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The Commons
Photo 1

David Shaw/The Commons

Entrepreneur John MacLeod with some of his creations.

Business

A conversation with John McLeod, owner, Vermont Bowl Company

The magic's in the wood — and in the magician who's seen it there for more than 50 years

This series of interviews is supplied to The Commons by the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation (brattleborodevelopment.com), the regional development corporation tasked with helping businesses start up in Windham County. These interviews are intended to explore the experience of starting a business in the Windham County region, looking at how individual business owners choose to be in southern Vermont, as well as their challenges, opportunities, lessons learned, and memorable celebrations.

The interviews are designed, in the words of the BDCC, “to inspire those sitting on the sidelines while reminding others they are not alone, that yes, you can open a successful business in Southern Vermont.”

Interviewer Jerry Goldberg, recently named executive director of the nonprofit In-Sight Photography Project in Brattleboro, worked as a communications executive for many years at CBS in both New York and Los Angeles. Later, in Brattleboro, he headed communications at World Learning and from 2005 to 2013 served as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

Originally published in The Commons issue #400 (Wednesday, March 22, 2017).



WILMINGTON—On the January Saturday morning of my interview with John McLeod, I was running late.

Having careened my way over the hills from Brattleboro, the 25-mph speed limit into and out of downtown Wilmington was as frustrating as ever, until that stretch of five or six buildings on the north side that signal the last of Wilmington for a while -- and the go-ahead for a heavier foot.

Truth be told, I’ve sped through the west end of that town dozens of times — who among us hasn’t? — when headed for one western adventure or another. For my spouse, Donald, and me, that’s usually meant Cooperstown, N.Y. for the Glimmerglass Opera. We’re not baseball people.

The attractive sign read “John McLeod Ltd. Fine Woodenware” and “Vermont Bowl Company.” Now that I’d slowed down to pay attention to it, I saw that the establishment was most attractive — and larger than I’d thought.

The welcoming platter of Walkers Shortbread and hot cider were just what the Scottish doctor ordered, as I hadn’t yet eaten. Still munching, I was shown into John McLeod’s office and greeted heartily by the man himself.

Before I knew it, I was enjoying the second of his enormous gifts: his charming, energetic, and devilishly broguish gab. He has a way with words.

The first? Well, his way with wood, of course.

I learned later that the Vermont Bowl Company employs a number of employees — translating to the equivalent of 15 full-timers — who work in the 5,000-square-foot retail store or on the floors of the 8,500-square-foot factory, where a minimum of 25,000 pieces are turned out annually.

All under the penetrating eye and guided by the sure hand of one of the most extraordinary craftsmen I’ve ever met.

Meet him now for yourself. (Sorry, you have to bring your own shortbread!)

* * *

Jerry Goldberg: How did John McLeod come to be sitting with me today? Take me on your journey. What port are we sailing from?

John McLeod: I was born in Aberdeen, tucked away in the northeast corner of Scotland. Back then, it was just Aberdeen — not too much of anything, really. Today, it’s the oil capital of Europe — hardly the hometown I left.

With the intention to follow into my family business — a firm of plumbing and electrical engineers — I left high school at 15 to serve an apprenticeship. Very early in the procedure, I found that I really loved what I was doing and became very successful — taking Scotland-wide bronze and silver medals as a distinguished student. I had everything going for me.

J.G.: Sounds like it. But I’m sensing that there was something else going on.

J.M.: There was and had been for some time. Over the years, my father had developed a problem with the drink which he’d become quite good at hiding.

Eventually, the truth became obvious. Such was the damage to the business that we had to liquidate. And suddenly, that which had previously seemed to be my future had become ... well, ephemeral.

So I joined the Royal Air Force and became a commissioned officer in Technical Training Command. Then, after two years, I came out of the RAF.

J.G.: To do...?

J.M.: I followed my technical education by going back to “working the tools,” as we Scots say, because that was a way that I was going to get a broader experience.

Oil heating was still very much a new item. Remember, this is some 60-plus years ago — an entirely different culture.

After a time, I became a manager of a company in Dundee, a sister city to Aberdeen. We had about 85 engineers scattered throughout Scotland who worked on over 600 houses a year. We also did all the work for one of the largest publishers in the U.K. and for schools and hospitals.

It was very broad ranging. Yet I began to recognize that there was a change occurring.

J.G.: What was that change?

J.M.: I saw the changes coming in what had been an almost familial setup between employers and employees and unions and things like this. I saw these changes to militant unionization as inevitable and destructive, never mind my opinion of them.

So with my wife of that time, I emigrated to Canada, arriving in Saint John, Nova Scotia in a 14-inch snowstorm.

J.G.: You’re not in Aberdeen anymore, John.

J.M.: Right! In short order, I was offered a job. When they were starting to sew up the deal, I said something I don’t think they’d ever heard from an applicant: “No, no, I don’t want to start next week. I’m going to see Florida.”

I drove down to Florida but then came back up. A family friend had a place in Halifax — Vermont, not Nova Scotia! — so we went there. He said, “Why don’t you stay here and take time to see what you’re doing? I need a heating system, and I need that half bath made into a full bath.”

That was the start of it, and then at the same time I said, “Wait a minute. Here’s my dream — and this is the place to make it happen.”

J.G.: Your dream?

J.M.: See, all the previous years of growing up I had been involved in wood turning. I had this secret dream of owning my own wood-turning business, and it started to dawn on me that I could do it here in Vermont. So with green card in hand, I embarked on my American life.

I went to a craft show up at Mount Snow, and I came out jibbering like a bloody monkey. I’d say, “I know what I’m going to do. This is it!” Then “Oh, no, no, no. You’ve got to get a job first.” Then “No, this is what you’re supposed to do — so do it!”

So, in the same way as I’d stopped smoking and drinking, I went cold turkey into business.

I started in a borrowed workshop using a borrowed piece of equipment. I then went through a succession of work spaces — including outdoors — finally coming down to where we are now. The rest is kind of history.

J.G.: From the way it’s turned out, I’d say!

J.M.: My first financing was a $200 loan from Vermont National Bank in Wilmington.

J.G.: Wow! They took a chance on you, didn’t they?

J.M.: Well, they didn’t actually because they discounted the note, and I got only $194.

I went down to a company in White Plains, N.Y. and selected lumber, and when it was all added up it came to something like $204. I said to the lady who was the accountant, “Can you hold that until I scrape up enough money to put into that account in order to cover the check?"

I must have had something about me, because she said yes and we drove home with all the lumber I’d selected. I was on my way.

This was mid-1967. I’d arrived in the United States essentially in end of March, beginning of April 1967. By December, I had a display of my work in the window of Georg Jensen on Fifth Avenue in New York City!

J.G.: I was at House Beautiful magazine in 1967, and we often featured pieces from there. Showing in Jensen was like playing the Palace!

J.M.: I wasn’t exactly a beginner as far as my craft was concerned but — please take this in the right way — I wasn’t nearly as good as I subsequently became. Georg Jensen set the standard.

Sometime around then, someone told me about Altman’s [a major middle-to-high end department store that was a longtime fixture in New York City.] I phoned up this gentleman in order to get an appointment to show my pieces. He said, “Oh, like maple and pine. Hmmm, let’s see....” I saw where he was going and reeled off a number of the exotic woods I was using.

He said, “Who else do you sell to?” And I said, “Well, Georg Jensen.” He said, “Why aren’t you selling to us?"

You know, being an immigrant you can get away with a lot. When he said, “Why aren’t you selling to us?” I said, “I’d never heard of you.” He said, “I’ll see you at one o’clock!”

J.G.: Pretty audacious, sir. A cool move.

J.M.: Yes! That was the start. I did supply Williams Sonoma. I did supply Crate and Barrel. And I did supply Georg Jensen.

J.G.: It’s not easy for me to be speechless, but I am!

J.M.: My rigamarole of accounts is good — and it’s more than retail shops. Holland America commissioned 80 bowls for their cruise liners. The Professional Golfers Association ordered 12 signature bowls for their new headquarters in Florida.

For three different years, we supplied bowls to one of the largest wine producers in the United States. They were used as end-of-year gifts to their distributors all over the world — Japan, Germany, Argentina. We ship them out of little Wilmington all over the country and the world.

When you start a business, you have to indulge in wholesaling in order to get your business up.

I have been competing against imports for the last 50 years, but now I’m competing against a buyer at the store level and a consumer trained by that buyer to only buy this at X number of dollars. The fact that it has a much greater value — but is not made in America and is constructed under very, very limited facilities — is irrelevant.

I would add something here. You may not realize it, but America today has become probably the greatest colonial power in history.

J.G.: I didn’t see that one coming. Please explain.

J.M.: In the Victorian days in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, we went out and told these people in Borneo, South Africa, the Belgian Congo — wherever — “We’re here, and we’re going to rule you. You’re going to be much better off, but we’re going to take your raw materials back to the motherland and make our products there.” Right?

America is smart. We don’t get involved in the administration of the country. We don’t involve ourselves with taking the materials and shipping it home and then having factories and pollution in our country. We do it all over there — cheap materials and cheap labor.

Then someone orders up what he wants. He has it made over there. It comes back in, and we as Americans buy something which has a much greater value than the cost being applied.

If that’s not the cleverest form of colonialism that I know of, then any economics professor at Yale is welcome to challenge it.

So, yes, we are the greatest colonial power in history.

J.G.: You’ve framed a provocative thesis. Where do we — where do you — go from here?

J.M.: The only way that I, as an American manufacturer, can defeat that is if I believe that there is a demographic of American consumer who enjoys buying products made in America. But that product has to be the best!

Don’t prostitute your quality in order to try to meet the price from the overseas market. You have got to be absolutely top quality. And you have got to have integrity in your product.

J.G.: Let’s back up here. You started out in Scotland in a family that had a business that had nothing to do with your art. Your technical education didn’t support you to become a brilliant craftsman.

How did you find that you had this gift? Where did that come from?

J.M.: “Where was it stifled?” is a better way to phrase that.

J.G.: Go on, please.

J.M.: It was stifled in a very fine educational system which denied the development of innate expertise [to people] with talent that maybe wasn’t so obvious. My memory of art class is that it was so pedantic it was incredible!

Here’s what I mean: I have enough experience and knowledge of a particular breed of dog — Labradors. I only need to glance at a Labrador to tell me, in a scale of one to ten, where it is. But ask me to draw one, and I can’t.

When you draw a Labrador with pencil on paper, you can rub out the bad bits. But with turning wood once you’ve done it, that’s it. You don’t have the excuse — the luxury — of the potter, who can shove another bit of clay on.

I found that I had this odd ability to draw in my head. Somewhere the little gray cells managed to handle that, so that I was doing complicated Jacobean turnings and making table lamps and wholesaling them when I was 17.

J.G.: See, unlike you, at 17 I could draw anything on a piece of paper. But take it to a third dimension? No way.

J.M.: If you want to see somebody fail at making woodware, show me somebody who’s designed it on a drawing board. Because it doesn’t have the feel, the balance, the heft. It doesn’t have any of those things that give it that... that je ne sais quoi.

J.G.: OK, you came to Wilmington and built a business. How has the choice to come to and stay in Vermont been a good one? Has there ever been a moment where you thought, “Gee, what if...?”

J.M.: No. Not really. There are two reasons I say that.

I came here an immigrant. There weren’t too many around who talked like me. Oh, I was a bit of a wild man in my own way, but I was accepted because I was seen to work hard.

And all through my time here, my word has been my bond. That principle served me well during my years on the Planning Commission and on a further 10 years on the Zoning Board.

J.G.: I interviewed the owners of the Cooperman Company, who make drums and fifes up in North Westminster [“A conversation with Patrick Cooperman and Patsy Cooperman Ellis,” Business, July 6, 2016]. They source their lumber almost exclusively locally. Where do you source your wood? Is Vermont important to you for that?

J.M.: Better still than just Vermont, I’ll say New England, with Vermont right up there. We use mainly native lumbers like cherry, yellow birch, ash, and some butternut. We also use walnut, but most of that’s coming out of the Midwest.

J.G.: Wait. You left off the one I’d have thought would be first.

J.M.: You mean maple. That table I showed you earlier is maple. Ambrosia Maple is actually a Vermont exotic. Its grain is caused by a beetle going into the wood, and I presume its track creates those furry-looking patterns.

J.G.: John, somebody comes into the store and engages you in conversation. They’re thinking, “Gee, this guy came here, obviously from across the pond. He’s been here for years and has built this great business. I’m kind of at the point in life where I want a change. I’ve made my mark. But I’m ready for something else and Vermont seems the place to do it.”

J.M.: Here’s your headline: “Catch a bus!” Catch a bus and come here! Don’t tell me about it. Just do it. Take your dream and make it real. But do some homework, too, so you’re smart about it.

You asked me why I stay in Wilmington — why I do it?

I had every business opportunity to move out. I had a number of conversations.

One gentleman from the Philippines stands out in particular. He said, “John, we can make this for you. You tell me the quality you want, and I’ll tell you how much it will cost. It will cost you less than you making it. You give me a price, and I will make that to that quality. You tell me the quality you want and I will make it to that quality.”

See, I could have moved this whole affair away, made a packet on distributing all over the place, and have become the major manufacturer, ex-United States. You won’t want to print what I told him.

There’s a certain allegiance came into my thinking, that I had got a start here. I had been able to take my dream in Wilmington, in Vermont.

J.G.: In Vermont.

J.M.: My dream was here, and I reckoned that I could have enough success to finance what I wanted to do with my life.

The man who owned the heating and engineering company which I ran for seven years in Scotland had one goal in life: security. Taking that as my watch word, can I create a business here which will give me security? Yes.

Now, can I create a business which will not only provide me security in the future but with an ability to have a lifestyle which is to my liking?

Over the years I’ve made myself available to my other side — the fun-loving side — and so as to enjoy that I hike and ski in the winter and spend most of the summer at sea on my boat.

J.G.: Where do you sail?

J.M.: All over the Eastern Coast, up to Maine, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland....

J.G.: You mentioned serving on the Wilmington Zoning Board. How else as a business owner do you express community support?

For instance, I spoke to Frank Wadelton, a master welder up in Bellows Falls for one of these articles [“A conversation with Frank Wadelton, owner/director, Frank the Welder,” Business, Sept. 14, 2016]. I asked him this same question. He told me he has high school kids come to the factory, taking them on as interns, to help sweep up the plant and help out however they can. But while they’re doing that, they’re watching what he does.

Do you ever get involved in that way, with young people in the community?

J.M.: No, no. In fact, I would quite gladly face the criticism of not participating in things.

My job in this town is a very simple one — to provide employment. And also, a financial remuneration from that employment. Anybody who answers this question had better preface their remarks with a self-serving caveat. But if I could create a business which is visually and product-wise, a credit to the town, that’s another contribution.

J.G.: What about bringing in interns?

J.M.: Our difficulty is attracting people who are not ashamed to be working with their hands who are prepared to put in the equivalency of, say, a three- to five-year apprenticeship and stay with the company if it is going to provide that opportunity.

Now my partner, Tommy, will have been with me now for 32 years. He came as an 18-year-old, and he stood the test of learning under me. He stuck with it. Peter’s another one who has been here 30 years.

I have no kids, but in fact I’m very fortunate, because Tommy is probably better as a son to me than any blood relative would be. He’s a great guy. When I leave, he falls heir to the business.

I’ve set it up so the business has the right to continue in these properties for however long. My wife Mary Ann will have been holding these properties and getting rent from Tommy. When her time comes, he will then own the lot.

[McLeod stops and looks off into the distance.]

J.G.: You seem pensive. What are you thinking about?

J.M.: Going back to what is it that keeps me here? I feel we would love to have a young person come in who would be prepared to spend the time. Now if they didn’t like us at the end of the time — five, 10, 20 years — it doesn’t matter. The experience and knowledge that they get is not wasted.

J.G.: When you get up in the morning and you think about your day, what do you look forward to most?

J.M.: I don’t have any choices, because as soon as I wake up my coffee arrives by my coffee bearer, who is also known as my wife. She’s accompanied by a large black Labrador and a large cat, both of which land on top of me, looking for morning treats.

Now, on my wall there is a beautiful watercolor of a weasel or a stoat or something like that, looking out of its hole and saying, “OK. What’s up for today?” That’s what I want to feel like.

J.G.: The adventure.

J.M.: That’s it! Every day is an adventure. Sometimes it’s an adventure on the stock market. Sometimes it’s an adventure sailing on my boat.

There’s a lovely little cumulus cloud with a message on the bottom that says you’re flipping lucky to be able to do what you do at your age.

J.G.: John, you’ve created something I think beautiful about your life without putting pencil to paper. It came out of who you are. That’s why I didn’t ask you too many questions. It would have been a shame to interrupt your creative process.

J.M.: Oh, I’m sorry for what must be a mess of disorganization — and I’ll say, “Oh, s——, I didn’t tell him that, did I?"

J.G.: Ah, but you did!

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