First published in Business People-Vermont in August 2014

Interviews

For a story in our August 2014 issue of Business People-Vermont, we asked these business people how things are going. Here are the interviews in their entirety. Read the final story here

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

  • Bob Conlon of Leunig's
    Bistro & Café of Burlington
  • Frank Cioffi of Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.
  • Katy Lesser of Healthy Living Market
  • Don Mayer of Small Dog Electronics
  • Dave Mount of Westaff
  • Matthew Nadeau of Rock Art Brewery

Bob-Conlon-by-RezniksnBob Conlon, co-owner, Leunig’s Bistro & Café, Burlington

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

I think it’s the basic honesty of people I deal with — staff and customers. I don’t worry about stealing. If somebody leaves a purse at a table, it stays there. And we pick it up and give it to the customers when they come back.

What’s your biggest gripe?

I don’t want to sound like a whiner, but every day I open the paper, I read something else that the Legislature wants business to pay for. They don’t pass them all, but it’s nerve-racking. Whether it’s paid sick time, maternity leave, higher minimum wage, mandatory composting — there are just a million things they pile on you.

We tried mandatory composting 15 years ago. right in the center of town. You’d really like the garbage man to come four times a day or pick it up. It just sits there. It’s worse in the summer than the winter.

Those ideas are all with the best of intentions. but I don’t think people think through how much it would be.

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

We’ve been very fortunate. My partner, the chef, I think is somebody the cooks want to work for, and then they stay with her a while. Then in the dining room, we’re fortunate to have a good location and good business, so we’re a place where many workers and servers want to work. So we’ve been lucky. Cooks are harder to find than good servers. You’ve got to find somebody with the right attitude to do the job. But we’re lucky that we retain them.

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

I’m not sure I’m the one to give anybody advice, but I would say keep working; don’t get discouraged. Everybody thinks, at first, that they’re going to have plants and beautiful songs and it’s going to be wonderful, but you’re going to lie awake nights worrying about where the money’s coming from; you’re going to think about it all the time. So don’t give up. Once you think you’ve got it done, you’re probably on the way out. You’re always trying to make it better. Don’t think you’re going to get rich and live high on the hog. You’re going to be working hard.

Certainly we’ve been lucky here. I have a great crew, and everybody when they are here, is working like mad.

Dave-Mount-2014smDavid Mount, founder of Westaff in Burlington

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

I think it’s really all environmental. It’s a great place to live, to raise your family, and it’s that which makes it an enjoyable place to do business.

What’s your biggest gripe?

Well taxation, I think, that’s a pretty common answer. I think — I spent a lot of time this year working with legislators, and the Legislature in general has what they would think of as a populist attitude, which I believe creates an anti-business atmosphere. They want to think that business are always trying to screw the employees or the environment or something. An example this year is the big push to get the paid sick leave. It really came about as a result of a couple of employees complaining to the Legislature, and the Legislature had no idea how many companies in Vermont provided paid sick days. It was just based on anecdotal evidence and their gut reaction, and yet most companies have some form of sick leave. In fact, if the sick pay bill had actually passed, they might have set back what a number of companies were already doing.

For example, at Westaff we use the paid time off concept, which means everybody accumulates a collection of vacation days, sick days, and personal days. At one time, we combined them all, so we wound up with a much bigger total number, and we told employees they could use them as they will: sick day, vacation time, etc. All we asked for was a little bit of notice if they will be gone for an extended period. Just call and let us know.

I think a lot of companies are doing that now. I certainly didn’t invent it. and the acronyms are either PTO (paid time off) or CTO (combined time off). More and more companies are using that as a benefit.

The Legislature needs to understand businesses. I don’t think they do. I don’t think they take the time to visit businesses in their areas to see what they do and what struggles the owners might have and how their policies impact the businesses.

For example, I’m sure in your office, you have to post these posters that the government comes up with. And you try to maintain a professional office. We maintain a professional office at Westaff, and those posters are just haphazard. They look dumb, look ugly, and I defy anybody to find somebody who’s read any of them. And yet any time they pass a rule, the employer must post a poster.

We buy them now from somebody that prints them on one form.

Are there any particular regulations you find difficult or easy?

I think dealing with the Department of Labor has become a much better and easier thing to do than in the past few years. Not regulations, obviously, but they oversee the workers’ compensation laws, unemployment insurance. I think the Tax Department is fairly easy to work with if you ask for help. If you don’t ask, they’re cops; if you do they’re friends.

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

It’s funny. I was in the we staff office this morning and hearing that it is getting increasingly difficult. And I’ve always said that toward the end of the summer, August, is usually the worst time to find a workforce in Vermont. and the reason is that the college students who have flooded the workforce and want a job, they’re getting ready to go back to school. so they want a week or two off before they go back. So in August that piece of our workforce drains away. August is usually the most difficult time to find a workforce.

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

To open a business, there are lots of great resources in the state, from the federal government, SBA [Small Business Administration], and SCORE [Service Corps of Retired Executives], both very helpful in getting a business started. The state Department of Taxes generally has had seminars on how to — what things you have to do to be legal in Vermont, which is a very important part of the aspect. And then after that, entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs. You’re going to start a business here whether the regulations are onerous or not. Just keep it straight, keep it simple, and make sure you dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s.

matt-rock-art-brewerysmMatthew Nadeau, owner of Rock Art Brewery, Morrisville

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

The loyal local fans. People really love Vermont products and they’re very loyal, and that gives us an edge certainly. And we live here, so we love that fact. We don’t have to pick up and move the business somewhere. I’ve got family here, longtime family ties. and my wife’s ties are here. We could pick up and move to a city or state with 6 or 12 million people and probably sell a lot more beer, but at the same time, we’d have to move.

What’s your biggest gripe?

How much time have you got? The State of Vermont: our biggest gripe period. Flat out. I’ve got situations I’ve dealt with throughout the years, a couple of pluses, a lot of minuses. Local government here is fantastic, but at the state level, things seem to fall apart. It’s hard to put it in a nutshell. Here are a couple of situations I’m dealing with.

Most recently — we’re still trying to wrap it up, and at the end of three years, might be seeing light at end of tunnel. Behind our property, the state was going to put a bypass in, something they talked about for 50 years. They had to take a piece of our land for it. Prior to building, when we bought this lot — it was a small piece of land — we said all right, we’ll just build as big a building as we can right out to the maximum building regulations.

Having never built a building, we calculated it all up, and state said, You’re over by 0.15 acres of impervious surface (meaning roofs, driveways, that stuff). So we had to apply for a storm water permit.

The guy I talked to said it could take all of six months or more. I said Whoa! At the time we had a lease we were trying to finish up, were working with federal government about moving from location A to location B, because we’re licensed by the feds. So coordinating with them, with the landowner who’s willing to sell the property to us, and also all the other local — zoning with the town, things like that. He said six months. I said OK, that puts us out of the time frame. We’re trying to get a bid for contractors and want to roll and get building before the winter. I said, “Let’s apply for all the permits at the same time.” He said, “No you can’t do that. You have to wait until this storm water gets approved.”

I said, “We can’t do that, because we’ve also got the bank with primary approval based on local economic conditions. Things could change six months down the road. Said we’ll have to make the building smaller and work on storm water permits afterward.” So he put a storm water pond in for us. In the meantime, the state came in and took that piece of land, took our storm water pond, didn’t reimburse us for it because it wasn’t permitted, and left us with no option to expand.

For years there have been lawyers, engineers, the state’s lawyers working on this issue. They had us present various scenarios to them, to all of which they said No. So lots of time, money, and energy wasted down the road.

Finally there’s a possibility, through the help of one of the folks in the storm water division, to come to a potential solution. They’re in the business of saying No instead of how can we help you and make this happen. Three years ago if we’d had that approach, we wouldn’t have gone through this aggravation.

Other areas: Way back when we moved the brewery (from Johnson to Morrisville in 2001), we called up the wastewater people and said, “Hey, we’re moving the brewery from Johnson to Morrisville. What have to do working with permits?” They said This, This, and This. We moved the brewery and were operating for, I think, two years, when all of a sudden all hell breaks loose down there. And the wastewater guy said, “Oh, you’re working illegally; don’t have the proper permits.” I said I worked with so and so down there, he set me up, gave me all the permits I needed. They said, “We’ll have to take you to court if you don’t work legally.”

I did my duty: called down there. Apparently the guy I talked to made some mistakes and didn’t get the right permits. Then they approached me like I’m an outlaw! They don’t need to be in the business of saying no. Taxes are high as everybody knows; electricity is expensive as everybody knows. so that’s the downside.

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

I think we’re fortunate in the fact that a lot of the people who like craft beer are very passionate people, and those folks that want to get into the industry are around and we’re able to find them. But I know that my friends in various other businesses don’t have it so good. We’re fortunate we have a great crew. but friends in different businesses can’t find decent people. One of them even goes so far as to say — he was talking about his workforce, and we’re at this event, and he says, “Well I actually hire a lot of folks from Jamaica.” Somebody said, “You must do that because you can pay them less.” He said, “No I pay them a lot more, and they actually work.” He was in meat processing.

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

Make sure you love what you do, ’cause it probably isn’t going to be an easy road. Decide if you really want to locate it here. If other states are an option, you might want to explore that. Just make sure you love it, because it’s going to be a lot of hours and probably low pay for a while. It’s not all doom and gloom, it’s just that you’ll be dealing with things you probably thought you never would be.

don-mayer-small-dogsmDon Mayer, co-owner of Small Dog Electronics in Waitsfield, South Burlington, and Rutland, plus Key West, Fla.

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

Well, as a small state, Vermont is like a small community, and I think that’s reflected in terms of the high quality of employees we’re able to attract to our business who are more loyal and productive than where I’ve seen elsewhere as I talk to our colleagues in other states. The quality of workforce is extraordinary. Then we have a very loyal customer base, who can clearly save money by buying at Amazon and other places, but buy from us. And I see that as appreciation of local business as part of Vermont’s appeal.

The other thing is that in a small state, as a business, we have a greater opportunity to impact the change. Small Dog Electronics is a socially responsible business, and we’ve been in the push to get health care reform and other reform, and it’s a lot easier to do in Vermont than in other states, because it’s your friends and neighbors. I don’t know any other state capital where you can put a quarter in the meter and walk into the statehouse and half of the people know your name.

What’s your biggest gripe?

I saw that question. I don’t really have a lot of gripes. I’d like to see the market being bigger for our products, but we’ve been very successful reaching out beyond the borders to sell both to the gov’t and other businesses. Vermont is an extraordinary place to do business.

Are there any particular regulations you find difficult or easy?

Not really. I haven’t found any regulations that really stood in our way. I think we initially had some issues with the town of Waitsfield about opening our store and headquarters in Waitsfield, but that was solved. I’m a strong proponent of local zoning and act 250, so I don’t find those to be a barrier in any way. I think some recent development where the state has modified some capital requirements for companies that want to raise money in the state of Vermont is a fairly unique and innovative way to bring additional capital.

It’s not the EB5, which is actually a good program, but that’s been primarily used by scarier and larger businesses to raise capital. That’s a federal program. I’m talking about the Department of Financial Regulation, which has issued guidelines for raising capital in Vermont and changed the procedure. A business can now sell stock to Vermont residents with a minimum of regulation and paperwork. Ben & Jerry’s in the ’80s went public in Vermont. It’s one of the high-profile companies that have done that, and not many other companies have taken advantage of that over the years because the regulations were somewhat antiquated and difficult.

They’ve made some changes and are now promoting this as a way to raise capital in Vermont. You can now raise up to $1 million with unaudited financial statements; up to $2 million with audited financial statements. Now you can go out to a larger number of people with a small amount of funds and almost do what crowdsourcing has done, and now with the support of the state.

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

I think that we’ve both hired from within the state and from without the state, and I’ve found when I’m able to find an employee who’s a Vermont resident, here for a long time, they tend to work out better than when I import somebody to the state. Vermont is a little selective. It takes a certain type of person who wants to live here. You just can’t take somebody from New York and plop them down here and hope they’ll do well.

At our more remote locations, for example, our headquarters in Waitsfield, it’s sometimes harder to find people, but I wouldn’t call that out as being more difficult than anyplace else in the country.

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

I think the primary advice I would give is, Think a lot about what type of company you want to be. I think Vermont is very receptive to companies that look at being involved in the community as well as being a business in the community. Being a part of your local economy goes farther than how many dollars you’re going to make. For example, being a part of the community.

Our triple bottom line mission is central to everything we do. (The triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. We measure our success in equal measure in those criteria.) Planet, for example: A business has a much larger footprint upon the environment or community than any individual, and with that comes a great responsibility, and we take that very seriously. So in terms of the planet, we do our part. We have a solar array; we originated e-waste collection in the state that ultimately resulted in probably the strongest e-waste program in the country. That kind of involvement ultimately leads to business success. But how you use those profits, how you involve in the community and how you treat your workers are all parts of your eventual success.

katy-lessersmKaty Lesser, founder and co-owner of Healthy Living Market in South Burlington.

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

We probably have a different take than most businesses. I’m in love with doing business in the state because we get to work with farmers and farms and local producers, and we just have an amazing group of people to work with.

What’s your biggest gripe?

I think, like working with any other state or municipality, things more move slowly than a business person would like. If we’re going to be successful, we’re need to be nimble and sometimes you need to be nimble.

Are there any particular regulations you find difficult or easy?

I can’t think of any particular one. It’s just a matter of waiting for things to get done and working within all the parameters that have been set. In my business, for example, with the GMO bill, that took a long, long time to happen, and the people in my industry were waiting for a long time and felt frustration it didn’t happen quickly. But in the end we prevailed and it was a wonderful thing.

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

That’s an ongoing project. There’s always a certain amount of turnover. In my particular situation, I feel we are successful in finding good people and nurturing them and turning them into great staff. Good longevity? I no longer have any preconceived notions about that.

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

You have to be tenacious in every single way and have to love what you do. And, you know, you have to understand that the government is not going to go away. You’re going to have to work with them from day one, so you have to learn to comply, and make peace with the fact that we have a small state government. It’s wonderful in that we do have a voice, and that we can do what we do.

frank-cioffi-free-press-glenn-russell_copyright_burlington_free_press_2014smFrank Cioffi, president of Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

I think the greatest appreciation is Vermont’s sense of community — its access to government officials and leaders of the community. We are small as a state, but we’re very accessible, and I think we’re agile and nimble. That is probably our greatest advantage.

What’s your biggest gripe?

I think it’s probably that we as a state need to come to a common vision and then execute a plan to really capitalize on economic growth. So our political leaders need to come together to support policies that encourage economic growth, that expand economic opportunity for working Vermonters and their families. That’s probably the greatest frustration, and I think — I certainly think that a lot of legislative leaders understand this now. I know that the speaker of the house; and certainly Tim Ashe, a senator, who heads the Finance Committee; Bill Botzow, who heads the House Commerce Committee; and Kevin Mullen, the Senate Economic Development Committee, understand what we need to be doing. And those of who understand economic development and the economy will work with us and find out what solutions and what actions will lead to more economic opportunities for Vermonters.

We need to focus on how will we grow our economy and what do we need to do to train Vermonters and ready Vermonters to avail themselves of opportunities in new economic areas.

Are there any particular regulations you find difficult or easy?

Well, I think, certainly our tax policy has been inconsistent. And I understand why. but that said, we’re a really small state, The needs — social needs, programs of the state that we have — need to be funded, and we’re in an environment where the federal government really is not providing the level of support it used to for state government, and that is really impacting what our legislators have to content with. They’ve got to raise revenue. We can’t really cut our social programs significantly or a great number of people will be hurt. I don’t care what area you’re looking at, Vermont legislators have always been really good at balancing the budget, and every governor I’ve worked with as well. The only way is economic growth, to pick some winners and go after them.

The last time we had a focused concentration on an economic center was with captive insurance, and everybody got on the train for that. We can certainly capitalize on what’s being done with higher education. I’ve been on the UVM board since 2001, and it can certainly continue to play a significant role, as can Champlain College. It remakes itself every few years. It’s so dynamic.

And we’re going to have to figure out how to support the state colleges with their demographic challenges and revenue model. They’re extremely important to the state as well. All of the institutions — St. Mike’s, Norwich, the technology council collaboration of higher education, government, and technology enterprises — and we’re focused on, we just created or updated the new science and tech plan (STEM) for the state of Vermont, and what that does, through the EPSCoR [Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) program, it brings National Science Foundation grants into the state of Vermont, and it’s phenomenal. That’s just one component. The other is support of our growth sectors and information technology. Dealer.com and MyWebGrocer are areas of tremendous opportunity for us. But we have to train Vermonters to work in them.

Keurig Green Mountain Coffee is the fastest growing co in Vermont, and their need for technology-proficient folks just keeps accelerating. That’s an opportunity. A lot of what we’re focusing on now is entrepreneurial development, so people that want to start small businesses, or inventors, we’re building an ecosystem of support for them.

I spend a lot of my time working for the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. We’re about to open a new co-working space in the FairPoint building, the old New England Telephone building up above Memorial Auditorium, It’s 11,000 square feet — the entire second floor. UVM is helping us to renovate the space. It’ll be ready to open by September 1 [2014]. We’re attempting to take, and being successful in taking, this program statewide.

Middlebury College helped us open a co-working space, UVM started the whole thing at Farrell Hall at the Trinity Campus. We’re at our 10th year there.

Co-working space is flexible space. It provides amenities: an office or working space and a support setting at a very low monthly fee, so they don’t have to worry about costs as they proceed.

Maker spaces are a bit diff because they provide diff equipment. This is very flexible office and meeting space. Nobody has a private office in these, but work spaces. Then conference spaces where they can meet people, 1 gig of Wi-Fi that FairPoint donated. It’s going to be pretty incredible.

Next level is what Mike Jager did down on Maple St. in the Karma Birdhouse. When companies are hiring a number of people, they go into private spaces. They took an old building, created an architectural salvage door, and created all these little offices.

Ours is like an open format, similar to what’s being done a lot in Silicon Valley, Boston, New York, and Austin. In Boston it’s phenomenal what’s going on now, and that really helps us because of our proximity to Boston.

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

It’s becoming increasingly harder everywhere in this country. This is — Vermont isn’t an exclusive challenge. It’s that how we make things, produce things, how we do services in our country requires much more education and training than it did in the past. You can’t just walk out of high school and jump into a technology-based job. And the growth is — where the jobs are — they’re in more technically proficient job opportunities, so you need more skill sets.

What you can do — and certainly the institutions of higher education here are ready, I credit Rich Tarrant Sr. and the Richard E. Tarrant and Deborah L. Tarrant foundation for addressing this with huge foundations — they have been focused on introducing children to technology in middle schools, and now at UVM with a program that teaches high school teachers how to introduce technology to their classrooms. It’s going to be, really, a catalyst to changing in the right direction and helping our public school system to adapt to what it needs to do.

I don’t care how old the child is, the kids know their aptitude is very good.

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

I think Vermont is a welcome place for creating business and economic opportunity. We get a bad rap at times of not being business-friendly, and I think we’re community friendly and people friendly, and people are the ones who start businesses. Could we be friendlier? Sure. We’re trying. And it is the greatest place to live.