continues the legacy begun by his father, Cedric, in 1976, when the elder Demeritt founded Cedric Electric, which has evolved into Catamount East Development Co. in Winooski.

Legacies can be begun in the most innocuous of circumstances. It’s impossible to look down the slide of time and see what your family might accomplish; what your children might become. Looking back, though, one can perhaps see the seed of things to come. For Cedric Demeritt, co-owner and founder of Cedric Electric and Catamount East Development Co., that moment was over 50 years ago, growing up in Craftsbury and working at a nearby mine.

Shoveling asbestos for $1.17 a day, young Cedric decided to write a letter to the president of the mines after being told that the best job to have there was to be a tester.

“When you’re a kid, you think to yourself, ‘I got a job, I’m set for life!’” Cedric reminisces. “But eventually I started to wonder what the better job was.” He got that job and was with the company for seven years.

Now 78 and head of a three-generation business with his son Gordon (who goes by Gordy) and grandson Kyle, Cedric can appreciate those early days of hustling.

“Honestly, we don’t work as hard as we used to,” he says, laughing.

“It was a different generation,” Gordy says. “I didn’t grow up as hungry as he was. But I know how hard he worked to build this foundation. It’s something I can build off of, and now Kyle can build off as well.”

Cedric joined the Air Guard in 1960, and in ’64, left the mines to work for the Guard full time. He was 33, with a wife, Diane, whom he had married in 1960, and a child, when his job at the Guard was discontinued. “I needed a career,” he says.

In 1967, he found work with Ron Brosseau at Brosseau Electric, where he went through a four-year, 8,000-hour training program. “My whole career was determined from being able to work for him,” Cedric says.

He wound his way up to running big jobs, but the company didn’t do residential work, so Cedric took on his own residential clients nights and weekends. “Gordy was pulling wire with me when he was 8 years old.”

With his master electrician license, earned in 1975, Cedric struck out on his own in 1976 to found Cedric Electric, eventually bringing Gordy into the fold.

“I was fortunate enough that the mentors I have — my family and my dad — allowed me to feel like I was part of something,” Gordy says. “So I started tech school to be an electrician when I was a sophomore in high school. It was kind of odd, being 16 around all these guys in their mid-20s, but I knew what I wanted.”

Cedric smiles remembering those early days. “Gordy used to say that when he was young, I pushed him a lot harder than the other guys. I said I probably did! I told him, number one, I expected a little more out of you, and two, you had a lot more to gain.”

Together, the Demeritts began cementing their company’s reputation for an above-and-beyond sort of work ethic. Per Cedric’s design, they kept a small but effective and reliable group and started piling up the hours.

“We would typically do a job with two guys where most electrical contractors would have four or six guys on the job,” Gordy explains. “We were working so hard for so many hours, I would go home at 4 o’clock on a Sunday and have nothing to do because I was never home.”

Eventually those hours, as well as the stress of working for others, led Cedric to start planning an upgrade to the family business.

“We kind of eased out of electrical, though we still do our own tenants,” Cedric says. “But that was the end of being subcontractors, mostly.”

“It’s a hard way to make a living,” Gordy says of subcontracting. “We worked with some great people, and I’m grateful for that, but there’s no equity-building in subcontracting.”

With that, Catamount East Development Co. was born. The Demeritts put up their first commercial building in Winooski in 1982, though there were certainly fraught moments at the start. Gordy was 19.

“Picture this,” Cedric says. “We’re just getting started. I’m a little farm boy from Craftsbury. I went to Merchants Bank and borrowed $1.2 million at 12 percent interest.”

Even now, over 30 years later, his eyes go wide when he talks about working out just how much money he had borrowed. “I went home and figured out that the interest alone worked out to $62 an hour. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night! I said to Diane, ‘Remember that little house trailer we had in North Wolcott? That wasn’t so bad, was it? If this thing goes south, we’re going back there!’”

The Demeritts persevered however, finding, they say, success with a combination of ambition and good character judgment.

“My philosophy is: Know what you know, and do it well,” Cedric says. “But also, know what you don’t know, and hire good people to do that. We have the best team in town. We’ve got the best electrical crew in town — not the biggest, but the best.”

BioTek Instruments in Winooski has leased from Catamount for 15 years. “What I like about them is that they’re old-time Vermonters,” says Briar Alpert, BioTek’s president and CEO. “They’re more than just landlords. They’re hard-working, fair, and deliver a lot of value for their service.”

“One of the reasons we’ve had some success is our employees,” Gordy adds, quick to mention Johanne Simpson. “Johanne is instrumental to this company.”

Simpson, who earned a degree in accounting from Champlain College, handles much of the bookkeeping and paperwork, and has for 17 years. Herself the head of a large family, raising her own children as well as adopting eight others, she fits right in with the family dynamic at Catamount.

“Working for them, for a family, is great,” she says. “You come to understand that if you know one, you know the other.”

When asked how she navigates any potential squabbles between Cedric and Gordy, she just smiles and shrugs.

“I just back away and stay out it,” she says, laughing.

Those rare moments aside, the Demeritts began to build up their companies. Their strength was the all-in-one service they could offer prospective tenants.

“A lot of businesses don’t want to own their buildings,” Cedric says. “They don’t want the hassle, they don’t want the maintenance. They’d rather rent.”

“You could say we’re redevelopers as much as developers,” he continues. “We’ve got eight properties; we built four of them.”

Gordy adds, “We design, we build the buildings, and then we lease the space. It’s mostly done in-house.”

The company became even more of a family affair when Gordy’s son, Kyle, came on board after graduating from The University of Vermont in 2011.

“At his graduation party, he looked at me and said ‘What am I going to do Monday?’” Cedric recalls. “I said, ‘You pick it, Kyle. You’re a broom or a shovel, but you’re going to start the same place we did.’”

“I was, without a doubt, born into a blessed situation,” Kyle, says. “Not only with the opportunity of finding my place within a successful family business, but also given the privilege to observe and learn from two of the hardest working and capable people this community and industry can offer.”

“I have two boys, 7 and 3,” he adds. “They may or may not have any desire to join this crazy train when the time comes, but if they do, I see it as my duty to keep the opportunity alive for them as it is for me.”

“All the big companies, they didn’t do it in one generation,” Cedric points out. “One generation can only do so much. But if you got three, four generations in a row that want to work hard …”

He opens his hands as if to show that anything is possible.

“Working with my dad and grandfather is something that could never be replicated,” Kyle explains. “There are lots of family businesses, but none quite have the dynamic that we have. I find myself trying to replicate what I can only imagine are their most beneficial attributes, but truly I will never be either of them.”

“Kyle is smart, he’s got a good head and learns fast, and he’s been working with us since he was little,” Gordy says, adding that Kyle has taken on creating and maintaining the company’s Internet presence along with his other responsibilities.

“Even if Kyle at some point doesn’t want to have his hands in everything, as we have, at least he’ll have the foundation to know how to do everything,” Gordy says.

For Cedric, it is the realization of a dream started over 50 years ago when shoveling and bagging asbestos. Now he can look at his companies, his son and grandson, and the wide open future they have and smile with some satisfaction.

“At the mines and in the Air Guard, I was the youngest guy. It’s fun to be the youngest guy at a fairly responsible job,” he says before letting out an infectious laugh. “Now I’m the oldest fart that don’t know enough to quit!” •