In it for the long haul. Harold Bouchard and the trucking company he founded.
By Doug Rooks
Harold Bouchard grew up as part of a farming family in Wallagrass Plantation, but from his earliest years he knew he was bound for another line of work. “I always had a desire for wheels,” he said in a recent interview at the company’s headquarters in Hampden. ”I used to look out the window of my grade school classroom at all the trucks going by, and it excited me.”
After two-and-a-half years in high school, he was ready for a job and lined up a snowplowing contract for that winter, back in 1956. “It didn’t snow much that winter,” Bouchard said, but he was undeterred. Soon, with some family help with his first truck, he was doing construction hauling at Loring Air Force Base. By 1958, he was ready to leave the farm and went to Bangor to work for two weeks for J. R. Cianchette. From there, he never looked back. Fifty years later H. O. Bouchard, Inc. remains in the Bangor region and has been based in Hampden for 41 years.
A half-century in trucking is quite an achievement, particularly in a business that has seen more than its share of challenges and upheavals over that period.
H. O. Bouchard is one of the most successful haulers in Maine, with a third generation of the family coming along to provide management and continuity. In the interview that included his son, Brian – now company president – Harold reminisced about the last five decades, and how he survived oil price shocks, deregulation and the rise and fall of numerous Maine industries to build a stable and diversified company.
It wasn’t always easy. In 1972, the Golden Road opened to supply enormous quantities of pulpwood to the Great Northern mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, then at the height of their production. Harold still has a painting of one of the monster rigs used on the private road, capable of hauling 500,000 pounds of wood stacked more than 16 feet high.
H. O. Bouchard got one of the hauling contracts, but there were problems. “It took time to learn how to drive those trucks,” recalled Brian Bouchard.
The following year was when the first and most severe oil price shock occurred after the OPEC boycott, with enormous impacts on the trucking business. By 1974, H. O. Bouchard was struggling and when Harold went to the bank, he found there was no more credit.
Fortunately, bankers at Merrill Trust took a different view, extended a loan, and the financial crisis passed with the help of some close friends. But Harold took away two lessons that he has applied ever since: Diversify as much as possible, and don’t jump at the first thing that comes along.
Reflecting on the tumultuous 1970s, which almost bankrupted his company but then saw it become established for good, Harold said, “Those were beautiful years. They were tough, but beautiful. There was a new story all the time.”
H. O. Bouchard is still the name of the company’s trucking operations; wood hauling on and off-road is handled by Comstock Woodlands, a logging and road building company that operates off the Golden Road, some 70 miles from Millinocket in the deep north woods of Maine. In all, the company has 150 employees, with 115 in H. O. Bouchard and 35 in Comstock Woodlands Corp.
Harold says he’s never had an outside salesman and has never needed one. When an opportunity came along he liked, he took it.
The company’s reputation for reliability was so impeccable that other business owners trusted him implicitly.
When Irving Oil decided to stop using company drivers to haul heavy fuel oil – “black oil” – to the Woodland mill, the company president visited Harold’s office and told him what he had in mind.
“He threw the keys on the desk, and said we should start Monday,” Harold said. They did.
Brian notes that transporting hazardous materials has become a highly regulated business, and keeping up with the need for trained drivers and certificates in both the United States and Canada has provided numerous new opportunities.
H. O. Bouchard, for instance, is now the primary hauler of liquid asphalt in Maine, a vital ingredient in all highway paving and reconstruction jobs around the state. Prices have more than doubled during the current construction season, from $307 to $765 a ton, though, and Maine DOT announced the end of its annual program months early.
“It looks like we’ll be seeing December [the usual seasonal end] by September or October this year,” Brian said.
H. O. Bouchard doesn’t usually take new products all at once. With liquid asphalt, “we tried it with one truck,” said Brian, back in 1992. “We wanted to make sure it would work the way we thought it would.”
The emphasis on diversification paid dividends early on. When hauling in the Great Northern woods shut down in each year, H. O. Bouchard could move its crews over to flatbed hauling to keep them busy during mud season.
Another major contract, also taken up just because they were asked, is hauling for Dragon Cement in Thomaston. That piece of business now involves more than 25 trucks.
On the wall of Harold’s office is a sign reading, “It Can Be Done.” It’s a saying he never seems to doubt.
The truck fleet now numbers 100, including 20 subcontractors. About 50 trucks are based in Hampden, with most of the rest elsewhere in Maine. Once the company started growing, it expanded rapidly.
“You bought five trucks in the first 10 years,” Brian comments to his father. “Now we buy 15 almost every year.”
The second generation to join the business, Brian Bouchard worked his way up in the company step by step, beginning at age 13, “when I was sweeping the floor.” Work in the parts department and as a mechanic’s assistant was next. He’s done his share of driving, and still has a Commercial Driver’s License, but he also had worked in all aspects of the company, including traffic manager for the dispatch department.
In 2000, with Harold in ill health, Brian took over as president, and he runs the company in a similar manner, if with a slightly more understated style.
Brian’s son Jeffrey, who’s now earning his MBA at Quinnipiac University and intends to return to the company, represents the third generation. He operated an excavator for Comstock the past three summers. “He has this thing for excavators,” said Harold. His grandson is a talented golfer, but “his clubs are in the closet. He’s put it aside” to spend more time with heavy machinery.
Brian’s other son, Jason now works for Hughes Brothers construction. He has a passion for trucks like his grandfather. Jason is gaining valuable experience away from the family business with the hopes to return to H. O. Bouchard some day.
Like Brian, both sons have started at a very young age and have learned lessons along the way. Jason has two sons, Christopher and Jonathan that could represent the fourth generation at H. O. Bouchard. This makes “H. O.” a great grandfather, and he smiles every time he talks of his great grandsons.
Throughout the years, the Bouchards have been generous with their time and support for good causes. Hampden Town Manager Susan Lessard said that Harold has been a leader in the town for years, giving generously of time, resources and funding for community causes – particularly for causes that benefit children.
“Harold is very respected here, and H. O. Bouchard is known as a good employer and a good citizen,” said Lessard. She said that every year, the company provides drivers and trucks for the Hampden’s Children’s Day parade; the company also has donated use of the sports fields on its land on Coldbrook Road for years. Lessard said that Brian Bouchard has continued that tradition of support, and last year, the firm helped complete the holiday lights fundraising, so holiday decorations could reach all the way out Route 9 to the town offices.
Even more important to the town is the fact that H. O. Bouchard chooses to keep its company headquarters in the town. “They are a big company and they could choose to be anywhere,” said Lessard. That commitment to making Hampden home and being a good employer, she said, is the “underpinning of the community” and helps keep Hampden healthy.
Like most successful companies, H. O. Bouchard has invested heavily in new technology. GPS systems track the fleet through the Northeast and Canada, and the company has governed the trucks to ensure that drivers don’t exceed 65 mph.
“It’s saved us a quarter mile per gallon,” Brian said. “That may not sound like much, but at today’s prices that’s $285,000” a year in savings.
Despite their willingness to accept new opportunities, the Bouchards aren’t willing to jump in just because other firms are. Harold recalls the experience of the biomass boilers of the 1980s, and their abrupt shutdown when oil prices plunged after their highs in the 1970s. “We had to invest $600,000 for each chipping machine,” he said. It’s not the kind of decision he makes lightly.
So while wood pellets may be a significant trucking opportunity in the near future, H. O. Bouchard is taking a wait-and-see approach at the moment. “It all depends on the price of oil,” Harold said. “It could stay this high, or it could go down to $70 or $80” a barrel.
Over time, Brian said, the company’s biggest challenge is “not to lose focus on what’s made us what we are today.” Trucking companies that are too specialized run the risk of following a particular industry into oblivion. Yet making sure new opportunities are solid ones is another test that has to be faced almost every year.
H. O. Bouchard also benefits, Brian said, from having a particularly dedicated group of employees and dedicated managers. All the department heads have been with the company for at least 15 years, with some having as much as 35 years of experience.
Outside the modest administrative office at the Hampden headquarters – a 500-acre parcel located just off I-95 – the restored B-Model Mack, Truck No. 2 greets visitors. “Yes, that was his second truck,” said Brian about his father. “We want to be able to share this truck with all that visit our facility.”
As the big rigs move in and out of the yard, drivers will thus get a daily reminder of just what H. O. Bouchard was all about in the early years.
H. O. Bouchard, Inc. prides itself on the dedicated professionals that come to work there each and every day along with loyal customers that respect what the company represents. “We want to be the best and safest at what we do, and we work hard at it,” said Brian.