Maine Trails, August - September '13
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Transformers
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Transformers

For more than a century, Messer Truck Equipment has transformed ordinary trucks into hard working tools for the construction industry and other trades

On a warm late summer day, the bays at Messer Truck Equipment are full of works in progress. A municipal truck is being refurbished in advance of the snowplowing season. A brand new commercial van is being outfitted as a travelling workshop for an electrician. And a truck chassis is being fitted with a dump body and hydraulic lift system. Out back, new and used snowplows are lined up, ready to be installed and/or refurbished in anticipation of winter and snow. And on the showroom floor of Messer’s parts department, a shiny new stainless steel Fisher XV2 plow is on display.
 
This is, according to company President Jeffrey Messer, the launch of the company’s busy season, as municipal road crews and private contractors begin preparations for winter. While he won’t say exactly how many blades Messer technicians typically install every year, he hints that hundreds of blades will be driven out of Messer’s Westbrook shop by the time the snow flies. Messer is one of the largest dealers of Fisher snowplows in the country and the largest in the northern New England region.
 
“Snowplows are our niche,” said Messer with pride in his voice. “This is Maine and we know that, in the end, a lot of people are going to need a plow.” 
 
Filling niches
 
The company has solid beginnings, founded in 1899 in Portland by Messer’s great-grandfather Walter A. Messer. Walter was a blacksmith who came to Maine from New Brunswick, Canada, originally to work with his brother-in-law. He opened his own one-man smithy on Union Street in Portland to serve the bustling port city’s need for wagon wheels, sleighs and ironwork for ships. As more businesses began to move from horse-drawn wagons to motorized vehicles, Messer carved out a business building open-sided delivery truck bodies and delivery vans.
 
Walter’s son, John F. “Jack” Messer, joined the company in 1945 after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II and studying accounting at Bentley College in Boston. Jack had worked as an itinerant accountant and auditor for an insurance company. His business expertise proved invaluable for a company poised for growth during the post-war boom years. Together, Walter and Jack expanded the business building truck bodies, and in the late 1940s, the company moved from Union Street to a custom-built facility in Portland’s Bayside area. The added space enabled Messer to expand its services. In addition to building custom truck bodies, the company began maintaining and servicing trailers.
 
It was this ability to identify emerging markets and develop services specific to those markets that has been a hallmark of the company’s growth over the years. As Jack described it in a 1984 trade journal: “The success of our company can probably be attributed in part to the fact that we have always been progressive enough to diversify services and product lines at the right time. Of course, a successful business is also the result of a lot of long hours and hard work.”
 
The next generation
 
At Walter’s retirement in 1957, Jack became president of W.A. Messer and the company entered another era of growth, moving to a five-acre site on Warren Avenue in Westbrook that today houses a 20-bay garage, a retail parts store and company offices.
 
By the time Jack’s son, John P. Messer, joined the company in 1971, Jack had a staff of 12 and was transitioning from a builder of custom truck bodies and vans to a dealer and service center for high quality, specialized truck equipment. Like his father before him, John served his country as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves. He earned a college degree, graduating with a dual major in engineering and business from Clarkson University in 1969. He also worked outside the family business for General Electric, participating in the company’s manufacturing management training program and working at G.E.’s facilities in Lynn and Everett, Massachusetts.
 
John learned the family business from the ground up, working as a mechanic for three years, and after in various departments including parts and inside sales. He eventually moved into management and in 1982, he was named president of W.A. Messer. When his father Jack retired in 1987, John purchased the business.
 
Under John’s guidance, the company continued to grow. He bolstered Messer’s sales force and the company expanded its reach throughout Maine and New Hampshire. John was active professionally with the Maine Better Transportation Association and served as president of the National Truck Equipment Association from 1992-1993.
 
The company celebrated its centennial in 1999 and was featured in a special tribute in the Bangor Daily News. John Messer showed he was a visionary and was an early adopter of technology. He oversaw the launch of the company’s first web site and outfitted his sales staff with laptop computers, so they could put together instant bids for customers while out on the road.
 
That newspaper tribute features several long-time employees who are still with the company today, including Tom Shaw, a familiar face to many MBTA members and head of the company’s sales force. Tom is a firm believer in developing personal relationships with Messer’s customers and making sure customers are able to get the truck they need exactly the way they need it. “Our customers are the type of people who work from dawn until dusk,” Shaw told the Bangor Daily News at the company’s 100-year anniversary in 1999. “In sales you do what you’ve got to do to serve the customer.”
 
Challenging times
 
Jeff Messer, John’s son, became the fourth generation to work in the family business when he joined the business in 2003, four years after the company celebrated its centennial. Like his father before him, joining the family business wasn’t an automatic decision for him. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in ocean engineering, he served in the U.S. Navy for five years as a surface warfare officer caring for planes on an aircraft carrier and serving as an ocean engineer, operating an onboard nuclear power plant before coming back to Maine.
 
Jeff said it was a tradition in the family to encourage the next generation to work outside the business and experience the world. Then, if they wanted, there was a place in the family business waiting for them.
 
“I had been on active duty for five years and was wondering what I was going to do, and my dad said, ‘Why don’t you come back and work for me?’” remembered Messer. Like his father, Jeff set about to learn the entire business, working as a mechanic, in the parts department and in purchasing and sales. Talking about the decision to return to Maine and learn the business from his father brings back bittersweet memories.
 
Just a few years later in 2008, his father died unexpectedly, and Jeff confesses that he did not feel entirely prepared to take the reins.
 
“My dad had been thinking about an exit strategy, and we had just entered into an 18-month purchase-and-sale agreement. All of those plans got accelerated when he died,” remembered Jeff.
 
He said that five years later, he is beginning to feel as if he is “leaving a footprint” on the business.
 
Jeff credits the strength of the family and the hard work and dedication of Messer’s long-time employees for helping the company through that difficult time.
 
The company made it through that challencing era. Today, Messer Truck Equipment still operates from its Warren Avenue location, though the original 10,000-square-foot facility has grown to 35,000, and the staff now numbers 20. Jeff is currently looking to add two or three more positions on the manufacturing side of the business.
 
Messer said it is too early yet to tell if the business will be passed down to a fifth generation, but he has noticed that his two young daughters enjoy coming to work with their dad and especially enjoy climbing in the trucks.
 
As for his own family ties, Jeff has followed in his fathers’ footsteps and become active in the professional community, serving on the board of the National Truck Equipment Association since 2010 and becoming a vice president of the organization this year. He calls on advice his dad gave him when they were working side-by-side. “He said that ‘It always comes down to the customer: Treat them the way you like to be treated,’” recalled Jeff.
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