Small Is Beautiful

Dana Wildes of the Country Home Center chats about business in Lamoille County vs. those big box stores to the west

by Mark Pendergrast

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Dana Wildes, owner of the Country Home Center in Morrisville, grew up in the small, rural, Vermont town in which he still lives and does business. Born in the baby-boom rush of 1948, he lived with his family on upper Main Street in a typical older village home. His mother worked nearby as a nurse for Dr. Lewis Blowers, but his father, for most of his working life, drove the curves of Route 15 to the concrete colossus of IBM in Essex Junction, where he worked the night shift. "They were good to him," Wildes recalls. "They paid my father a good salary, with tremendous benefits. His final job there was inventory control. He loved working for IBM."

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Dana Wildes, owner of the Country Home Center in Morrisville, champions the virtues of small business as president of Lamoille Economic Development Corp.

Clearly, however, his son, who watched Dad drive off to work each evening and come home exhausted the next morning, learned a different lesson. He developed a profound distaste for such huge corporate hives. "Not everyone wants to work in a cement block cube with hundreds of other people," he says. That's why, as the president of the Lamoille Economic Development Corp. (LEDC), he has championed the virtues of small business and is not eager to attract a Wal-mart or Husky to Lamoille County.

As a home-grown boy with a broad vision, Wildes is the perfect spokesman for such a viewpoint. During his high school years, he attended Peoples Academy in Morrisville (originally called Poor People's Academy), then went to work for Vermont Electric Co-op doing drafting and survey work. In 1968, he enrolled in Johnson State College, where he met Doris Potvin, who hailed from Fairfax. They were married the same year. Daughter Kristie was born in 1969, then Ryan in 1972. Wildes stopped out of school for a bit but graduated in 1974 with a degree in economics, spending the last year at the University of Vermont. His total time in school was only 3 1/2 years, during which he worked 20 hours a week at Vermont Electric and took overloads every semester. "It was not a lot of fun," he recalls.

After graduation, he went back to full-time work for the electric company, but he was restive. "I really wanted to do something on my own," so when Dean and Helen Walker put their Country Garden Center up for sale in 1975, he bought it. He was 27 years old. "Doris and I worked together from Day One," Wildes recalls. She did the bookkeeping and ran the garden center, while her husband supervised landscaping work and began to add a "home center" component, consisting of hardware, lumber, and kitchen and bath departments. "It was pretty obvious that the garden center was only seasonal, from April through September," Wildes recalls. As the couple developed the new home center concept, Wildes' brother-in-law, Alan Deuso, was looking to change jobs. With experience in the building materials industry, he was a perfect fit, joining the firm in 1978.

The Country Garden and Home Center, as it is still officially named as a corporation, thrived for 20 years, servicing a community in which the owners knew most customers as friends and neighbors. "Sure, we were earning a living," Wildes recalls, "but there was always a sense of satisfaction that we were providing a service to the community, not just selling products. We helped people solve problems with their homes. We knew them by name, and now we know their kids by name. I don't think that's true everywhere."

By 1997, the business was booming -- too much so for Dana Wildes. "We were getting tired. The Garden Center was in full bloom, so to speak. The Home Center was spreading us thinner and thinner, with the housing boom." So they decided to get out of the garden business. Although they still sell garden supplies, they have closed their five greenhouses. The core of the business is hardware, with strong franchises provided by Ace Hardware and Benjamin Moore paints. On the 3-acre plot behind Goss Tire, near the junction of Route 100 and Route 15 in Morrisville, the Country Home Center offers a one-stop source for almost any home repair or construction project, including lumber, kitchen and bath specialty products (granite countertops, ceramic tiles, lighting), a screen and door repair shop, small woodworking shop, and full-service paint store, with color computers to match samples.

For anyone who loves hardware knickknacks, roaming the floor reveals a smorgasbord of delights, featuring everything from octagonal windows to kerosene heaters, from shop vacs to plumbing fixtures, from cement blocks to Sheetrock. The 14-person staff (four are part-time) is helpful but not intrusive. There's a relaxed country feel to the sprawling Country Home Center -- flypaper strips hang to catch the buzzing nuisances, while a country music station twangs its songs out in the lumber yard.

If anyone really appears to be relaxed, it is Dana Wildes himself. At 51, Wildes has achieved a comfortable lifestyle. A friendly man with an energetic manner, strawberry-blond hair and a ruddy face, he smiles easily and does not look his age. "Everything runs itself now," he says with satisfaction. "I can walk out the door and it will run the same way." Thus, Wildes is free to devote more time to volunteer work and to golf, his favorite pastime. He is on the board of the Country Club of Vermont, located in Waterbury opposite the Ben & Jerry's plant.

Wildes is still very much involved in overall strategic planning for the Country Home Center. It was his idea to install an elaborate new computer system that includes a bar code scanner at the check-out counter. "I'm a big believer in technology." He reads his email every hour and plans to mount a website for the business so contractors can check pricing without calling.

On the other hand, Wildes is a pragmatist who doesn't automatically embrace every aspect of what he terms "information overload." With email, fax, and phone answering machines, there are too many incoming messages for the limited staff to handle. "All these communication devices were designed to make life easier," he muses, "but we got to the point where we simply had no time to answer all the messages. We had six incoming phone lines, and I couldn't find enough qualified staff to answer them." His solution? He disconnected two lines and took out the voice-mail system. Now, until he hires more staff, customers get a real person or a busy signal, which is preferable to leaving an unanswered message. The firm still has multiple fax lines.

Wildes becomes involved in day-to-day matters only when called upon. "I pick the best person for a job, tell him or her what the goals are, and then get out of the way. Whether he or she takes a particular path to get there is irrelevant as long as I get results." If an employee has a problem, "I bring them in, sit them down, and try to find solutions." He has never fired anyone, "but I had to lay off three people in 1988-1989. It was very difficult. We knew the families." They went on to get other jobs, however, and one of them is now a regular customer with his own construction company.

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Doris Wildes has worked alongside husband Dana since the couple purchased the business in 1975; Alan Deuso (left) joined a few years later and handles the lumber business.

Doris Wildes says her husband has not always been hands-off. "When you work together as husband and wife, you have to establish business lines. So I had to tell Dana not to infringe on my area in front of employees. The Garden Center was supposed to be my domain, and sometimes he'd forget that." She laughs. "But generally Dana is easy to get along with. He's a nice person and a good husband and father. He's also incredibly intelligent. There's so much going on in his brain, sometimes he can't come down to the level of daily stuff." For that, thankfully, he can rely on his wife, who is the accountant and "overseer of whatever needs to get organized, polished, finished." He also relies on Deuso, who handles the lumber business, and Lee Sturtevant, who manages the hardware and paint section. Sturtevant also finds Wildes to be "easy-going" but says if he wants to pursue an idea, such as the new computer system, he'll jump into it.

The Country Home Center has local competition, of course, with an Aubuchon Hardware nearby. According to Wildes, his biggest competitors are Morrisville Lumber and Parker & Stearns, both primarily lumber companies. "They are good businesses," he says. "We work together all the time. That's what's nice about rural areas."

Wildes does not have such kindly feelings toward Home Depot, however. The mega-store, which opened a few years ago near Wal-mart and other such national giants in Williston's Taft Corners, attracts bargain-hunters from all over northern Vermont. Still, "our business has grown 25 percent a year since the big boxes opened," Wildes observes. "We have thrived doing what they don't do. We offer quick, individual service. People want to come here, find what they want, solve a problem and leave with a solution and good advice. They don't want to spend two hours on the road and two hours wandering around a huge big box. Some people come back from a trip there and say they'll never go again."

Wildes' concerns are not limited to his own business, however, which is one of the reasons he is happy to serve as two-term president of the Lamoille Economic Development Corp., one of 12 such regional Vermont operations. While he may envy Chittenden County in some ways for its wealth and infrastructure, he would hate to see Lamoille County embrace development at any cost. "Chittenden County is the state's economic center, but there is also a place for rural Vermonters who don't want to commute. The idea of concentrating commerce in one central location is flawed. You're telling someone where they have to live, creating extra traffic and congestion. I'd rather develop and nurture existing small businesses, where the work force is, for people who need jobs." According to LEDC 100 percent of Lamoille businesses are small. Nationally, businesses with fewer than 100 employees account for $2.5 trillion of the national economy, while the larger companies contribute $2.6 trillion.

To foster small businesses, he has been extremely supportive of John Sullivan, the executive director of the LEDC. As part of his job, Sullivan recently took over the Lamoille Area Vocational Center, which will offer adult continuing education at Lamoille Union High School in the evenings. "We have put together 12 offerings," Sullivan says, including courses such as technical math, interpreting modern engineering drawings, and machine tool technology. By working with local businesses to develop a skilled work force, Sullivan and Wildes are innovators. "This is a new direction," Sullivan says, "not done elsewhere in the state." Wildes approves of technical education. "Those skilled with their hands can demand much higher wages now, more so than those with bachelor's degrees."

Sullivan appreciates Wildes' support. "Dana has been very encouraging of anything I've sought to do." He agrees that trying to attract a Wal-mart is not a good idea. "Wal-mart has a negative impact on local small business. While I won't be leading a parade against it, I wouldn't actively recruit it. On the other hand, Dana Wildes might very well be leading that protest parade."

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(From left) Clerks Julie Gale and Jane Drews, manager Lee Sturtevant, and clerk Bill Thomas at the Country Home Center.

Millie Merrill, owner of Brystie Corp., manufacturer of brushed fleece Turtle Fur accessories, is a fellow LEDC board member who also has great respect for Wildes. "He is very dedicated to business in Lamoille County and really believes in community. He's also very thoughtful and bright. Dana is just darn nice -- respectful, pleasant, a great consensus builder. He takes the time to talk to people as individuals. He's also a very good golfer."

When Wildes talks about the people and businesses of Lamoille County, it is obvious that he truly loves the area, taking pride in its accomplishments as well as its sometimes quirky characters. There's Heath's Sawmill in North Hyde Park, founded by Buck Heath, whose hearty obscenities cover a heart of gold. "Buck still taps maple trees using only buckets, no pipelines." Son Dennie Heath now runs the sawmill.

Then there's Buck's Furniture, owned by Floyd Buck and his daughter, Sandra, whose brown buildings dominate downtown Wolcott and whose kitschy signs and ads have made the business impossible to ignore. Wildes fondly recalls the time Floyd Buck locked tax agents in a small room while they were auditing his books.

In some ways, Wildes is pleased to note, the small town atmosphere in Lamoille County remains unchanged. The same people still gather for breakfast at the Charlmont Restaurant. Other icons have gone, however. He laments the passing of the Johnson Pharmacy, where he used to buy his children a cherry Coke, egg salad sandwich, and ice cream cone, all for less than a dollar.

Still, business is booming for the Johnson Woolen Mills, for the tourist towns of Stowe and Jeffersonville, and businesses in the county's two industrial parks. Older businesses such as the Adams Mill in Stowe and Vermont Precision Woodworks and Lamoille Grain in Morrisville are thriving. There's Concept Two, Springer-Miller Systems, Research Engineering, Contractor Crane Co., Butternut Mountain Farm, Stowe Canoe Co., and Tubb's Snowshoes, to name just a few other businesses. The Ben Franklin went out, but the Morrisville post office is moving into the vacant building. Northwoods Joinery, a newer Cambridge business, makes post-and-beam frames, while the Boyden boys are making fine wines at the family farm. Other single entrepreneurs work as fine craftsmen or are beginning their own innovative concerns.

"There is tremendous diversity in our economy," Wildes notes proudly, "made up of many small businesses. In my opinion, this is the way Vermont should go forward. We have to be very, very, very careful, though, or all of Vermont's commercial landscape could turn into large, cement blocks. I'm as pro-business as anybody, but I don't think we want that. We must strike a balance -- without stopping growth, we must manage it properly."

Daughter Kristie lives in Burlington, where her parents visit frequently, delighting in Morgan, their young granddaughter. So would Dana Wildes consider moving to Burlington? "Never."

Mark Pendergrast is a free-lance writer living in Essex Junction. His latest book is "Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World" (Basic Books, 1999).