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Vermont Precision Tools: Medical Bits


Published February 16, 2011 at 12:44 p.m.
Updated June 6, 2017 at 6:43 p.m.

Vermont Precision Tools | Est. 1968 | Swanton | 140 employees in Vermont, 103 employees in Kentucky

Vermont Precision Tools owes a good chunk of its business to a chance encounter two decades ago at a trade show in Texas — and the company’s willingness to try a new idea.

“A doctor came along and saw that we happened to have a long, straight rod of steel that was on display at the show,” recalls Richard Paquette, VPT’s vice president of manufacturing. The physician asked if it could be fashioned into a drill bit capable of being used in spinal, back and heart surgeries. Paquette told the doctor he’d give it a try.

The experiment worked, and today medical drill bits constitute a significant portion of VPT’s business, supplying medical industry giants like Stryker and Medtronix. It’s one reason the company posted a record $23 million in sales last year.

Since its founding in 1968, VPT has always bent over backward to accommodate its customers, says technical resource director Michael Oddy. The company grinds 6- or 12-foot steel rods into specialty gauges (small metal cylinders used to measure the size of holes punched out in metal) and pins used in manufacturing everything from automobile shocks to fighter-plane wings. Lots of orders are for custom pins and gauges that require some creativity to engineer.

“We don’t say no a lot,” says Oddy. “If we need material, we all go out and find it. If it’s equipment that’s the issue, we’ll figure out how to make it work.”

That same can-do attitude carries over into VPT’s hiring practices. Most VPT employees started as unskilled laborers who were trained from scratch. Oddy himself was working at a convenience store after high school when he came to VPT and “begged and pleaded for a job.” The company trained him to be an engineer, even teaching him the trigonometry and calculus he needed to do the job.

“I was given an opportunity, and here I am today,” Oddy says.

Located just off I-89 in Swanton, Vermont Precision Tools occupies a sprawling warehouse where 140 employees work around the clock grinding steel into specialized shapes and processing orders that sell to U.S. government contractors, private manufacturers, and customers in Israel, Russia and China.

The company runs a second facility in Franklin, Ky., that primarily makes gauges. The Bluegrass State was attractive for its population of skilled laborers, Oddy says, many of who came from shuttered midwestern factories. Business at the Kentucky plant is booming — it’s grown 30 percent annually over the past four years — and 103 workers are employed there.

“Without a doubt” Kentucky is more business friendly than Vermont, says Paquette, a part owner in the company. “Our most recent building there — we designed it, built it and occupied it before we even got through the permitting process for a building in Vermont.”

So, what keeps him from moving the whole business down South?

“We’re native Vermonters,” Paquette says. “We’re not going to give up on Vermont. We respect the fact that there are 140 families relying on us for their living. So, we’re not going to be a Fortune 500 company that pulls the plug on this thing because we can go make two cents more per share for our investors somewhere else.”