AUGUSTA — Scott Bolduc was in his 20s and managing an auto repair shop in Lisbon Falls when one of his friends was disabled in a motorcycle accident.
His friend, Dale Crafts, who in recent years served in the state Legislature, eventually recovered enough so he could get a van with a lift and regain his independence. But the lift on the van, custom ordered from Kentucky, didn’t always work and there were no service shops in Maine with the expertise to fix it. So Bolduc asked his employer, Dale’s father, John, if the repair shop at John Crafts Auto Sales could be expanded to take on work for those with disabilities.
In the 30 years since, Bolduc has built a multimillion dollar company that’s become the leader in adaptive technology that helps people with disabilities drive cars and trucks.
“Scotty is a real genius,” said Crafts, who was recently re-elected to a third House term. “He invented all kinds of adaptive equipment that was world known.”
Bolduc, 57, is the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce Business Person of the Year and will be honored Jan. 25 in front of an estimated 900 people at the Augusta Civic Center. The boy who grew up happy but poor in Waterville showed his talent for invention as early as age 10. That’s when he made a fuel gauge for the kerosene tanks in his parents’ basement that so interested thermostat-maker Honeywell it paid him $500 for his idea.
At age 15, he won a visit to NASA to watch an Apollo launch after writing a scientific essay. And as a Waterville High School senior in 1973, he won a four-year Air Force scholarship to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
“My life has been so blessed,” he said during a recent interview at the Augusta headquarters of Bolduc Technology Group. “All I’ve done is have a blast, worked hard.”
Although he grew up in Waterville, Bolduc only recently returned to central Maine after spending years working in Maryland and then Louisiana. In 2010, he moved his company headquarters to Gabriel Drive in Augusta while maintaining a manufacturing plant in southern Maine. The two plants combined employ about 130 people.
Bolduc’s success can be attributed to his belief that technology used in airplanes could be adapted to automobiles, where it could help everyday people.
After Crafts’ accident, his father sent Bolduc to California to see the latest technology being developed to help those with disabilities drive cars. Bolduc wasn’t impressed.
“It was awful,” he said. “It was terrible stuff. It looked like a wreck. Just gadgets and levers and hoses and tubes.”
With financing from Crafts, Bolduc developed the early technology, got his first of 21 patents and moved to Maryland for a few years. He then went on to Louisiana for 20 years, where he developed the first drive-by-wire systems. By the mid-1990s, he was the leader in the drive-by-wire industry, expanding to Europe, Asia and Canada.
He’s developed joysticks and voice-activated technology that can be tailored to a person’s needs. A video distributed by the company shows how brakes and steering can be controlled by a joystick, while the wipers and turn signals can be activated on command by voice.
Across the world, 100 certified dealers sell and install the advanced electronic vehicle interface technology invented by Bolduc.
He is, by his own description, a very big fish in a small pond.
About 10 years ago, the military asked him if his technology could be used in combat vehicles so they could be remotely controlled in the hopes of saving soldiers’ lives. As he envisions it, soldiers would be able to quickly get out of a vehicle and leave it as the lead mine sweeper or put it into the middle of a caravan to fool the enemy.
Although he has an agreement with Boeing and other defense contractors, things are moving slowly on the military side. He believes Maine is well positioned to fill the orders at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station and the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone. His technology can be used in airplanes, trucks and boats.
“We have a great workforce here,” he said. “We have 50-year-olds that were millwrights and they will work for $20 an hour. Throw them a few benefits and they are happy as a clam. There are so many of those people here who would be perfect.”
An engineer, Bolduc doesn’t come across as a typical businessman of the year. It’s clear he would rather work out complex algorithms than look at a company spreadsheet. He’s not a schmoozer.
“I’m an engineer,” he said. “I’m very direct. I don’t negotiate well. Because we’re so small a company, we’d be gone in a heartbeat if we make a big mistake. We’ve got a lot of people’s lives on the line.”
Bolduc, who has five children, said he’s had fun along the way too. While in Louisiana, he owned the minor league professional hockey team the Baton Rouge Kingfish.
Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce President Peter Thompson said Bolduc’s business is relatively new to the area, but his international success and ingenuity make him a great choice for the annual honor.
“We’ve recognized a number of these unique organizations in recent years that most of us are totally unaware of,” he said.
Crafts said he’s glad to see his friend get a much-deserved honor.
“He’s helped thousands of people who needed to drive,” he said. “When you get hurt like that, you lose a lot of independence.”
Susan Cover — 621-5643