In 1998 I was living out of state, working as an engineer. I wanted to get back home to Maine. I thought I could get into the wood composite decking business – we have a lot of sawdust here in Maine; composite decking is made out of sawdust and plastic; and it was a growing market. Plus, I’ve always been interested in creating manufacturing jobs in Maine.
So I quit my job and rented an apartment on Munjoy Hill in Portland. It took me 8 months to write the business plan, which was ultimately 68 pages long. I couldn’t have done it without help from the Small Business Development Centers, with whom I consulted weekly. At the conclusion of the development of the business plan, which included extensive financial projections, real estate needs, and machinery lists, I began shopping the concept to investors and banks, as I needed to raise more than a million dollars to acquire the equipment and finance the startup until we became profitable, in my projections.
I searched for a good location for a large manufacturing company, a suitable place with good access to utilities like electricity and natural gas, and a great local workforce accustomed to a 24/7 shift operation.
Starting a business in Maine isn’t easy. One of the reasons I ran for the Legislature is that I want to make it easier. It took a lot of help, and fortunately we got it, at the right times, from the Biddeford Saco Area Economic Development Corporation and the Maine Technology Institute. The business wouldn’t have had the success it’s had without them.
At our peak we had 75 employees. During the 10 years I was part of the company, we made 139 million feet of decking, enough to go around the world more than 5,000 times, and sold in 175 countries. We sponsored the Red Sox. Our decking was ranked #1 by Consumer Reports.
When Biddeford Blankets closed in 2004 and left a big hole in the Biddeford Industrial Park, we were even able to buy their building and hire back some of their people. But 2009 was a tough time for the economy and building products in particular. It was the largest ever recorded drop in housing starts. Mortgages were failing by the millions. Even our bank, which had bought the largest mortgage company in the world earlier that year, was in trouble. If our bank was in trouble, we were in trouble.
We weren’t alone. Lehman Brothers crashed. GM & Chrysler went bankrupt. AIG received a government bailout package.
But there was no bailout for us. We weren’t too big to fail. Things were going downhill fast in the housing market, and we were headed into the winter, naturally a slow time. To top it off, California lawyers sued the big names in the industry and named all the little guys like us too. That’s something the cynical lawyers who thrive on this call a “roll-up”, and they do to it to force small competitors out of business before they go after the big guys. So we were in trouble. There was a good chance we would have to close, and all the hard work and all the jobs would be lost.
10 years after co-founding the company, probably the best option for me financially would have been just to cash out, sell the machines, and close the factory. A lot of jobs would have been lost, both at our factory and that of our suppliers. Instead, I gave up my ownership percentage for nothing to save the business. For nothing. All my blood (literally) sweat and tears. The initial $30,000 of savings that I had saved up and put in back in 1999 even as I was still paying off student loans (I had to sell my car to do it) – all gone. All of the equity in the equipment built up over the years – all gone. We put all that money into a transaction called a prepackaged bankruptcy sale. Another local building products business, Hunter Panels in Saco, had successfully gone through the process, and we thought it could work for us. It was a complex transaction, but it worked. Funnily enough, the machines actually never stopped running through the whole thing. The employees never missed a paycheck – the name on it just changed.
In the time that I ran the company, we paid millions in wages and payroll taxes. We donated decking products to hundreds of projects all over the State, including both Biddeford Little League Fields, the playgrounds at JFK Kindergarten and Biddeford Primary School, the benches you see in downtown Biddeford and at the beach, and all of the decking for the boardwalk at Saco Heath (that project alone is more than 15,000 feet of decking). And, most importantly, in the 7 years since 2009, the company has continued to provide employment and pay good wages. In fact, the plant still runs 24 hours a day, as it has for 16 years now.
Although I am no longer involved with the operation, I’m proud of the company that continues to provide good jobs and pay taxes in the City of Biddeford,and the fact that the personal financial hit that I took made that happen. I’ve also continued my work with Maine business people, bringing my passion for supporting Maine entrepreneurship to a podcast called ‘The Grow Maine Show’. I’ve recorded more than 50 episodes, each featuring a different Maine success story. That has given me statewide perspective on what does and doesn’t work in Maine business and startups, and additional connections and credibility as I work to close the gap between lawmakers and business.
I’ve been through a lot. I’ve seen both the upside and downside of the economic cycle, across many types of businesses, all over the State and all over the country. I bring all of that perspective to my role as a State Representative.