Trading: City Suits for Rural Roots

John and Marcia Biondolillo recognized where their values lay

by Julia Lynam

John and Marcia Biondolillo returned to Barre, Marcia's hometown, with a wealth of banking and property management experience. They bought Berg, Carmolli and Kent realty when they decided central Vermont was the perfect place to go into commercial real estate.

From pinstripes in Boston to Little League coaching in Barre: It's an American dream and it's the life John and Marcia Biondolillo have created for themselves and their family. Owners of Berg, Carmolli and Kent Real Estate in Barre since January 2003, the Biondolillos left the world of big-city banking to move to Marcia's hometown and become part of a vibrant community.

John began his banking career in the credit department of Fleet Bank in Rochester, N.Y. "I became a commercial loan officer, then moved to Boston so I could meet Marcia, who was director of employment for the Bank of Boston," he recalls. "I was senior lender of the Boston Five Cent Savings Bank, a $2 billion, 26-branch savings bank that had been around since 1780."

In the early 1980s, Boston was suffering a real estate market crash. Like other savings banks at that time, the "Boston Five" owned and developed real estate. "They had millions of dollars of property all over New England," John explains, "They gave me the job of selling off property and managing properties that the bank had to take back on. It taught me a lot about real estate: I sold skyscrapers in downtown Boston and thousand-unit apartment complexes in Gainesville, so really, I've been working with real estate for 20 years."

All this led to John's being invited by a friend to Kansas City, Mo., for 30 days to attempt a rescue of a $400 million bank. When he was hired to run the bank, the 30 days turned into three years.

Marcia, who was enrolled in a master's program at Boston College, elected to remain behind. "He asked me to get married the day before he left," she says. "It was like a soldier going off to war."

They married during John's tenure in Kansas City: "We had the ultimate commuter marriage," Marcia recalls. "We'd meet every other weekend at some place. We actually had a good time because we'd pick destinations. The only reason I got him to come back was because we decided to start a family. I moved to Barre, and John arrived just one month before our son was born."

John's intention, after many years in banking, was to enter the world of real estate as a salesperson. His first year in Vermont, however, was spent working on real estate for Northfield Savings Bank, and opening new branches in Waitsfield and Bethel.

Marcia took time off with their newborn son, then worked from home on mergers and acquisitions for the Bank of Boston, traveling to Boston once a week. "I used to be terrified," says John, "being left alone with our son. Marcia used to tell me: 'Remember, you're the adult!'"

Marcia subsequently joined the Vermont Bank Service Corp., an arm of the Vermont Banking Association, consulting on internal process management for small banks, including the Wells River, Middlebury and Lyndonville savings banks, until the couple acquired BCK Real Estate and she became office manager.

BCK has two offices Barre and Montpelier and seven licensed brokers, plus Tami Baldwin, the client care manager, and Greg Noyes, marketing coordinator, pictured.

After leaving banking in early 1999 to be president of Bolton Valley Holiday Resort, in 2001 John realized his heart was in real estate and joined Prudential Realty Mart in Burlington, learning the nuances of licensed brokering from Nancy Jenkins and Don Marcelino, and doing a lot of business in central Vermont with the intention of eventually focusing on that area. An unexpected opportunity to buy a real estate agency in Barre made John realize that the agency he really wanted to buy was Berg, Carmolli and Kent. Claire Duke, who had founded BCK Real Estate in 1981 as an offshoot of the Barre insurance company of the same name, agreed to sell, and the Biondolillos acquired BCK in January 2003.

With seven licensed brokers, including Marcia, who acts as office manager, plus a marketing coordinator and an administrative assistant, BCK handles residential and commercial real estate in central Vermont and, increasingly, farther afield. In May 2004 they opened a small office in Montpelier, staffed by licensed broker Leo Valliere.

Central Vermont was the perfect place to set up a commercial real estate operation, says Marcia: "No one was really focused on the commercial end, so John's really filled a need; he adds value because his banking experience gives him a deep understanding of the financial side."

"In the first year things have gone pretty much to plan," says John, "except that the commercial side of the business has been better than expected. When we bought, there was uncertainty about the economy and the war in Iraq. Business people were waiting to see what would happen. They weren't leasing space, they weren't buying buildings that's changed, and the leasing end has snowballed. We've seen activity in Barre and in central Vermont in general. For instance, Hershey Ice Cream moved into some space in Berlin, and Cabot Creamery took a huge space in the Wilson Industrial Park in Barre for materials storage.

"Residential's been red hot the last two or three years, and not just because of low mortgage rates," he continues. "Rates are low everywhere, but it's not happening all over the country. The silver lining in the cloud of 9/11, if you will, is that people want to be in Vermont. They say they're seeking a safer part of the country to live in. A lot of people who can work out of their homes or telecommute are moving to Vermont from out of state. People are moving to central Vermont from Chittenden County because they're tired of paying high prices up there and don't mind the commute in order to get more house."

John Biondolillo (right) decided BCK was the firm he wanted to buy and approached Claire Duke, who founded the firm in 1981 as an offshoot of a Barre insurance company. Claire and her husband, David, still work at BCK.

John says he believes the big challenge for the commercial real estate business is to improve communication among brokers. "The information flow is not as readily available as it is on the residential side. If I were king for a day, I'd invent a true commercial MLS [Multiple Listing Service] because there really isn't one right now. There's a handful of commercial brokers who have informal networking activities, but a true MLS, giving instantaneous access to all member brokers with detailed listings including the commission offered, would be much more efficient."

CPA Tom Lauzon, a real estate developer, met John Biondolillo when he was with Northfield Savings Bank. They were introduced by Marcia's father, Lyman Amsden, who was then superintendent of the Barre City School District and now holds the same position in Burlington.

"John and I both want to see Barre be successful and we often consult on projects," Lauzon said. I was thrilled when John and Marcia decided to buy BCK Real Estate; Claire Duke had been a wonderful fixture on the Barre Real Estate scene for many years; hers were big shoes to fill.

"John has presented me with some good real estate ideas over the past few years, including the purchase of the former Capitol Stationers building on Main Street, which was empty. I bought that in partnership with Brad Ormsby of Ormsby Computers. We've renovated the whole building and brought three new tenants into the downtown."

Originally published in October 2004 Business People-Vermont