How seven companies have fared for 20 years

Seven Times 20

by Tom Gresham

Twenty years in business is a real milestone. It's been said that out of 100 companies that start in a given year, at the end of 10, only one will remain. Does it follow that in 20 years, only one in 1,000 are still in business?

North Country Tile

Gail Gardener of North Country Tile in Williston.

In 1988, Gail Gardener attended a tile show in San Francisco. The event highlighted art in tiles, demonstrating a range of decorative displays that Gardener instantly found exhilarating.

"I came back really excited and said, 'We're going to do that here,'" says Gardener, the owner of North Country Tile in Williston. "And we did. I was pretty adamant about it then, and now it's what sets us apart."

North Country Tile has evolved in its two decades from an operation concerned largely with basic floor coverings to a store that opens customers' eyes to the vast possibilities of tile. Walking into North Country Tile's capacious showroom is like entering a startlingly colorful art gallery.

"People come in, stop dead in their tracks and go, 'Oh, my God!'" Gardener says. "When I designed this showroom with an architect, I wanted it to be a showstopper. I think it is." North Country Tile has been at its current location at the corner of Marshall Avenue and South Brownell Road for six years. It's a larger space than the business' original home at Blair Park.

Gardener bought into ownership at North Country Tile in 1987, though she'd started working at the store two years before. She says homeowner attitudes about tiles have changed dramatically in the ensuing years. Trends in decorating, trumpeted on the pages of more and more home design magazines, have encouraged more adventure and flair in the use of tile.

Gardener also points to the rise of big-box stores like Lowe's and The Home Depot apparent competitors as helping alert homeowners to tile's potential, though neither store features the same high-end material as North Country Tile.

"It has exposed more and more people to tile," Gardener says. "It's bringing more homeowners to the product, and that's good for us."

While the size of the sales staff at North Country Tile has remained steady over the years, Gardener has added office workers to help her manage the business. Gardener calls herself "a control freak," reluctant to cede much responsibility.

She is even more reluctant to sacrifice her time with clients. Although the pace required to handle both big-picture details and daily sales can be hectic, Gardener doesn't seem to mind.

"This job is still my life," Gardener says. "I'm always thinking about work. I'm anxious to get out the door in the morning and get going. Part of that is because I've got a slew of projects to work on, which is a really good thing."

A&B Beverage

Joanne and Bill Champagne of A&B Beverage in Grand Isle.

Bill Champagne knows the grocery business. It's in his bloodlines.

His grandparents operated the Champagne Store in South Hero for 45 years and his parents later ran the Keeler Bay Variety Store on a lot next door. Champagne was working in his parents' store by the tender age of 8.

It's no surprise, then, that Champagne has built a successful grocery of his own. A&B Beverage has been a fixture in the village of Grand Isle for 20 years. Born as a discount beverage store and bottle redemption center, A&B Beverage has grown beyond its original purpose and now is known to many of its patrons as "The Islands Supermarket," a moniker that has found its way to the sign out front.

The store's success as a purveyor of a wide variety of products and services from deli and meat to produce, dairy and wine recently earned it a nod as the Vermont Grocers' Association 2003 Retailer of the Year.

Champagne and his parents, Andre and Marion, bought the building that was to house A&B Beverage in 1982 while Bill was still a senior at the University of Vermont.

The Champagnes quickly recognized the demand in the area for a grocery store with a strong selection. The store began to shift from beverage center to supermarket in the early part of its life and has been a fast-developing operation ever since.

Family ties have always been integral to the Champagne family's groceries, and A&B Beverage has been no exception. Joanne, Bill's wife, left her job with Hill Associates in Colchester in 1998 to help run A&B Beverage. Their daughter and son-in-law, Michelle and Kevin Sendra, are employees.

Champagne bought his parents' share of the store in 1992 to allow them to enjoy their retirement. Andre passed away in 1993, but Marion still works at the grocery with her son.

The strength of the local demand for a full-service supermarket necessitated an expansion project in 1999. The Champagnes built a new addition to house hardware, sporting goods, large animal feed, farm supplies and the bottle redemption center. There's little that local residents can't find at A&B Beverage anymore.

He and Joanne have both been extremely active in the Grand Isle community over the years, serving in a number of local capacities. For instance, Champagne is the chief of the Grand Isle Fire Department. However their centrally located one-stop supermarket might just be their most important contribution to the community.

AC Performance Center

Andy Costello of AC Performance Center in Colchester.

Andy Costello, like many Americans, has indulged in a lifelong love affair with cars particularly the fast ones. However, Costello is more than just another Sunday afternoon NASCAR fan. For him, fast cars are an occupation.

Twenty years ago, Costello was employed as a millwright, repairing machinery and heavy equipment. On the side, he worked part-time, as much for pleasure as for money, building high-performance automobile engines. The part-time work proved to be time-consuming, Costello says, and "I had picked up so much momentum building engines that I had to decide whether I was going to stop building engines or I was going to start doing it full time."

Costello elected to leave his millwright work and open AC Performance Center in Colchester. Developed as a shop for constructing powerful race car engines, AC Performance Center today also offers a full selection of high-performance parts.

AC Performance Center serves participants from a number of the auto racing circuits in the region. Costello says being flexible is critical when one's business is so inherently susceptible to the decisions of others. For instance, about five years ago, the American-Canadian Tour (ACT) chose to require specified engines in the vehicles that race on its schedule. All the so-called "crate" engines were to be built at an ACT garage. Suddenly, AC Performance Center, which had built and repaired engines for a number of ACT drivers, was without an important source of its clientele.

Fortunately, AC had drawn a wide net for its business, over the years attracting customers from pavement racing, dirt racing, drag racing and the performance street market.

"We've always had to be diversified," says Costello. "but we might be even more so now."

Costello says his business has been blessed from the beginning with employees who share a passion for race cars and simply love their jobs. Two of his four employees have been with the business at least a decade. One former employee now has a position on the Joe Gibbs Racing team.

"Over 20 years, I can count the total number of employees I've had on my hands," Costello says. "That's pretty good. I've had a lot of people who love what they do and who are very conscientious. I couldn't have lasted this long without them."

Costello is happy with the path he has chosen.

"It's been good," he says. "Like all small businesses, there have been some struggles, but it's been worth it."

Advance Music

Michael Trombley of Advance Music in Burlington.

Technological advancements have in many ways made making music more accessible over the last 20 years.

When Advance Music opened its first store in 1984, a four-track analog cassette recorder sold for $1,400, according to Michael Trombley, owner of Advance Music. Today, that same recorder sells for $100 and its digital equivalent starts at $299.

"It's really quite amazing," Trombley says.

Advance Music has changed a great deal in 20 years, too. Launched as a small shop in Middlebury, the company went through several incarnations during its early years, but eventually found an expansive home on Maple Street in Burlington. The store today offers a wide variety of musical instruments and accessories, including professional sound and recording equipment.

Although improved technology has been helpful in developing new musicians, other recent trends have not been as advantageous. Trombley points to reduced school music budgets and increasingly fewer live music venues in the Burlington area as negative influences that have emerged.

"We try to help this by offering discounts to institutional and private instructors, singer-songwriter competitions, high school band contests and low-price equipment rentals for music-related charity events," Trombley says. "It is a constant challenge to keep the music alive."

Meanwhile, quality service, Trombley says, has proved an effective strategy to combating the store's chief competition catalogs and burgeoning online outfits.

"We employ 14 people who are infatuated with all things musical," Trombley says. "Customers ask us an opinion on something and our answers are truly based on experience. I think this is an invaluable tool to help a potential buyer make an informed decision, hence the buying experience is all positive. That's hard to duplicate with a catalog or online."

Trombley, a guitarist, was a frequent visitor to Advance Music during its first decade. Then, in the early 1990s, he abruptly ended a design/engineering career "to go somewhere else in my life." Eventually, he bought a half-ownership in Advance Music. Today, he's the sole owner.

"I still wake up every morning very excited to go to work," Trombley says. "I've never once looked back on my decision to leave operating Advance Music is still a dream come true for me."


Kim Dannies (left) and Judy Marshke of PrimeTime in South Burlington.

Sometimes, building a business can be both an end and a means.

Twenty years ago when Kim Dannies and Judy Marschke launched PrimeTime, a movement and gymnastics center for children ages five and younger, they were not only creating a business they believed in; they were laying a foundation for future ventures.

"Our original business model was to create a profitable business with a defined set of parameters and operations that we could delegate to a manager, and then move on to create new and different businesses," Dannies says.

Dannies and Marschke were friends and fellow gymnastics instructors when they founded PrimeTime, eager to test their abilities. Together, the partners developed a curriculum and designed special equipment to teach young children through physical activity. It was an innovative concept that has become an increasingly common aspect of preschool education.

"We were really ahead of the curve on it," Dannies says.

The curriculum was not limited to children's instruction. The PrimeTime program included a complete childbirth and parenting program for adults.

"We quickly became a 'neighborhood' for the many families that joined our program and many, many of those friendships endure and thrive to this day," Dannies says.

As does the friendship between Dannies and Marschke. Dannies says the two naturally complement each other: Marschke is the creative educator and manager, Dannies has the business mind.

"We are dedicated to the prospect of always working together, in some capacity, for many years to come," says Dannies.

The popularity of the PrimeTime programs allowed Dannies and Marschke to make longtime employee Rachel Poulin manager in 1994, freeing the founders to pursue other interests. Both have found their own successful niches.

Marschke developed a sales and marketing business that provides entrepreneurs with a business development system called The Unfranchised, while Dannies owns BrainTrust Business Consulting LLC, providing closely held companies with executive coaching and strategic planning services.

Dannies says the experience developing PrimeTime into a successful business was central to their ensuing careers. The partners remain owners of PrimeTime, though Poulin and five teachers handle the daily operations of what is now a nationally accredited private preschool.

"We've weathered many of the battles it takes to run a business successfully for 20 years," she says. "We know the joys and sorrows of entrepreneurship. This experience and credibility are invaluable factors in every exchange we have with our current clients."

Mountain Air Systems

The O'Farrell family, from left: Tim, Dede, Jack and Liam, owners of Mountain Air Systems in South Burlington.

During its first 20 years, Mountain Air Systems has sketched the sort of logical growth arc other businesses envy.

At its inception, Mountain Air serviced heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in commercial buildings. Today, the company is a full-service mechanical contractor, able not only to service air systems for commercial buildings, but also to design, build and install them.

"We've grown a lot over the years, but it's always been steady," says Liam O'Farrell, chief of Mountain Air's construction division. "We've added things over time, picked up customers through word of mouth. It's been a controlled thing."

O'Farrell says Mountain Air's move to becoming full-service has allowed customers building commercial facilities a simpler process for considering their heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The company's decision to forge an agreement with the Local 693 plumbers and pipe-fitters union netted highly skilled labor capable of complex design and construction work. Instead of dealing with multiple contractors, commercial developers could suddenly deal with just one.

"It's worked out well for us," says O'Farrell. "We can produce a better product because we can keep everything under our own control. We don't have to contract out for any of the work. We can put together a budget for a client for everything from the start to the finish."

Mountain Air is a family business. O'Farrell's father, Jack, was one of three partners who founded Mountain Air Systems two decades ago. He is the only original partner still with the company, actively participating from his owner position.

Jack's wife, Dede, serves as business manager, and their son Tim O'Farrell's brother is service manager.

"Some people think we're crazy to work together like we do, but we get along pretty well," O'Farrell says.

However, he and Tim will soon be the only O'Farrells at Mountain Air. Their parents plan to retire from the company in the near future, leaving them in charge of the company and its 40 employees.

O'Farrell says he and his brother are ready for the responsibility, both having been fixtures at the company since they were kids.

"We've both been here for a long time," O'Farrell says. "We know what's going on. It should be a pretty smooth transition."

Closet Crafters

Stuart MacDonald (left) and Larry Godard of Closet Crafters in Williston.

In recent years, Stuart MacDonald has tracked the way closets are used in new homes. According to his calculations, new houses built in 1995 included an average of 8.2 closets. By 2003, new houses were built with an average of more than 12 closets an approximately 50 percent increase in just eight years.

Needless to say, business has been good at Closet Crafters.

MacDonald, the general manager, says the Williston business has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years as people increasingly look to include more storage space in their new homes. MacDonald says the business has accomplished its aggressive 10 percent to 15 percent annual growth goals each of the last five years.

"We've done well," he says.

At its birth, Closet Crafters was a three-man operation run out of a barn on U.S. 7. The focus was heavily on wire shelving. Today, the business has eight employees, including four relatives of one of the founders, Larry Godard. Wire shelving still provides the bulk of Closet Crafters' sales, but several other products are available. Most conspicuously, Closet Crafters now has a business arm that sells and installs invisible fencing.

Godard remains a central contributor to the business, handling sales calls. His daughter, Julie MacDonald, is the office manager. Stuart MacDonald, Godard's son-in-law, came aboard five years ago.

MacDonald says referrals and repeat business are critical to Closet Crafters' continued robust health. The business was able to recently move from Vermont 2A near Taft Corners to a less-traveled but larger location on Shunpike Road because retail traffic plays such a small role in Closet Crafters' success.

Residential development is much more essential, MacDonald says. He serves on the Vermont Home Builders and Remodelers Association board of directors just like his father-in-law did before him.

"New construction is near and dear to our heart," says MacDonald. "It's the cornerstone of our business. We've probably forged a relationship with every major residential developer and contractor in northern Vermont."

MacDonald consulted for Closet Crafters for five years before joining the business full time. Previously, he had worked in the international finance department at Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc.

"It's been interesting the way a corporate skill set has meshed with a small business," MacDonald says. "I'd never have had the entrepreneurial ability to have started this business, but I can come in and help take it to the next level."

Originally published in June 2004 Business People-Vermont