Carving Out a Niche

Swett’s customers say her business takes the prize

by Will Lindner

vt-trophy0219Margaret Brownfield Swett and her husband, Stephen, bought what was then called Vermont Trophy and Engraving in Colchester 22 years ago. She continues their dedication to personal service. Usha is their chocolate Lab.

Margaret Brownfield Swett of Vermont Awards & Engraving expounds upon the techniques of her trade — rotary engraving, sand carving, laser engraving, sublimation — eagerly, with the fervor (and the occasional startling expletive) of someone who is new to the craft and seeing for the first time the creative possibilities that lie before her.

Actually, though, the novelty — and those first, daunting doubts — are well behind her. She and her husband, Steve Swett, left the world of banking and finance and moved to Vermont from Michigan 22 years ago, purchasing the Colchester business that was then called Vermont Trophy and Engraving. Her enthusiasm remains. It stems, in part, from the importance she finds in the products she and her staff create for their customers (or decorate and embellish, for items manufactured elsewhere, like statuettes, chalices, and swords).

“We have a one-line mission statement,” Swett recites: “‘Recognition is respect made visible.’ So we’re always thinking about the recipient of what we’re making.”

Some competitors in the industry, she says, provide efficient but impersonal service. “You go on their website, you pick out the product, you pick the font (for the inscription), you pick the layout, you type it all in. And if there’s anything wrong it’s not their fault! And if it looks like crap, that’s not their fault, either.”

By contrast, Swett and her fellow engravers at the 5,000-square-foot shop and showroom on Hercules Drive are apt to weigh in on everything. “We spend an inordinate amount of time proofing, calling people and checking spelling, asking ‘Don’t you want a date on that?’ ‘Are you sure you want that font?’” Having developed skills in design, they’re prepared to suggest alternatives.

Swett’s patrons (about 80 percent of her business comes from repeat commercial customers) apparently value that attention. Joe Halko, director of community relations for Northwestern Counseling & Support Services in St. Albans, has been purchasing from the company for 13 years.

“It’s simple to throw a catalogue on the counter and say, ‘Here. Look at these and get back to me,’” says Halko. “That’s not at all how they operate. Margi (virtually everyone uses Swett’s nickname, which is pronounced with a hard G, similar to Maggie) is a great listener. She wants to understand what you’re looking for that might be a little different.”

Recently, Halko had a very specific need. NCSS annually celebrates staff members who reach employment milestones in five-year increments, and for the first time, someone was approaching the 40-year mark.

“We wanted to do something that would really make a statement,” says Halko. “Margi gave us half a dozen ideas, all great. We made our selection and [the recipient] was absolutely enamored.”

Halko also praises the level of service he has received from Vermont Awards. One year, just hours before he was scheduled to present the longevity awards, he discovered that one recipient’s name was misspelled.

“I was mortified,” he recalls.

He phoned Swett to say they’d need to replace the plaque at a later date, but to his delight, “They made the change immediately, and Margi had someone drive up to the nearest Interstate exit and get it to us. Our employee never even knew about it. That speaks to everything they do, in terms of quality and responsiveness and customer service.”

As a youngster in Columbus, Ohio, Margi Brownfield sometimes imagined herself living in Vermont.

“In the third grade I did a report on Oregon, Michigan, and Vermont, and I fell in love with Vermont,” she explains. Engraving, however, was nowhere on her radar.

True, she was more technically inclined than her four older brothers. “I was the one who changed the fuses and did that kind of stuff” — her father, Charles William Brownfield, had MS and was largely confined to a wheelchair. But her initial pursuits leaned more toward finance and accounting. These, and the desire to be employed and productive, so distracted her from college that she forsook her scholarship to Ohio State University, pursuing a series of jobs in credit and collections and moving into accounting.

While working in a bank in Columbus she met a fellow employee who had grown up in New Hampshire and worked in Brattleboro. She wondered if this new acquaintance, Steve Swett, could advise her about finding work in Vermont.

Instead, in 1984 they got married. Their professions carried them through jobs in Ohio, Missouri, and then Michigan, where Margi finally completed a bachelor’s degree in communications. She had also served as president of a credit union (Missouri) and was a founder and president of a Habitat for Humanity office in Flint, Michigan.

In 1995, Steve, who had been in banking for 32 years — he’s 15 years older than she — had had enough. They decided it was time to move to Vermont, and Steve’s son, Geoff, suggested they look for a business to buy. On a scouting trip here, Margi heard about Vermont Trophy and Engraving, a modest enterprise co-located with the Sunny Hollow Quick Stop in Colchester.

“I knew I wanted a value-added business so Walmart couldn’t come in and put us out of business,” she explains. “I called my husband and said, ‘I think I’ve found something interesting.’ I described it, and he says, unenthusiastically, ‘A trophy shop in a gas station. Hmmph.’”

Nevertheless, they made the leap. Margi was 39 years old. She’s adamant that the success they’ve enjoyed couldn’t have happened without Jeff Dow.

“Jeff was this wonderful engraver who had been with the company for 25 years, and he was known to be outstanding in his craft.” Dow was a bit reticent at first, but he gradually softened and began her tutelage. “He was a fantastic trainer,” she says. Steve confined himself to duties like bookkeeping and sales.

Then suddenly, when they’d owned the business only a year and a half, Dow died of a heart attack at age 41. “We were devastated,” Swett recalls.

Importantly, though, Dow was around when they began contemplating changes occurring in the industry. Laser engraving was taking over, for many companies, from rotary engraving. Laser, using an intense beam of light, burns into materials, which Swett says is fine for engraving lettering and designs into wood, plastic, bricks, and acrylics. With metals like gold brass, however, used for some of the finest signs and ornaments, it just burns into the black finish on the surface, leaving a flat, dull aspect to the design. The older technique of rotary engraving, which utilizes a diamond tip at the point of a stylus, actually penetrates the metal and brings out highlights that gleam and sparkle.

“One way we are truly unique is that I still insist on rotary-engraving metal,” says Swett. “If you laser-engrave that, which is probably what 95 percent of our industry does, it doesn’t give you any real contrast. I think if you’re going to do something, do it the best you can do it.”

Laser engraving is faster and less expensive, but rotary engraving has seen technological developments, too. Modern computerized systems provide vastly more etching angles and fonts, further enriching the results.

Swett employs two other engravers. Her daughter, Jessie, 31, who leaves the company this month to embark on a new career, is particularly skilled at art and sand carving. Sandblasting is effective etching into rocks, slate, bricks, and glass. Rae Gaisson, a graphic artist, will pick up Jessie’s design work, and a new employee will be doing the engraving.

With the exception of sandblasting, everybody can “mostly do everything,” Swett says. That includes a technology called sublimation, the best method for imparting color into the plaques, awards, and business signs they produce.

Another significant change is that Steve Swett was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and retired in 2013. He stays in their Burlington home, and Margi says they are blessed in that the effects of the illness upon him have been comparatively benign, without causing the heightened anxiety others experience.

The Swetts moved out of the filling station in 2001 (“In an ice storm!” Swett exclaims) to 480 Hercules Drive until they lost their lease, which led to a move to their current location.

The nature of her business happily brings Swett in contact with people celebrating meaningful passages in life and work. One such person is Brigitte Ritchie, vice president and corporate responsibility officer at Key Bank in Burlington (and Burlington Business Association’s 2016 Business Person of the Year).

Confronting a health crisis several years ago, Ritchie says she “wanted to do something of value to the community,” and created Golden Huggs Rescue, which finds homes for rescued golden retrievers. The Swetts got their dog Duke from Golden Huggs, and Swett and Ritchie became friends. Swett has designed and provided memorabilia for Golden Huggs events. Duke died in November, but Usha, a chocolate Lab, graces the showroom greeting visitors.

“The love of dogs brought us together,” says Ritchie, “but I feel we’re both investing in our communities in different ways. I think Margi has a successful business partly because she builds partnerships, she provides one-of-kind, locally made products, and she contributes to the health of the local community.”

Indeed, Swett serves on the board of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, but she confesses that as her husband requires an increasing amount of care, she has not been able to be as active as she would wish.

Other people are active, though, in their jobs, as volunteers, as donors, in the myriad ways they find to serve the greater good. And if, when the time comes for them to be recognized, their commemorative pieces come from Vermont Awards & Engraving, Margi Swett and her staff will devote themselves to creating items unique, enduring, and meaningful. •