April Lemay: an inspiring female maple producer!
At the beginning of last April, I had the chance to interview a very inspiring maple producer and a successful woman-owned business: April Lemay. Hope you enjoy this interview and learn more about her company, April’s Maple, her values, her professional background and her daily life. Happy reading!
Holly: Describe your business to us a little bit?
April: Sure! April’s Maple is located in Canaan, Vermont. We have about 13 500 trees tapped on a little over 800 acres of land. We are unique geographically because we sit right on the borders of Canada, New Hampshire and Vermont. At April’s Maple we have three different lines of businesses that we focus on. Most of our business is focused on producing our maple syrup to put in our marketplace, selling to other locations that retail our maple syrup and our maple products. We pride ourselves on a diverse product line that is really grounded in quality but hopefully a little bit different. Maybe the packaging lures you in, then the uniqueness of the product and that the quality of the product brings you back for more. We are focused on the retail side of the business. We also have a maple café where we use our products to do a maple-inspired menu. So when people do make their way up to this very remote part of the world we try to give everyone a great maple experience. The café is to help people understand how you can use maple, how good it is, what it tastes like and how you might want to use it at home. Then, I also have a smaller part of my business where we wholesale syrup.
Holly: Great! Can you tell us a little bit about your professional background?
April: I actually grew up in Canaan, a very small town as I said. I graduated with a class of 20 kids here in Canaan and after I went to college. I joined a large professional services firm and traveled around the world. I kind of ended my career there after 17 years, with a team of a few hundred people focused on consulting services for financial institutions. If you think about maple syrup you think about financial institutions and financial markets and where the parallels are. I mean a lot of it actually kind of plays off each other. When I was running a practice we focused on quality and people, we sold services and skills now I have the same opportunity to sell maple product that we create. I think one of the reasons why we are highly regarded is because we provide a good customer experience. You know, financial management is very important part of what we do.
Holly: Where did your passion for maple culture come from?
April: My fondest memories growing up was on Easter trekking into the woods to my grandfather’s piece of land. Everyone would go and grab buckets to carry them to the evaporator. I mean to me maple syrup is about history, it is about tradition, it is about family and I don’t know how you could not love all that. That is where I guess it all started from. My grandfather’s sugar bush was actually on this piece of land that I purchased. I had my corporate job for 17 years. Then one day I was talking to my mom and she was mentioning that she was thinking about her and her five sisters taking over caring for the 800 acres of land for my grandparents after they passed away. She was saying how it would be great if somebody would buy it and you know do something that is sustainable, something that kind of honors what my grandparents stood for. I had been considering a change at the time, not where I am today, not like there goes one job into a whole new environment but an investment property or some change. Whenever I referred to home, I always referred to my parents’ home back in Canaan. It’s when this idea of purchasing the land and starting this came up, I felt like it was the right direction for me to go because it felt like coming home for which I had never really left, I guess.
Holly: How did you start your maple syrup business? Let’s go from when you made the transition from your previous job into your new adventure of April’s Maple and maybe how you came up with the name.
April: I actually hired someone to help me think through the name because I knew that was important. They came back with April’s Maple and a couple of other things that I knew were not right. April, it is a double meaning. April in Vermont is the sugaring month and it happens to be my first name. It is more than that to me. It is the April and April’s Maple but there’s the whole April Maple Family that makes this happen, so it is its own kind of identity when I look at a bottle and say: “Oh, there’s my name, that’s me”. I was very hesitant because it sounded very egotistical to put my name on it. However, it is the sugaring month, it has a nice short snappy name and it starts with an A which is first in the alphabet. There were a lot of reasons it just kind of worked out and maybe it is my name. I was not born in April; so really it was the name and maybe that name had some reason to do with how I ended up where I am today.
How did I start April’s Maple? I was very fortunate. I was able to keep my corporate job and they were very understanding for about a year and a half when I started April’s Maple. When I did this plan, I went and planned the footprint of the building. I had one expansion and I planned a pretty decent sized footprint. I bought an evaporator that could boil off twenty thousand trees was and thinking okay well I am going to tap everything I could. I did 9000 trees in 2013 and then added the rest the following year.
I decided that I would work my day job to have income and my parents were my first two employees. They still work here with me. My husband and my parents are here all the time. Well it started, as a “just let me do this” and maybe I’ll keep my job and maybe April’s Maple is – I’m not sure what April’s Maple is yet. Then we started making syrup and I started having success with my branding and my logo. I really started to appreciate and enjoy being a part of this business. We did not have the café then, we made only a few products but this is where I would spend every vacation day I had and every weekend. I was up here, so I was commuting between Boston and here for a year. Then I talked to my employer and I told them: “That I think I might need to leave what I am doing.” I think I have found my passion! They said me: “that is great” but do you know if your passion can sustain you? We will give you a one-year leave of absence and you can figure it out.” I mean what a great thing to offer somebody right. I was very lucky. The firm I was with had given me the opportunity to be a leader that was similar to sugaring, a male-dominated industry. They saw a potential in me that I was not sure existed, they nurtured it and they helped me to figure out what I could do if I set my mind to it. I could lead, I could create and it turned out that they taught me to lead and create. I took those skills to led and created April’s Maple.
Holly: What are your proudest accomplishments and things to date?
April: That is a great question. It is a tough question. I am proud to be a part of something that is and proud to be a part of building something that is bigger than me. I have this amazing opportunity where I get to work with my husband and my parents. I have about nine employees here. It can go anywhere from eight to twelve depending on the season. Being an employer is, I think, the biggest responsibility and the biggest pleasure that anyone can have. I am proud to have created something that is a fun place for people to come. I talk about my staff as if they are my April’s Maple Family. We care about each other and generally we are pretty happy to come to work. I am very proud to have created or have had a hand in creating something where I hope it has a broader impact on people’s personal lives and their families. Weather you are sitting around the table making pancakes, trying our syrup or you are coming here to work. I think that’s probably one of the things I’m most proudest of. I am proud to I come from a line of women in business, my mom and my grandmothers have always just kind of worked and not considered whether or not they were a woman or a man. They just always did what they needed to do. It is not the task that is gender specific, it is the person, you can choose to do what you want to do.
Holly: What are the future projects for April’s Maple in the coming years? Where do you see your maple syrup business?
April: I have s list of products in my head that I would like to create, more than I could ever possibly do. I would like to continue to expand what we make and what we offer. I think that will be my next focus. Which means there are a lot of things that have to happen before we can enable that. There are some kind of mini goals in the way, but the idea is to continue to expand what we are making at a pace that is comfortable, that is not overwhelming. I am very fortunate. I have two lovely teenage stepdaughters at home. It is important to me to have some time outside of April’s Maple. Sometimes it does not feel like I have that. I am lucky that both the girls work here now. Some days my husband and the girls are here; that is something I would not have been able to do. I want to keep that open, somehow to keep enjoying what we are doing by building and growing reasonably. With time and finances, I could probably see five other products coming out this year, but I would not do that to myself, my staff or anyone in my family.
Holly: Which advise would you give to women who want to start a maple sugaring business?
April: I would say it is not really about gender. It is about what is in your heart. I think that if you need help in certain areas whether it’s not because you need a man to help (I mean it’s not really about gender) it is about what you want to do and what you see as your vision. Do not be held back by what you think is appropriate for you to do as a woman. It is totally fine to ask for help, nobody expects it to go right from day one. I have been making syrup now for eight years and we still have problems. So do not worry about asking for help. I think raising your hand is not a weakness it is a strength. I think women are uniquely positioned for that. It is good to ask for help and we know what is good for us. I would say continue to be a role model. It is not just about what you are doing, it’s about the example you are setting for the people behind you. So for me as I mentioned, I have two stepdaughters. I want to be a good example for them like my mom was for me. My mom taught me that I could do anything I wanted. Set your mind to it, figure out how you are going to do it, it might be a different path but just do it. It does not matter. Do not let that stop you!
Holly: April, is there anything you would like to add to this today?
April: When I was starting April’s Maple, I got help with my name. I worked with somebody on this to think about what I was trying to create. When I did this, I came up with four things that were important for me, that April’s maple represents. I use it to make decisions almost every day but the first one for us was treat your customers like friends and family. Maple syrup is rooted in tradition, so everyone is a friend here. Number two is sustainability. For me, that is sustainability of my force but also my local community. Number three is quality first and always. Number four is have fun! So, when I thought about what I wanted April’s Maple to be, I didn’t just create a business, I created from the beginning in my own head a direction and I use that to keep myself grounded all the time.
I am a woman-owned business for sure, but it takes so much more than one woman to own a business. It is really the community and for me, it is my family, my husband, my mom, my dad, my April’s Maple Family. Everyone is important. I will clean toilets if it is helpful. Everybody works hard here and makes this work so I am proud of it and everyone here.
Holly: That’s pretty much wraps it up! Great! Definitely an inspiration! Thank you so much!