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Danforth seeks more space, newer technology

DANFORTH PEWTER HAS applied for a $425,000 grant that would allow the company to add services and employees at its Middlebury headquarters off Seymour Street. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — Danforth Pewter is seeking a $425,000 grant through the Vermont Capital Investment Program (CIP) that would allow it to grow its Seymour Street campus and acquire a laser engraver — two upgrades that would put the company on course to add around 20 jobs over the next several years.

And Danforth’s growth would also benefit other area manufacturing enterprises, according to its CIP application. Danforth’s plans call for a much larger fulfillment center — a warehouse from which it can ship orders — with enough excess capacity to support smaller Addison County businesses that don’t have their own spaces to process their online orders.

“We’re a bit constrained right now by our current physical plant, in terms of how much more we can actually produce and ship,” Danforth CEO Bram Kleppner told the Independent.  “If we’re able to do this project, it’ll expand both (production and shipping) capacities by a great deal, which would be nice, because there are more people who would like to have some of our things.”

Danforth Pewter’s roots date back to 1755, when Thomas Danforth II opened a pewter workshop in Middletown, Conn. He quickly gained popularity for his well-made household goods, such as plates, cups and teapots — all items that were commonly made of pewter in those days. The business was passed down through generations of Danforths, and is now under the able stewardship of Fred and Judi Danforth, and Kleppner.

Things have gone so well that the business has outgrown its 52 Seymour St. headquarters. So the centerpiece of Danforth’s expansion plan involves acquisition of the so-called Adams building — the only structure on Danforth’s Seymour Street campus the company doesn’t own. Danforth has for several years rented storage space in the north half of that building, while electrician Mike Adams continues to use the southern half.

Adams has been contemplating retirement for the past year or two, and Danforth officials have voiced a desire to acquire his building. The two parties have already discussed the framework of a deal, though no contract has been signed.

“I think we have a general acknowledgement that it makes sense for us to own it, and his general sense is that in the near future he wants to sell it — and he’d like to sell it to us,” Kleppner said.

If a deal is consummated, Danforth would build a 35-foot-long, five-foot-wide connecting corridor between its workshop and the Adams building. The connector would be capped by a gable roof and would “provide a smooth, heated, well-lit surface to move finished product from the workshop to the new fulfillment center, which is what we’re going to use the north half of the Adams building for,” Kleppner explained.

Danforth has seen substantial growth in online sales during the past decade. But due to a space crunch, Danforth’s fulfillment center is confined to a small section of its workshop.

The holiday season sees Danforth process upwards of 700 orders a day.

“One of the aisles between the rows of shelves is like 21 inches wide; it’s not wide enough for two people to pass each other,” Kleppner said in describing the problem. “During the busy season, we’ve got two or three people picking orders as fast as they can, a couple people packing and a couple people operating shipping computers to get everything out to consumers in the time they expect — which is getting shorter and shorter.”

Acquisition of the Adams building would roughly triple Danforth’s available fulfillment space, Kleppner said. This, in turn, would free up more space for the workshop.

Fast, efficient shipping is a must for growing companies, Kleppner explained.

“This year, with difficulties in hiring, with the supply chain issues, we really weren’t able to commit in the busy season to shipping any faster than 10 days out from the time we got the order,” he lamented. “Consumers are used to getting stuff the next day or two days later from Amazon. Saying, ‘Hey, we might not be able to ship your order for 10 days’ discouraged a lot of people, who just didn’t order.”

The expansion project would change that narrative, officials said, as would a laser engraver to more effectively personalize pewter purchases.

Danforth currently offers engraving, but not as efficiently as could be done with laser technology. The process is largely computer-driven, but the artisan has to position and reposition the pewter item for a stylus that carves into the pewter, Kleppner said. A stylus produces engraving that can be hard to read, he added.

“There’s no contrast in color,” he said of the final result. “Sometimes, you have to tilt the item to read the inscription.”

On the other hand, laser engraving is quicker, produces concise inscriptions, and can reproduce just about any graphic you want. Kleppner witnessed one laser demonstration during which the machine flawlessly engraved a person’s name, date of birth, as well as a highly stylized, Southwestern looking lizard.

“You look at that and you have this epiphany — ‘If we have this laser engraver, we can design products with graphics on them.’ Patterns and shapes, in addition to words. It opens a whole world of cool, new possibilities — fun things we can do and fun things our customers can dream up,” Kleppner said.

The laser engraver is contained in a cabinet that’s around 18 inches high, two feet wide and a foot deep. The cabinet is fronted with smoked glass, so the laser doesn’t hurt the operator’s eyes during the engraving process. One simply places an item into the cabinet. It’s displayed on a video screen, which takes directions on the image and/or lettering the laser must engrave.

Plans call for Danforth to start with one laser engraver in its Middlebury workshop, then potentially acquire more machines if they live up to company expectations. Since a fully outfitted laser engraver can cost upwards to $70,000, purchasing decisions aren’t made lightly. The machines can eventually pay for themselves, as places like Danforth can charge a premium for the personalization.

“We could put them in our stores and train our store staff to use them,” Kleppner said. “I think our customers will get a real kick out of seeing this laser show. We’re excited about the possibilities.”

Danforth currently has 10 stores in five states, with another in the works for Faneuil Hall in Boston. The company has around 100 full- and part-time workers. Approximately 40 of its 60 full-time equivalent jobs are in Middlebury.

Danforth expects to hear whether it wins the grant or not late this winter. If Danforth’s expansion plan goes forward, the company would eventually be able to spend an additional $100,000 annually with its more than 70 Vermont subcontractors — including Middlebury’s Maple Landmark and 802Print in Vergennes, Kleppner noted.

If Danforth lands a CIP grant, construction of the building connector could begin in September of 2022, according to Kleppner said.

“I understand there’s a lot of interest in this (CIP) program; there are applications for many more dollars than they have to distribute,” he said. “If we don’t get a grant this round, there might be future rounds. We have our fingers crossed.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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