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Hussey shows how manufacturing can work in Maine

A family company in its sixth generation shows how a Maine company can buck trends.

Last Friday was a big day in the small town of North Berwick, when Hussey Seating Co. celebrated its 175th birthday.

Hussey is now led by the sixth generation of descendants of founder William Hussey, who started making plows in North Berwick in 1835. Hussey Seating has come a long way since then, moving to spectator seating after World War II and becoming recognized as a world leader in the field.

Sen. Susan Collins gave the keynote address. She was a good choice because she herself is part of the fifth generation of a family-owned business, the S.W. Collins Co. of Caribou.

Current Hussey CEO Tim Hussey added his perspective on the family business, focusing on the values that have guided Hussey through the generations -- perseverance and integrity, quality products, and an absolute commitment to remaining independent and family-owned.

Tim's father, Phil, and uncle Peter led the company through the '80s and '90s, moving Hussey from a small, regional provider of folding bleachers, the cornerstone of the high school gymnasium, to a national business with significant international customers. Phil and Peter expanded the product offering to stadium and arena seating. Today Hussey seats are found in Gillette Stadium, Fenway Park, and at many other professional and collegiate stadiums and arenas.

Even with all this, the heart of the business remains the folding bleacher. Hussey has provided bleachers for more than 50 percent of the high school gymnasiums in the country.

There are few people in the country who have not spent at least a few hours on a Hussey seat. If your son or daughter was a basketball player in Maine, where almost all gyms have Hussey bleachers, you will have logged many hours on Hussey products.

Those of you with such experience know that the classic wooden bleacher is not the most comfortable seat in the world. To Hussey's credit, the company introduced new plastic seating options several years ago that provide a more comfortable basketball-viewing experience.

Why am I so interested in the Hussey story? I have been a member of the board of directors of Hussey Seating for 20 years. I have come to know the company well and respect the tenacity and the resourcefulness with which Hussey does business.

It is no small feat to be a large, successful manufacturing business in Maine in the 21st century. At a time when more and more manufacturing has left the state or simply closed down, Hussey has not just survived; the company has prospered.

Hussey is stronger now than at any time I have served on the board. The company has continued to improve its products and the strong dealer system that sells those products throughout the world. The factory in North Berwick rivals the best manufacturing facilities in America.

The company has had its share of crises and difficulties over its 175-year history. Tim, in his comments, noted that there were several points where it looked as if the company would fail. And yet somehow it was able to pull through. Call it perseverance, Yankee ingenuity or just plain good luck -- and in most cases it took all three -- they found a way to live to fight another day.

Through it all, Hussey has been steadfast in its commitment to retaining ownership in the family.

One of the most touching moments in Friday's celebration was the role of the seventh generation of the family. Sixteen strong, ranging in age from 5 to 20 years, they put together a narrative skit depicting company history from 1835 to the present.

While the tone was light-hearted, it was clear that this generation is already taking their family leadership responsibilities seriously. This bodes well for Hussey's future.

It is quite remarkable that Hussey Seating has survived and even prospered through all these years and six generations of family leadership. The company's success has much to do with the values passed on through the generations. It also says a lot about the employees.

Without capable employees -- employees who themselves embody perseverance, ingenuity and a strong work ethic, none of this would have been possible.

So it was fitting that the finale to Friday's event was an employee family lobster bake on the green in North Berwick. There, on a sparkling Maine evening, some 600 family and friends gathered to celebrate 175 years of Hussey Seating Company.

The evening ended with a good Maine fireworks display. As the last roman candle drifted down, thoughts turned to the planning of the 200th birthday celebration in 2035. I am looking forward to it.