Manzer goes ‘Green’
Fast growing Somerset County paver adds a cool new process to its mix
By Douglas Rooks
Bruce manzer didn’t plan to start his own excavation and paving company – at least not at first.
After two years of college and a dozen years of employment at Cianbro, where he worked on projects such as rehabilitation of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., Manzer wanted to return home. So he went to work for his father Frank at Manzer and Dolan for three years. “What I found out is that he’d sold the company, so I was back on my own,” Bruce said. After a short stint with a large paving company that he found unsatisfactory, he decided in 1996 to start looking for work. He had a one-ton truck and a leased roller. More than a decade later, he runs Bruce A. Manzer, Inc., a $10 million company with 45 employees and plants in Anson and Bethel. The latter is a recent acquisition.
In recent interviews, Bruce, Frank and Bruce’s wife, Crystal, the company’s business manager, described how a one-man operation has grown quickly into one of Somerset County’s most successful businesses.
Frank, though offering advice and occasional assistance, has no operating role in the company. Bruce A. Manzer, Inc. is controlled by the next generation but remains very much a family business. Bruce and Crystal’s two sons, Nicholas and Nathan, have both worked summers for the company, while Bruce’s brother-in-law runs the Bethel plant. Nicholas now attends Endicott College in Massachusetts where he studies sports management. Nathan has enrolled in Husson University in the business program.
Crystal thinks Nathan may one day be interested in working full-time for the company, but hopes he learns the ropes at another paving company first. Bruce says he isn’t sure whether the attractions of home will be sufficient. “They both have watched their father work way too hard,” he said.
During the paving season from May to November, Bruce and Crystal both put in 60-80 hours a week. Crystal says that home life has to take a back seat. “I try to get dinner on the table every night, but that doesn’t mean everyone is able to get there,” she said.
In the colder months, Bruce says he works a more “normal” schedule, but there’s work to be done every day, maintaining and building equipment for the busy months ahead. Vacations are not a typical part of their life, although they make a notable exception as regulars on the MBTA Winter Trip to the islands.
What does make the business go is service, he said. Anyone, he said – or almost anyone – can run an asphalt plant and get paving jobs. What makes the difference is being ready to go out at all hours to provide estimates, to check on jobs and to attend meetings with local officials who decide which firm to hire.
Bruce A. Manzer does work for more than 30 municipalities in Maine and New Hampshire. The firm’s service area extends from Waterville as far north as Jackman, then west into New Hampshire.
“Your personal commitment to your customers is what’s most important,” Bruce said. He recalls a recent request from Solon where the town needed a quick estimate (complete with cross-section and profile) by 10 a.m. the next morning. It was for a culvert project so it could apply for a MEMA (Maine Emergency Management Agency) grant. “I did it on the hood of the truck,” he recalls. “It wasn’t a drafting-table plan, but it did the job.” The town got the grant.
“You’ve got to know the personality and the quirks of each person” who’s making the decisions, he observed. In some towns, that might be a selectman, in others a road commissioner or even a fire chief or assessor, he said.
It’s not that he neglects other aspects of the business. One valuable commodity towns and the state have that they sometimes neglect is the existing asphalt on roads due for reconstruction. “I sometimes have people come to the plant and ask to buy the old asphalt,” he said. “I tell them, ‘You can’t afford it.’” With dramatically higher prices for liquid asphalt, recycled material is worth at least $35 a ton, and the company has figured out ways to use larger amounts in its standard mix. “It definitely makes the paving dollar go farther,” he said.
Manzer estimates that 40 percent of the company’s business comes from municipalities, another 30 percent from Maine DOT, and the remaining 30 percent from commercial work.
In addition to the reconstruction of Route 4 in Madrid (see sidebar) that began in June, another current major contract is rehabilitation of an airport runway in Oxford, Maine. Manzer is working on the reconstruction of Milan Lumber, a 14-acre sawmill where the current site was “mired in mud” for several months a year. The job includes a new base, drainage, drying kilns, office, retention ponds and paving.
On a tour of the company’s gravel pits – located next to the asphalt plant, amid eskers (ridges) left by glaciers on the Sandy River plain, Bruce and Frank talked about some of the fine points of the paving business.
“You’d think that all sand is the same, and it is to the untrained eye,” said Frank. But to work well in asphalt, the grain size of sand needs to be different, and various sands are deposited in specific parts of a pit – the western facing slopes feature sands with distinct properties from those on the east, he said.
Bruce talks about the need for careful, timely purchasing of equipment, more than 200 pieces – trucks, haulers, graders, loaders – that are needed to keep the operation running smoothly. “Knowing what and when to buy can make the difference between a good year and a bad one,” he said.
Crystal Manzer was running her own day care center when the business manager for the paving company left, and she took over on a temporary basis. But soon she proved indispensable. She does the payroll, accounts receivable and payable, collections and accounting; Bruce usually writes the invoices from the job site.
“I didn’t have any intention of being an accountant,” she said, but she has developed a knack for it. She said the decision to join the company “has been good for Bruce and for the business,” though she sometimes would like to have more time for family.
Bruce A. Manzer, Inc. is having another good year, despite the severe downturn in the national and state economy. That doesn’t mean that financial strains aren’t evident, Crystal said. “Everybody has been asking for updated credit references, which are really important to vendors,” she said. “Everybody’s worried about getting their dollars, and that’s understandable.”
During the off-season, there are about a dozen employees at the two maintenance facilities, and though most of the work is seasonal, Bruce finds he’s usually looking for more hires.
“Nobody here has just a set job, where you wait around for the next part of the process,” he said. “You’re not just a truck driver. You have to be a laborer, too. When something goes wrong, and a part needs fixing, you have to get in there and be able to get your hands dirty.”
While pay rates in the business are pretty good, up to $23 an hour, Bruce said that “blood, sweat and tears,” are definitely required. Some people love the work, though, and he wishes there were more training programs, formal and informal, to attract young people into the field.
He recalls one of his own experiences in grade school where an industry program was used. “We experimented with bridges built from popsicle sticks, trying to see how much weight they’d carry.” The results were often surprising. “You might need a 50 pound load to break it.”
Years later, he says, “The challenge is still finding a better way to build a mousetrap.” When he looked at the Green System (see sidebar) offered by Astec, for instance, it seemed obvious that it would enhance the business, and he didn’t hesitate before installing the first such operation in Maine.
And while he respects the technical knowledge needed to run companies, he finds that excavation and paving mostly requires “seat of the pants engineering.”
While further expansion might seem tempting, Manzer said he thinks the business has grown about as large as is feasible given its current structure. He does almost all the estimating himself for 300-400 bids a year, and that wouldn’t be possible if there were much more additional work.
There are times, he said, when he thinks that “the beast is getting too big,” but he enjoys the work so much that he doesn’t want to cut back. Years ago in the paving business, there was real down time in the winter “when you could really goof off,” but no more. Still, that suits him. “If I spent more time sitting around the house, I’d have been dead 10 years ago,” he said.
As for the difficulties of making a living in one of Maine’s most rural counties, with its shortage of jobs and chronically high unemployment, he says there are intangible benefits.
“We get to work with some of the most beautiful vistas in the state of Maine,” he said. He remembers one job on the Height of Land on Route 17 to Oquossoc as a vacation in itself.
Outlooks over the Sandy River, seen from a construction site, “are almost like it’s not real.”
As he sees it, “You’re working and getting paid, and you get to have a picnic every noon.”