Bethel Mills Inc.
- Written by: Rachel Noyes of Bethel Mills Inc.
- Produced by: Caitlin Mugford
- Estimated reading time: 11 mins
Few companies reach centennial anniversaries, even fewer see bicentennials; however, Bethel Mills Inc. (Bethel Mills) has far surpassed that milestone with 233 years under its belt. Based in the small rural town of Bethel, Vt., the family-owned company is one of the nation’s oldest and most trusted building material suppliers. Over the course of two plus centuries, the company has cultivated a reputation for helping clients become more successful by providing customized and professional service.
With four locations throughout central Vermont, Bethel Mills provides quality conscious contractors and homeowners with competitively priced brand named products from framing to flooring, from sheathing to Sheetrock, from roofing to rebar, from decking to drainage, from lawn and garden to landscaping, from cabinetry to countertops, and from paint to pine; the list goes on and on.
Aside from the main location in Bethel, there is Central Supplies in Randolph Vt., which has a well-stocked ACE Hardware store, Brandon Lumber & Millwork in Brandon Vt., also has an ACE Hardware store, Britton’s Lumber & Hardware in Quechee Vt., and Hancock Building Supply in Hancock Vt.
“We’re all about saving contractors time and money, which we hope will make them even more successful,” explains Lang Durfee, owner of Bethel Mills. “We’re surrounded by some great competitors that tend to focus solely on the cheapest prices for the lowest quality. We’ve taken a different path and have built a strong niche in supplying higher quality materials while staying competitive. You can order a load of lumber from us and use every stick. Your walls will be straighter, your crews will be more efficient and there will be tons less waste and way fewer callbacks. Really the best kept secret is that we are the lowest cost supplier; bar none. It’s difficult to see the savings when you’re solely looking at the invoice. Rather you’ll see it over the course of the job where the builder, and ultimately their customer not only end up with a higher quality project, but they save considerable money along the way due to the efficiencies. Everyone knows the old saying that you get what you pay for, but isn’t it interesting how only the wise understand that?”
To stay competitive, Bethel Mills is a huge proponent of the cooperative buying model whereby dealers pool their purchases to leverage the same buying power of a national chain. “Plus we are very loyal to our vendors who provide top shelf service and brand name products,” says Ken Ferris, 35-year veteran lumber and commodity buyer. “We’ve learned over the years that brand name products are really worth the small extra price they demand. When there is an issue, brand name manufacturers have the service and support our customers demand. I don’t appreciate the bait and switch tactic so many stores consciously or unconsciously use. When I go to purchase something, I don’t want to be sold a look alike by some sales clerk who is claiming it’s just as good as the brand name, but for less money. Falling for that tactic usually leads to disappointment and ends up costing more; therefore we don’t want to do that to our customers.”
“Our knowledgeable and experienced sales staff works so well together to streamline projects,” says Claudia Sherwin, CFO for Bethel Mills. “These men and women are constantly collaborating across all departments; purchasing, accounting, dispatch, design and management to ensure a smooth job for their clients. They totally understand how difficult the contractor’s job is and they take such pride in providing stellar service that removes project stress and hassle. And for convenience, all of our locations provide materials takeoff, job accounting, design assistance, product specification and specialized delivery service. It’s seamless and fortunately when our contractor customers land work long distances away, they still specify to their clients that the materials will come from Bethel Mills because the end product is a reflection of their good name. We have jobs going on all over the country, from California, to North Carolina, to Cape Cod, to Wisconsin. We work very hard so our customers appreciate us as much as we appreciate them. I think it all boils down to the great staff; they care, they are super talented and they are experienced. Speaking of experienced, we even have one colleague working at our Brandon Location named Nib Creed who just turned 99. Nib has been in the industry his whole life and is sharp as a tack. He drives an hour to work and oversees the pine warehouse for us. He just loves what he does and we just love having him onboard.”
These roots run deep
In 233 years of operation, Bethel Mills has never closed and, according to John Durfee, president of Bethel Mills, it is the oldest continuously-operated company in Vermont. “Unquestionably, Bethel Mills has history,” John explains. “When George Washington was taking his oath of office as first President of the United States, Bethel Mills had already been in business nine years. Before the U.S. was a nation or Vermont was a state, Col Joel Marsh, the founder of Bethel Mills, was busy securing a land grant in the center of Bethel. The grant stipulated that if by January 1780 he could get a sawmill going, and a grist mill the following year, 550 acres of land plus water rights would be his. His labors were temporarily suspended when a British regiment and 300 Mohawk warriors attacked the nearby town of Royalton, but with a time extension granted, Marsh fulfilled both obligations, won the grant and launched the business known as Bethel Mills.”
“For the next century, the Marsh family continued to run the mill with the upstairs of the building serving as Bethel’s town hall,” John continues. “Bethel quickly became a social and economic hub for the surrounding towns and stores and factories took hold. Located on the Third Branch of the White River, the company has withstood many floods over its long history, but it took a devastating hit in the famous 1927 flood when much of Vermont was devastated. The dams, saw mill, grain mill, railroad siding and much of Bethel Mill’s inventory was lost, but the owner at the time, A.N. Washburn, immediately started to rebuild and the company was once again operational in 1928.”
Lang adds that the present-day connection began many years later in 1933 when the first of three successive generations of Durfees arrived on the scene. “It was in the midst of the depression and Raymond Durfee was working in a pattern shop in Bridgeport, Conn.,” Lang explains. “His hours were cut to practically nothing and the low wages didn’t allow enough income to afford basic necessities. Raymond received a timely letter from his sister living in Bethel, Vt., informing him that a small local mill was looking for a lumber and grain salesman. In an attempt to support his young family, Raymond made the trip north and was offered the job on the spot. As fate would have it, Alec Washburn, the owner, died just a week later of spinal meningitis and his widow told Raymond that she was going to go bankrupt and he should return to his family in Connecticut.”
“Mrs. Washburn, I don’t have enough money to get back to Connecticut,” John explains how his father told the story, “I spent my last dollar to get here. Let me see if I can help you run the company. She agreed, and by 1937, Raymond had completely turned the business around, even in the depths of the Great Depression. At that point, Mrs. Washburn sold him 49 percent of the company, and when she retired in 1943, Raymond bought out the balance of the business.”
Not only did he resurrect a dying company that was laden with debt and give it a solid foundation, Raymond built his own hydroelectric power plant to provide low cost power to his mill. This endeavor started when he discovered other local saw mills were paying less than he was for electricity, and he asked the power company to give him the same rate. When his request was declined, he decided to produce his own power.
“He was a very independent man and he didn’t like to have somebody put him in a corner,” says John. “So he began studying and in the summer of 1940, took his sawmill crew down on the river and, combining second-hand equipment with mechanical ingenuity, he built a dam and installed a hydroelectric power plant that is still in use today.”
Even though he was unrelated to the original mill owner, Raymond possessed a similar work ethic, and he passed it on to his son, John. At age 13, John began working in the Bethel Mills sawmill during summers and holidays. After a tour in the military and earning an engineering degree, he commenced working full time at the mill in 1947 and has been there ever since. He began running the company in the ’60s and became its president in 1971.
His son, Lang, credits him with keeping the company viable during rapidly changing times. “I have infinite respect for both my dad and what he has done with the business,” Lang affirms. “He’s taken a grain and lumber manufacturing company and converted it into retail and distribution through some very difficult times. That’s critical, because we wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t made those dramatic changes.”
Like his father, Lang started working in the business at the age of 13, sweeping floors, stacking and sticking lumber, stocking shelves and unloading boxcars. During his years at the mill, he has seen multiple changes, especially in the technology field.
“When I started 38 years ago, everything in the sales and billing office was done by pencil and paper,” Lang says. “The sales orders, the billing, the inventory tracking, the general ledger, blueprint takeoffs and the ordering were all done by hand. No computers, no scanners, no Internet, no phone systems, no GPS tracking and no document imaging. Some days I certainly miss the cigar box cash drawer and the inventory crib sheet in my dad’s top desk drawer, but we’ve tried very hard to stay current with the times while meeting the expectations of our customers.”
Even as a young child, Lang says he always imagined working at Bethel Mills when he was growing up and has fond memories of visiting contractors, farmers and loggers with his father and grandfather. “It’s a good, honest, rewarding industry that’s certainly not for the faint of heart as there are good days and occasionally there can be a bad day,” Lang says. After earning a UVM degree in economics, he returned to the business in 1984 and worked his way up through the ranks, taking over day-to-day operations in 1996. Now in his 50s, its obvious Lang truly enjoys coming to work every day. “I love who I work with,” Lang says. “We have amazing colleagues, great customers and wonderful vendors; we are just so blessed because they are all friends and they are so good at what they do.”
Recent trials and tribulations
It’s no secret, after 233 years, Bethel Mills has seen its share of wins and losses, but like all good companies, it focused on turning devastation into opportunity. “Several years ago, not only were we struggling to overcome the effects of the housing crisis and recession, but we were ground zero when Tropical Storm Irene hit,” recalls Claudia. “The town of Bethel was wiped out and Irene flooded our business with 10 feet of muddy water. The water peaked around midnight destroying all the inventory, all of the special orders waiting to be delivered, all the facilities, all the forklifts and much of the equipment. It was a multimillion dollar uninsured loss. It was pretty emotional for all of us, but especially for the Durfee family to lose everything in a few hours that has taken generations to build up. My hat goes off to them – they never blinked – but just went to work to rebuild their company.”
As the sun came up, Lang and his team surveyed the damaged and immediately began the process of cleanup and rebuilding. With the help of friends, family and volunteers, employees shoveled ton and tons of tons of clay-like mud from the store and warehouses. Roll off after roll off was filled with inventory, office equipment, personal belongings and demolition material destined for the landfill.
Lang then turned to his top notch staff in the Bethel Mills Kitchen & Bath Department to come up with a plan to turn the disaster into an opportunity. The result is a beautiful, expansive, new collaborative office and showroom that occupies much of the second floor. “We came up with some design ideas for the area and Lang has supported us all the way,” says Lindsey Vladyka, one of the senior K&B design experts on staff. “The new showroom is not a separate department, but rather a natural extension of our sales, estimating, design, purchasing and administrative office. We wanted a one team one office concept to be more productive and efficient, while adding more value for our customers. Before the remodel, we were scattered in separate offices and we didn’t take full advantage of all the combined talent we have here.”
Mixed in with the cabinet displays is showroom space dedicated to the other critical products of any building project, including: windows, doors, flooring, decking, shingles, paint and trim. Kris Young, sales consultant and lead designer for Bethel Mills, calls the showroom a contractor’s showroom.
“We’re not a box store that tries to combine product overload with poor service,” Kris says. “We concentrate on aiding the contractor and their customers in making critical decisions on key products that we have confidence in. Service and support is key, so we stick with the trusted brand names that have withstood the test of time like Andersen Windows, Marvin Windows, Brockway Smith doors and Millwork, Azek Trim and Trex Decking, Weyerhaeuser’s Trus Joist, IKO shingles, Mirage Flooring, Owens Corning and Roxul insulation, Huber’s Advantech and Zip system, and Ideal’s pavers and landscaping products to name a few.”
“It’s very common for a kitchen and bath customer to have a building or structural related question and we’re right there to help out,” says Scott Taylor, millwork specialist and 25-year employee. “With this showroom, customers are literally surrounded by hundreds of years of valuable experience. Something you won’t get at a standalone kitchen center or box store.”
“After a couple of years of slowly rebuilding, literally by hand to mouth combined with the generous support of our banks, our vendors and our customers, we’re better than ever,” shares Lang. “Overcoming Irene is a real testament to our team’s dedication and the strength of our company. It’s not uncommon to hear leaders make a big deal about the courage it takes to invest in a downturn; generally they are speaking of investing corporate money or other people’s money with very little of their own skin in the game. I have real respect for those that put their own capital, their own retirement funds, even their own houses on the line in order to protect their colleagues, their community and their company. It’s pretty humbling.”
“You never think about defeat,” says John, musing over his past experiences with flooding, recessions and wars. “You only think about going forward.”
A bright future
For the future, Lang and his team have set high goals. “The economy is looking up and our vision is focused and re-energized,” Lang continues. “We’re very excited and optimistic about the future right now. We’ve been through so much and we’re looking forward to putting our experience and talent to good use helping our customers.”
After more than two centuries, Bethel Mills is rebuilt, reenergized and well positioned for the future. They are very proud of their long history and their contributions to the many communities they operate. To say they have always been right around the corner is an understatement. Bethel Mills Inc., the real builders supply for 233 years.
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