Doing Business in Vermont

COMPLETE INTERVIEWS

Recently, we asked six Vermont business owners/operators what they like and don’t like about doing business in our state. Below are the complete interviews.

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.

Jamie Stewart, executive director, Rutland Economic Development Corp.

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

I think that we have one primary calling card — particular strength — and when doing recruitment, it’s really what we focus on. And that’s the quality, the work ethic of the workforce. That’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.

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

I think the regulatory process that we have in Vermont — the goals are absolutely correct; it’s the method for how we get there that’s troublesome. We’ve had several projects in recent years, and in recent months in this region, that have gone through a regulatory process that was lengthy, expected, and absolutely unnecessary. As a result, in one case, a business that had planned to move here and create a number of high-wage jobs 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. And that’s what we allow in Vermont. And that lack of predictability creates the biggest issue for us as we try to go forward with stuff.

What company was that?

It’s been in the papers: Farmer Mold & Machine in North Clarendon.

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

It’s becoming more difficult. The reality is that we have a large number of people that will be retiring in the coming years, and that’s where our bigger concern is — replacing that incumbent workforce that is retiring. A lot is going on, and really, where you start? That is with the companies themselves. Companies are investing in their workforce, looking to develop talent in people who are existing in the workforce.

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

Well, to access the programs that provide the support. Embedded in the regional development corporations is really a robust system for providing tech assistance for businesses. and because it’s a resource that exists, it’s really important for people to reach out and utilize that system, because it can make many of the processes significantly easier. An example is working with businesses as they come through. We may have a better understanding of the rules and regulations, can help them find the right people to talk to to get state support, help with some of the expenses, and just having that leg up, that assistance can make a big difference.

Anything else?

I just want people to really understand that we do have some really strong manufacturing operations in Vermont, particularly here in Rutland County. It’s the manufacturers driving our revitalization, and the wages continue to be at the highest of any sector. So with those two pieces in place, we need to find better ways to support those manufacturers and use the issues important to them and make Vermont as supportive a place to do business as possible.

H. Kenneth Merritt Jr., managing director, Merritt & Merritt & Moulton, Burlington

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

Well, I guess I would preface my reply in terms of our doing business in Vermont — it’s our clients [who do business in Vermont]. I would say both from my personal and their perspective, 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.

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

I guess I would be in the camp that — you certainly over the years have heard a lot about regulation stymying business growth, and Act 250 — and at least in the sectors we represent, which are emerging-growth companies, not necessarily large manufacturers, regulation is really not an issue. There are really few government-imposed impediments on business growth. What clients and companies do find difficult is recruiting a workforce because Vermont has a limited labor pool, and it is difficult to attract the right type of employees to Vermont, be they software developers or Internet gurus, because it’s a very competitive marketplace, with Boston and right into the heart of Boston. If you’re 20 something, do you want to live in Boston or Burlington? Each has its attractions.

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

Workforce: I think, in virtually any rapidly growing company you talk to will say that is their Number One challenge.

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

We do that. I think back to my first response: Really 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. Politicians are very approachable, as are government agencies, and the private sector.

Jack Glaser, president and co-founder of MBF Bioscience, Winooski

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

Well, I think what I like best about doing business in Vermont is the people. The people in Vermont, most of them are great, and there are a lot of support businesses for us. The legal, accounting, and other businesses that support our core business are terrific people to work with. And there’s a very high quality of professionalism. Then the employees we get are also great. And being in Vermont is just a great place to live. That goes up very high on what we appreciate about doing business. The locale and the environment are great, school systems are great, the arts, it’s a great environment. Food is great, too.

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

Regulations: the biggest gripe. I’ll give you another gripe first, and then I’ll talk about regulations. For me the biggest gripe right now is the state government. Our elected officials are not business-friendly at all. There are many instances I can think of. The first one: The whole, I would call it a fiasco, is 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 about the future of health insurance. 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 are we going to do for health insurance this year.

For a small business, this is needless worry and headache. You should have a broker who can help you figure out the best plans for the year and pick it up. We have such an uncertain future, which is about the politicians not thinking through what they’re going to do. You can’t make plans. You like to have an environment where you can see at least into the future, for example to predict what expenses might be, and to have it really be just messed up for years. I know the politicians are trying to do good, but they’re not thinking it through. I have very negative things to say about what our state legislators and even the governor have done in the past few years. Seems like they’re just a bunch of rank amateurs. 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. And I don’t think there’s many legislators out there who think about the business impact of their policies. They’re thinking about the general well-being of the population, but are forgetting that businesses help people work and have good jobs, and then businesses won’t thrive and they will move.

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

Quite difficult. I would say this is maybe my biggest gripe. It’s very difficult for us to find qualified workers here. A lot of our workers need to be very technically skilled, and the availability of the workforce to fit the type of employee that we need is very difficult for us.

How do you manage that?

Well, we do diff things. One of the things we started doing recently is to outreach to the younger crowd while they’re still in school. So 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. So both of these techniques are pretty time consuming. For example, 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, but here it’s a great challenge. And I want to keep the young people here. That’s one of my focuses. I see so many really talented kids who grew up in Vermont, then they move. and we’d like to keep more of them here.

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

I would say that Vermont is a good place to do business. There are great people around. There’s not a lot of support a business would get from many government policies, so unlike in other states, for example, Maryland and Massachusetts, which have a lot of business-friendly policies, Vermont has very few. There are some, but only a very few, and they should just keep that in mind, that they have to do a lot of that on their own. I give people recommendations on good accountants, lawyers, good marketing firms in the area, because there are great resources in the area if you know where to look. So in general it’s a great place to do business, but there’s just not a lot of support, so you have to be very self-reliant. And probably if you’re in a business that would need a lot of technical people, you’ll find that challenging here.

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

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

Well, my sales territory is in Vermont, so I really have no other choice, but I do have two counties in New Hampshire, too. I have reps that cover all but the southern part of the state. So what I enjoy about it is the people, as far as their willingness to talk to us about their issues openly, and it’s very easy to — I don’t know how to word this — they’re very open-minded and very willing to discuss opportunities and discuss their business. It’s not like I do business outside the state versus inside the state.

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

I don’t have a lot of regulation. We sell Xerox, our main line, and HP and Microsoft Solutions from the IT side. We sell scanning solutions. Just hired a guy in the middle of the year from Colorado, and he owned his own company out there. I found this very interesting, but 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 much more an easier sales cycles. Here, they’re much longer and drawn out for lower dollar amounts, so he finds it more challenging here. He had an agency in Steamboat, Colo., and Jackson, Wyoming. I found that an interesting observation.

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

It’s very difficult. I find — and it may not be just here — but we’ve had a lot of candidates, but have kind of stopped hiring, although we need people. It may be the nature of our business, but it’s very hard to find someone motivated and willing to learn, because our business changes every day because of technology. And it’s harder for younger people to stay motivated. But having said that, we have had some very long-tenured people who have stayed around for a while. It’s much different than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It’s much more a solution technology sales than just selling a box, if you will.

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

Do your research. Obviously, it’s a great place to live and a great place to work, so that will take care of itself as far as your surroundings. You’re not going to lose people from moving outside the area. I just think that Vermont is such a unique place, especially just coming back from Los Vegas. Learn to appreciate your surroundings. If someone wants to relocate their business here, I think they do that because they’re passionate about the outdoors. Stowe was bought by AIG by a guy who used to ski at Stowe, Husky was a guy who used to come down to Jay Peak, liked the outdoors, and came down here. Or people who want to stay here, like Dealer.com or MyWebGrocer.

Kelly Devine, executive director, Burlington Business Association

What do your members appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

Boy, I’m just going to tell you what I hear from so many of my members, which is they get to be in a place with a great community and a high quality of life. So a sense of community and access to a high-quality environment and lifestyle. The outdoors, etc., just a beautiful, healthy place.

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

I might say that the biggest gripe isn’t about one single piece of legislation or single aspect of permitting or regulation. it’s more that the summation of all of those makes it challenging, not only from a financial, but 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, Wouldn’t it be great it someone would look at the totality of what we’re carrying on our shoulders?

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

Challenging, at least in Chittenden County where we are. In the service sector jobs, it’s challenging to retain employees, and in the more professional jobs — white collar — it’s tough to recruit and retain. The cost of living — we just had a business summit, and there were discussions of what the Chittenden County housing market creates for retention. Housing costs are high in Burlington.

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

You have to connect with your local association and get completely informed. I really do say that is a good first step. and there are a myriad of associations. Ours is more of a geographic one, but there are also business-type ones that add a lot of value. I grew up near the ocean and spent a lot of time on the water and was a pretty-well-seasoned boater and sailor. Sailors had a saying, “Gain local knowledge.” So talk to the people who use that port every day to help them navigate — gain local knowledge. And one way is through association connections, the Chamber, our association, the SBDC [Small Business Development Center], and SCORE [Service Corps of Retired Executives]. I send some folks there as well for help; it’s more business-plan focused. And in Burlington, because most people — not all, but some — are looking for space, talk to our local property owners and real estate folks. They’re really great.