A Matched Set

Cousins Tim and Jeff Thibault rely on the strength of relationships and their shared beliefs to carry on the family tradition at Bob Thibault & Sons Appliances in St. Albans.

by Cal Workman

Tim Thibault (left) handles the sales end of Bob Thibault & Sons Appliances in St. Albans; his cousin Jeff oversees service. Their brands are household names: Whirlpool, Frigidaire, Kitchen Aid, Jenn-Air, and Maytag, whose "lonely repairman" enjoys the company.

The sign on the delivery truck says it all: "There's always an owner in the store." Bucking the trend toward large, impersonal retail stores, Tim and Jeff Thibault of Bob Thibault and Sons Appliances in St. Albans own a small, family-run business. Moreover, they are making it thrive as a family affair.

Jeff, the more reserved of the pair, manages the service division, leaving the business management and sales to h is more outgoing cousin Tim. Like every small business owner, they're accustomed to wearing many hats.

"Everyone has to be willing to do many different things," says Tim. With a background in sales and a knack for business management, Tim oversees their 6,000-square-foot appliance showroom in The Champlain Commons. A bright, open floor space sparkles with more than 130 white and cream-colored appliances of every description from washers and dryers, ranges, refrigerators and microwave ovens to air conditioners, vacuum cleaners and sewing machines. The selection is generous and the brands are household names: Maytag, Whirlpool, Kitchen Aid, Jenn-Air and Frigidaire.

With training in mechanical engineering and a natural aptitude for fixing things, 40-year-old Jeff Thibault manages repairs, handling service warranty work and deliveries for homeowners in Franklin and Grand Isle counties and northern Chittenden County. Seven full-time employees, including other family members, keep this growing business running as effortlessly as the spin cycle on a brand-new, front-loading Maytag Neptune washer.

Jeff and Tim are the second generation of Thibaults in the appliance business. In 1990, Jeff's father, Bob, took early retirement at age 55 after 25 years as a Sears service agent and 12 years as a Maytag dealer. Bob started his career in appliances while still in high school, working part-time after hours for the Brown Co. "I worked on wringer washers," he says. "In those days, dishwashers weren't even invented." After retirement, Bob continued to do a little service work on the side.

Business was brisk. Before long, he enlisted Jeff one of his two sons who had been a hardware product designer at General Electric for nine years, but had recently been laid off due to an economic slump. For three years, the two of them drove the back roads, fixing appliances and gaining the trust of homeowners throughout the area.

Jeff learned the trade from his father on the job. He relished the experience and especially the time spent with his dad. He admits repair work was already in his blood: "I took apart and reassembled radios a lot as a kid," Jeff says, smiling. He also notes that Vermonters are more frugal than the rest of the country.

"I've seen a lot of baling twine and duct tape holding things together. Vermonters fix things first, so a service repair business is a good business to be in," he says.

With his childhood curiosity, an associate's degree in electrical engineering from Vermont Technical College earned in 1981 and hands-on experience, Jeff was well-suited to master this trade.

Eventually, the Thibault father-and-son team started special ordering Whirlpool appliances at the urging of their service customers. Demand for new appliances continued to grow. Bob transformed his garage into an impromptu showroom to keep pace and brought in his wife, Betty, to answer calls from home and order parts.

When a 3,000-foot retail space opened up at Champlain Commons in 1993, the family seized the opportunity. With this growing emphasis on sales, Bob sought the help of another family member. He turned to his nephew Tim Thibault, coaxing him away from Climb High in Shelburne, where Tim had spent seven years as a sales representative and was trained in purchasing and shipping and receiving. With a degree in recreational management from the University of Vermont, selling Whirlpool appliances seems like a stretch, but Tim says, "There was no future for me at Climb High, and this business offered so many new challenges."

Serendipity and a willingness to take risks have served the family well. When the neighboring retailer wanted to retire from the sewing machine and vacuum cleaner sales and repair business in 1994, the Thibault family bought out the business and combined showroom spaces. Tim trained on sales and repairs of these sister appliances. When Berno's, a competing home appliance store in St. Albans, closed its doors, the Thibaults added its Frigidaire and Maytag lines, greatly enhancing their selection and, eventually, overcrowding the floor.

In 1996, Mike, Bob's elder son, a former vice president of Franklin Lamoille Bank, took over as CFO, overseeing the financial management and sales growth. Mike's wife, Lisa, fielded overflow calls from the showroom, ordered parts and helped map out service routes.

In 2000, they doubled their size by moving to their current home, across the parking lot in the same shopping complex. Since the move, they've added two more lines and expanded personnel to the current seven. A bookkeeper contracted from Alpha Omega Services comes in once a week to keep the books in order and cut paychecks. Bob and Betty help out now only on weekends, affording the other family members a break. They will retire from the business in a year.

Bob Thibault founded Thibault Appliances in 1990 after 37 years in a career that began while he was in high school working part-time on wringer washers. Bob's wife, Betty, joined him when things took off. They still help out on weekends.

"We'll still be go-fers," quips Bob. We'll go-fer this and go-fer that, Betty and I traveling together."

Mike also moved on in 2000 to pursue a career as an insurance agent for Farm Family Insurance. Lisa remains "an internal part of the team," says Tim.

Revenues indicate the Thibaults are doing a whole lot right. Sales have grown from $200,000 in 1997 to nearly $900,000 expected in 2002, a 400 percent increase. Tim admits, "We're still catching up with our growth and are now asking ourselves questions like, 'Where are we best spending our time?' "

Key is the shared conviction that in Vermont, people value quality service. Tim and Jeff echo that their number one goal is to "deliver 100 percent customer satisfaction all the time." To that end, they say they strive to render same-day or next-day repair service, they work to carry appliance models that last, and they don't rush their customers into making impulsive decisions.

"We tend to be more laid-back," says Tim. "It's more important that the customer is happy. We think they'll come back and buy from us because they weren't pressured."

Jeff adds, "In a small town, you have to treat a customer right or word gets around. We try to treat people the way we like to be treated."

While word of mouth recommendations might be the best form of advertising, the Thibaults don't rely on them entirely. They make sure the company name is circulating in the marketplace through regular print advertisements in local daily and community papers. They've run television ad campaigns on Adelphia Cable and WCAX and some limited radio advertisements. Most recently, they've signed on as a sponsor for Vermont Public Television helping to underwrite the year-long Julia Child series In Julia's Kitchen With Master Chefs. For a brief time, they hosted a website, but the majority of inquiries were out of their niche, and by contract with the major appliance manufacturers, selling online is prohibited.

They admit it's tough competing with the mega-retailers Best Buy, Home Depot and Sears, which enjoy multi-figure national advertising budgets.

"Our greatest business challenge is to stay competitive as an independent dealer," says Jeff.

To that end, they price the appliances competitively, and Thibault's does not tack on additional delivery and installation charges. The constant refrain is that service sets the business apart. "Best Buy and Home Depot don't offer service," he says. "They don't get into that at all."

Surprisingly, the business is also very seasonal. "If we have an early, warm spring, it means we're going to have a good season," say Tim. Hot weather stresses anything with a cooling agent, and the Thibaults hear from the homeowners with failing air conditioners, refrigerators and freezers. For reasons they can't quite explain, Tim says, the heat also spawns sales for everything, including washers, dryers and cooking ranges.

The cool and wet spring Vermonters experienced this year took a bite out of business, but sales picked up over the summer. By July 4, they'd sold out of air conditioners, inventory for which they must predict demand and buy pre-season. September 11 also dramatically affected business for a short time.

"For two weeks, we were lucky to have anyone in the store," remembers Jeff. For the first time in the store's history, sales did not meet their quarterly goal for Maytag, but service remained constant.

The sputtering economy has Tim and Jeff somewhat concerned, but Tim is quick to counter that their business is somewhat protected by economic fluctuations.

"When people aren't buying appliances, they're fixing them, and if they're not fixing them, they're buying them. We're in both businesses," he says. Additionally, what once were considered luxury items microwave ovens and dishwashers are now necessities that consumers won't live without.

Apart from the seasonality of business and unforeseen disruptions, both businessmen name balancing work and home life as a challenge along with the added pressure of owning a business.

"When you work for someone else, you can turn off at the end of the day," says Jeff with a shrug. "I'm thinking about the business constantly, especially when things get tight."

Tim concedes it's a little easier for him. "I lead two different lives. When I'm at the store, I try not to bring family issues there and vice versa."

Both are married with young children. Jeff lives in St. Albans with his wife, Donda a graphic designer for Paul Kaza and their two children, 31/2-year-old Ben and 7-year-old Alexander. Ben is already showing signs of following in his father's footsteps.

"One of his favorite things to do is to take apart the laundry hamper using his Bob the Builder tool set, hard hat and all," says Jeff with obvious pride.

Lisa Thibault (left), Jeff's sister-in-law, and Lariea Robertson make sure things in the office and showroom run smoothly.

Tim lives in Fairfax with his wife, Maria, a UVM sports physical therapist, and their two children, 4-year-old Kaitlyn and 7-year-old Daniel. While Tim describes both of his children as outgoing with the potential to excel in sales, he says he doesn't think a lot about passing the business on to them.

"I want them to be free to do whatever interests them," he says. "I would like to see it pass down, but I want to realistic about it. I don't want to put them in the position to feel obligated to take over."

Both men take pains to cater to family, even though that involves being short-handed in the busy summer season when employees take vacations. Tim points out, "We could be far more successful if we worked 60 to 80 hours a week, but we couldn't get that time back with our kids."

They draw strength from running the business as a family. Jeff and Tim gather at one or another's house for informal meetings, and they involve their wives in these brainstorming sessions. "We focus on the positive traits we all have," says Tim.

They claim they get along well. They say it's easier to stay together as a family business because they share something more than a business relationship, and they have lots of reasons to get together outside of work.

The family is also deeply religious. Their shared beliefs serve as the backbone of the business.

"We're in the same family and in the same church family," says Tim. "Our faith brings it all together. It's community, it's person-to-person, it's treating others like we'd like them to treat us, and that all comes back to our basic beliefs."

Originally published in September 2002 Business People-Vermont