Originally published in Business Digest, October 1998

Staige Set for Growth

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Staige Davis The sign reads “Lang Associates,” but for several years Vermont’s largest real estate firm has belonged to Staige Davis. The company has offices in Burlington, Essex, Middlebury, and St. Albans. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

The word “empowerment” has been in the business jargon long enough to raise skeptical eyebrows just about anytime it’s applied to a corporate or personal philosophy. Still, there are workplaces where ideals like empowerment are much more than feel-good words bandied about for marketing purposes. That Lang Associates is such a place comes as no surprise to anyone who knows Staige Davis.

Davis, who bought the company — Vermont’s largest real estate firm — from its founder, Nancy Lang, in 1992, credits Lang with the corporate philosophy and the building of the positive corporate image. This is typical, says Mark Neagley, president of Neagley & Chase Construction and Davis’ friend and partner on several commercial properties, adding, “He’s probably one of the most honest and ethical people you’ll ever meet. And real estate is an arena where you can get a black eye pretty quickly if you do anything slippery.”

Real estate is far from where Davis expected to end up, however. The son (and grandson) of a plastic surgeon, he grew up in Baltimore and had every intention of returning there following his graduation from University of Vermont in 1976 with a degree in human development. “I had planned to go to graduate school and was going to Baltimore to work with some psychologists and psychiatrists in a burn unit there,” he says. When the grant funding for that project was delayed, rather than cool his heels, Davis returned to Vermont and promoted concerts for a while, building on the experience and contacts gained during his student days as UVM Concert Bureau director. “In old issues of the Vanguard,” says Davis, “you can find stories about me in the music business. I had long hair, and Paul Kaza and I used to bring music to the Flynn and Memorial Auditorium.”

Kaza, now president of Paul Kaza Associates, a full-service advertising and public relations firm, recalls those early days with glee. “I was a schoolteacher in Central Vermont, nursing this idea of promoting concerts myself up in Burlington. And I had heard that there was a guy up at UVM who controlled the whole thing, and his name was Staige Davis. I thought this was some sort of handle and that his nickname was ‘Stage.’ So here I was in the hallway of an elementary school calling up for somebody named ‘Stage’ Davis, who I was sure just lived concerts and never went to class.”

Recruited by a new promoter trying to produce a Taj Mahal concert, Kaza and Davis subsequently promoted other successful events, including Beatlemania, Godspell and a Gil Scott-Heron concert. “I don’t think Staige was as much a hippie dip as I was,” quips Kaza, “but we both came out of the ’70s and went into much more conventional careers than anyone would have predicted.”

Back in 1980, though, Davis wasn’t yet thinking in terms of career paths. Wanting to enhance his human development background by learning a bit about money and finance, he decided to try real estate for a couple of years. To find the best place to learn, he decided to interview a number of firms. “At each interview, I asked the same question: Besides yours, which is the best firm around?” Every time, the answer was Lang. “And I thought, well, if all their peers think they’re the best, it must be a good place to work.” He started there in residential real estate in 1980.

It was a less-than-ideal time to go into the business. High interest rates meant property moved slowly. But Davis did well, a fact he attributes to his university connections. Kaza says it was much more than that. “Staige was our savior. Back in ’81, this little condo we sold was financed at 18 percent. Staige went to the ends of the earth to find a buyer for us.”

His success generated a new respect for real estate as a possible career path. “I began to wonder: Am I really going to go back to school again? I not only won’t make the money I’m making in real estate, but I won’t have the time to do other things I like to do. When you first get into the business — I was single at the time — it’s hard work getting started and the hours are long, but I was doing very well using my contacts at the university, and I thought the business was fun,” Davis says.

By ’82 or ’83, he was into commercial real estate, working alongside Bill Shearer, whom Davis describes as a person with “a great business mind and a real inspiration to keep me enthused about the business.” He still kept his hand in the residential end of things, though. “At the time, you could do both, although we don’t any longer,” he says. With typical self-deprecation, he mentions that he took a number of courses toward designation as a certified commercial investment manager (CCIM), “which I never got. A few people have it, and they should be admired for that. It’s difficult to get.”

Sometime in the mid-’80s — he’s not sure exactly when — Davis was named sales manager, working alongside Lang, who was president, and Janet Austin, general manager of the firm. “Nancy was not here much on a day-to-day basis,” he says, “basically because she was doing her development in Essex (the Lang Farm Center, now the Essex Outlet Fair) and had other, bigger fish to fry as a busy community leader.” He got to try out his management wings when Austin took a leave of absence, and, later, when she decided to retire, he was given the offer to take her place. “Nancy and Janet probably considered some other candidates and decided to give me the opportunity. I was very grateful. I was very young, and many of my associates here tested me for a time.” He’s also grateful for Lang’s management philosophy. “She’d say, ‘You run the company. You make the decisions,’ and I still have that philosophy with my managers,” he says.

His management responsibilities took him more and more away from selling and the day-to-day meetings with clients. He still misses it. By the early ’90s, Davis realized that he wanted to find a way to benefit more from the growth he was helping to create. He briefly considered starting his own real estate business. “But the only thing you have in the business is your reputation. It’s not rocket science. Lang had a terrific reputation, and I think it still does, and that’s really due to all the people who are here.” So instead, he approached Lang about having an interest in the company. They reached an agreement in 1992, when Davis bought the company. By ’94, he’d hired a new general manager, Sarah Winslow Patch, former chair of the real estate commission. “I was looking for someone in the real estate community who had the respect of all the associates here, and she was a good choice.”

The way Lang allowed him to make his own decisions was a turning point for Davis, who says that’s when his philosophy of empowerment really jelled. “Nancy and I didn’t meet very often, and as long as things were going well, which they were, she was happy. She said, ‘I’ll be a resource,’ and basically let me run the company.” In the years Davis has been aboard, the company has grown. “We had about 32 or 33 associates then,” he says, “and about 65 now. Back then, we had two offices, now we have four.”

These days, Davis admits it’s he who’s frying fish in the community, spending a lot of time on non-profit boards. “Vermont is a state of relationships, and building relationships is good business,” he says. As one would expect, his focus is the arts. He’s been part of the Flynn Theatre Management Committee for a long time; was president of the board of the Mozart Festival, in which he’s still peripherally involved; just joined the board of Vermont Public Radio (VPR); sits on the board of the Vermont Business Round Table — “some great minds in that organization,” he says — is a member of the UVM Business School advisory board; and just recently gave up his seat on the Vermont-Canada Trade Board, now called the International Trade Board. He met his wife, Marnie, when he was on the Mozart Festival board and she was running the Shelburne House, now the Inn at Shelburne Farms. They lived on the grounds there for eight years. Their children, Staige and Greta, are now ages 6 and 2.

Much of his volunteer time recently has been spent as chair of development for VPR, having served on the steering committee for the $2 million capital campaign to build the new corporate headquarters. He and VPR general manager Mark Vogelzang have become friends along the way. Vogelzang calls Davis a model for non-profit board leadership and volunteerism in this community. “Staige is the ideal board member,” Vogelzang says. “He is committed, works hard and really does put the organization’s priorities first.”

He’s in other, private business ventures as well. “I own, with two partners, the land next to Dynapower and the Lane Press — 116 acres that just went through Act 250, which took two years and four months and wasn’t very controversial.” He says Act 250 has gotten pretty unwieldy, although its motives are good. “I think Act 60 has good motives, too. It just somehow went astray.”

Overall, the real estate business is changing rapidly, he says. “When I first got into the business, it was a single-sided legal-sized sheet to write a contract for someone. Now we have probably seven pages of legalese for various reasons. Another thing that’s changed is representation. Now there’s buyer representation, plus things like radon tests, home inspection, seller property information reports, disclosures, so when you buy real estate now, the consumer’s not only more savvy, but the Realtor is also more savvy.” He sees a possibility for a change to a fee-for-service charge, much like attorneys do, because “if we don’t sell something, and we spend a year doing it, we don’t make any money.”

Realtors are leaving the business on both a local and national level, he says. “I think it’s because it’s more complicated than it used to be. Nationwide, we’ve seen a decline of about 30 percent. I think we had 700-some members in the Vermont Board of Realtors at one time, and we’re now down to about 400. We no longer have MLS (Multiple Listing Service) books — everything is over the modem. Web sites are getting there rapidly. People come into our office with a sheaf of listings, saying, ‘I saw these five listings on the Internet; these are the houses I want to see.’ We’re doing a lot more high-tech things: We’re networked in our offices, have internal email and the ability for our people to dial out to the Web. Davis has added a full-time marketing person, a full-time technical person and an operations manager, Mindy Stone, who he claims is his boss.

Lang’s affiliation with Sotheby’s lets the firm connect with high-end prospects worldwide, and its designation as a Prudential Referral Services affiliate means Lang has access to IBM and some other relocation business. Davis is quick to point out that Lang is not a franchise of any organization, and, “except for one, all the other top 10 real estate agencies are franchises.” Many agencies go the franchise route to increase market share through identification with a nationally recognized name. “Right now, our market share is about double our closest competitor, within a few percentage points,” Davis says. “We dominate the residential market, although we don’t dominate the commercial market,” he adds as clarification.

Davis is adamant that Vermont is not a high-growth area, “despite what you see in the paper. We have a very small economy of scale,” he says, “and I’d have to reiterate that Vermont is not business friendly. Finally, we’re about to attract some decent-wage, high-tech companies to the state and they passed the 3 percent Act 60 tax.” Unfortunately, he says, there aren’t many companies like Husky, which is very environmentally conscious and forward-looking, willing to move to Vermont and pay a little extra. “I think, for businesses from out of state, they don’t mind the rules on environmental consciousness. They just want a level playing field. There needs to be a bit better balance than there is now.”

One regret is that he’s not been able to spend the time with his family that he’d like. Each summer, Marnie and the kids go to the family’s cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. It’s a seven-hour drive, and he’s not made it down there more than once or twice each summer. “Next summer, I hope to fly down and spend weekends,” he says. He’s also involved in a commercial wharf and ferry on the island — “more a hobby than anything else, not something I do for profit, but because the people on the island need some help.” The family’s move from Shelburne Farms to a Summit Street home in Burlington has made it easier for Davis to make it home for the kids’ bedtimes during the winter.

A lesser man might be tempted to rest on his laurels, but part of what makes Davis successful is his ability to perceive opportunity. “I keep thinking I’m going to do something else when I grow up,” he quips. “I’ve had a couple of people who wanted to start new companies. My wife’s partner (Marnie is co-owner of Spruce Mortgage Co.), Julie Richards, her husband and I talked about having another business. But this business is terrific. But if the opportunity comes, I will do something else. We’ll probably get a little bigger at some point. We’re looking at some opportunities to expand.”

Will the company ever become Davis Real Estate? “Do I want to put my name on the company? The corporate name is Lang, Lion and Davis dba Lang Real Estate Co. — although I have no partners; Paul Kaza and I came up with the idea of the lion. I’ve thought about starting with the commercial department, calling it Lang, Lion and Davis, then in 10 years or so, calling it Lion. I have a logo with a big cat — regal and classy. But the longer I’ve been at the business, the more I don’t care if my name is in the company name. People still come in the door and ask for Nancy, and she hasn’t been here for a long time. That’s a credit to Nancy’s reputation.”