Brokerage Barons

Former restaurateurs Tony Blake and Bill Kiendl traded good eats for square feet at V/T Commercial in Burlington

by Portland Helmich

Pilots, doctors, policemen -- any of these professions would be easy for Tony Blake and Bill Kiendl of V/T Commercial to describe to their young children. They're frequently at a loss, however, when trying to explain to them their work as commercial real estate and business brokers. A one-word explanation would probably suffice. Blake and Kiendl are matchmakers: They locate occupants for commercial landlords, pair tenants with offices, and team up business buyers with business sellers.

Tony Blake (left) and Bill Kiendl, photographed atop 100 Bank St., Burlington, pair occupants with commercial landlords and business buyers with sellers at V/T Commercial. "This is such a small town," says Kiendl, "part of our job is knowing whose lease is up."

According to real estate and commercial attorney Tom Heilmann, Blake and Kiendl aren't run-of-the-mill brokers. Heilmann offers his firm, Heilmann, Ekman & Associates, as an example. When the practice was looking to move, Heilmann remembers Blake and Kiendl "made a remarkably diligent search for properties which would be suitable. They didn't just say, 'Oh, here's a building. Let's go look at that.'"

As they always do, Blake and Kiendl assessed the firm's spatial requirements and its anticipated growth. "They have an effective system that makes you identify and concentrate on your needs," Heilmann says. Nonetheless, when the brokers proposed a space on South Union Street, Heilmann's firm wasn't convinced. "The rooms were too large, and we weren't sure the layout of lawyers and staff would be efficient," the attorney explains. "Still, they sketched out how a good organizational layout would work, and we've been in this space four years and it's terrific."

Matching a business that needs a space with a space that needs a business makes up about 75 percent of V/T Commercial's work. The other 25 percent is business brokerage, which involves selling all kinds of businesses -- not bricks and mortar, but the name, good will, and ongoing value of commercial establishments. "It's that 'hug the cloud value,'" Blake explains. "You can't touch it, but it's there."

Blake says business brokerage is more discreet than commercial real estate because typical business owners don't want the public to know they're looking to sell. When a piece of property is for sale or lease, he says, it's easy to place a sign in the window. On the other hand, when restaurant owners want to sell, they don't advertise the fact. "Business brokerage is more labor- intensive," says Blake. "A typical business takes a year to sell, but a building could take less."

If you're Bill Kiendl, selling a business might only take an afternoon.

When Robert Fuller came into V/T Commercial to discuss the possibility of selling Pauline's Cafe and Restaurant 3 1/2 years ago, he didn't know Kiendl had -- just a few days before -- spoken with the owners of Leunig's Bistro. They had told Kiendl they were thinking of selling the Church Street restaurant. "Robert went into the conference room with Billy," says Blake, "and they were in there for one or two hours. Finally, the conference room door opens up, and Robert's got this big grin on his face. Though he went in there to talk to Billy about selling Pauline's, he walked out saying he was going to buy Leunig's."

Fuller, who bought Leunig's in 1997, credits Kiendl with an ability to think "outside of the box," for the savvy broker linked the needs and interests of a temporarily uncertain restaurateur with the desires of restaurant owners ready to sell. "Good salespeople don't try too hard to sell something to the wrong person," Fuller offers. "They have to know how to match up the right buyer with the right seller."

Kiendl's perspective is that he was simply doing his job. "I take the attitude that people don't know what they want, and my job is to help them find it. Sometimes that means exploring areas they haven't thought about." In Fuller's case, Kiendl goes on to say, "Either you grow or you fade away in the restaurant business, and one way for him to grow his business was by buying another business."

Kiendl, who grew up on Long Island, and Blake, who hails from outside Philadelphia, happen to know the restaurant business inside and out. Instead of growing in it, however, they chose to fade away -- parlaying their experience selling their own restaurants into new careers. Though they didn't know each other at the time, both waited tables as students at the University of Vermont. (Blake graduated in 1975 and Kiendl in 1978). It wasn't until 1982 when Blake, who had already co-owned three local eateries, met Kiendl through Billy Hunter, a local restaurateur. Kiendl had worked with Hunter; Blake was partnered with him in two Winooski establishments: Sneakers and the now-defunct Forest Hills. Hunter suggested the three join to open a restaurant on Church Street, and Blake and Kiendl didn't hesitate. "Church Street had just become the marketplace at that time," says Kiendl.

"It was the new hot spot," Blake chimes in.

They owned and operated Wings, where the Church Street Tavern is today, from 1982 to '84. "It was not terribly successful," says Kiendl, "but I tell everyone it was cheaper than graduate school." Blake still owned Forest Hills, but Kiendl didn't know what to do after Wings was sold. Thus, when Rich Feeley, who brokered the downtown restaurant's sale, asked Kiendl to join a new business brokerage division of Coburn & Feeley called Atlantic Restaurant Brokers, Kiendl jumped in.

Burned out from the food and beverage industry's unceasing grind, Blake turned to Atlantic Restaurant Brokers to sell Forest Hills in 1985. Feeley then offered him the same opportunity he had given to Kiendl, and Blake didn't refuse. "It was an opportunity to still be self-employed and, if nothing else, it seemed like it could be a good stepping stone," he recalls.

Over three years, the pair worked together on many projects and became a team. "We call the 1980s the 'Bob Newhart syndrome,'" says Blake. "The Waybury Inn in (East) Middlebury was featured at the opening of Newhart's show, and it seemed liked everybody at that time wanted to move to Vermont and buy a restaurant or a B & B." Together, Blake and Kiendl sold scores of restaurants and soon began selling country inns, as well.

"We're just brokers," says Tony Blake. "We don't own any other properties, so we don't have any conflicts with our clients."

"As friends and partners, we seemed to gel and began feeling confident enough to go out on our own," Kiendl remembers. In 1988, the self-motivated brokers teamed up with two others to start S, B &T Commercial Real Estate, a wholly owned subsidiary of Smith, Bell & Thompson, a large insurance company. Within five years, after one of their partners had moved on and they had tired of explaining to people they weren't in the insurance business, Blake and Kiendl bought out Smith, Bell & Thompson's financial interests and renamed themselves V/T Commercial. Later, their other partner left, making Blake and Kiendl sole owners.

This was the early '90s, and the economy was slowing down. The sale of any business -- restaurant or otherwise -- was less frequent because financing had evaporated. Since business brokerage wasn't as abundant, Blake and Kiendl turned to what would feed them. Commercial real estate was increasing due to the number of vacancies, so V/T Commercial began representing banks that needed help selling their foreclosed properties. "At some point, we've represented every bank in town," Blake remarks.

Working with banks led to other corporate clients, which suited the pair just fine. Because their business is commission-driven and they have no employees, Blake and Kiendl say they have to be selective about whom they represent. "We made a conscious decision to work with companies that we knew had the ability to perform," Kiendl explains.

V/T Commercial's clients include local and national companies. Blake and Kiendl have moved more than 20 law firms, and they do all the office leasing for Kevin F. Donahoe Associates, which owns Burlington Square Mall, 5 Burlington Square, and 100 Bank St. They've also spent the past two years representing the nation's largest HMO, Kaiser Permanente, which owned 18 Vermont office buildings when it pulled out of the Northeast at the end of 1999. Only one remains to be sold.

They say they generate business by keeping an ear to the ground. "This is such a small town," Kiendl notes, "that part of our job is knowing whose lease is up. I'll call a year ahead of time to ask someone what they're planning to do."

Blake agrees that networking is central to their work and adds their restaurant backgrounds have provided a wealth of contacts. "You get to know a lot of people in the restaurant business," he says. "It's one of the most visible businesses in the world."

In addition to hard work, Blake attributes V/T Commercial's longevity to his and Kiendl's focus. "We're just brokers. We don't own any other properties, so we don't have any conflicts with our clients," he explains. "Because we're not seeking development opportunities ourselves, we're extremely focused."

Kiendl says V/T Commercial gains many referrals from other professionals because he and Blake are perceived as honest. "If we can't do a job, we tell them." Moreover, he adds, "They're not just getting one person, they're getting two."

Though Blake, 47, and Kiendl, 45, handle all elements of a deal, they recognize that they excel in different areas. "Tony's more organized," Kiendl says with a grin. "He's more tolerant of the paperwork than I am. If there are 10 things that need to be done, he'll do all 10. I'll do seven, and then he'll remind me of the three I didn't do."

Blake acknowledges that his partner has a talent for seeing the big picture. "Billy's better at recognizing the creative opportunities of a deal," he explains, noting Kiendl's idea that Fuller buy Leunig's.

Kiendl sums it up in a sentence: "I'm better at throwing out the ideas; Tony's better at processing them, and both are needed in this business."

Another skill commercial brokers need in Vermont is versatility. "You have to be generalist here," Kiendl explains, "because there isn't a lot of anything. If we were in Boston, we'd be specializing in something. This is such a small state, though, that we have to be a little bit of everything to everybody."

Blake and Kiendl can take small and inexperienced business owners through a deal step by step, or they can mold their presentation to meet the needs of larger corporations demanding a higher level of service. "You've got to be able to do both," Blake adds with a nod.

Bill Kiendl believes people don't always know what they want: "My job is to help them find it." He once helped a business owner realize what he wanted to do was buy a second business rather than sell his existing one.

What Heilmann appreciates about V/T Commercial is Blake and Kiendl's approach to working with new clients. "They promote themselves by demonstrating how they can work in a particular transaction rather than telling the customer how wonderfully they performed on the last one," he explains. "The first 20 minutes with these guys is 'Let's get right on the task.'"

This down-to-business style is reflected in their downtown Burlington office. Clean and functional, it isn't decorated to impress. Blake and Kiendl share the space with two other brokerage firms, LandVest, which brokers high-end residential deals; and Country Business Inc., a mostly regional chain that sells only businesses. "They're better at manufacturing," says Kiendl of CBI, "and we're better at restaurants." Since all three firms are involved in the same field, networking opportunities abound.

With the economy flying high, Blake and Kiendl could hire other brokers or support staff to lessen their load. They prefer, however, to keep it simple -- relying on themselves and on each other. Kiendl says today's office almost makes support staff obsolete. "Everything's more self-contained today," he explains. "With voice-mail, you don't need a secretary. You can check your own messages and return them in the car."

All Blake needs to do to validate his desire to remain a twosome is conjure up memories of his restaurant days. "When you have a staff, you have to worry if they're going to walk off the job," he explains. "On the other hand, I know I can count on Billy, and I can count on myself."

Outside of the office, Blake and Kiendl play golf, and their wives and children are good friends. Inside the office, they're all business. "Sometimes we work all day together and don't say more than a couple words, but we know just what the other guy is doing," says Blake.

Kiendl knows what his partner means, adding, "We complement each other without rubbing each other."

In a field that has them pairing buyers with sellers and lessors with lessees, perhaps the wisest professional match these two brokers have ever made is their own.

Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer and television producer who hosts "Rural Free Delivery" on Vermont Public Television.