Life lessons came early for Harold “H.O.” Bouchard. The seventh of 16 children, he grew up on an Aroostook County farm that didn’t get electricity until he was 13 years old.
Cows and chickens provided food and a little extra to sell in Fort Kent, while wood cut from the property heated the house and produced some income when prices for potatoes, the mainstay of the Soldier Pond farm, were low.
When he was 16, with one brother in the Korean War – a prisoner of war for about a year – and another severely injured by a woods accident, Bouchard left school to help his family. He worked on the farm and helped his father, Edmund, with plowing snow for the towns of Soldier Pond and Wallagrass.
Though he never returned to school, his education was far from over.
Out of hardship was wrought self-reliance, determination, ingenuity and a willingness to make do with what was available. Bouchard eventually turned a small loan and a single truck into what has become a well-respected trucking company employing 130 people.
The Hampden-based H.O. Bouchard, Inc., which specializes in on- and off-road heavy hauling, now boasts 74 trucks and the largest fleet of specialized flatbed and tank trailers in northern New England. The company’s annual sales exceed $15 million.
Bouchard, 67, is being recognized for his achievements with the Norbert X. Dowd Award, which will be presented Wednesday, Jan. 22, at the Bangor Civic Center during the annual dinner of the Bangor Region Chamber of Commerce.
It has been a long, tough haul for Bouchard, who bought his first truck in 1958 after borrowing $1,500 for a down payment from his uncle Gil Bouchard and obtaining a loan from the local bank with his father’s co-signature.
Initially, he thought he could get work with his truck on a construction project under way at the former air base in Presque Isle. But when that job didn’t pan out, he was left in debt and desperate for work. With few prospects in Aroostook County, Bouchard left the family farm on his 23rd birthday with plans to find work in Bangor, where the interstate highway was under construction.
As he was leaving, his father shook his hand and told him something, words that would ring true but that the younger Bouchard didn’t think much about at the time.
“The road you pave from here on in is the road you’ll have to travel on,” his father told him.
That spring and through to Thanksgiving, Bouchard hauled hot top for the interstate in the Bangor area. In the winter he returned to Aroostook County to help his father with snow plowing.
By next spring, though, he was back in the Bangor area where the work was more plentiful. Construction continued on the highway and other road projects came along, including Marginal Way in Portland. By 1963, Bouchard added a second truck and kept busy by hauling logs in the winter and gravel and hot top the rest of the year.
His business continued to expand from there.
Innovator and entrepreneur
“I had to make a living with a steering wheel and it grew from there,” is how Bouchard describes his success. It’s an understatement for anyone who knows him. Friends and associates describe Bouchard as a tireless worker and as someone who is always thinking and looking at new ways of doing things.
“Harold Bouchard is an innovator, he’s a risk taker,” said longtime associate Walt Hersey, now vice president and general manager of Chadwick BaRoss, which sells heavy forestry and construction equipment. “He’s one of these guys who’s always on the edge of innovation.”
Challenging conventional wisdom in the early 1980s, Bouchard decided that not only would it be efficient to have trucks hauling two trailers along logging roads to Great Northern Paper Co., but that a third trailer would be even more effective. While the competition scoffed at his proposal, Bouchard went to a Seattle truck manufacturer and had it develop and build a 600-horsepower truck with a special transmission that would handle such a load. He then used special trailers that could handle the curvy logging roads.
In 1982, Bouchard set a record with the tri-trailer system, hauling 87 cords of wood with a gross vehicle weight of 567,000 pounds. The tri-trailer was later abandoned, however, when changes in business required trucking on roads that prohibited such weight loads.
Bouchard tinkered with anything and everything, prompting longtime associate Steve Whitcomb to quip: “He couldn’t so much as buy a wheelbarrow without modifying it.”
Hersey and Whitcomb said Bouchard’s innovations helped pioneer the use of logging debris, such as branches and tree tops, that previously had been left behind and burned as waste. One paper company had tried to use a specialized chipper to make the debris usable as fuel in its mill but gave up after the machinery kept breaking down. Bouchard purchased the idle chipper and modified it, fixing the drive and discharge problems that had plagued it before.
Whitcomb, a 25-year employee of H.O. Bouchard, said Bouchard also helped modernize the practice of tree thinning, where low-quality trees that choke the growth of higher-quality trees are removed from the forests. Bouchard helped get machinery into the woods where previously the thinning was done by hand.
Other ventures didn’t pan out, however, like the company’s expansion in the 1970s into the earth-moving business, which proved to be unprofitable and nearly led to bankruptcy. Close friends helped Bouchard stay on his feet, including Dave Dysart, who allowed him to hold off paying his fuel bills until he could afford to pay them.
Despite his success, Bouchard has never forgotten where he came from and is quick to point out that while he’s walked on the path he’s paved for himself, he hasn’t done so alone.
“I didn’t come this far without someone helping me,” Bouchard said, explaining why he has sought to return something to the communities he has lived and worked in, from developing athletic facilities and fields to supporting community events and education.
Former Bangor Mayor Michael Crowley, vice president of development at Eastern Maine Healthcare, said many civic events, from the Fourth of July celebration to holiday parades, would not have been as successful or might not have happened at all without the support Bouchard, his company and associates gave, often from behind the scenes.
Whitcomb also related an incident that he felt indicated the type of man Bouchard is.
He recalled Bouchard loaning his Mercedes so a truck driver whose truck had broken down could go get something to eat.
Asked why he would let an employee use his expensive car, Bouchard said he had 50 drivers just like him out on the road driving trucks worth twice as much as the Mercedes, so why shouldn’t he trust him?
And even when he has faced personal adversity, Bouchard has thought about others. While being treated for prostate cancer, Bouchard sometimes had to travel as far away as Texas to get the latest in medical technology.
To make sure others could get similar treatments closer to home and avoid the additional aggravation that traveling long distances can add to the difficulty of dealing with cancer, Bouchard personally raised more than $158,000 for new imaging and radiation technologies at Eastern Maine Medical Center.
“He recognizes that he has been fortunate and he believes he has a responsibility to share,” Crowley said.
Although Bouchard still keeps a hand in the business he started – he doesn’t like the word “retired” – the day-to-day operations have been turned over to his son, Brian. Bouchard and his wife, Evelyn, live in Hermon and winter in Florida. They have two sons, three daughters and seven grandchildren.
As he runs the business his father nurtured, Brian Bouchard said he draws upon the lessons his father taught him, including the ideals of fairness and hard work, and that “there’s no excuse for not doing [the work] right.”
He says his father downplays his intelligence, trying to convince people that he’s not that smart because he never finished high school. But that’s far from the truth, says Brian, adding that H.O. Bouchard has managed to overcome adversity time and time again and has proven to be adept at finding solutions and innovations.
“In my opinion, he has a master’s degree in common sense and a Ph.D. in the willingness to work hard any time day or night in any and all conditions,” Brian Bouchard said.