White on White

David White tells a spirited story, from his tale of choosing a college to the angst of moving into the private sector

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

It's unusual to find a commercial real estate broker who's come from a nonprofit background; but that's just where David White, owner of David G. White & Associates on Battery Street in Burlington, started.

David G. White, the owner of David G. White & Associates on Battery Street in Burlington, combined a Goddard education, a love of community service and an aptitude for planning to create a commercial real estate firm that's half consulting, half brokerage.

White says his background led him to create an atypical company one that has evolved into a hybrid of consulting and brokering. A list of recent clients covers much of Vermont: Northfield Savings Bank and its entry into Chittenden County; Fletcher Allen Health Care's Renaissance Project; Onion River Co-op's City Market in Burlington and Hunger Mountain Food Cooperative in Montpelier; Ethan Allen Shopping Center; Equinox Resort in Manchester; and Southland Planned Commercial Development, which comprises Hannaford, Chittenden Bank and the controversial Lowe's Home Center now under construction.

Maybe it was genetic. White grew up on Chicago's South Side, where his grandfather was dean of the University of Chicago business school and his father was an Episcopal priest in parish ministry.

He recounts his story with typical enthusiasm. In his junior year of high school, White asked everyone he met for the name of a good college and sent off postcards to all of them.

"I remember doing a kind of triage," he says. "I would pull out a catalog, skim it and put it into one of three piles: 'No way,' 'Looks interesting,' and 'Wow! This is exciting!'"

All the catalogs seemed the same. "Then I pulled out this catalog that right off the bat was totally different," he says. "On the cover was an etching of a witch standing at a cauldron stirring it; and instead of page after page thick with text, there was white space, art and student art! It turned out it was student-produced, on campus. It was the first one that went into the 'exciting' pile.

This was in the early '70s, and the college was Goddard. The Plainfield school was "in its heyday, focused on student initiatives," says White.

He liked Goddard's idea that each student designed the program he or she would follow. "It might include a mix of courses, independent study, field work, and with each, you would have a faculty adviser," he says. At the semester's end, the student's evaluation of the process was assessed by the adviser, and that assessment was the basis for the next semester's plan.

"If you think of what I just described develop a plan, implement it, critique it and decide what you'd do next what a wonderful model for life and business," says White. "It's that process, which I learned over those years, that has played a huge role in my effectiveness as a consultant today."

White graduated in 1977, and says all his ambitions were in doing community organization work "and trying to solve the ills of the world."

Noble enough sentiments if a job is available. He ended up tending bar at a small Montpelier tavern called M.J. Friday's. About that time he met Sally Knight, an artist, at a fund-raising dance in Barre. They fell "madly in love," he says.

A year later, after rebuilding a wrecked Triumph TR-4 sports car, they quit their jobs, put everything they owned into a friend's barn and took off to see the country with $1,000 and one duffel bag each. Whenever they ran out of money, they'd find jobs, earn another $1,000 and take off again. Their travels took them through the United States and parts of Mexico. Eventually, they realized they had "found no place nicer than Vermont," and they came home to Montpelier.

The timing was auspicious. The owners of M.J. Friday's had had a falling-out and sued each other, and the court ruled they had to find a manager, because neither could be in the bar, says White. "They searched me out and offered me the job."

He was at M.J. Friday's in 1980, when he became a founding board member of Montpelier on the Move, a nonprofit downtown revitalization corporation, called MOM for short. Eventually, enough money was raised to hire an executive director, but "I was the only one willing to take the job for the money available," he says with a laugh.

White built the organization for four years, working in historic preservation, recruiting new business to downtown, obtaining grants to renovate buildings, doing promotions and launching an annual downtown festival called Fool's Fest. In 1983, realizing he was enjoying the business, real estate and finance side more than the promotion and event side, White enrolled in a part-time master's program in community economic development at New Hampshire College (now Southern New Hampshire University), which he completed in 1985.

Tim Burke has been with White since he launched the business. White says his background in accounting and as a portfolio manager for National Life's real estate division make him a perfect complement to White.

In 1984, he went to work for the city of Montpelier as director of community development and de facto city planner. Three years into the job, White realized he was ready for a change "after seven years of putting my heart and soul into economic development and downtown organization in Montpelier." For the next year, he kept his radar tuned for opportunities.

White eventually accepted an offer to enter the private sector working for Pomerleau Real Estate, although he had a difficult time deciding between that and a job in the Kunin administration.

"It was a Friday," he says, "and I remember over the course of that weekend just being in turmoil, but by Monday it was absolutely clear: I wanted to take the job with Pomerleau. I was so tired of dealing with the political squabbles. It was such a tough thing."

He and Knight had marred in 1981, and by 1988, when he took the Pomerleau job, they were raising two children. In '89, they moved to Burlington, and life should have been good, he says. "Here I was getting paid more money than I'd ever earned in my life, with the biggest commercial real estate office in the state, a wonderful office in the Follett House, working with wonderful people, and it wasn't working.

"I was slow to figure it out, but over that year, the light bulb went on. I realized that in every position I had been in since being manager of that restaurant, I was the leader, and I recognized that I'm motivated by the buck stopping here. With the Pomerleaus, I had lots of responsibility, but it wasn't my vision, and that's just the nature of the position. It soon became clear I needed to do something else.

In 1991, White launched David G. White & Associates. "Tony and Ernie were just wonderful," he says. "They helped me start my business: They initially gave me free rent in their building; gave me some contracts on their projects; they referred me to people; they were enormously generous."

Ernie Pomerleau, president of Pomerleau Real Estate, had met White during a project in Montpelier, when White was with the city. "He was very engaging," says Pomerleau, "and I was very impressed by his professionalism and integrity. When an opportunity came later, we talked and invited him to join our team here. He accepted; it was a wonderful growing experience for both of us. He fit into our group well, and it was great synergy."

As White continued to evolve, the Pomerleaus supported it, Pomerleau says. "We've done work with David as well as other clients doing permitting. He's very insightful and very good at it."

Not long after setting up his business, White hired Tim Burke, a native Vermonter who had recently returned to the state. Burke had joined Coopers Lybrand right out of the University of Vermont with a degree in accounting, and earned his CPA in his three years at Coopers. For the next few years, he traveled the globe as an auditor for Sheraton before joining Sheraton's real estate department. After a stint with National Life's real estate division, working in Montpelier, Atlanta and, eventually, Dallas, he married his fiancee, Laurie Caswell, and they returned to Shelburne, where they owned a home.

His college roommate, Andy Ryan, was working for Pomerleau, says Burke, "and he told me to go talk to a guy named David White who had just started his own company."

"We work very well together," says White. "It may be my name on the masthead, but we function like partners. I do think he is the finest commercial broker in the state."

In the beginning, White intended his business to be strictly consulting, "because what I love doing is projects, to really get into the heart and meat of whatever the issues are. When I was at Pomerleau, I had never done brokerage, didn't even have a license."

As the years progressed, White realized he was developing strong relationships with owners and developers and "turning opportunities over to brokerages on a silver platter. I thought, 'Why am I doing this?' and so I got my license. It has grown, in terms of financial volume, at least, to be more than half the company."

White moved the business to Battery Street in 1998. Although at one point the company had four professional staff and one assistant, now it's just White, Burke and Juli Martin, the assistant. According to White, he and Burke work so well together that he's happy to leave the status quo for now.

David White (left) and Tim Burke function more as partners than employer-employee. Although both are brokers, Burke does most of the brokerage, while White does most of the consulting.

Although both White and Burke are licensed brokers, Burke largely runs the brokerage side of the business while White handles the consulting and permit work. "He's a better public speaker than I am," says Burke. "He controls his temper a lot better than I do. The permit rules and regs are often mysterious and frustrating for me, but we collaborate a lot."

"Some brokerage houses list as much property as they can," says White. "They advertise a lot, have their signs all over the place, and through sheer volume they can make a lot of deals. We're very selective about what we take on, but when we take it on, we focus very intensely on it. It's not uncommon for Tim and me to advise a client not to do a particular brokerage transaction because we don't think it's in their interests.

Vermont has been good to White, and he wouldn't live anywhere else. His parents moved here from Chicago about four years ago and live about three blocks from White and Knight. "They are among our best friends," he says.

Outside the office, White, a self-confessed "klutz," took up snowboarding a few years ago as a way to spend more time with his son. He found that he loved it and now teaches snowboarding at Smugglers' Notch. As a result of discovering he could "move through my limitations," White also took up bicycling and now does century rides [100 miles] and restores vintage lightweight bikes as a hobby.

His volunteer work took a back seat when he started the business, but White is slowly returning to his service roots, having just joined the board of Spectrum Youth and Family Services. "I'd like to do more," he says, "but the honest truth is that life is very full."

Originally published in October 2004 Business People-Vermont