Doing Business in Vermont

We asked how things are going and got an earful

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

kelly-devlin-bba1211Kelly Devine, executive director, Burlington Business Association

Last August, we asked six Vermont business owners/operators what they like and don’t like about doing business in our state. The lively replies were well received by our readers, so we thought we’d ask another group for their opinions.

This year’s panel: H. Wright Caswell, partner and general sales manager, Exterus Technology for Business; Kelly Devine, executive director, Burlington Business Association; Jack Glaser, president and co-founder, MBF Bioscience; H. Kenneth Merritt Jr., attorney at law, Merritt & Merritt & Moulton; and Jamie Stewart, executive director, Rutland Economic Development Corp.

What do your appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

As expected, there was general agreement that Vermont is a great place to live and work.

“I think that we have one primary calling card — a particular strength — and when we’re doing recruitment, it’s what we focus on,” said Stewart, whose job is to encourage and enhance business success in Rutland County. “That’s the quality — the work ethic — of the workforce. It’s really what offsets many of the extra costs of doing business in Vermont. It’s not an easy place to do business when compared to a lot of other regions, but what we can do is provide a workforce that is productive, and that has a lot of value.

Merritt, whose firm works to build and guide publicly and privately held growth companies and the angel, venture capital, and private equity investors that support them, spoke for himself and his clients. “I would say that one of the best aspects of doing business in Vermont is the openness and willingness of virtually everyone involved in the Vermont business community to assist other businesses. It’s very easy to get in touch with people.”

ken-merritt-hkm_headshot2H. Kenneth Merritt Jr., attorney at law, Merritt & Merritt & Moulton

Glaser echoed this sentiment. “The people in Vermont, most of them are great, and there are a lot of support businesses for us — legal, accounting, and others that support our core business. There’s a very high quality of professionalism. Then the employees we get are also great. Being in Vermont is just a great place to live. Very high on the list of what we appreciate about doing business: the locale, the environment, school systems, the arts are great. It’s a great environment. The food is great, too,” he said, concluding his list of “greats” with a chuckle.

Like Merritt, Devine was speaking for her members, who, she said, appreciate that “they get to be in a place with a great community and a high-quality environment and lifestyle.”

Exterus sells Xerox, plus HP and Microsoft solutions from the IT side. Caswell’s major focus is his sales territory, and his sales reps who cover all but the southern part of Vermont (plus two counties in New Hampshire). He enjoys the willingness of people to talk openly about their issues. “They’re very open-minded and very willing to discuss opportunities.”

wright_caswellH. Wright Caswell, partner and general sales manager, Exterus Technology for Business

What’s your biggest gripe? Are there particular regulations you find difficult or easy?

Not surprisingly, this question garnered the most comments. Caswell doesn’t encounter regulation as a daily part of his work, but he told a story about a fellow he hired last year who had owned a company in Colorado. “He finds it much harder to sell in this marketplace because he finds everybody is very ‘Yankee thrifty.’ They want to try multiple solutions and look at multiple deals, where out in Colorado, it’s a much easier sales cycle.” Caswell’s personal challenges come from certain areas where not having a local storefront or a big presence in the area makes it difficult to create inroads.

“The biggest gripe isn’t about one single piece of legislation,” said Devine, “it’s more that the summation of all those makes it challenging, not only from a financial, but also an operations and process aspect. I feel that every time the Legislature gets together there’s talk of some new tax or regulation or ordinance, and businesses feel like it would be great if someone would look at the totality of what we’re carrying on our shoulders.”

Glaser, too, sees our elected officials as the source of much difficulty. “I can think of many instances, but the first one is — I would call it a fiasco — health care. Basically, we were following around a bunch of politicians who have ideas that are unrealistic, and it puts so much uncertainty into the business climate. For example, the fiasco last year with the Vermont Health Connect website. Every year it’s getting worse it seems, and we have a scramble as to what we are going to do for health insurance this year.”

jack-glaserJack Glaser, president and co-founder, MBF Bioscience

This uncertainty is of concern because businesses can’t make plans, and they like to have an environment where they can see into the future, predict expenses. “I know the politicians are trying to do good, but they’re not thinking it through. It seems like they’re just a bunch of rank amateurs,” he said of the participants the last few years. “That includes some of the tax policies like cloud computing they’ve been sailing around; sales tax; income tax changes; property tax changes; throwing out so many untried ideas. They’re thinking about the general well-being of the population but are forgetting that businesses help people work and have good jobs, and when businesses don’t thrive, they will move.”

Stewart has similar concerns. “I think the regulatory process that we have in Vermont — the goals — are absolutely correct; it’s the method for how we get there,” he said and mentioned the example of Farmer Mold & Machine in North Clarendon. “This is a business that had planned to move here and create a number of high-wage jobs, but ended up not making the move, and it was solely because of the delays in what was a process that was badly misused by opponents.”

How hard or easy is it for you to find a workforce here?

“There are few government-imposed impediments on business growth,” said Merritt, whose firm represents emerging growth companies. What they do find difficult is recruiting the workforce, because Vermont has a limited labor pool. “It is difficult to attract the right type of employees to Vermont, be they software developers or Internet gurus, because we have a very competitive marketplace with Boston and Cambridge so near. If you’re 20-something, do you want to live in Boston or Burlington? Each has its attractions.”

jamie-stewartJamie Stewart, executive director, Rutland Economic Development Corp.

Devine’s members find it difficult, “at least in Chittenden County, where we are. For service-sector jobs, it’s challenging to retail employees, and in the more professional jobs — white collar — it’s tough to recruit and retain.” She said the cost of living is a major factor.

Finding people to replace the incumbent workforce that is retiring is of great concern, said Stewart. “There’s a lot going on, and you start with the companies themselves, which are investing in their workforce and looking to develop talent in those existing in the workforce.”

Exterus has an added challenge because of the rapidly changing technical nature of its business, said Caswell. “Although we need people, it’s very hard to find someone motivated and willing to learn because our business changes every day. It’s much different than it was 10 to 15 years ago. It’s much more a solution-technology sales situation than just selling a box, if you will.”

MBF Bioscience is one of the companies finding creative ways to build an available workforce. “I would say it’s my biggest gripe,” said Glaser. “It’s very difficult for us to find qualified workers here. A lot of our workers need to be very technically skilled. We do different things. One thing we started doing recently is outreach to the younger crowd while they’re still in school. People in high school or especially in college, we try to get them here as interns so they will have a good time and become employees. What we’re having to do is find the people before they even graduate.

“Another thing we do is have people move here, so we might do a regional or national job search and find people and entice them to move here. Both of these techniques are pretty time consuming. If we had our business in Boston, I’m sure we could put an ad in the paper and get a lot of qualified people with technical backgrounds.” Keeping young people from moving away is a goal. “I see so many really talented kids who grew up in Vermont; then they move out. I’d like to keep more of them here.”

What advice would you give somebody looking to open a business here?

This is a subject Merritt and Stewart know well. Merritt extols the approachability of Vermont’s politicians, government agencies, and the private sector. “Take advantage of the openness and collaborative nature of Vermont; meet people in the private sector — other entrepreneurs, government folk — and find out what resources are available to grow a business.”

“Embedded in the regional development corporations is a really robust system for providing technical assistance to businesses,” said Stewart. “It’s really important for people to reach out and utilize that system, because it can make many of the processes significantly easier.”

“You have to be very self-reliant” during this process,” said Glaser, because there’s not a lot of support from government policies. “Some, but only a very few.”

Devine, who grew up near the ocean and was a “pretty-well-seasoned boater and sailor,” cited a sailor’s advice for encountering a new port: “Gain local knowledge. Talk to people who use that port every day to help you navigate. And one way is association connections: the Chamber, our association, the SBDC [Small Business Development Corp.], SCORE [Service Corps of Retired Executives], and in Burlington, because many people are looking for space, talk to our local property owners and real estate folks. They’re really great.”

Or, in Caswell’s words, “Do your research.” •