Uncommon Carrier

Trey Pecor, president of Lake Champlain Transportation Co. in Burlington, didn't always dream of going into the family business. It took sowing some wild oats to discover his entrepreneurial spirit.

Trey Pecor had big shoes to fill, and it looks like a perfect fit

by Julia Lynam

For hundreds of years Lake Champlain was a major route for north-south travel in this part of the world. Following colonization, the lake lay on the much-traveled route from New York City to Montreal and the first post-colonization ferries ran north-south. By the mid 19th century, however, a multitude of ferryboats of various kinds plied back and forth across the Lake.

In 1825, a company chartered in Burlington absorbed several of the early steamboat companies. The present day Lake Champlain Transportation Co. still operates under that original charter.

Over the years, the company weathered intense competition for ferry routes. It survived the vicissitudes of a rapidly developing and changing economy to emerge in the mid 20th century, under the ownership of Lewis Evans, Richard Wadhams and James Wolcott, as the sole operator of ferries on Lake Champlain. When they acquired the company in 1948, it offered the same three routes that we see today.

The company's 35-year-old president, Trey Pecor, assumed responsibility six years ago, following in the footsteps of his father, Ray, who had purchased the company from Evans, Wadhams and Wolcott in 1976. When he took over, his dad remained for the first year or so, he says, "supporting me; but now it's my company entirely."

The sound of a ferry leaving the harbor just outside his office at Burlington's King Street dock brings a smile to Pecor's face: "My first memory of the company is just growing up in the family knowing that this wonderful company existed. My father loved it and brought it home with him, there was a general feeling of well-being around the company when I was a kid."

Pecor wasn't always sure that he wanted to go into the family business. "I think my parents would have liked me to go to UVM and straight into the company," he says, "but I had other ideas." In a move that echoed his father's own history Ray also cut his business teeth by going out on his own rather than joining the family business. Pecor, an avid fisherman and skier, answered the call of the outdoor life and enrolled instead in Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

College was almost a sideline to this budding entrepreneur. He noticed that Colorado lacked bagel shops, so the day after graduation saw the opening of his first "Durango Bagel" shop. Bagels sold like ... well, hotcakes, and within five years, Pecor had built the business to include 12 franchise stores and two company stores scattered over the Midwest and western states.

"It was an unbelievable experience," he recalls. "I learned so much about business; I had to deal with the whole thing from the bottom up. That experience has helped me and helped this company.

In 1999, Pecor decided to sell Durango Bagel and move back to Vermont to join the family business. Why? "I fell in love!"

Pecor had met his future wife, Dominique Serle, an Australian, on a family Christmas vacation in the Bahamas. They set up home in Durango, but with no family near and Pecor often away on business, the young couple decided it was no place to settle down and raise a family. The time was right to finally join the business.

"My father wanted me to come back; by then I'd gotten my feet under me with business and with people," Pecor says.

"Management by wandering" is the technique Trey Pecor says has allowed him to become a familiar figure to all 250 summertime employees of the ferry company he runs. Pictured from left are Henry Sorrell, vice president; Deb Foley, human resources manager; Russ Fox, assistant port engineer; and Heather Stewart, operations manager.

"My parents have always been very supportive of me. They may have wanted me to go straight into the company, but they still supported me in doing what I wanted to do. That's what I'd like to see with my children: if one of them wanted to come into the company, I'd be thrilled, but I'll support them in doing what they wish to do." It will be while before he has to think seriously about that question. His daughters are Lily, 3, and Sage, 1.

At work, Pecor practices what he calls "management by wandering." That means he's a familiar figure to all 225 summertime employees of the Lake Champlain Transportation Co. at docks, offices and ferries along the lake.

For now, he is fully occupied running the company with its nine boats transporting a total of a million vehicles annually across the lake on three crossings. The Burlington/Port Kent and Charlotte/Essex routes are primarily seasonal tourist routes, while the Grand Isle/Cumberland Head route takes the lion's share of traffic 85 percent of the total and growing. "It's a commuter route," Pecor explains. "We've grown like crazy in Grand Isle in the past 20 years. Now that we can go through the ice and be reasonable and reliable 365 days a year, the ferry is the extension of the highway into New York state, and we have 2,300 daily commuters."

Development of ice-breaking techniques that keep the Grand Isle ferry running year-round was a major feature of the older Pecor's tenure as president of LCTC. Now, to keep a passage open through the winter ice, the ferries have specially reinforced hulls and stainless steel propellers; the docks are "bubbled" to keep the water moving. None of this would succeed, according to Pecor, without the immense experience and dedication of the crews who endure the brutally cold winter conditions to keep the boats running.

The company has built up a reputation of expertise in winter ferry operations, says Pecor: "We're the professionals and people call us. Recently a company who wanted to run barges through the Hudson Canal in the ice consulted us. We've made all the mistakes and we're getting damn good at this!"

Art Cohn, executive director of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, has turned to LCTC for expertise on more than one occasion. "They were able to provide advice, for instance, on the anchoring system for the museum's replica Revolutionary War gunboat, the Philadelphia," he says.

"The museum has enjoyed a long and very positive relationship with the transportation company," Cohn continues. "I've enjoyed working with them and studying them over the past 20 years. The company, with its captains and pilots and engineers, is a living legacy of the 19th-century steamboat days and a living embodiment of the commercial era past."

What's up with Dad?

We featured Trey Pecor's dad, Ray, 20 years ago in our second issue. Ray Pecor, notoriously reticent of the limelight, and now spending his time on "baseball and other real estate activities" he owns the Vermont Expos says: "It's not easy for a son to take over a company from his father, and I wanted Trey to have the easiest go. I was looking forward to him coming back and taking over the business, although he'd said for years that he wouldn't. It's been a wonderful transition and I've been very pleased and proud to have him buy the company from me."

Since 2000, the ferry company and the museum have been partners in "an exciting project to reconstruct a part of the commercial history of the lake. "The maritime museum was interested in building a large schooner on the waterfront and couldn't find a place for it," says Cohn. "One day I was walking through the sheds of the transportation company, and I approached Trey with the crazy idea that he might give us the shed for four years I thought there was no harm in asking.

"Trey almost instantly embraced the idea. He saw the benefits to the community at large and in particular to his employees, many of whom are mariners in the rich tradition of the lake.

"It's been like a marriage of two compatible families, and all of us have been enriched by the creation of this extraordinary schooner, which is ready to be launched July 3. Nothing we've asked for has been too much. They have donated the space and have made a financial donation to the project. It's been an extraordinary statement of commitment.

"Over the past years" Cohn continued, "I've watched 'Ray's son' become 'Trey.' Ray casts a big shadow, but I've seen Trey emerging as his own man: a very good guy and a family man who truly had the best interests of the company, employees and the community at heart."

Captain Dave Gelinas is on the M/V Valcour this summer. In winter, he's at the helm in Grand Isle.

Cohn believes the company is indispensable to the lake as a transportation link, and that its three crossings, all of them active for more than 200 years, are tangible reminders of the extraordinary history of Lake Champlain.

History, of course, does not stand still, and the Lake Champlain Transportation Co. has enhanced the rich catalog of boats that have plied the Lake with its newest addition, launched in 2003.

"Northern Lights is our answer to a lake steamer," says Pecor: "She's a beautiful vision of a cruise boat. She represents growth for the company and a chance for some new young skippers to get experience on the lake."

Pecor has entrusted the running of the company's cruise business, Lake Champlain Cruises, which uses both Northern Lights and the larger ferries, to Burlington restaurateur Al Gobeille, who has run the company's dockside café, Breakwaters, and the snack bars on the Burlington ferries, for four years. This arrangement leaves Pecor free to focus on the ferry business.

"We have a very interesting relationship," muses Gobeille. "It's like a partnership without partners. Trey is involved with the month-to-month but not the day-to-day operations.

"It means a lot to me to be working with him and the ferry company. Trey's key personality traits are that he's an unbelievable optimist, and he always looks at the big picture. He never worries about the little details he leaves me to take care of them.

"For example, although he has experience in the catering business, when we took over Breakwaters and the first couple of months were pretty rocky he always came in with compliments and praise. Even though there were things obviously wrong, he knew that I would put them right. His positive attitude helped immensely."

With Northern Lights on line, the company ran 115 cruises in 2003, up from 60 in the biggest previous year. "I think we can do more this year," says Gobeille. "The secret ingredient to any business is patience. I don't want to jump around and make changes; it confuses the customer.

"Northern Lights is brand new and high quality, and she's a one-party boat. If it's your wedding, you come aboard and take control of your own private yacht."

Flourishing though the cruise trade may be, it's seasonal. Pecor also never loses sight of the company's bread and butter, the Grand Isle ferry, where he is looking forward to a dock expansion at Cumberland Head in a few years, when a road extension is completed on the New York side.

Pecor's "management by wandering" and open-door policy have helped him learn the company inside out and focus on the main business and on the staff.

"We have a family here many people have met their husbands or wives here and I've had a lot of fun with my staff, building a team over the past five years: Russ Fox and John Paul, the engineering managers, represent the future of the engineering of this company; and Debbie Foley, human resources manager, has been phenomenal. This company is all about people.

"The way I look at it is this: I'm lucky enough to be here for a certain time. The company was here before me and it will be here after me. If I can keep it healthy until I pass it on to the next president, whether that's a family member or someone else, that will be something."

Originally published in July 2004 Business People-Vermont