Power Brokers

A pair of savvy Foxes have found their calling

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Dennis and Nancy Fox, the owners of Fox Marine in Colchester, trade hats as often as necessary to make their power boat business thrive. "I'm capable of not only office and book work," says Nancy, "but I can also do sales, parts and accessories, answer service questions, inventory whatever needs doing except for turning the wrench."

Dennis and Nancy Fox can't see the lake from the windows of Fox Marine, their Colchester boat business, but they've made sure their showroom is seaworthy. Two large salt water aquariums, one featuring a 2-foot-long striped moray eel, provide undersea action for children their customers might bring along; and Dennis has created a treasure chest decorated with all manner of beads and shells and filled to the brim with chocolate coins. A giant cactus yes, it's alive stands near Dennis' office, adding desert island atmosphere. Their two miniature Doberman pinscher puppies provide comic relief.

Towering over everything are the Regal boats the Foxes sell.

"We have sold other boat brands," says Nancy, "and have found that manufacturers all they want is numbers, whereas Regal is concerned with customer and dealer relations. We try to build a relationship with a customer right from the minute they walk in the door to educate the customer on boats and boating whether they buy from us or not, because service is a huge portion of our business. We service boats for people who buy from other dealers."

Dennis picks up the thought. "We hear so many complaints from people when they come in, where they've walked in to other dealerships where it's as cold as ice. We strive to make sure that doesn't happen around here. We tell our employees we're no different than they are, and these people deserve to have the time of day, whether it's a 10-cent question or a $10,000 question."

The Foxes do that a lot playing off each other. Ask one a question, and the other one jumps in to answer it first. It's the kind of good-natured back-and-forth often evident with longtime married couples. They have been married 16 years and worked together full-time since 1991.

Dennis grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "My dad had worked for IBM for 33 years and decided he wanted to purchase a luncheonette out in Cape Cod. I was working for a dealership [boats and motorcycles] called Duchess Recre-ationals after school. My dad sold the house in New York, and we bought a place in Cape Cod, packed up everything and moved. He rented a mother-in-law apartment from my aunt and worked three years traveling back and forth. It didn't work out, and he ended up transferring up to Essex Junction with IBM."

By that time, however, Dennis had garnered a job working for a big boat dealership on the Cape, so he stayed behind. That is, until one weekend when he came to Vermont to go snowmobiling. With a twinkle in his eye that's never far from the surface, he recalls, "I said, 'Gee, it's kind of nice up here!" He found a job with Aquatec, a boat dealership in Colchester, which was later sold to Jim Goldman, the owner of Boatworks. Dennis settled down and eventually married.

Nancy's path to Vermont was much more direct. A Corpus Christi, Texas, native, she and her then-husband had been sent to Vermont by his employer, John Deere. When Dennis and Nancy first encountered each other, they we neighbors in a Colchester development. After Dennis and his then-wife moved to another part of town, the two families lost touch until a chance encounter several years later at Dick Mazza's General Store.

Dennis was going through a divorce at the time, and Nancy and her husband had divorced some time before. She still lived in Colchester with her two children. "We caught up with each other, had dinner," says Nancy, "and the rest is history." They were married in 1989.

Fox Marine has a mini fleet of trucks that includes two tractor-trailers, the pickups, a service truck and a box truck. Marty Olsen, the service coordinator, poses with one of the tractor-trailers he's just refurbished.

By then, Dennis was working for another boat dealer on Prim Road, in an old brick, three-bay garage across the street from today's Fox Marine building, which this dealer had just built for his business. He was moving in when his business folded, says Nancy.

Since the service department had not yet moved, says Dennis, "The guy I was working for said, 'If you want to take over the lease and the tools, it's yours.' I talked to Nancy we had just gotten married and didn't have a lot of money and we said, 'We'll go for it.'" Dennis says he had enough of a following to make it work.

Dennis had two employees plus his dad, who had retired from IBM and was working for him almost full time. "He was probably the biggest asset for me," says Dennis. "It was a real labor of love." His parents now live in senior housing on Heineberg Drive, and his dad, now 81, still comes in "once in a blue moon" to check things out.

By February 1991, things were going well enough that the Foxes moved the business across the street to its current location. "Like everything else," Dennis quips, "the expense is quadrupled." Nancy had been working for New England Credit Union and doing bookwork for Fox Marine at night. Once the move was made and there was office space for her, she left her job and joined the business full time."

These days, the business supports six or seven employees in season, fewer over the winter. "Our employees are pretty loyal," Nancy says. She and Dennis take the month of January off for a drive to Texas to visit her family and have a reprieve from the cold. Employees go on unemployment during that month, she says "and by that time, they're pretty burned out and ready for a vacation." When it's time to call them back, they're ready, she says, adding that three or four come back in late winter-early spring and by the end of April the rest are onboard.

February, March and April are times of getting ready: cleaning up the showroom, going to boat shows, painting boat bottoms, rebuilding engines and outboards, painting trucks and hauling boats cross-country.

Asked about a typical day, Dennis laughs. "Ever watch Orange County Choppers?" He says he usually arrives first, shortly after 8 a.m., while Nancy "gets the house buttoned up." During the season, it's a six-day week for both of them - "pretty crazy," he says.

"We wear whatever hat needs to be worn at the time," says Nancy jumping in. "I'm capable not only of office and bookwork, but I can do sales, parts and accessories, answer service questions, inventory whatever needs to be done. I can probably wear all the hats except for turning the wrench."

"She's got her own tools, though," Dennis comes back. "Nancy's a big asset to the business, even though we have our days ... when you live together 24/7."

"I'm the organized one," Nancy counters, and on it goes.

Fox Marine is one of few dealerships in the Northeast that transport boats over long distances, says Nancy. "We move boats from Connecticut to Shelburne or from Shelburne to Rhode Island. We do work for the Moorings, haul Bruce Hill yachts; we have seasonal customers who vacation in Vermont from California to Maine; they leave their boats with us all winter, call ahead and say, 'We'll be there for two months this summer, beginning ...' whenever, and they expect their boats to be ready and running. In the boating community, I think you'll find we've got a pretty good reputation."

Mike Lucas, in sales, works just off the Fox Marine showroom floor, which has a desert island theme.

It's easy to be cynical when business people talk about customer service priorities. Every smart business aims for good customer service; some just seem to have an easier time doing it. The Foxes do, however, appear to practice what they preach.

Gary Crowley of Crowley Construction in Colchester has become a friend over the years. He has worked on Dennis' house, and Dennis has sold Crowley a boat. "The one reason we hit it off is we're both blue-collar working stiffs," says Crowley. "We both work long hours, so when we talk to each other, we can relate."

Crowley says that, sure, the boat he bought last year was nice, "but it was mainly because I knew at any time Dennis was a heartbeat away if I had a problem or question. Even when I was ordering the boat, he was advising me about what type and size of motor, the brand name, all these little options. They don't even care if you buy anything. You don't feel any pressure."

The Foxes seem to be having a good time, no matter what they're doing. Dennis is a musician and plays lead guitar in several bands, and occasionally standup bass or the six-string banjo. He says Nancy "dabbles in piano" and does a little gardening. She says they also enjoy antiquing and beach-combine, looking for items to expand the shop's decor.

Family is important to them. Her daughter is getting married this year, and her son has just moved back in. "It's like a revolving door over at the house," Nancy says with a chuckle.

"More like a halfway house," says Dennis, and they're off again.

Originally published in April 2005 Business People-Vermont