The Many Lives of Dan Girard

To this guy, retirement means another venture

by Phyl Newbeck

girardDan Girard is about to open his latest enterprise, a lakeside wedding and event venue called Sunset Vistas, on Alburgh’s west shore. The three-year undertaking was launched as his retirement project.

Dan Girard’s retirement isn’t exactly relaxing. The serial entrepreneur could be spending his days sitting by the lake at his summer house in Alburgh, but instead, he chose to turn a neighboring property into Sunset Vistas, a wedding and event venue right on Lake Champlain scheduled to open later this spring. “I like the idea of making memories for people,” Girard says.

Girard grew up in South Burlington roughly half a mile from his current home. His mother was a nurse at The Fanny Allen Hospital, and his father, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, was an air traffic controller. He attended South Burlington High School, then joined the Army, which stationed him in Nuremberg, Germany, after training in Missouri.

At the conclusion of his two-year stint, he says, it was time for him to figure out what he wanted to do, but one thing he knew was that he wanted to work for himself. “I’ve been self-employed most of my life. I was an entrepreneur at a very young age.”

Girard was 10 when he began mowing neighbors’ lawns. His first hourly wage job, at the age of 14, was working at the Burlington Flight School, which has since closed its doors. He took a few jobs after his honorable discharge, but the lure of entrepreneurship was too strong, and he founded Airport Limousine. “I was the original limousine company back in 1980,” he recalls.

The air traffic controllers’ strike put a dent in the limousine business, and since the 20-year-old Girard was financing himself, he closed after a year and a half and began hauling bulk mail for the U.S. Postal Service as a contractor. “Then the kids started coming,” he says.

He bought a pressure-washing business called Wash on Wheels in 1983. His next venture was the Casual Corner restaurant and bar in Underhill, where he resided. It was still a profit-making enterprise when he shut it down, a casualty of his divorce.

“I went through a couple of fill-in jobs,” Girard says, “but I knew I wanted to be self-employed.” He opened the business that is now known as Interactive Maintenance Services (IMS) in Williston in 1986. IMS was responsible for the cleaning and maintenance of many of the shopping centers in the state. “I ran it for 25 years,” Girard says. “It got bigger than I wanted it to be. I never thought I’d have 20 people working for me.”

Girard began to have trouble finding employees, and at the age of 46, he sold the business, which he believes was the largest Vermont maintenance company of its time. “I wanted to keep working,” he says, “but not do crazy hours.”

He spun off a smaller company called East Coast Preventative Maintenance and ran that for another decade. He closed it last year when Lyme disease prevented his doing physical work. “If I can’t get down and dirty with the people I work with, I have no business being in business,” he says.

While he was building his companies, Girard was also building a real estate portfolio. One of those properties was a lakeside camp in Alburgh that he purchased in 2004. Eventually, he tore down the camp and built a house in its place. When his neighbor died, he bought that property and tore down the house.

After spring flooding in 2011 took away 30 feet of his shoreline, Girard went to work building a seawall and restoring the lost land. In 2015, the manager of a seven-person trust offered to sell him a neighboring piece of property, and he spent a year improving the drainage, building a seawall and restoring that shoreline. “I was trying to figure out what to do with it,” he says.

He soon realized he had a golden opportunity. “The land had views to the west, town water, and town sewer,” he says. “I was pretty much retired, although I was doing some consulting jobs. I was basically just taking care of real estate investments, so I came up with the idea of Sunset Vistas. There wasn’t another place like this on the lake.”

With a three-bedroom main house and a guest house, Sunset Vistas can accommodate both indoor and outdoor weddings. “It took me three years from start to finish,” Girard says. “We’re excited because we just got our occupancy permit.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for early May. Every room has individual climate control, and Girard, who used to do a fair amount of traveling, says he has made a list of all his pet peeves from hotel stays and eliminated them.

Guests can plug in their phones and turn lights on and off without leaving their beds, and the three queen-size hide-a-beds have memory foam mattresses with no bars. There’s an efficiency kitchen with a convection microwave oven and stovetop, and plenty of room for bridal party members to take care of pre-wedding grooming. As a nod back to his first business endeavor, Girard purchased a Mercedes shuttle van for use by his guests.

The barn associated with Sunset Vistas wasn’t part of the original plan. At first, Girard envisioned a tent site for additional events, but he soon realized the winds that come across the lake might pose a problem. Instead, he had a climate-controlled barn built for weddings or business retreats.

“My favorite part is the open-air pavilion,” Girard says. “To me, that’s really romantic.” He is currently installing a public address system and there will be flat screens and a projector with an audio-visual system that can also be piped into the pavilion.

“Most business retreats are in motels,” Girard says. “I think this will work out well, but I’ve invested more money than I initially planned.” Although no firm bookings have been made for Sunset Vistas, Girard says there has been a good deal of interest already. He has been going to wedding shows and getting a lot of feedback. “The problem with this project is you can’t open part-done,” he says.

Steve Bartlett, recently retired from New England Air Systems, is impressed by the variety of businesses Girard has led over the years. The two met over 20 years ago through their respective jobs.

“We became good friends and subcontracted for one another,” Bartlett says. “He’s multi-talented and he’s had a bunch of different kinds of businesses. He’s very focused and very determined. He only does things at an excellent level. He never says ‘It’s almost good enough’ or ‘almost clean enough.’”

Girard is grateful for the various businesses he has worked with in creating Sunset Vistas. Northfield Savings Bank and Girard Investments provided financing, and Irick Excavating has done a lot of the site work. North Country Construction is responsible for the barn, and Girard is particularly thankful for the work of David Contois on the website.

“I’ve been around construction my whole life,” Girard says, “but marketing is new to me. I’ve always been word of mouth, and I’m learning something new and exciting.”

Contois has known Girard for years and both have seen transitions in their careers. “He’s always been really driven to do things,” Contois says, “and he always succeeds. He’s looking for things to do later in life.” Contois is impressed by how Girard has done research for Sunset Vistas that he believes will attract clientele from Boston to Montreal. “I think the place is pretty awesome,” Contois says. “He has a background in grounds and construction, and he really knows what he’s doing.”

Providing emotional assistance for the project is Girard’s wife, Denise. They met when they were young because their fathers played music together, and although they lost touch for many years, they reconnected in 1987 and married and raised two children. Girard is pleased to report that this is the first year none of his four children are in college or graduate school. Denise worked for the city of Burlington for 30 years and is currently employed by Vermont HITECH, a Williston-based nonprofit.

“She’s involved behind the scenes,” Girard says. “She’s easy-going and likes life simple, but I’m the wild card who takes chances. I’m not irresponsible, but taking chances is what it takes to be in business.”

Girard says he relaxes by going fast, which explains why his hobbies include flying and riding motorcycles. He also enjoys road bicycling but tends to do that when he is at his house in Florida. The couple also own property in the state of Georgia as well as a few locations in Vermont, including his old home in Underhill. “I don’t think I’ll ever retire completely,” he says. “I can’t sit and watch television. I always want to be doing something.”

He’s hoping that in a few years he can step back a little bit from Sunset Vistas and get some key people in charge. He would like to host an annual event like a seaplane fly-in or a bike ride to raise money for a nonprofit organization.

“I had no bank or family backing at the beginning,” Girard recalls. “I started with $2.38 in my wallet when I left home and I was homeless for a period of time. It’s been an interesting ride. I’m proud that I’ve made it this far through hard work and also through treating people the way I would want to be treated.”