Helping the Sap Run

Since 1888, this manufacturer has had the backs of North America’s maple producers

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

leader2016In 2015, Bradley Gillilan took over as president of Leader Evaporator Co., the Swanton manufacturer he joined in 2000. But he’s not the only Gillilan to be employed there.

Bradley Gillilan isn’t kidding when he says that Leader Evaporator supplies everything a maple producer needs for doing business, from tapping the tree to finished goods on the shelf. Besides the “bright annealed stainless steel” evaporators and reverse-osmosis machines manufactured in the company’s Swanton plant, Leader makes plastic tubing of various diameters and a number of evaporator and sugaring accessories, and sells signs, packaging, candy molds, papers for wrapping things, bags, boxes, cans, glass containers ...

“We have over 12,000 SKU [stock keeping unit] numbers for products,” Gillilan says, adding, “The wife of one of our sugar makers calls the factory a ‘candy store for adults’ because they can come here and pick up all the accoutrements they need or want for their business.” Leader has customers in 23 states and four Canadian provinces.

The company moved into its 86,000-square-foot corporate headquarters (office, factory, warehouse, showroom, and store) in January of 2006. The Swanton property also features a 21,000-square-foot testing and plastic extrusion facility and a woods where visiting producers can see Leader’s model setup. A Rutland location contains a small manufacturing operation and a factory store.

In a corridor hangs a large painting of a person boiling sap using the company’s original model (the Pleasure Model Evaporator), signed with the initials MAD. It was discovered in a Rutland art gallery years ago by one of the company’s owners, who bought it for himself and eventually gave it to the company. Nobody has yet been able to identify the artist.

Among a display of photos and implements at the Swanton headquarters is a photograph of a group of workers that includes Gillilan’s grandfather, who worked in manufacturing for a number of years. His father, Bruce, a vice president, has been involved with the company most of his adult life, first as a salesman, and currently as manager of the sales department.

“I’ve known Brad pretty near all his life,” says Damian Branon, the proprietor of Branon Shady Maples in Pittsfield and a member of the Leader Evaporator board of directors. Branon’s father was the company’s president for a brief period, and his family was one of the original owners to buy stock in the company.

“There’s no question that Brad’s heart is into Leader Evaporator like no other,” Branon says. “You’re talking three generations there. He’s very ambitious, certainly highly educated, his management skills are unique, and he’s a firm believer in the company. I think he’ll do just fine.”

It’s logical that Leader is the largest U.S. manufacturer of equipment for producing maple syrup. Vermont is the Number One maple producer in the United States, and Canada produces 75 percent of the world’s syrup. “Franklin County is the epicenter,” says Gillilan.

The company has a deep history in Vermont, starting in 1888 when William Burt founded it in Enosburg Falls. Burt moved the company to Burlington in the early 20th century to take advantage of better shipping facilities, among other reasons, says Gillilan.

Burt died in 1955, and his widow ran things until 1963, when a group of the company’s employees and dealers formed a corporation to buy it from her. A couple of years later, Gillilan says, “they took on a group of investors of the George Soule Co. in St. Albans and moved the operation there. We were there until 2006.”

During that time, the company bought several other companies, “and some of those are still part of our offerings as products we develop,” he says. “For example, Spring Tech Osmosis was purchased, and we still use the Spring Tech brand today. We also purchased the G.H. Grimm Co., which was headquartered in Rutland, and we still have that facility. Part of that purchase was the Lamb Natural Flow Tubing Co. We still make our own tubing.”

Ownership (currently 16 stockholders) covers several maple-producing states as far west as Michigan; all of them at this time are maple syrup producers, equipment dealers, or employees.

In 2014, Leader began producing its own RO (reverse osmosis) machines, equipment that used to be made by others to its specifications. And in October 2015, a 12,000-square-foot factory/direct outlet center and distribution center was opened in Holcombe, Wisconsin.

Gillilan’s enthusiasm for the company is almost palpable as he leads a tour of the facility. It’s clear that he’s a perfect company man, although working for Leader Evaporator was not in his original plans.

Growing up in Fletcher, he says, “I was the kid who said, ‘I’m leaving this town and never coming back.’ When I was in college, even, I had aspirations to work for big corporate America and go up the corporate ladder.”

Still, he joined the company in 2000, right after graduation from Vermont Technical College with a degree in business technology and management. “I told the president when he hired me that my job was to take his job,” he says. “I had big goals, dreams, and as often happens, I had a family, and some of those goals and aspirations changed.”

The evolution was set in motion when Carey Chatot, a friend from high school, returned in 2002. They married in 2004, and he and Carey live in Fletcher, where she was a paraeducator before deciding to stay home to help care for their children, Gavin, 11, and Xavier, 9.

Gillilan began as an on-the-road salesman, a job he did until 2011, when he took over as sales manager. “And in 2014 I took over as general manager, as a one-year transition,” he says. “Gary Gaudette was president of the company; when he retired in June of 2015, he had been president for 35 years.”

He confesses that he wasn’t as eager to take over the company as he’d implied when he started all those years ago. “It took me several days of working through the scenarios with my wife before I decided,” he says.

To incorporate his management style into the company’s operations, Gillilan has created a team of six managers from around the building with whom he meets regularly. “I’ll be honest,” he says, “one of my goals is to get my management team to a point where they can do some of the day-to-day management so I can get back out in the field working with producers in the woods and their sugarhouses.

“I have a very simple approach to management,” he continues with a laugh, “so when I’m gone, I tell our people to ask three questions: ‘Is it good for the company?’ ‘Is it good for the customer?’ and ‘Is it good for the employees?’ If they can answer yes to all three, then go ahead and approve whatever it is ... even if sometimes they can only answer yes to two, depending on how things are.”

For all of its growth and influence, Leader Evaporator still operates like a small business, says Gillilan, “so I’m involved at some levels in a lot of different stuff around the building. I still play a very active role in research and product development, also involved in a lot of the brainstorming. And depending on the day, I’m becoming more involved in the industry things we’re doing.”

“Brad has incredible organizational skills,” says Pamela Green, the owner of Green’s Sugarhouse in Poultney and chair of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, which hosted the International Maple Conference at the Hilton in Burlington the end of last month.

“The maple industry is just so incredibly lucky to have him as part of this industry. He has chaired this whole committee that has put so much time into the conference.”

Vermont is one of 15 states and four Canadian provinces that produce maple commercially, and the international conference comes to Vermont every 16 years, she says. One of this year’s goals was to have a conference call with the Food and Drug Administration to discuss the industry’s concerns about the FDA’s new labeling requirements for listing added sugars.

“This does not make sense for pure products like maple and honey,” says Green. “It would be very confusing to the consumer because that means we put something else in the syrup (she laughs), and that would affect our identity.”

This year’s forecast says that Leader will be triple the size it was in St. Albans, which indicates a significant growth cycle. However, all of the company’s major competition is in Canada, says Gillilan, which means the value of the dollar makes it difficult to stay competitive.

When he’s not working, Gillilan can often be found on a softball field or a volleyball court. He’s also an avid hunter. In the past, he coached high school basketball, an activity he’s had to give up since becoming president.

He wants to continue to grow the company so it can offer more opportunities for employees. “I’m just a small piece of the puzzle at this point,” he says. “I think the company has only had six general managers/president-type figures in 120-some years, so it’s remarkable to have that and not be a family-owned company.

“Most businesses don’t survive that. When I started here, there were only three models; now there are nine models you can buy; we only had 39 or 40 employees, now we employ 80 people. That’s a huge feather in Leader’s cap.” •