Member News: Two for the road
Family continues the tradition at Central Equipment and White Sign.
By Kathryn Buxton
The story of how Central Equipment and White Sign were founded is a story of family, Yankee practicality and ingenuity. The two businesses, located in Stillwater, were born out of necessity and good business sense during the middle of the last century.
Although they have grown and changed with the times, they remain, at heart, a family-run operation where commitment and trust form the core of every job and every deal the two companies make. The roots of Central Equipment Company and White Sign are in the old H.E. Sargent, Inc. – the construction firm that Herbert E. Sargent founded in 1926. For three decades, the construction firm grew, fed by a steady diet of road and highway work as the state set about creating a network of modern highways connecting its forestry and manufacturing centers with the region.
A business decision
By the late 1950s, H.E. Sargent was one of the largest and most respected earth moving firms in Maine. That was when the family patriarch, Herbert E. Sargent, began to think it was time to make some changes. “He decided that it wasn’t good to have everything in one company,” said H.E. Sargent’s son-in-law, Ralph Leonard, who has been with Central Equipment since its inception in 1959.
Herb talked to his children who were co-owners of the company, and they agreed. They invested in a new start up – Central Equipment Company – making it the leasing agent for H.E. Sargent.
“That’s how we became dealers,” said Ralph, a West Point trained military officer who had come home after a stint in the service to work for the family construction company in 1956. He was put in charge of the new company, and this is how it worked: Central Equipment bought equipment – compactors, excavators, dozers, trailers and other heavy equipment that Sargent used on their job sites. Then they leased that equipment to the family’s construction company. The arrangement worked very well, and brands they have carried over the years – Atlas Copco, Rogers Brothers, Ingersoll Rand, Husky, Daewoo, Samsung and Liebherr – have all been top of the line and filled market niches that other dealers in the region did not cover.
“They have been lines of equipment that we thought would be useful,” said Ralph in a characteristically wry understatement. The lines were quite useful, and Central Equipment’s workhorse brands like Liebherr – considered “the Cadillac of excavators” – and other brands have found favor with other area contractors as well.
Floating new ideas
Along the way, the Sargent family also acquired White Canoe, a venerable manufacturer of wooden canoes that had been founded in nearby Old Town around the turn of the 20th century. Eventually the family sold off the inventory of canoes, but they kept the name for a new business venture, White Sign, launched in 1965. Again, the new business was born out of necessity and market demand. With con struction of the interstate in Maine gearing up, new federal safety regulations required contractors to post construction work zones with bright orange reflective signs. No one in Maine was making the new signs, and rather than pay a premium for signs from Massachusetts manufacturers, White Sign was born. The company soon began making signs for all of H.E. Sargent’s work sites and filling the demand for other contractors and municipalities throughout Maine. Today, White Sign is the largest commercial manufacturer of work zone and municipal street and traffic signs in the state.
As the two businesses grew, Ralph called upon his brother Dick Leonard, a former public school principal and district superintendent, to help out. Dick signed on in 1987 as the firms’ general manager, coordinating the different functions and managing the financials of Central Equipment and White Sign.
“That was quite a transition,” recounted Dick of the move from the public sector to the private. He said the pace was faster and remembers how, at the time, a new 5,000-square-foot addition was added to the Central Equipment/White Sign complex in just six months. “When I was superintendent, we had an addition built, and it took years.” Not that Dick didn’t have challenges in his new job. It was in the days before e-mail and digital file transfers, and while the two companies operated as separate entities, they were still very closely tied to the parent company H.E Sargent, Inc. Dick remembers the frequent walks to Sargent’s main office up the road to coordinate the two companies’ payroll that were done at the main office.
'Good to be here'
Family businesses present their own peculiar set of opportunities and issues, the greatest often in the succession from generation to generation. After two generations, big changes were on the horizon for H.E. Sargent. In 1989, the family sold the company to Razel, an international construction conglomerate with corporate headquarters in France. (Herbert R. Sargent, H.E’s grandson purchased the company back from Razel in 2005.) Not included in that sale were several of the holdings H.E. Sargent had established over the years – including Central Equipment and White Sign. Ralph and his wife Anita Leonard offered to buy the two companies from Anita’s siblings – an offer the family members accepted.
The Leonards then combined the two companies, making White Sign a division of Central Equipment. The change would be a difficult one with many uncertainties, but one that Ralph and Dick were eager to undertake. At that time, two employees joined Central Equipment/White Sign to help in the transition. Sandy Ferguson signed on to set up Central Equipment’s well-regarded parts and service division (she continues to head the parts department today). Jon Brisette also joined the company in 1989; he manages the sign shop that has grown in reputation and in reach over the years. “They do a super job,” said Dick adding that the family has been fortunate to have the talent and commitment of such a great staff.
In the years since 1989, Central Equipment has expanded its base of customers and coped with shifts within the industry. Several equipment manufacturers have been sold and consolidated. Husky, one of Central Equipment’s lines is no longer. Daewoo Heavy Equipment has become Doosan. In early 2007, Volvo purchased Ingersoll-Rand’s roadbuilding division; Ralph said that Central Equipment will continue to sell that line, even now that the sale is complete.
To guide Central Equipment through changing times, the Leonards have recruited other family members. Ralph’s son Kent also worked with Central Equipment, but left the business to follow his dream and run the Bluenose Inn in Bar Harbor. After he left, Ralph and Dick asked another family member, sonin- law Fred Reichel, to take over Central’s sales division. Reichel joined the company in 2004, but already had 15 years’ sales experience for hospital and medical equipment supply firms. “It’s good to be here,” said Fred who was more than glad to trade 18-hour days on the road for a more centralized territory and shorter – just 12-hour – days. The challenge he sees will be following the family tradition of reliable service as Maine’s construction market tightens.
Outside their offices in Stillwater, there is a long line of compactors and excavators resting in the snow, waiting for the 2008 construction season to begin. Reichel said that customers can continue to count on Central Equipment as a source for top-of-the-line equipment and service.
“We’ve got a quality name,” said Reichel. He said the company formula is a simple one, but one that will not change as long as he and other family members remain at the helm. “We offer a good piece of equipment at a competitive price and always follow up with good service.”
Ralph, Dick and Fred all are active advocates for the transportation industry and major supporters of the Maine Better Transportation Association. “Ralph is a past president of Maine Good Roads and a 1992 recipient of the Maine Transportation Achievement Award, MBTA’s highest honor.” Dick continues as business manager for the two companies. After nearly five decades, Ralph remains active in the company as CEO and president. He maintains a full schedule with Central Equipment and his other interests. He remains a liaison for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He also is an outspoken advocate for Maine’s businesses and sees the only way out of the state’s current economic trials is a cheaper source of energy (he is an advocate for nuclear energy) and to clear the roadblocks to businesses like Plum Creek that promise to bring new jobs and opportunity to the state. “The state of Maine is in serious trouble,” said Ralph. “We have a tendency to make it hard for businesses that want to bring jobs here.”