Island Getaway

For Bob and Beverley Camp, Hero's Welcome sells entertainment as much as it sells merchandise.

by Portland Helmich

Former Pier 1 CEO Bob Camp and his wife, Beverley, founded Hero's Welcome six years ago. "The main thing in retailing is entertainment," says Bob, now chief executive at Kitchen Etc.

Looks can be deceiving. Driving through the heart of North Hero, passers-by unfamiliar with Hero's Welcome are apt to mistake it for a typical Vermont general store. "They think it's just a gas and convenience store and don't realize how much inventory we really have," says Carlene Letourneau, who owns part of the 6-year-old business with her husband, Paul.

The front of the store is a cafe that sells homemade baked goods and deli sandwiches with names like "Thomas Jefferson" and "Ethan Allen." Beyond that is a section of grocery staples and gourmet products. There's a kitchen area filled with glasses and dishware, and in the back of the store are clothing items like Johnson Wool jackets and Hero's Welcome brand T-shirts, hats, shorts, and socks. Upstairs are art prints and a unique book collection comprising new titles and classics. "Usually if you walk in, you can find what you're looking for," Carlene goes on to say. "It's like a country Pier 1," adds Doug Tudhope, a regular customer.

The Pier 1 analogy is no surprise to Bob Camp, founder/majority owner of Hero's Welcome and former CEO of Pier 1. With his wife, Beverley, he has managed to transform the once abandoned building into the central meeting place for North Hero tourists and locals alike. With annual sales in the high six digits and growing every year, Bob attributes his success to hard work and his ability to think like a customer. "When I have a new idea, instead of thinking first about cost or convenience, I ask myself, 'What would my customers want me to do?' The main thing in retailing," he explains, "is entertainment. I'm not there to sell you a pair of gloves, but to sell you on being in a wonderful place."

A retailer for 34 years, Bob loves the theatrical side of his business and believes strongly in activating customers' five senses. "When you come in to a store, you should hear great music and smell wonderful scents. The merchandise should be displayed beautifully, and you should be encouraged to pick it up and touch. If I see a woman singing in the store and tapping her foot, I know the atmosphere is right. Then all the rest just comes together," he notes.

The 56-year-old describes his merchandise as eclectic and upscale. He buys from 800 vendors throughout the country and loves tracking down unusual items. "He has an eye for picking out things you think people would never buy," insists Carlene, "but they do." In addition, he is not afraid to take risks. "Sometimes I'll buy an item not caring if it'll sell or not -- it's interesting and I just want to have it there," he says. "I view it as an advertising expense. If you don't have any markdowns, then you're not being a good buyer. You need to be willing to make mistakes."

The third of four children, Bob grew up in Seattle with "wonderful parents." Soon after earning a business degree from the University of Washington, he started as assistant manager at a Pier 1 store in Dallas at the age of 23. He worked with the company for 18 years, three of those as CEO. During his years with Pier 1, he moved to Montreal to start Import Bazaar, which Pier 1 eventually bought. His years in Montreal introduced him to Vermont, and to Beverley, co-owner of Hero's Welcome and his wife of 25 years.

"I was opening up a needlecraft shop because I had two children and was getting out of my marriage," Beverley recalls, "and it was love at first sight." After they married, Bob's son from his first marriage came to live with them; they later had a daughter together. In 1992, after vacationing in Vermont for almost 20 years, Bob and Beverley moved to the Champlain Islands with the intention of taking a two-year sabbatical. Half-way through, Bob was overcome with the feeling that they should stay and find something to do.

In the heart of North Hero, a building had been sitting empty for almost two years. Built in 1900 by Doug Tudhope's great uncle, Tudhope's Store had started out as a general store and evolved into a marine business in the late '70s when Doug bought it from his father. After Tudhope sold the business in 1988, two more owners came through and failed. "When the store was empty, the town lost its heart," remembers Shirley Parizo, the bookkeeper at Hero's Welcome. Tudhope was delighted when he found out that the Camps planned to buy the building. "They're both bright and energetic people who are consummate retailers. They're a real credit to the community; they've done a lot to restore the health of this place," he says.

Kenny Bassett, a local boat builder and regular customer, agrees. "It's changed the downtown face of North Hero. It's like a friendly neighborhood pub without the alcohol," he jokes.

Paul and Carlene Letourneau became partners in the business over the last few years. "The unexpected is the hardest part of the job," says Paul, who had no retail experience when he joined, "like when the basement floods."

"Hero's Welcome is definitely the nicest store in all of the islands," says Kevin O'Neil, who sells food products to the store through Hallsmith-Sysco, the largest food service company in America. "It's immaculate in there."

When the Camps bought the store from the bank in November 1993, some warned they wouldn't succeed. Winters are long in Vermont, and the peak retail season is short. They knew, however, how busy North Hero became in the summer with tourists flocking to the Champlain Islands from New England, Canada, and beyond. This is when the store really comes alive. "On a busy summer day, we can make 300 sandwiches and do 1,500 transactions," says Carlene.

When the weather turns warm, the store puts out a 160-foot dock, makes use of its 28 moorings, and sells marine gas. Visitors can eat lunch at picnic tables overlooking the water, and they can rent canoes, kayaks, or bikes. In addition, from Memorial Day until just after Labor Day, Hero's Welcome opens The Lake Store, a separate building that sells boating supplies, camping equipment, and other summer sporting goods. In the winter, it's possible to rent skates and cross-country skis.

All of this diversity is an advantage. A veteran retailer, Bob knows that more and more small businesses today are being devastated by big-box retailing. Enormous franchises like PetSmart, Toys 'R' Us, and Barnes & Noble have cornered the market on a particular type of merchandise, wiping out many neighborhood stores. "It's dangerous to be a small grocer here," he admits, "because if a large grocer comes in, you're toast. On the other hand, I've purposefully created a place that's full of unusual things. It's not just a store; it's a gathering place," he explains.

Not only do customers gather, young and energetic salespeople do, too. The staff more than doubles in the summer, as local teen-agers return year after year to work part-time hours. "Customers ask how we get all these wonderful kids. We give them a lot of respect," says Bob. "I always think that catching people doing things right is better than catching them doing things wrong. Let people feel like they're making a contribution, and they'll work even harder for you."

Working hard is second nature to Bob, who was offered and accepted a position as CEO of Kitchen Etc. in July. Because his thirst for new challenges keeps him on the move, he sold a percentage of Hero's Welcome to the Letourneaus. Carlene, a native Vermonter who worked in a country store in Alburg for 20 years, became manager of Hero's Welcome in June 1996. "I thought it was a neat store, and I wanted to try something different," she says. In March '97, Bob offered her partial ownership in the business, and she accepted. Paul joined the team in August when Bob offered a larger cut of the pie.

A machinist with Vermont Precision Tools for 19 years who has no background in retail, Paul was ready to make a shift from working in a factory to working with people, but was concerned about how he would fare. "I figured my biggest hurdle would be working with the public, but that has turned out to be the easiest part of it," he says. "The unexpected is the hardest part of the job," he continues, "like when the basement floods."

Beverley and Bob are very pleased with their partners. "We didn't want them to take the business on unless they were serious about it," says Bob, "and we couldn't be luckier. They have an amazing work ethic. Carlene loves the customers, and Paul is one of those guys who's extremely well-organized and keeps everything fixed and looking great."

Customers can return any item to Hero's Welcome -- no receipt required; no questions asked. "I believe in starting with the principle that people are honest," says Bob Camp. Pictured: Becky Laforest

With Bob on the road a great deal these days, Beverley is likely to take over the annual selection of inventory and will continue ordering the store's books, her specialty. "I spend a lot of time reading books and reviews," she says. "Every bookstore takes on the flavor of the person doing the buying. Very often people will remark on what an extraordinary collection we have." A creative individual with a flair for design, Beverley redecorated the interior of North Hero House, the local inn; she also consults with Lorre Tucker, owner of Expressions in downtown Burlington, to redo the store each season. Not surprisingly, she also creates the displays at Hero's Welcome.

Even though Bob is working with Kitchen Etc. full-time, he intends to continue doing advertising for the store and tells everyone that he and Beverley will someday be "buried in the basement." He acknowledges, however, that Paul and Carlene are becoming the store's true general managers. In the near future, Paul has plans to redo Hero's Welcome's website, as Internet transactions make-up only a small percentage of current sales.

Nonetheless, their mail-order business ships items all over the country and abroad. They even ship cinnamon bread to a customer in Florida, "And the FedEx cost is far more than the bread," muses Bob. Hero's Welcome also maintains an ironclad return policy, which Bob affectionately calls the "Hero's Guarantee." Customers can return any item without a receipt no matter what. "I believe in starting with the principle that people are honest," states Bob.

Parizo remembers a woman in California who bought a silver teapot. The woman used and polished the teapot so frequently that she wore the finish off and sent it back. "We ended up replacing that teapot for her three times," chuckles Parizo.

If Hero's Welcome is a success, it is due in large part to Bob's understanding of and love for people, his wealth of retail experience, and his positive attitude toward life. "People drive from miles around to get to Hero's Welcome," says Doug Tudhope. "The people are friendly; the food is excellent; the range of products is impressive. It's such a fine store," he continues, "I wish my father and uncle were alive to see it."

Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer who produces programming about alternative medicine for Oxygen Media Inc., a new women's cable television network in New York City.