Stay-at-Home Business

This former university fundraiser is doing development of a different kind

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Kim BorsavageJust before Thanksgiving in 2003, Kim Borsavage bought the Lang House on Main Street in Burlington — an 11-room bed and breakfast she had fantasized about owning, but a business she had never before tried.

One day in 1999 or 2000, less than a year after she had accepted an offer to be assistant dean of development and alumni relations at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, Kim Borsavage and her daughter, Julia, were driving down Main Street in Burlington when they saw a sign in front of the historic building that had, for decades, been headquarters for Lang Associates Real Estate. The sign said, “Future Bed & Breakfast.”

“I saw the sign and said, ‘That’s brilliant! Wish I’d thought of that. I guess one day I’ll just have to own it.’”

That was no idle comment. Borsavage had been noodling about owning a Vermont bed and breakfast ever since, following her husband’s death in 1995, she and her sister Mary had been spending summer vacations on Garden Island off the coast of Charlotte. She is a woman who follows her thoughts with action.

She bought books for aspiring innkeepers from the Professional Association of Innkeepers International. She took a seminar on innkeeping offered by consultants Oates & Bredfeldt “and started doing research,” she says.

“Research” involved taking her sons, Jack and Carter, on long-weekend mini-vacations to bed and breakfasts in Vermont and New Hampshire.

After learning about the conversion of the Lang House, Borsavage’s yen grew stronger. “I found Dick and Diane Palmer,” she says, “who run a company called Hospitality Consultants. I knew what I wanted to do.”

The Palmers sent her information on inns for sale, but she couldn’t get interested in any of them, until “one day in 2003, he called me up and said, ‘I think I have the place for you.’

“‘Where is it?’ I asked.

“He said, ‘Burlington — this is highly confidential — it’s the Lang House.’

“I jumped out of my seat and said, ‘You’re joking!’ He didn’t know I had this affinity for this place.” Borsavage took her first serious look at the property in the summer of 2003. She made an offer, put her house on the market, got her financial affairs in order, and at closing on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, she became the owner of the Lang House. It was the completion of her homecoming.

A homecoming, because Borsavage was no stranger to Vermont when she and her sister began taking their vacations on Garden Island back in the ’90s. The oldest of nine children, she was just entering ninth grade when her father’s employer, IBM, moved her family here.

After graduating from Champlain Valley Union High School, in 1972, she entered UVM to study studio art and art history. It was there that she met John Owen, her future husband. “We fell in love very quickly,” she says.

She and Owen met in photography class. He had come from Yale University, where his father had arranged an internship at the Yale Art Gallery between high school and college.

“He decided he wanted to get into a university that had a museum and the museum director would give him a job. Richard Janson, the museum director at the time, offered him a student job,” she says.

They married in 1974 and both took full-time jobs at the university. Taking advantage of the tuition benefits, they went to school part time, graduating in 1979.

Alison DoughtyAlison Doughty, who had worked at Lang House as a student, was hired in January as full-time assistant innkeeper. She and Borsavage trade off breakfast duties.

After graduation, they decided graduate school would be a good idea, and headed to the University of Virginia, where, says Borsavage, “five generations of Owens had gone.” Owen would go to business school while Borsavage studied art history.

“I think after four or five days — his first week of business school — John came home and said, ‘This is like boot camp. I don’t want to do this.’ I didn’t have a super-strong feeling about art history, so we both dropped out of graduate school, took our savings, and went to Europe for three months. Had a nice time, and I came home pregnant.”

They moved in with Owen’s parents, who lived in Charlottesville, Va. Owen entered the public administration program at the university and landed a job working for IBM in the D.C. area. They moved to College Park, Md., so Borsavage could go to graduate school at the University of Maryland college of education.

“I became very interested in federal policy, but it was the Reagan era, and there were no jobs.” She surveyed the job listings in the Chronicle of Higher Education and says she couldn’t believe how many development fund-raising jobs there were.

She began to investigate opportunities where she could learn the ropes of fund raising while she was still a graduate student. “Today, the University of Maryland is a fund-raising powerhouse,” she says, “but back in ’84-’85, it was, like many public institutions where the emphasis had been on state funding, a bare-bones fund-raising effort.

“I talked to a woman who was acting director of development and said, ‘Hey, I want to learn this. Can you use my skills?’ And she said, ‘Can you start tomorrow?’” The next day, says Borsavage, laughing, “she called me up and said, ‘Could I have a sample of your writing?’”

She found she was good at fund raising. When the college of engineering decided to create its own development office, Borsavage, seven months pregnant with her second child, decided to apply. Much to her surprise, George Dieter, the “very traditional” dean, hired her. She worked for him for 10 years and still receives Christmas cards from him.

Their last project, a capital campaign celebrating the college’s 100th anniversary, resulted in the largest gift she ever raised: $15 million. He retired shortly thereafter, and as Borsavage and her colleague were leaving to join the central development office, the college gave them a party, in which an announcement was made that an anonymous endowment had been made in their names to support engineering students at the college.

It was 1995, the year her husband died, and her new job as director of advancement services meant less travel so she could be home with her three children.

In 1997, not completely happy in her new position, she was approached by a headhunter about a job with American University, which she accepted. Eight months into the job, however, she realized this would not be a good fit, either.

One day, she received a call from a colleague who had moved from the University of Wisconsin to UVM. “He said, ‘Would you be interested in working for the dean of medicine at UVM?’” She started in June of ’99.

Retta Leaphart, Eryn Richell and Natalia Mohamed SuhaimiRetta Leaphart (left), Eryn Richell, and Natalia Mohamed Suhaimi assist cover duties ranging from housekeeping to breakfast service to meeting and greeting.

Borsavage did not quit her day job in November 2003 when she closed on the Lang House. Her accountant, she says, “was adamant that I not give up my university job.”

In retrospect, she says, “I thought I was totally under control, and I realize that underneath everything, I was completely terrified, because I had no idea what I was doing.”

Her sister Patsy, who had been living in Germany with her family, returned with her two children and went to work at the inn. Borsavage’s daughter helped out at the front desk, her sons worked after classes on maintenance and yard duties, and her niece worked after UVM classes and summers.

Borsavage lives in the carriage house behind the inn, and would get in early to do the breakfast prep work before leaving for the university at 7:30. “At the inn I was thinking about the university; at the university, I was thinking about the inn,” she says. She stayed on the university payroll until May 1, 2004.

She and Patsy had agreed that the first year, they would not make any radical changes in operation, but follow the lead of Bobbe Maynes and Bev Watson, the previous owners, who spent time training them.

“My sister and I went to one of these PAII conferences in April of 2000, and our brains practically exploded. We learned everything we didn’t know we didn’t know!”

Revenue that first year, says Borsavage, “pretty much mimicked the last year of Maynes-Watson.” After that, they restructured the room rates and launched a number of marketing efforts, which included reaching out to the university. The second year, they began to see the revenue increase.

“The university has been very good to us,” she says, from the perspective of guest referrals and finding students to work. Referrals have also come from the community.

“My husband had gotten a job at the university, and we were coming back to look for a place to live” says Deborah Schapiro, the publisher of Edible Green Mountains. It was Valentine’s weekend of 2004. I said to the real estate agent, ‘What do people do on Valentine’s Day up there? I can’t find a hotel!’ She said to try the Lang House.” Fortunately, there had been a cancellation.

“Deborah is one of those people who love to interview people,” says Borsavage. “I came out into the dining room and said, ‘Is everything OK?’ She started interviewing me. We’ve been friends ever since.”

“I remember Kim was in her work clothes,” says Schapiro. At that stage she was still working full time at UVM — so all dressed up cooking breakfast and looking corporate. I was very impressed that she was making her dream happen.”

Borsavage has just hired a full-time assistant innkeeper. Alison Doughty, who alternates cooking duties with her.

Food and its presentation are important at the Lang House. Borsavage is a member of the Vermont Fresh Network and proudly lists her sources. “Our eggs are from Salisbury, we do Vermont cheeses, all the meats are locally smoked, we do Klinger’s bread, and serve wonderful local syrup.

“Cooks are very territorial,” says Borsavage. “They don’t make what you make — that’s your thing. It’s like, ‘OK, you make popovers stuffed with scrambled eggs, but I’ll do my own thing.’”

Interestingly, all three of her children are in the food world. Julia is in a pastry arts program in Chicago; Carter works at American Flatbread; and Jack has worked at restaurants on Martha’s Vineyard.

Bosavage is nervous about the current recession, although the first six months of this year have been “amazingly strong.”

She has learned to step away occasionally. “Having really good young people working here who know what they’re doing, I have confidence I can leave.” She reads, takes her dogs for long walks, or plays ball with them.

True to her character, Borsavage continues to think about her next move — for example, fund raising, she confesses. “I sit on the Community Health Center’s board and chair their development committee. If I ever go back into fund-raising, I’ll go into human services.” •