Whale of a
Business Park

South Burlington's Technology Park attracts tenants that place high importance on the quality of their environment.

by Jim Kelty

Every morning around 9:30 Laura Robertson takes her dogs an English setter, a Brittany and a border collie for a stroll through a business park a few minutes from her home in South Burlington. Robertson, a 20-year resident of the area and a regular at the park for the past eight years, enjoys seeing other locals there doing their thing jogging, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, ice skating, flying kites or catching frogs.

Elizabeth Boyle and husband John Illick are two of the five owners of Technology Park. "We'd like to create a work environment that is consistent with the beauty our state has to offer," says Illick, who plans about a dozen more buildings for the 180-acre park.

"I call this my 35 minutes of peace," says Robertson. "It's wonderful having a place like this so close by. I've made a lot of friends here." Her dog-walk sanctuary is the 180-acre property on Kimball Avenue known as Technology Park, home of the corporate headquarters of Ben & Jerry's as well as the highly visible "whales tails" sculpture that overlooks passing motorists on Interstate 89.

The park's owners believe quality of life outside the office leads to quality of life inside the office. "One of our goals is to always maintain the recreation aspect of the park," says Elizabeth Boyle, the on-site property manager, who enjoys seeing people arrive with bikes, rollerblades, snowmobiles and golf clubs.

In the years to come, Robertson and her dogs will be making many new friends at the park at least if John Illick and the four other owners of the property have their way. Step by step, they plan to add about a dozen new buildings and at least that many works of outdoor art. They envision the property as a sculpture and recreation park as much as a business park.

"Our intent is to have this be a place that provides some sense of outdoor life," says Illick. "We'd like to be able to attract tenants to our park that place an importance on the quality of life for their employees, which is really one of the reasons people even locate in Vermont. They come to this state because it's really a pretty good place to be. But if you're living here and your work environment isn't very attractive, then it's sort of conflicting. Our ambition is to create an environment that supports what Vermont is all about."

Thirty years ago the land now known as Technology Park was a hayfield. In 1978, however, Digital Equipment Corp. moved into the property and opened a manufacturing plant that became an economic stronghold in Chittenden County. By the late '80s, Digital employed as many as a thousand workers at the 275,000-square-foot facility. But in 1993 the international computer company shut down the plant as part of a major worldwide cutback resulting from eroding sales and mounting losses.

Burlee.com is ranked among the top three Web-hosting companies in the world by WebHostmagazine.com. "The business we're in is capital-intensive, and it's complicated," says Bill Maris, president. "We were fortunate to start three years ago when everyone else was starting out. It would be very difficult to jump into it now."

When the property went on the block, a parade of suitors came calling. Burlington developer Jeffrey Davis signed a letter of intent to buy it but backed out when he was unable to find tenants. Bio-Tek Instruments Inc. of Winooski expressed interest in the building soon after it was vacated, but the sale failed to materialize. In 1995 a Belgian rugmaker, Rainbow Rugs, planned to move 120 workers into the facility, but the deal collapsed when the U.S dollar weakened.

Shortly thereafter, Illick and his friend Simon Pearce, owner of the glass blowing company in Quechee, arrived on the scene and became serious contenders. Illick, a native Vermonter and long-time Middlebury resident, is senior vice president of Bread Loaf Corp., a Middlebury construction company. Over the course of his 22-year career at Bread Loaf, Illick had became increasingly enamored with the thought of buying and developing a piece of land as a means of combining his skills as an architect and planner with his passion for art. During a trip to Ireland with Pearce, he mentioned his idea and Pearce shared his enthusiasm, so the two began looking for the right opportunity.

Prior to making the deal they recruited two more partners: Peter Flanigan, a Purchase, N.Y., investment banker, and Donald Axxin, a novelist and poet and owner of a real estate company in Jericho, N.Y. "It was sort of a combination of a predetermined desire along with opportunity," Illick recalls. "In 1995 you're sort of at the end of a very maybe not depressed but certainly a down economy in Vermont. We saw the property as an enormously attractive piece of land available at a reasonable price."

A few weeks after the purchase was finalized in December 1995, the new owners landed Ben & Jerry's as their first tenant and within three years the remaining space in the former Digital plant was consumed by three new tenants: SymQuest Group Inc., Burton Snowboards and Burlee.com.

"To make this property successful and to make a go of it, John knew he had to have a good anchor tenant in this building," says Elizabeth Boyle, Illick's wife and fellow owner of the park. "I think he felt that once
he got a good anchor tenant, the rest would follow. He was great at talking Ben & Jerry's into coming here."

Initially, Illick and his partners thought the park would be a home for companies in the high-tech industry. Though SymQuest and Burlee certainly fit the profile, most of the space in the pre-existing building is occupied by makers of snowboards and ice cream. Illick realized early on that market conditions would dictate more than anything what kind of tenants are available.

"We do not manufacture a tangible product like a snowboard or an ice cream cone," says Larry Sudbay, president/CEO of SymQuest Group Inc. "Our product is service." Easy access to the airport and the interstate made Technology Park a logical choice for SymQuest.

"But we also realize that our vision for the whole park limits the kind of tenants we're looking for to a significant extent," he explains. "The ideal tenant for us is a company that places a high importance on the quality of the environment they're in to be more specific, somebody who understands what it takes to hire, attract and retain quality employees."

In many businesses today where qualified employees are difficult to come by, companies want to put their workers in an environment that is attractive to them, Illick points out. "We're interested in companies that place a premium on that, or at least an importance. I can't say that we're targeting any specific market sector telecommunications or technology or what have you. That's not nearly as important as the individual philosophy of the company."

Ben & Jerry's moved to Technology Park from its former headquarters in Moretown in 1996 when the company outgrew its old space. It's been a good move, according to Wanda Mitchell, the company's administration manager. "Our employees are allowed to bring their dogs into work, so the recreation path here is well-used," she says. The 200 workers employed at the headquarters can also stroll over to the ponds and streams on the property or use the fitness trail and softball fields. "We're close to the airport and the interstate so it's convenient for our customers coming in and guests," adds Mitchell, who coordinated the company's move. "That's one of the important benefits that has really proved to be good for us."

About a year after Ben & Jerry's arrival, Burton Snowboards moved its manufacturing center to the park, where the company now employs 180 people. Burton, the world's largest snowboard manufacturer, is staffed by people who share a passion for the sport. The company's hip and relaxed atmosphere attracts a younger workforce who like to dress casually, bring dogs to work and play basketball or ride skateboards in the parking lot.

SymQuest, the third tenant to sign on, is more of a button-down organization whose company symbol is the peregrine falconswift, powerful and precise, says president/CEO Larry Sudbay. SymQuest specializes in information and office technology, offering a range of products and services including designing, installing and supporting computer networks.

Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. moved its headquarters to Technology Park in 1996. Administration manager Wanda Mitchell is one of 200 employees at the new headquarters.

Easy access to the airport and the interstate made

Technology Park a logical choice for SymQuest, which has clients throughout Vermont and New England. When the company relocated from Cherry Street in Burlington three years ago, Sudbay underestimated what an impact the move would have on the morale of his employees.

"I knew people would be psyched to be here," he says. "They were giving up downtown, Church Street at the lunch hour, which was fun, so there was some sense of loss. But that was far outweighed by the benefits of being here, having easy parking, being in an office space with 18-foot ceilings, windows with the view of a Vermont countryside setting, instead of a wall. This created a very favorable effect on the employees of our company."

Next door to SymQuest is the new kid on the block, Burlee, a rapidly growing Web-hosting company. Burlee hosts tens of thousands of Web sites and more than 100,000 e-mail accounts for clients worldwide, including organizations such as Marriott Corp., Nestle Foods, American Airlines and the United Nations. The multi-million-dollar company is owned by 25-year-old Bill Maris, a graduate of Middlebury College. In his typical attire of slacks, sneakers and a T-shirt, Maris might be best described as the computer who wore tennis shoes. Though he studied neuroscience in college, he recognized the potential in Web hosting three years ago and decided to give it a go. His brainchild is now one of only a dozen companies of its kind in the world employing 30 workers and maintaining a highly sophisticated, 5,000-square-foot data center.

"We started downtown and then needed more space," Maris explains. "We looked at two or three different options on where we could put the company and decided on Technology Park for a variety of reasons." One of the selling points was the park's infrastructure, which includes fiber-optic lines and the most reliable power supply in the area.

Burton Snowboards' manufacturing center at Technology Park is one of four company factories worldwide. "About 30 percent of our world-wide production comes out of this facility," says Tony Helf, director of manufacturing. Burton's other factories are in Canada and Austria.

Burlee moved in about a year ago and currently occupies 15,000 square feet of space, with another 30,000 feet available as needed. "I really have no idea how much this company is going to grow," says Maris. "But that's what makes it fun."

If it grows too much, there's always the possibility of moving into one of the new buildings that will soon appear in the neighborhood. At least one new construction project will begin this spring. According to Illick, the new buildings in the park will be examples of "green architecture," structures that are environmentally sound and ecologically sensitive.

"This first building we're going to construct will be really a model of energy efficiency, which isn't to say it will have every cutting-edge element, but as a composite it will be really as good as it gets," says Illick, who is working closely with Efficiency Vermont, the state's new energy efficiency util
ity, to make sure he uses the best possible practices. He estimates that the building will consume 40 percent less fuel than an ordinary office building, as a result of its insulation values and the design of its operating mechanisms and heating and cooling systems.

Illick currently has two buildings a combined total of 120,000 square feet in the design and permit-acquisition phase. He notes that all of the new buildings in the park will be easy on the eyes. The rap on the green design movement in American architecture is that while it may produce buildings that are more energy-efficient, they haven't always been nice to look at. Illick plans to create structures that are eco-friendly and beautiful, too. "I think the buildings will be terrific examples of outstanding architecture," he says, noting that the park will also feature exquisite landscape architecture, which the owners feel is equally important.

"If you look at a lot of the buildings John has designed as an architect around the state, you can see how he works with parcels of land to make buildings fit in with the environment as much as possible," says Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corp. "He has a real passion for creating economic opportunity in Vermont and doing it in creative ways, using land and building and architecture to complement our culture and the landscape of our state. He's really talented, but he also understands economics, which is vital."

Cioffi notes that Technology Park with its proximity to transportation links and its telecommunications and electricity resources as well as the other infrastructure that South Burlington providesis a valuable asset for Chittenden County and for future economic development in Vermont. "And I know John will develop the park with a lot of character and quality," Cioffi states.

Illick and his partners plan to commit a percentage of each construction project to art and sculpture. "That's sort of a personal passion of all of ours," he says, "as well as something we think is good business."

The park's first sculpture was a collection of 50 concrete spheres. The 2-ton orbs, scattered throughout the property, arrived in 1998. A year later the so-called whales tails appeared. Officially called Reverence, the 10-ton sculpture, which used to sit on a hillside in Randolph, seems curious here in New England's only land-locked state. But Boyle, who serves as the park's on-site property manager, is quick to note that the whale is Vermont's state fossil.

Reverence was made from African granite by Vermont artist Jim Sardonis and commissioned by a wealthy metals trader who planned to build a motel and conference center in Randolph. When the plan for the motel fell through, Illick and Pearce bought the artwork.

"That's the thing about John," says Art Hogan, a planning consultant and former executive director of the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. "He's a multifaceted person and his sensitivity for the arts is a passion that's equal to his industrial development concepts. And that's rare to have a combination of that type in the business world today, and be successful in it."

Hogan is pleased about the development plans at Technology Park. "I think John's the right guy at the right time and the right location to make it all happen," he says. "He's unique, and a lot of people recognize his talent and are willing to step up to the plate and help him."

Sharing Hogan's enthusiasm about the future are the tenants of Technology Park. "Being on a site like this has an air of prestige associated with it, which we're very pleased to have," says SymQuest's Sudbay. "There's something about the location of the building being a beacon as you drive down 89. I can have my family in the car and say, 'That's where my office is.' To be situated in Vermont it's so pastoral and beautiful. You get the full flavor of Vermont on the commute to work, which gives you a special feeling. It's great.

"And if John wants to continue to develop the property in his way, bringing in other organizations and companies," Sudbay adds with a smile, "we look forward to having them all as our clients."

Originally published in January 2001 Business People-Vermont