John Stimets

The Rural Connection

By the time John Stimets is ready to help a client, he has burrowed into every aspect of that client’s life and work

by Janet Essman Franz

John Stimets, affiliate manager and broker in the South Burlington office of Country Business Inc., has to become a salesman, financial analyst, negotiator, psychoanalyst and friend to the people he’s trying to help.

John Stimets does not work for a living; he practices his favorite hobbies. That, he says, is why he travels through northern Vermont visiting retail shops, restaurants, manufacturing plants and dealerships. He meets with resort owners, specialty products makers and merchants to learn about their businesses and help them make plans for their future. He helps entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.

As affiliate manager and broker for Country Business Inc., a business acquisition, brokerage and financial services company, Stimets facilitates sales of small businesses. This involves learning the details of each client’s business, from operations and finances to marketing and community relations, and getting to know the owners on a personal level. He helps them establish prices and terms, finds prospective buyers, and structures the transactions to protect the owners’ legal and tax interests. This job suits him perfectly.

Stimets joined CBI’s South Burlington office in 1991, after working in the business loan departments of several banks. While in the banking industry, he says, he felt more attuned to his small-business clients than he did to his employers. He loved working with a variety of industries. He enjoyed sales as much as financial analyses, and he wanted to be self-employed. “This industry offered me all of those things,” he says. “I interviewed with four different brokerage firms and I chose CBI.”

CBI was founded in 1976 in Brattleboro by “a bunch of guys who recognized the need for professional business brokerage,” says Stimets. The founder, Jim Howard, was “an ad marketing guy in New York City who landed here like a lot of our clients and customers do: for the lifestyle.”

Early on, Howard sold a lot of inns, Stimets continues. “It was at a time when Bob Newhart’s show was out and everyone thought they could come to Vermont and start an inn.” The company eventually morphed into more general business brokerage.

Howard’s concept was to operate as a regional firm with several brokers working cooperatively throughout Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Soon a Lake Placid, N.Y., office was opened, followed by several offices in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Today the company’s headquarters is in Manchester, with 11 offices throughout northern New England, upstate New York and Atlantic Canada. Eighteen brokers work cooperatively on marketing and sales.

“We’re kind of like a franchise and corporation hybrid,” explains Stimets. “For instance, I own a territory in northern Vermont, and for anything that happens in my territory I receive a financial benefit. I pay the company for that ownership. We have a bunch of territories that people own. They are self-employed, and they have an arrangement with us that allows them to make money in their territories.”

Stimets is one of three CBI affiliate managers. The others are Phil Steckler, who runs the Brattleboro office, and Don Giancola in Portland, Maine. Brian Knight, CBI president and CEO, bought the business about 20 years ago with Ed Kiniry — who eventually left and bought Tubbs Snowshoe. Knight runs the Manchester office. Stimets and broker Frank Motch make up the South Burlington office.

Stimets learned the basics of accounting and business administration as a student at the University of Vermont, but his success as a business broker can be traced to his strong bond with the community, his likable personality and his insight into human nature.

A true Vermont native, he can trace his Green Mountain state roots back five generations. He was born in Randolph and moved to Burlington at 5 years of age, when his father was hired by Johnson Building Materials. He met his future wife, Louise Vail, when he was at UVM.

Although his degree was in accounting, Stimets found he didn’t like dealing strictly with numbers. He took a job with Burlington Savings Bank, a home lender just beginning to branch into other areas of lending. “They were seeking young people to get involved,” he says, “and it appeared to be a good opportunity for me. I knew it was a very high-quality organization; I had had my account with them since I was 5.” He grins.

Frank MotchCountry Business has 11 offices throughout northern New England, upstate New York and Atlantic Canada. Eighteen brokers work cooperatively on marketing and sales. Broker Frank Motch works with John Stimets in South Burlington.

He and Louise had settled in Essex Junction, where they raised their children, Jaime and Benjamin.

After a few years, he opened a fast-food franchise called The Whole Donut, which he ran for about three years before selling it back to the parent company and joining the Howard Bank. The Howard had approached him seeking a sales- oriented lender to connect with businesses. “I probably put close to $50 million on their books within a five-year period of time,” he says. At the end of that five years, he joined CBI.

“John is part of the Burlington community. He’s not an outsider,” says Knight. “He’s also a thoroughly nice guy, with a great sense of values. Building confidence quickly is a critical part of success, and John does it.”

Customers echo that sentiment. “It was really terrific working with John. He’s an astute businessman and he also understands the entrepreneurial side of a business venture,” says Nancy Wright, who, with her partner, Steve Lidle, recently sold their 16-year-old business, Cheese Traders & Wine Sellers in South Burlington. Stimets was their broker through a sometimes difficult and emotional sale process.

“It wasn’t just an economic transaction.” Wright explains. “It was a huge part of our lives, and we were proud of our community and our relationship with our staff. John was respectful of our needs and that whoever took over our business would carry on our traditions.”

That personal respect and emotional bridge is an important part of the job, Stimets says, and it brings customer referrals and repeat business. “I have to determine what the client wants to protect. They think of the business as their baby. They have a lot of emotions tied up in their business. They are excited, nervous and scared. One of my roles is as a psychologist, understanding what those emotions are and dealing with them.”

Confidentiality is important. “We have to sell something that no one knows is for sale. The seller doesn’t want employees to know right away. Also, they want to protect suppliers, investors and sometimes customers.”

The work can be lucrative. CBI receives a 10 percent commission on sales, which run in the millions of dollars. “When we get paid, we get paid well. The longer you’re in it, the easier it gets, because you get referrals. Sometimes you sell the same business two or three times.”

Sales don’t always go through as anticipated, however. “You quickly learn not to spend your commission check until you actually cash it,” Stimets says. He recalls the deals that fell through over the years, including those where buyers changed their minds and reneged at the closing. “This does happen, and it’s a huge disappointment to clients,” he says. “As we get closer to getting a sale done, we have to pay closer attention to: Is the buyer ready? Is the seller really ready to go? I have to be cognizant of those things and how to deal with them.”

For a new broker, the business can be especially tough, he says. “People generally don’t make money here for the first 18 months. That’s pretty standard in this industry.” Stimets’ model is to mentor new brokers and share business with them so they can gain experience and start to earn money more quickly.

Motch, who joined CBI 14 months ago, appreciates the leg up from Stimets. An owner of Laundromats in Waterbury and Essex Junction, Motch has plenty of personal experience in buying and selling businesses. Still, he is soaking up as much information as he can from his mentor in preparation for his first closing.

Cheese Traders & Wine Sellers, South Burlington, VermontCountry Business recently helped Nancy Wright and Steve Lidle sell Cheese Traders & Wine Sellers in South Burlington.

“It’s been a real learning experience,,” Motch says, “to learn about so many different industries and get a behind-closed-doors exposure that you would never get being a customer or an employee. Personally, I just think it’s fascinating.”

Stimets is helping Motch recognize and address the fine points involved in a sale. “John has been doing this so long, and he has such a grasp on any aspect of any type of sale. It’s all of the minutiae, the tax applications and contractual details. He can take advantage of things people wouldn’t even consider. He does such a great service for his clients.”

Stimets has taken it upon himself to stay educated in the field of business brokering. He is a Certified Business Intermediary, having completed approximately 100 credit hours of marketing, tax law and industry-specific curricula such as restaurant sales.

He often gives workshops in his areas of expertise, such as succession planning, business valuation and attracting buyers. He occasionally presents pro bono to students at Champlain College and the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE).

He enjoys traveling through Vermont to meet with clients, but he also spends a good deal of time on administrative tasks, sending e-mails, stuffing envelopes and shopping for office supplies. “Being an owner of the territory here, I have to manage my own business as well,” he says. “I really should have an administrative assistant, but I’ve been resistant from a control standpoint.”

To unwind, Stimets plays golf, downhill skis and plays league hockey. At 56 years old, he has no plans to retire. “I minimally plan to stay here until I’m 70. It’s partly because I don’t view this as work; and besides, I don’t think I can ski every day.” Still, he and Knight are developing a succession plan. “It’s what I preach to my clients. You need to have a plan for getting out.” •