Mark and Andrea Letorney

The Fix Is In

A passion for Land Rovers and a bit of ingenuity took Mark Letorney out of college and into a business with world-wide appeal

by Keith Morrill

Mark and Andrea Letorney run their business, Rovers North, from a farm in Westford. Rovers North is the North American distributor for classic Land Rover parts, but e-commerce has led the world to their door.

Mark Letorney tends to do business with an exceptional group of people. They’re more apt to be found driving cross-country, navigating the sands of the Middle East, or fording rivers in Africa than weaving through rush-hour traffic. They’re adventurous, intrepid, occasionally quirky, and enthusiastic to say the least — especially when it comes to their Land Rovers — and it’s their good fortune that Letorney is there to match their enthusiasm with dedicated service for every mile they drive. 

Letorney is the owner Rovers North, a distributor for classic Land Rover parts. When he started the company, Land Rovers weren’t officially for sale in the United States, making it difficult to find parts and service. Rovers North was an oasis in an otherwise arid automotive landscape.

“We cover everything from the Arctic Circle all the way down to Puerto Rico,” says Letorney. All this happens from an unassuming location on Vermont 128 in Westford, where, for over three decades, he has provided the feel of small-town service on the global market. 

Letorney got his start in the mid-1970s while still a biology student at the University of Vermont and driving — of course — a Land Rover. In 1974, Land Rover pulled its dealerships from the country because of lackluster sales, and, in doing so created a void in service for the scores of diehard enthusiasts left behind.

“I had a typical Land Rover experience — where to find parts and that sort of thing,” he says. He started cannibalizing old cars. In the process he learned two very important things: how to fix his Land Rover, and that there were other passionate Land Rover owners out there, also in need of parts and service. 

Letorney recognized the potential to earn money while going to school. He started working on what he called a have-tools-will-travel basis, scavenging parts and fixing old Land Rovers. 

In 1976, Letorney left UVM to pursue his true passion. He purchased an old farmhouse “with a broken-down garage” in Westford, where he set up shop. Although it’s changed a bit, the farm is where Rovers North continues to operate. 

“My parents thought I was nuts … so did a lot of friends” Letorney recalls, laughing. But he was passionate about the vehicles, and he knew other people were, too. He met Andrea Nadler, his future wife, after she had just finished a trans-continental trip in her vehicle, and was looking for new parts. 

“I didn’t have a penny to my name,” he says with a chuckle, “and we were going to get married. Her parents wanted to throw us a big wedding, and we wanted nothing to do with that, so her father said, ‘I’ll send you on a nice honeymoon; where would you like to go?’ Being clever, we said Scotland, so he sent us to Scotland for three weeks.

“Well, we spent three days in Scotland, and the rest of the time looking for parts suppliers in England.” It wasn’t easy, he adds. “You can imagine being a big, international business, and these two people show up on your doorstep.”

He and Andrea continued their trips to England, and though they were treated nicely enough, they weren’t taken all that seriously. Land Rover believed it had experienced the American market, and as far as it was concerned, there was no interest overseas. 

Then the Letorneys began buying Land Rovers from England and Germany based on the contacts they made on their trips. “All through the ’80s, we were involved with importing vehicles and parts, and that’s what started us to become a nationwide business.”

They found pristine Land Rovers in Germany that had been released by the British Army. “This goes back to the Reagan administration and Russia’s breaking up, so the military was getting rid of all these beautiful Land Rovers that had been kept underground for emergencies.” The Letorneys sold them to enthusiasts in America who were starving for Land Rovers, he says.

Matt Martin, Calef Letorney, Thompson SmithThe company’s website features online parts shopping and a forum where owners can exchange information. Matt Martin (left) is the marketing manager; Calef Letorney directs the fleet sales; and Thompson Smith is the Webmaster.

After training in Europe, he and Andrea opened the first off-road driving school in the United States.

Land Rover finally took notice, “because they kept hearing about this company, Rovers North, and we kept calling on them on our trips.”

After the breakup of the British Leyland motor empire in 1985, when Land Rover became a separate company, it had its own parts company, says Letorney, “and these guys had heard of us.” They sent a young Brit whose mission was to scour Canada and the United States. Rovers North was offered direct distribution rights to Land Rover parts.

To understand why this was such a great opportunity, it’s necessary to understand the nature of the Land Rover. A Land Rover is only as good as the sum of its parts — “a unique vehicle in that there is a lot of part commonality, a lot of interchangeability,” explains Letorney. “They’re designed to be maintained in the Outback with a minimal amount of tools, so they attract agriculture, construction, and fleet users operating in really adverse terrain.” 

Fleet users such as American special aid organizations and military personnel operating abroad are big business for Rovers North. Land Rovers may lack creature comforts, but they can operate in the harshest terrains on the globe, and, properly maintained, can operate for decades. Letorney has seen Land Rovers passed through families like heirlooms.

“It’s just a totally different concept of vehicles, because in today’s automotive culture, vehicles have become throw-away appliances. The actual Land Rover is continually recyclable,” says Letorney. “If you can imagine a Lego set on wheels, that’s what a Land Rover is.” That would make Letorney and his team at Rovers North the ones supplying the building blocks.  

Some Rovers North employeesRovers North has 21 highly skilled employees. Paul Beaumier (left) works in receiving; Randy Speer and Steve Koslowski work in the warehouse; Steven Nelson, fulfillment manager, runs the warehouse; and Dale Blaisdell is a warehouse employee.

At first, the company’s territory covered only the East Coast. Land Rover had selected a second company for the West Coast, and a third to cover Canada, but within a few years, Rovers North was the only one of the three left standing. The company has since dropped the used-vehicle sales and off-road driving school in favor of specializing in parts. 

Taylor Congleton of South Burlington says he has dealt with other Rover parts companies and has found Rovers North “totally helpful. They have the parts you need, which is really rare in the U.S. For me it’s valuable, because I’ve restored a couple of Rovers in my spare time, and he’s the guy. I’m glad to give him my business.” 

Rovers North remains unconstrained by the boundaries of a single continent. Letorney has done much to ensure that Rovers North is driving headlong into the world of e-commerce with a strong Web presence. The company’s website features online parts shopping, a forum where owners can exchange information, and a club section. Already, it has given him a stronger presence in the European market. Andrea says that Europeans are eager to take advantage of a strong Euro by shopping for parts overseas. 

That means Rovers North hooks up users with the parts they need to keep operating whether they’re in Switzerland or the Sudan. But, Letorney says, it’s more than just getting the right parts in the right hands. 

Andrea explains. “We give a lot of technical support for people who are going on expeditions or overland travel, or doing mechanical work themselves, so all of our salesmen are very knowledgeable. They can walk somebody through a noise that they hear, and determine what are the parts that they need, and sort of help them with the process of repairing.” 

Letorney adds, “When customers need advice, they need someone who’s going to e-mail them a wiring diagram or fax them a wiring diagram within a matter of minutes, and that’s what we’re all about. It’s the support that comes with selling them a part.” 

Letorney says Rovers North delivers that service every time, thanks to his 21 highly skilled employees, each one a Land Rover aficionado and highly knowledgeable about Land Rovers. One employee is their 24-year-old son, Calef, who directs the fleet sales.

Across the board, Letorney says, he’s attracted some of the finest in the industry, and with such a resource of talent, a consistent challenge has been fending off headhunters. When Range Rovers took off, Land Rover North America started looking for talented individuals. “They were hiring out our best for salaries we could never match, and moving them to sunny places in California,” Letorney laments. 

To help retain employees, Rovers North offers added benefits packages including profit-sharing programs. Letorney has also tried to build a business environment that his employees enjoy, allowing them to bring their dogs to work and making their own hours. It encourages close bonds and open communication. 

“We need to communicate quickly and remain fleet as a small company so we can adapt very quickly,” says Letorney. “We just don’t need rigid corporate structure. It just doesn’t work for us. A lot of respect — that’s what works for us.” Something seems to have worked: Some employees have logged 20 years with Letorney and Rovers North.

When the Letorneys aren’t hard at work, they passionately pursue a number of outdoor activities, including biking, running, snowshoeing, skiing, and snowboarding. He does farm work, growing organic hay and raising Holstein cows. They’re the kinds of activities, he says, that help them to unwind and keep them in touch with the community.

Despite serving such a global array of large-scale clients, Letorney has tried to make sure the business fits into the context of the Westford community. They had considered investing in a Burlington location, he says, but decided it didn’t make sense. Many of their employees enjoy the rural setting along Route 128, and from a certain, quirky perspective, perhaps it wouldn’t make sense to sell Land Rover parts from anywhere else but rural Vermont.

The company remains relatively obscure in the Vermont arena. Even with five additions to the original barn, many drive by daily never noticing it’s there. “Not many people know about us,” says Letorney, “which is fine. We’re not trying to make you get into a Land Rover; we’re not trying to push the product. You either understand them or you don’t.”•