A Cap-able Couple

From custom van interiors and aluminum caps to fiberglass truck tops and boat racks

by Phyl Newbeck

catamountIn 1984, Bennington natives Patricia and Thomas Frechette used their savings to buy land in Williston and opened Catamount North, a provider of custom truck caps and van interiors.

It was a leap of faith that brought Pat and Tom Frechette to Williston when they were looking for a place to start a business.

“It was a very apprehensive move for us,” Tom says. “We were comfortable in Bennington and we went 125 miles north where we didn’t know a soul, but we stomped our feet and started a business.” Pat concurs. “We were ready to do something different,” she says “and we have no regrets.”

That “something different” was the founding of Catamount North, which sells fiberglass truck tops and tonneau covers, as well as boat and ladder racks. It also offers custom-made aluminum caps and is a distributor for Ranger Design, which makes interiors for commercial vans.

Tom’s father started Catamount Campers in Bennington in 1967 and Tom joined him in 1972. “I served concurrently in the Vermont Army National Guard until 1979,” he recalls. “I was in a mortar unit based in Ludlow. I served with some really great guys.”

After 12 years of working with his father, Tom felt it was time to move on. “It was a much bigger business with multiple employees and I wanted to try to go out on my own.”

He wasn’t entirely on his own. Both students at Mount Anthony Union High School, he and Pat had never met until Pat’s cousin introduced them. “It was love at first sight,” Pat recalls.

“We both come from great stock, since our parents were children of the Depression and taught us to work hard,” says Tom.

After graduation, Pat worked for a pump parts manufacturer called Bijur and later, as a waitress. The couple got married on July 4, 1975, in Bennington. “I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t forget our anniversary,” Tom says.

In the fall of 1983, the Frechettes began to look for a place to build a business based on the skills Tom had learned working with his father. They concentrated on Brattleboro, Rutland, and the Burlington area. They bought land in Williston in February of 1984, built the structure themselves, and opened on June 1 of that year.

By that point they had only $670 left in their checking account, but that soon changed. One of their suppliers, ARE, has 650 dealers nationwide, and Catamount North ranks 10th for ARE in single-store sales. Catamount has been ARE’s number one store in New England for the last 20 years, and the Frechettes have the plaques to prove it.

Originally the business was 95 percent aluminum caps, manufactured in-house, and 5 percent fiberglass, but the construction of trucks has changed, and now the majority of caps are fiberglass. “Fiberglass caps are molded and look like they grew there,” says Tom “and we can paint them to match the truck.”

The company has a franchise agreement with a manufacturer to serve the northern half of Vermont, but customers from other areas have found the Frechettes online. “We had someone this spring who came from Toronto,” says Tom. “He found us on the Internet and we gave him what he couldn’t find in Canada. He says we saved him $1,200.”

Other customers have found the company website from as far away as Australia and England, but those sales are not cost-effective. “You need to build a crate for shipping,” Tom says.

The company’s newest business venture involves commercial van interiors for tradespeople like HVAC installers, plumbers, and electricians.

“We are the only distributor of Ranger Design van interiors in Vermont,” says Neil Mauntler, who’s married to the Frechettes’ daughter Elizabeth. He joined the company four years ago, and is now general manager. “We work hand-in-hand with local dealerships that sell vans, to make them aware we’re in the business of providing shelving, roof racks, etc., for the vans they’re selling.”

As for most businesses, the days are rarely the same. “The typical day starts at 8 a.m. and might end at 5 or 6 or 7 p.m.,” says Tom. “We never know what’s going to come through the door. My two goals are to meet or exceed the customer’s expectations and to do it in a reasonable time frame.”

Tom does most of the work in the shop and takes care of the taxes while Pat is in charge of billing and bill paying. “She’s the drill sergeant who makes sure things get done,” he says. “I have a mechanical aptitude and used to do a lot of fabrication. We still do some custom units, but it’s not as big a part of the business anymore.”

They are gratified by the number of repeat customers who visit their shop. “It’s very rewarding to have people come in time and again,” says Pat. “They remember you and you remember them.” Tom confesses that the remembering part isn’t quite that easy. “I remember their faces,” he says “but not always their names.”

One name Tom does remember fondly is that of Tony Georgakis, the owner of Zachary’s Pizza in Colchester. Georgakis is a repeat customer who has been returning to Catamount North for 20 years. “I bought many, many caps from them,” he says. “They are very good people; the product is good and the price is reasonable. Their service is seven stars, not five.”

A repeat customer on a larger scale is A Cooper Mechanical in Williston. Kevin Lawlor said his firm has been working with Catamount North since 2005. Lawlor’s company does large-scale plumbing and mechanical work for places like Global Foundries and The University of Vermont, as well as several local hospitals and breweries.

“They supply the caps on our service trucks for most of our plumbing,” Lawlor says. “They know what we’re looking for. It’s a nice-looking product and the price is right.” Lawlor also praised the company for its willingness to make adjustments. “They’ll correct something with no hesitation,” he says.

For Tom, the biggest challenge for their brick-and-mortar location is competing with the Internet-based economy, and he is happy the state of Vermont is starting to collect taxes on Internet sales. “The majority of the products we offer aren’t available over the Internet,” he says “but online sales are the biggest hurdle to people buying local.”

The Frechettes are proud of their local ties, and contribute money to national organizations like Wounded Warriors and the American Cancer Society, but also local ones such as COTS, the Williston Food Shelf, Toys for Kids, local softball and youth basketball teams, and the Cancer Canknot Classic team in Williston.

When their daughters, Elizabeth and Heather, were younger, they worked for the business but have both gone on to other fields. Two torn ACLs playing soccer led Elizabeth to a career as a physical therapist. Heather has a master’s degree in marketing and public relations. Between the two, they have produced three granddaughters. “We’re very fortunate to have two wonderful sons-in-law,” Tom notes.

Tom thinks he might start to scale back on work in the next few years, but Pat has already begun to step back from the business. The pair live in Williston and have a place in Colchester on Malletts Bay where they like to go boating. They go for a walk every morning, and Pat is starting to think about traveling, particularly in the winter, with destinations like Florida and the West in mind.

“I enjoy what I do and my health is good,” says Tom. “I enjoy coming in to work and I think that’s half the battle. I can’t see myself doing anything different. I’ve seen people who seem to have wonderful jobs but they dread going to work every day.”

Pat admits she doesn’t enjoy coming to work quite as much as she used to. “I’d rather spend time with my granddaughters.”

“It’s been a wonderful life,” says Tom. “We were able to give our kids a college education, which neither of us had, and the weddings they wanted. Starting the business was one of the best moves we made in our life.”