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Mauer Power

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

When luck doesn’t cooperate, Billy Mauer gets creative

Real estate developer and lawyer Billy Mauer is a deal-maker extraordinaire. A Monteal native, Mauer lives in Stowe and works from offices in Burlington and Canada. His Burlington company is Grandview Farms Inc.

Merriam-Webster defines pixie as “a cheerful, mischievous sprite.” Add smart, genuine, direct and perceptive, and pretty soon a definition of Billy Mauer begins to emerge. Only begins, though, because Mauer is a far more complex individual than any single definition could capture.

A lawyer and real estate developer with a number of properties in Vermont and Canada, and offices at 148 Church St. in Burlington and in Westmount, Quebec, Mauer has homes in Stowe and Montreal, and divides his time between the two countries. His Vermont corporation is called Grandview Farms Inc. He keeps a low profile — “sit in the back row” is how he puts it — preferring to march to his own drummer, an attitude born of nature and experience.

A Montreal native, Mauer went to Sir George Williams University, now Concordia, and studied law at McGill University. At Sir George, he says, with a twinkle in his eye, “I studied anything I didn’t have to go to class for. I studied the opposite sex for a couple of years.” It’s a perfect example of his self-deprecating (and disarming) sense of humor.

 “I realized that when I graduated from Sir George Williams, I would be a bum if I didn’t continue on and get an education. I couldn’t stand blood, so I couldn’t become a doctor; I couldn’t add, so no accountant life for me; I couldn’t draw, so couldn’t be an architect.”

Luck was with him. Working as a camp counselor in the Laurentians, he met a camper whose father was a prominent lawyer in Montreal. Mauer was on the wait list at McGill Law School at the time, but wasn’t sure he would be accepted. “He sort of pulled some strings so I could get in,” says Mauer, “but he told me I had to study. 

“Just so you know,” he adds, “the school accepted 104 students, and half would fail. I came in 21st in the class. I met my wife the second year.”

That was a second stroke of luck, when a mutual friend introduced him to Egyptian-born Lillian Schouela, a student at Sir George Williams. “I became serious when I met my wife,” he says. “Anyone who could put up with me for 41 years is pretty damn good!” They married a year later, in 1965.

photoMauer has collected a group of people he trusts to handle his business here. Marian Fritz, whom Mauer calls “a key person,” is in charge of the day-to-day financial and collection affairs.

Out of school, Mauer was hired by a large institutional law firm. He lasted a year. “It was mutual dislike,” he says. “I realized that the institutional world wasn’t for me — too many rules — so I then went to work for the largest Francophone law office in Quebec. I wanted to perfect my French. The problem was, I taught them all English; they taught me no French.” He laughs.

After five years, Mauer joined Murray Lapin to form the law firm of Lapin and Mauer. “I’ve been with Murray Lapin for over 30 years — he’s now 87,” he says.

Another fortunate encounter led Mauer to become involved in real estate investment. “As a young lawyer, you don’t make very much money,” he says, adding that he was helping support his parents and other family at the time. 

“One day, I was with a client who was very successful, and he took a liking to me. We were together on a Sunday, and he said, ‘You know how much money I made today?’ I said, ‘It’s Sunday, everything’s closed,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but people are still paying rent every day. If you tear up a couple of your bills, I’ll help you get involved.’ He helped me a bit; I got involved.” The moral, Mauer continues, is, “You’ve got to work hard; be involved — but you’ve got to be lucky.”

Sometimes luck doesn’t cooperate. Then, Mauer must be creative. The election of November 1976, when the Separatist Party was elected in Quebec, was such a time. 

“I thought I owned the world,” Mauer says. “The law firm was doing very well, we had a successful construction office, a good construction lawyer; I invested in real estate and was doing well there. In November of 1976, the Separatist Party got elected in Quebec, and I fell off the mountain.”

All of Mauer’s investments were in Quebec. The law firm was “clobbered,” he says; “all construction projects were stopped, and my investments were in a lot of trouble. We couldn’t finish projects; mortgage companies wanted ratios; tenants were leaving — it was just a disaster.”

His other concern was the environment, or rather the lack of concern for environmental issues he was finding in Quebec. “We used to go to the Laurentians, and on the lakes, sea planes were landing, jet boats were dropping fuel all over the place. There was no real control.

“That December, I was quite down about what was going on, and a friend of mine got me to come to Stowe, where we spent Christmas. I was shocked and obviously surprised at the care and love that Vermonters had for their environment.”

A couple of years later, having pulled together the needed funds, the Mauers bought land on Upper Hollow Road, where they still live. “I respect the fact that we’re probably the only state that has no highway signs. It frustrates me, the slowness at times that housing gets done, but I respect it and became a part of it. It’s calmed me down, and calms down most people who come to Vermont.”

Mauer’s foray into Burlington properties was the result of someone else’s wisdom. The construction client who encouraged him to invest in properties taught him that the only way to be successful was to only go somewhere you could get to and return in a day. “If it’s far away, and you take a day to get there, a day to get back, pretty soon your whole week is gone,” he says. Mauer drew a circle that included Toronto, Quebec City, Ottawa, Montreal and Burlington. 

“The other thing he taught me,” says Mauer, “is this: No one brought up my children; my wife and I did it. It’s the same thing with properties. My partner and I oversee everything.”

About 20 years ago, Mauer learned of a property for sale at 36-44 Church St. in Burlington. “I was shocked to find out how quickly you can get answers from City Hall here,” he says. “In Montreal, if you want to get a building or zoning inspector to come to your building, you have to wait weeks and weeks. Here, I would go in and talk to the person behind the counter; it was just a nice, pleasant place to work.”

photoProperty manager Patrick Rideout splits his time between Grandview Farms and the Church Street Marketplace.

Early on, seeking somebody to do construction on the 36-44 Church St. building, he encountered Mark Neagley of Neagley & Chase Construction.  “It was just luck,” says Mauer. “I liked Mark, trusted him. He became one of my closest friends.”

Neagley feels the same way about Mauer. “Bill is one of my favorite people on earth,” says Neagley. “There’s a really interesting combination of this cosmopolitan chic to him. He’s also the guy you want guarding your back in business. He’s very fair.”

Neagley recalls their first meeting with glee. “I had just inspected a building he’d bought, the former Pier 1 building, and he said, ‘I’ve got some work for you; come on up to see me in Montreal.’”

At the meeting, Mauer told Neagley and his partner, “I want you guys to build the way you’re dressed.”

Says Neagley, “He conveyed an amazing amount of information in that one statement. We were dressed casually, but clean and trim, and our shirts were pressed — not overly done, but nicely done. I understood instantly. He’s very insightful ... and he knows everybody on earth.”

Neagley introduced Mauer to Staige Davis of Lang Lion & Davis, and the three of them own property together. Mauer also met area brokers such as Tom Robb, Dick MacKenzie, Bill Kiendl and Tony Blake with whom he does business.

Gradually, guided by a philosophy that “through restoration, we keep our heritage,” Mauer has collected a series of Burlington area properties. Burlington thrives, he believes, for the same reason that Montreal thrives: Both are livable cities, with universities, lively downtowns, a nearby airport, a good hospital and an active arts scene. 

“I think that Church Street is probably one of the best real estate concepts I’ve ever seen,” he says, with two caveats. One is that spiraling costs mean local shops have a hard time surviving there, and large national chains fill the voids. “The other thing,” he continues, “is we need to spread out like a spider’s web, to take in the side streets and hook up to the waterfront.”

Over the years, Mauer has collected a group of people around him whom he trusts to handle the various parts of his business. A key person is Marian Fritz, who is in charge of the day-to-day financial and collection parts of the business. Sherry Prehoda of JMM Associates is his accountant and tax consultant. Property manager Pat Rideout, who works half the time for the Marketplace and half for Grandview, is in charge of general repairs and the leasing of apartments on Church Street.

John LaVanway oversees repairs and returns properties to good condition. Keith Toutant is in charge of the cleaning..

Mauer makes sure he has a life outside of business, splitting his spare time between Canada and Vermont. “If it was up to me,” he says, “I would live in Vermont. My wife is very involved with the arts in Quebec, and she has her work. She is on the board of the Concordia art faculty and the board of the Musée d’art contemporain.

“My daughter Liza is married to a venture capitalist in Toronto. They have four kids. My other daughter, Jacquie, lives in Stowe. She’s curator at the Helen Day Art Center, and her husband is a young lawyer who works for the government in Montpelier. She is having her second child in October.”

He still checks in at his Westmount law office, which he has shared with Lapin since 1997, when the two of them turned over their large firm to the young lawyers, kept the clients they wanted, and set out on their own. “It’s still known as Lapin and Mauer,” he says. “We’re fortunate enough to just take the clients we like.”

In Stowe, he tends the horses, llamas and donkeys on his farm. “I could go out in the woods the whole day and chop trees,” he says, laughing. He reads:  “every mystery book that comes out from David Baldacci. And I love art. That’s my wife’s influence.”

He keeps things simple, he says, as well as low-key. I don’t need it for my ego. What I need is nice friends around me. If you’re happy and you’re my friend, and Marian is happy, and other people are happy, then I’m happy.” •