Burns’ Fencing shows how good fences – and guardrail – make good neighbors, good friends and good business
by Kathryn Buxton
The story of Burns’ Fencing is, in many ways, the universal story of entrepreneurship. It’s also a story of friendship, family and hard work.
The company was founded in 1957 by Ed Burns who was no newcomer to the fencing business. Burns had learned the business working many years for Maine Line Fence Co., and in 1957, he saw an opportunity.
Just one year before, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, and Ed Burns saw the writing on the wall. There was going to be a lot of highway construction going on, and he wanted to be a part of it.
The company was a big part of the push to create the Maine links in the national interstate system. Over the next five decades the firm installed guardrail and fencing on highway projects throughout the state. While it was helping build Maine’s transportation network, Burns’ also was building a reputation as a top-quality fencing contractor. While the firm always did some residential and commercial fencing installations, during the early years guardrail was the big growth sector of the business.
“In those days, about 70 percent of the work was guardrail and 30 percent was fencing,” said Burns Fencing President Peter Levecque. He and his son (Burns’ vice president) Jason Levecque recently sat down to talk about the business in the boardroom of the firm’s Westbrook headquarters. The walls around them, covered in historic photos of the company’s crews in action, tell of the company’s past. A large screen video screen at one end of the room displays digital images of the company’s most recent projects.
Peter Levecque joined Burns’ Fencing in 1987, shortly after his father Aime Levecque bought the business from his longtime friend Ed Burns. Peter tells the story of how Ed and Aime first met during the 1950s. Aime Levecque was selling cars, and Ed Burns was buying one. Peter recites the story that has since become a part of the company lore. “Ed said, ‘I’ll buy the car from you if you come work for me.’” Aime came to work briefly for Maine Line, and while both men eventually moved on to other ventures, they remained friends.
Burns, said Peter, built a solid business that flourished for three decades during the glory days of roadbuilding in Maine. But by the mid-1980s, when Aime Levecque took the company’s reins, the business of fencing was changing.
“Burns’ had a great name and reputation, but the company needed a facelift,” said Peter, who has been with the company 22 years. He took over from his father as head of the firm in 1996.
During the Levecque years, the company has changed and expanded its product lines significantly. In the old days, there had been only a handful of major players in the fencing and guardrail business. Burns’ crews did a lot of traveling back then.
“We used to have crews all over the state, but that has changed,” said Peter, who added that more firms entering the industry during the past 20 years have made the business more competitive, and like so many aspects of the transportation industry, it has only grown more competitive during the recent recession. That means that bids are often won or lost on a difference of a few dollars.
“We used to all be so busy, but now everyone’s had to tighten their belts,” he said.
As the geographic area served by the company became more focused, Aime Levecque and his son responded by carving out new niches in the fencing industry. Residential and commercial work now account for approximately 60 percent of Burns’ business. The firm has established a specialty installing ornamental fencing, electric gates and access control systems – and that piece of the business has grown considerably during the past few years. The company has installed fencing on a number of high profile projects throughout the region: at Lowe’s, Walmart and Home depot stores and many new school sites, as well as the new ornamental fencing and electric gates at the entrance to Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth.
Guardrail continues to hold strong at 40 percent. Much of their guardrail work now centers on MaineDOT, Maine Turnpike and municipal roadwork sites in southern Maine, working with contractors such as White Brothers, R.J. Grondin & Sons, Shaw Brothers Construction and Dearborn Brothers Construction. Burns’ work can be seen on highways throughout southern and central Maine, including on the three-lane section of Maine Turnpike (they were part of two turnpike widening contracts).
The majority of the rail Burns’ installs is of the galvanized steel w-beam variety for roads and highways. (The most frequent change in that part of the business has been in safety improvements to the end treatments.) The company has been installing more pressure treated wood guardrail on commercial sites in recent years. That is, said Levecque, a choice more often than not made for aesthetic reasons.
Guardrail and fencing has a longer season than many aspects of the transportation industry. Work begins in April, weather permitting and continues all the way to December.
“Our goal is to keep crews on the job through Christmas,” said Jason Levecque, the third generation of Levecques to work in the business.
Still, like others in the transportation and construction industries, Burns’ has felt the effects of recent increases in the material costs. Peter Levecque talked about the dramatic price fluctuations for the steel w-beams, posts and end treatments needed for guardrail construction. He said that, while prices held steady this past year, they are expected to go up again as the economy recovers. Burns’ has stockpiled materials for the contracts it is committed to for the coming year.
“We have to try and protect ourselves from that volatility,” said Levecque.
The recession, felt keenly throughout the construction industry, has been evidenced at Burns’. Some parts of the business have slowed. Still, the company has a backlog of guardrail work that will keep their crews busy into next year – work that the company bid this year and will be completed in the coming construction season.
One of the biggest changes during the past 20 years is at the site of the company’s headquarters. Once confined to a small building and lot near the city center of Westbrook, Levecque and his father over the years purchased adjoining parcels of land and expanded. They bought the old Cumberland Mills train station – where Levecque’s grandfather first arrived when he moved to Maine from Canada.
The Levecques have expanded the Burns’ Fencing operation on the site to include a welding shop, a wood shop, a maintenance garage, a warehouse (housed in part of the old station) and a new headquarters building constructed in 2007, right about the time the company celebrated its 50th anniversary. Everything in the yard, from the carefully parked fleet of trucks to the stacks of galvanized steel guardrail stored on the site, is neat as a pin. Even though the rails that once ran through the site have been salvaged and replaced by turf and asphalt, visitors can still trace the course of the old rail lines in a diagonal pattern across the site.
Burns’ Fencing’s motto is “Good fences make good neighbors,” and Peter Levecque has always been one to practice what he preaches. The company frequently helps out the local community. They have sponsored sports teams and often donate their services when a worthy organization needs help with a fence. Peter Levecque has been active with the MBTA, as well. He has served on the MBTA board and was part of the committee that reviewed the organization’s dues schedule several years ago.
While the company has added new products and technology, Burns’ remains committed to quality work and proudly stands by every job they complete. The visitor gets the feeling that this constancy makes the company a good place to work and engenders a special sense of loyalty and dedication not only among its customers, but its employees. Why else could Burns’ proudly boast having a year round staff with more than 150 years of experience?
In several cases, Burns’ employees grew up in the business. Levecque’s son Jason joined the company in 2001 after graduating from the University of Southern Maine business school and is now company vice president. Wayne Price – who oversees one of Burns’ guardrail crews – followed his father into the business 33 years ago. (His father Leonard, was Ed Burns’ very first employee and for a time was a 25-percent-owner of the firm). Wayne’s brother Bob retired from the firm recently after 35 years at Burns’. And Jeremy Price, Wayne’s son, now works in the business, too.
“The Price family has been a big part of this business,” said Peter.
In other cases, Burns’ has attracted talented individuals who have been able to grow alongside the business, including Deborah White (23 years), Burns’ longtime office manager; Fred Boullie, guardrail crew member (20 years); estimator Michael O’Brien (18 years), who is also the go-to guy for electric gates and access control; and installation supervisor Jon McCrillis (16 years).
Working side-by-side, first with his father and now with his son, Peter said “is one of the greatest joys I have had in my 23 years. Not a lot of people get the chance to do that.” He talks about his father with great admiration. “My father was a great salesman and the things he taught me, I am able to pass down to my son,” said Peter.
All in all, the Levecques count themselves lucky to have an excellent workforce, good relationships with the region’s leading contractors, a solid reputation and a healthy backlog of work waiting to get underway next year.
“We are very fortunate,” said Peter Levecque.