The Marriner way
A fourth generation steps in at the venerable Rockport paving firm
By Kathryn Buxton
Mike Marriner is a virtual encyclopedia of paving. That’s little surprise, since he joined the family business, Marriners, Inc., in 1969 – sweeping floors, loading trucks and doing whatever else his father Gil Marriner asked.
Mike is a third generation paving entrepreneur, and Marriners is a fixture in midcoast Maine (his two children are the fourth generation to join the business). The family owned business has been paving in the region ever since the mid-1940s when Clyde and Arline Marriner, Mike’s grandparents, invested in a 1939 dump truck with a 200-gallon tow-behind tar tank. Over the past 60-plus years, the company has paved roads and highways in virtually every town in the region and worked on hundreds of residential home sites and commercial developments, as well.
Mike describes how his grandparents’ young company utilized the materials and technology of the day. They used coal tar as a binder and, of course, manual labor which was in ample supply. In the beginning, Marriners’ ran a crew of two, spreading tar and rolling the surfaces of driveways and parking lots by hand. It was backbreaking work and time consuming – the first job the company took on in 1945 reportedly took a full month to complete. But that didn’t deter the Marriners. The couple had both worked at the Knox Woolen Mill in downtown Camden, and through hard work, they had owned and operated a filling station and garage in town. Now, they were ready to think bigger – and they saw a future in paving.
“At first, the business just did driveways and small parking lots, but we began to grow in the 50s,” said Mike sitting in the Marriners’ conference room on a recent winter afternoon. That changed as the technology changed and Marriners switched from the coal tar binder to a petroleum-based mix being touted by the Shell Oil Company in the 1950s.
“Shell came around and said we’ve got a product called asphalt and it works better,” said Mike. It certainly helped Marriners decide to make the switch when Shell gave his grandfather a free transport load of the “new” asphalt to try out.
The 1950s was a time of major growth for the company. Marriners built its first asphalt plant on Knowlton Street in Camden in the early 1950s. Mike describes the plant as a “Rube Goldberg-like contraption” that his grandfather and dad constructed from materials at hand. The plant produced 10 tons every 15 minutes, and allowed the company to start bidding on a broader range of projects, including tennis courts, paving for commercial projects and a growing number of local, state and municipal jobs as the region began to modernize its network of roads.
In 1958, Marriners grew again when the family purchased a 160-acre site on Jefferson Road in Washington, Maine. The company built a state-of-the-art asphalt plant at the site in the early 1960s that produced three-quarters of a ton per minute. The Washington site has also served as a gravel pit, and the company continues to sell materials from that location.
Five years later, Marriners more than tripled the size of its asphalt plant in Washington so that it could produce two-and-a-half tons per minute. That made the company one of the largest asphalt producers in the region, generating enough material to serve a 24-town area. In fact, in the mid-1970s, Marriners set a record for the amount of asphalt produced in a single day in Maine.
For more than six decades, the Marriners have presided over the business and helped it grow. Mike worked side by side with his grandfather Clyde and grandmother Arline (she kept the company’s books) until they both retired in 1972. Mike’s parents Gil and Arlene continued, running the company until they retired 12 years ago when the third generation officially took over. Mike, with his twin brother Jeff and sister Linda (they all joined the company in the late 60s) successfully worked together and operated the business until 2006. That’s when Jeff and Linda chose to pursue other interests, and Mike purchased the company.
To help in the transition, Mike asked his own wife and kids – Sheila, Sarah and Zach – to pitch in. Each of the Marriners currently working for the company brings a different talent to the business. Mike has an engineering degree from UMaine and serves as president. Sheila is a registered nurse and serves as the company’s safety and compliance officer. Sarah, Marriners’ vice president for finance, earned a degree in resource and business management from UMaine. She worked at the financial services company MBNA during her college years and at First National Bank of Damariscotta (now called The 1st) for a year before joining Marriners in 2005. Zach, Marriners’ vice president of sales, earned a degree in business information systems technology and also worked for MBNA in its IT department before joining Marriners.
For his part, Mike has tried to employ lessons he learned from his father when working with his own children. He remembers starting with the company and his father telling him that he had to fire an employee who damaged one of the company vehicles. He was scared, but he stepped up.
“I was this scrawny 19-year-old, and he was this big 30-year-old,” recalled Mike. Needless to say, the man did not take it well and stormed out threatening all kinds of retribution. “He came back three days later and shook my hand and said ‘You were right.’ Of course, he wanted his job back, too.”
Family stepping in and shouldering responsibility is the Marriner way, says Zach who first worked for the company as a teenager. And while it means long hours and hard work, it has its benefits including family time and a shared work ethic. “The family business doesn’t stop at 5. It’s constant all the time,” said Zach. “While it would be nice to take a day and go to the lake, the value of working with family is, that despite the ups and downs, you know if you work hard enough there’s a reward in it.”
Sarah agreed. “Not many young people can afford to stay in Maine,” she said. “The family business has opened doors that have allowed us to stay here, near our family.”
Like his dad, Mike has entrusted his own kids with major responsibilities in the business and includes them in all the major business decisions that are made. He also encourages them to be active in the community. Marriners is an MBTA member, and Mike and Sheila are regular supporters of the MBTA Infrastructure Golf Tournament. Mike was a founding board member of the Maine Asphalt Paving Association and the Maine Aggregate Association and remains active in those organizations. Closer to home, Mike, Sarah and his dad Gil are longtime Rotary members, and Marriners belongs to both regional chambers of commerce: the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce. Mike is particularly proud of helping to found the Mid-Coast Maine Soap Box Derby and was an officer of the organization for a decade. Mike, who earned the Eagle Scout rank when growing up, continues to support scouting by serving as district chairman for the Downeast District board.
With the 2010 paving season yet to begin, things are operating with a quiet hum at the firm’s Rockport offices. The winter season began with a healthy dose of snow and ice, so there has been a brisk business selling sand out of their Washington quarry. There’s also the annual round of maintenance to complete on the Washington asphalt plant and the company’s fleet of pavers, trucks and other equipment in preparation for the upcoming paving season.
Mike talks about the recession and the effect it has had on the local construction industry. A slower commercial and residential market and fewer state and local dollars have made the paving industry increasingly competitive, cutting profit margins to bare minimums over the past two years. The recession, too, has made competing contractors even hungrier.
“I’ve been through three of these [recessions], but I’ve never seen it like this before,” said Mike. He said the industry, too, is changing, as Maine, its municipalities and paving contractors learn how to cope with substantial price fluctuations for petroleum-based asphalt and make due with less. It hasn’t helped that material costs have skyrocketed.
“Back in 1972 when asphalt was $26 a ton, that was one thing. We’ve seen it go to almost $1,000 per ton two years ago, and that felt like the end of the world,” he said. “But it wasn’t.”
Mike is hopeful that Maine leaders will step up and again make transportation a priority in the state, as it was when his grandfather worked on his first road paving projects in the 1950s and 60s.
“Good infrastructure is key to the survival of business in Maine,” said Mike. “It used to be that transportation was a priority and got the funding, but now that’s been reversed. Transportation is the sliver, and we need to invest in infrastructure so our businesses and tax base can grow.”