Big Wheels

This Montpelier family does more than sell cars and trucks

by Tom Gresham

Bill Cody is in the driver's seat at Cody Chevrolet, the Montpelier auto dealership founded by his father and uncles in 1956.

The Cody name has been ubiquitous around Montpelier since the 1920s. Businesses, civic organizations, athletic teams, schools, even politics the Cody family has touched every aspect of the capital city's landscape. Hard work, community involvement and a sharp business sense appear to be prevalent genetic traits. Robert Cody, the scion of one particularly assiduous branch of the Cody family tree, raised seven children with his wife, Janice. His eighth child was a Chevrolet dealership.

"Our family life has always been centered around the business," says Bob Cody, one of Robert's three sons. "In some ways, our family life was the business. There wasn't much difference between the two. We like it that way. It's still that way." Cody Chevrolet has been a part of the Montpelier-Barre area for nearly 50 years. Robert and his three brothers purchased the Chevrolet dealership in 1956. For decades, it was one of several businesses in the area the brothers operated together. The dealership was always central for Robert and, in 1981, he purchased his brothers' shares and became the sole owner. Bill, Robert's middle son, arrived that year for full-time work, taking over as general manager following six years in the Army.

Bob Cody (center left), Bill's brother, is the fixed-operations manager at the family-owned and operated business. In the background are longtime customer Don Lyons (left) and Dennis Beaudin, who works in the service department.

Two years later, Bob graduated from Fordham University. "I'm a big Yankees fan and school was only 10 blocks from Yankee Stadium," he says with a chuckle. "I went to a lot of games."

With his degree in economics and finance, he headed straight to Cody Chevrolet and started work in the parts department. Robin, one of Robert's four daughters, had assumed the comptroller responsibilities in 1980, and Bill's wife, Paula, joined the company shortly thereafter.

In the late '80s, Robert began enjoying more and more time in Florida a well-earned respite following a lifetime of diligent effort, according to his sons. Bill took the helm and Bob was handling the fixed operations at the dealership. Bob says his father, after years of paying careful attention to every detail of the business, relinquished responsibility with surprising ease, proud to see his sons in charge.

"He made it very easy for us," Bob says. "He had always worked hard and I think he knew he could trust us to do the same. He always made us work hard growing up."

Bill and Bob Cody share ownership of the dealership, which in 2000 became Cody Chevrolet-Cadillac-Oldsmobile. During the brothers' tenure, the company has enjoyed enormous growth, expanding onto adjoining properties and increasing its stock of vehicles considerably. When Bill began working at the dealership full time, Cody Chevrolet had 11 new vehicles and 20 used vehicles on its lot. Today, the dealership's inventory runs well over 200 vehicles, including cars, pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles. Cody is also one of the region's top sellers of the medium-duty commercial trucks used by various businesses, including lumber companies, electric companies, bottling companies and vending companies.

Bill's wife, Paula Cody (left), Cody Chevrolet's comptroller, has worked at the dealership almost as long as her husband. Delina Benway is the office manager.

The Cody dealership boasts 45 employees; many have been with the business for several years. The skill of the employees and their emotional investment in the dealership's success is an integral element of Bill and Bob's approach, a strategy they learned from their father. Echoing each other in separate interviews, Bill and Bob cited the same words from their father to explain the importance of skilled and motivated employees.

"You take good care of the employees and they'll take good care of the customers," Robert told his boys. "You take good care of the customers and that'll take good care of the business."

Bob says Cody employees know their hard work will have its rewards. Several of the dealership's department managers started their careers years ago in entry-level positions and have worked their way up the ladder.

"We think it's been important that we've empowered the employees and made sure that they feel what they say is important," Bill says. "Having employees that feel appreciated, that feel what they say matters, is important to any business."

The Codys are proud of the results. Cody Chevrolet-Cadillac-Oldsmobile is frequently honored by General Motors as one of the state's premier dealerships in terms of customer satisfaction. Bill says forging long-term relationships with customers is the most essential ingredient to building a solid dealership. He says hucksters can make money in the short term, but won't be there for the long haul.

"We want to be there for the long haul," Bill says. "And we've been here for the long haul."

The Codys are keen to cultivate their already tight relationship with the Montpelier-Barre community, eagerly sponsoring various organizations and causes. Bob says the Codys are particularly vulnerable to the pitches of youth sports teams. Bill, Bob and their older brother, Dick, starred on the basketball and baseball teams at Montpelier High School and remain avid sports fans. Bill was a Little League coach in town while his four children were growing up.

Cody is one of the region's top sellers of medium-duty commercial trucks. Jeff Lafond, master service technician, keeps them in top shape.

"We're definitely pushovers for the Little Leagues and stuff like that," Bob says, "but we try to do a lot of stuff in the community. The community has been very good to us, so it only makes sense that we give back to it."

Demonstrating the Codys' entrenchment in Montpelier is the fact that the Cody family has had at least someone living on Elm Street in the city for approximately 80 years. Today, Bill lives on Elm with his wife and daughter; Robert and Janice live next door; and one of Bill's sisters is two doors down.

Bill and Bob say they simply revere their hometown and look for ways to serve it. Each is involved in a wide range of civic organizations.

Bill served six years as an alderman in the 1990s and has connections to the Rotary Club, the Auto Dealers Association, Chittenden Bank, the Gary Home (a home for elderly women), Vermont Mutual Insurance, Champlain College and the Central Vermont Economic Development Board.

Bob serves on the board of the Good Samaritan Haven, the New Motor Vehicle Arbitration Board and the Central Vermont Home, Health and Hospice board.

"I love Montpelier," Bill says. "It's a great community. It's just got everything. It was a great place to grow up in and a great place to live in. It's just this neat, quaint, beautiful town. It's got that beautiful State House. I mean, in how many capitals can you go down and throw the Frisbee on the statehouse lawn? We love it. My wife and I jog right through the center of town every day in the summer. It's just a great place to be."

Bill's devotion to Montpelier inspired him to co-found the Montpelier Foundation, a tax-deductible charitable fund created to accept contributions of money, securities or property from individuals, organizations and corporations in order to support future long-term projects in Montpelier. Bill sees the foundation as a vehicle to fund much-needed projects around the city. For example, the foundation played a financial role in the recent dedication of a Veterans Memorial at the City Hall. Although the organization remains in the incipient stages, he is clearly excited about the potential gains for the community.

"It's an endowment fund for the city," he says. "It's a great community but until we established this foundation there was really no place to donate money to support it, unless you were donating money to the city for a specific purpose. This money will go toward tangible goods for the city, toward things like bike paths or trees. It will go toward things that will help the city grow. It's a way of putting money in town and knowing that it's going to be put toward something long-lasting for the community."

The Codys note the changes Montpelier has seen in the last 20 years in the social dynamics of its population. The political attitudes of the capital city's residents are considerably more liberal than when they were growing up. Those new politics conflict with their own more conservative leanings; however, they say they appreciate the eclectic makeup of the community's population, even if they often disagree with their neighbors.

"Montpelier has got just a great mix of people," Bill says. "As you can imagine, a West Point guy like me doesn't always agree with a lot of them, but we are able to find common ground. It's a neat place where that can happen."

Bill's years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and later in the Army have been a central influence on his life. He was always interested in attending West Point, but particularly after his older brother, Dick, was recruited to play basketball there by a young coach named Bobby Knight. Knight later also recruited Bill to join the Army hoops' squad. Neither Bill nor Dick ever played for Knight each spent a year playing freshman basketball but the West Point experience proved eye-opening.

"It gave me a sense of purpose in life," Bill says. "You learn duty, honor, country. I think that the name West Point means honesty and integrity and discipline to people. West Point teaches you leadership and it teaches you how to deal with all kinds of situations and people. It taught me that leadership is important, but that teamwork is even more important. In many ways, it has really helped me learn to run a business."

Bill reached the rank of major during six years in the Army and has continued his service in the National Guard, in which he's a warrant officer. Dick, meanwhile, has climbed to the rank of three-star general. Gen. Dick Cody serves as the Department of Army Headquarters chief of operations. He was a prominent pilot of Apache helicopters during the first Gulf War. One helicopter trade magazine referred to Gen. Cody as "a legend" for his performance in that conflict.

Truck in repair bay.

"He's our family hero," says Bill.

"We're very proud of him," says Bob.

Bill and Dick's sons have followed in their fathers' footsteps into the military. Dick has two sons in the Army, one of whom has been flying helicopters in the war in Iraq. Bill also has two sons in the Army Jason, a first lieutenant, and Todd, a second lieutenant each of whom graduated from West Point. Jason has been serving in Iraq. Bill's youngest son, John, is a sophomore at West Point. Bill's daughter, Stephanie, is a junior at Montpelier High School.

Bob, meanwhile, has just started a family. On April 5, Robert Clinton Cody III was born to Bob and his wife, Dena, a kindergarten teacher in Northfield.

Family and work remain integrated for the Cody clan. Robin left the dealership in 1996, and Bill's wife, Paula, his sweetheart since grade school, now manages the company's finances. "It gives you a lot of comfort when your wife is handling the business' money," he interjects.

The rest of the large Cody family is dispersed to businesses across the state, most of them service-oriented. Cousins, brothers, sisters each dedicated to making their business work.

Bob says that's just the way it's always been.

"I remember working alongside my father growing up," Bob says. "He would always say, 'Now, I don't want you to work any harder than I'm working.' Of course, he worked so hard you couldn't have worked any harder than him. You were just trying to keep up."

Originally published in May 2003 Business People-Vermont