These women have been business partners since 1995
by Heleigh Bostwick
Brokers Bonnie Gridley (left) and Nancy Foster are the owners of RE/MAX Champlain Valley Properties on U.S. 7 in Middlebury. They founded their firm in 1995.
“Home is where the heart is,” says Bonnie Gridley. She should know. A Teaneck, N.J., native, she moved eight times with her family while she was growing up. Nancy Foster, on the other hand, is Vermont-born and -raised, having lived out of state for only one year of her life. “I love change,” says Gridley, “whereas Nancy is more of a let’s-do-it-this-way-because-it-works type person.”
While the pair may be a study in contrasts, it hasn’t stopped them from forming a thriving business partnership as co-owners and brokers at RE/MAX Champlain Valley Properties in Middlebury. “We come to things from a different point of view and it makes our business very successful, and our appreciation for differences makes us better and stronger,” says Gridley.
Both have received lifetime achievement awards from RE/MAX. “Nancy and I have always complemented each other that way,” Gridley says. “We’ve always been quite equal in production and in our contributions back into the business.”
Neither anticipated a career in real estate when they graduated from college. Foster, who was born in St. Albans, moved with her family to Middlebury right before her freshman year of high school and attended the University of Vermont, where she earned a bachelor and a master of arts in history.
“I graduated on Sunday, got married on the following Saturday, and went back to UVM to go to grad school,” Foster recalls with a laugh. She and her husband, a dairy farmer and composter whose family founded Moo Doo composted cow manure and is known as “Mr. Moo,” live in Weybridge and have three daughters, “three really good sons-in-law,” and six grandchildren, she says with a laugh. “Robert and I started going out in high school and just celebrated our 45th wedding anniversary.”
Gridley and her husband, Phil, who also works in the office, celebrated their 40th anniversary in August of last year. “That’s another thing we have in common,” quips Gridley. “Long-term marriages.”
She and Phil met on a blind dinner date at the house of a mutual friend. “We were engaged six months later and got married six months after that,” she recalls with a smile. “It was the summer before my senior year of college.”
They lived in Massachusetts until a slump in the construction industry there led Phil, an engineer, to find a job with a farm engineering company in Addison County. They moved to Vermont in 1974.
They have two children and one grandchild, Megan, who is a junior at East Carolina University. “Part of why we still work is to help support our granddaughter in college,” says Gridley, who is 61.
Family is important to Foster and Gridley and, for both, is the main reason that they ended up with real estate careers. “I was a stay-at-home mom until our youngest daughter was old enough to go to preschool,” Foster says. “The appeal of real estate was that I could work part time. You’re also working when other people aren’t working, typically nights and weekends. I could attend events at school and do things with the children during the day.”
Gridley received a bachelor of arts in education and a bachelor of science in biology from Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. “My plan was to be a biology teacher,” she says. Instead she ran a pre-school for 10 years while her children were young.
“When my son was in fourth grade and my daughter in sixth, they told me they didn’t want to bring their friends over,” Gridley says. “When I asked why, they told me they were embarrassed by all the toys for 4-year-olds scattered around the house.” Gridley laughs. “I had to grow up and get a real job!” She decided to shadow a friend who owned a real estate firm and that’s how she entered real estate.
Foster, who is legally the “broker in charge because I’m older,” and Gridley met while working as brokers for another agency. “When we made the decision to go into business together, we had to figure out whether to buy a franchise or go out on our own,” says Foster. They decided to go with a nationally known franchise, RE/MAX, and set up shop in 1995.
They leased an old farmhouse on U.S. 7 south of town that had been a real estate office since 1946, and bought it within a couple of years. “The building was owned by Gladys Murdoch her son, Wedge, for their business, Murdochs of Middlebury,” Foster recalls. The main office occupies the first floor, but Gridley’s office is upstairs. There is a separate apartment on the second floor that is rented out.
Gridley and Foster work full time as brokers. Phil works part time and is the go-to guy for anything to do with computers or handyman projects. Peggy Connor, the office manager, handles the MLS interface and property photos, sets up appointments, covers the front desk and phone, and “does any other job we need to have done,” says Foster. Diana Berthiaume, a Realtor who is self-employed, shares the office.
“It’s not a traditional franchise,” says Gridley. “We pay Peggy and Phil’s salaries, but Nancy, Diana, and I each make our own living.” Gridley explains that in a traditional real estate office, she and Nancy would be managing a staff of agents who sell. “Nancy and I liked the idea of the agents being responsible for themselves, and like that we are able to continue working with buyers and sellers.”
Foster notes that the biggest single change in the real estate business is the Internet. “We used to have to come up with properties for people to look at, but now everything is online including the MLS [Multiple Listing Service)],” she says. “What really made an impression was when, about 13 or 14 years ago, a couple from San Francisco called me about a property on Lake Champlain. They flew out, looked at it, and bought it. That wouldn’t have happened without the Internet.”
“It’s been a big time saver and the changes in technology have been consumer friendly,” says Gridley, “but the process of buying, selling, and financing have become much more complicated than it used to be.”
Foster agrees. “When I first started, mortgage documents were about three pages long and people would actually read their mortgages. Now they are at least 16 pages long, no one wants to read it, and they depend on their lawyer to assure them that it’s all standard verbiage.”
Jonathan Heppell, an attorney with Marsh & Wagner, has worked with Foster on half a dozen closings on behalf of both buyers and sellers in the last year since he relocated his firm to Middlebury. “Nancy is great to deal with, eminently practical, and very experienced,” he says. “She’s always good at providing a solution when the inevitable blips arise at closings.”
The partners are active in their community. Foster, an active Rotarian, is the incoming president of Middlebury Rotary. Gridley is president of the Addison County Board of Realtors, as was Foster a few years ago. “It’s really important for us to give back to the communities both in monetary donations and volunteering time,” says Gridley. “We have always supported United Way and I donate money to the Children’s Miracle Network with every transaction sale.”
When they’re not working, they both enjoy traveling with their spouses, and have visited countries around the globe as well as destinations within the United States. “The best vacation of my life was last summer,” says Foster, referring to a trip to Greece.
Forty years ago, she and her husband befriended a student from Greece who attended Middlebury College. Over the years they kept in touch and finally took him up on his invitation to visit. “We spent the first week in Athens and the second week at his cottage on the island of Paros. It was absolutely fabulous.” In October, the Fosters are going to China on a trip sponsored by the Addison County Chamber of Commerce.
Gridley’s dream vacation is to travel to the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, and Bora Bora, but she’s putting that off until her granddaughter finishes college. In the meantime, for her anniversary this year, she and Phil are going to fly to North Carolina, rent a car, and drive along the South Carolina coast to Myrtle Beach before flying home. She also has a summer home on Lake Champlain. “I love being on the water,” she says. “When I get home I feel like I am on vacation.”
“I enjoy selling real estate because of the relationships with the people we work with,” says Gridley. Beth Thompson, a professional singer and voice teacher at Middlebury College and Castleton State has known Gridley since 1988 when she bought her first home in Starksboro. “I trust her implicitly,” she says. “When I sold my second home in Bristol she advised me on what to do to get it ready for sale and to wait for the best offer. Sure enough I was able to get the full listing price.”
“As long as we remain healthy and we enjoy doing this, we plan to continue,” says Gridley.
Foster echoes that wholeheartedly. “Real estate is a fabulous career. And besides, she says, laughing, “At my age I’m not changing careers!” •