Rent Control

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

photoKaren Unsworth, vice president of Unsworth Properties Inc., joined her father in the family business in 1985 after 11 years in regional planning. When he retired several years ago, she picked up the reins.

Unsworth deftly juggles
100 commercial and
residential rental properties

When asked her title, if pressed, Karen Unsworth will say that she is vice president of Unsworth Properties Inc. and a partner in the various Unsworth family entities. First, though, she replies, “I just call myself ‘manager.’”

It doesn’t take long to realize that this quiet, somewhat self-effacing reply is a clue to her temperament and style of management — a family trait, perhaps. Her father, Ray Unsworth, who was profiled in our magazine 21 years ago, replied to that question in an almost identical manner.

Now 90 and (largely) retired, Ray sold and gifted most of his properties to various family entities 20 years ago, four years after Karen joined the family business. “For example,” she explains, “there is one partnership composed of me and my three siblings, which owns some properties; then another entity with all the siblings and nieces and nephews that owns others; and my brother Steve and I own Howard Space Center and Mapleworks on Pine Street in Burlington, and one other property — an apartment building near Howard Space.”

Steve is Stephen Unsworth, an attorney at Unsworth & Barra PLC in Essex Junction. “Although I’m a 50-percent partner,” he says, “Karen manages things day to day, but I do legal work and work on big decisions with tenants.”

Karen came to the job well prepared, but not immediately. “I have had three careers,” she says, “but as I’ve read your magazine, that’s not at all unusual for business people in Vermont.”

Although her family has a long history in Vermont, she is not officially a native. “I did not arrive here until the age of 6 weeks,” she says, “because my dad was in the service — the Coast Guard — until just before I was born. My mother was at her parents’ home in Massachusetts, so I was born there. But my dad is a native and was born here in Burlington in 1919.”

Karen grew up in Burlington, and, following graduation from Burlington High School in 1963, she earned a bachelor’s degree in geography from Middlebury College. She migrated to Janesville, Wis., where she taught elementary school for two years, but soon realized that “teaching wasn’t it.”

She returned east to pursue a master of community planning at the University of Rhode Island, after which she took a job in Topeka, Kan., working for the state planning agency. After two years, an opportunity arose in her home state and, in 1974, she came back to Vermont for a job at the Rutland Regional Planning Commission.

“I was there 11 years,” says Karen, who acknowledges that she truly enjoyed the work. “The reason I left was that I was getting tired of all the night meetings involved with a public agency, and meanwhile, my dad was already at retirement age. He’d been trying to get one of his four kids into the business for 20 years, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll give this a try.’

There was a lot to learn. “Certainly, there is a big difference between working in a public agency and working in a small, private family business; a family business has its own set of stuff, both good and bad,” say Karen. “My dad made a big effort to get me oriented, and we worked together for a few years before he started spending more time in Florida.

photo Karen Unsworth runs the day-to-day operation of the various family businesses. She and her brother Stephen (center), an attorney at Unsworth & Barra PLC in Essex Junction, are partners in several properties. Their father, Ray, is retired, but continues to maintain an office.

“As with many family businesses, it wasn’t assured that he and I were going to be able to work together, but here I am 24 years later, so it did work out pretty well.”

Unlike many property management companies, Unsworth manages only its own properties. “Unsworth Properties Inc. has only about a hundred customers — those who are our tenants, both commercial and residential — so I meet all of our customers at least once, and some of them I get to know very well.”

Linda E Jones, an artist who has rented a studio at Howard Space for over 20 years, is one of those. “A couple of years ago, Karen said to me, ‘Hey, it’s been 20 years that you’ve had a lease with us,’ and gave me a generous gift certificate to the Fresh Market, which I love. They’re the best people,” Jones continues. “Any time I had a baby or was in a bad accident — whatever —they were like family, even sent cards.”

Jones rented the studio with an artist friend, Cami Davis, “because back then, we said, ‘Oh, God! We can’t afford $90 a month,’ so we split it. When Cami eventually moved her studio into her house, I took it over.”

Affordability has been built in from the start and is a key to the Unsworth Properties’ niche, says Steve. “We are much more affordable than these brand-new rental properties; really help startup people with affordable prices.”

“We have two products,” says Karen: “One is medium-priced apartments, and we own two large — for Vermont — properties: Village Green, which is 30 units in South Burlington; and The Ledges apartments on South Willard Street in Burlington, with 14 units. Then we have four smaller residential properties.” The four Unsworth children own these.

The company’s second product is low-end commercial rentals. These are in the two complexes on Pine Street. Howard Space Center is the home of the former E.B. & A.C. Whiting Co., once one of the largest brush manufacturers in the United States, which later became Specialty Filaments, a leading manufacturer of plastic fibers.

The Whiting Co. has a special place in the Unsworth family heritage. Karen and Steve’s grandfather Thomas Unsworth owned the company early in the 20th century, and Ray worked there as plant manager. It left family ownership mid-century, and when it sat vacant after a move to new quarters across Howard Street, Ray bought it in the mid 1970s to become the home of the area’s first industrial incubator complex.

“We’re kind of proud that Howard Space was the first one in Burlington,” says Karen, “and that it was done all with private money.” She mentions familiar Burlington enterprises — companies such as Champlain Chocolates, Conant Metal & Light, and Midtown Machine — nurtured at Howard Space. Each has thrived and moved on to larger quarters.

photo Pictured in front of the Mapleworks building are Kevin Chamberlin, the maintenance chief, and Sherry Giroux, the “bookkeeper, secretary, and everything else,” according to Unsworth.

Karen lives at Village Green and has been resident manager there since she returned to the area. “That is very advantageous to the company, because I see a lot of things that an absentee manager doesn’t.”

She starts her work day about 7:30 a.m. in her robe and slippers at her dining room table, on the phone with Kevin Chamberlin, the longtime maintenance chief, about the day’s projects. Chamberlin and John Tricou perform maintenance for all the properties.

On the way to the office, she does errands. She’s usually there until early evening, other than showing a space or meeting with a tenant or checking maintenance.

The office is in her parents’ house in South Burlington. The red mid-century modern building sits on land that Ray bought in 1959, on a hill off Spear Street with lake views. It was, when it was built, she says, “considered quite the modern house.” Three years ago, much of the property was sold to Snyder Homes, which built South Pointe development, leaving the Unsworths many close nearby neighbors, but no other red houses.

The offices take up three rooms on the first floor, which Karen shares with Sherry Giroux, the bookkeeper and secretary, who also helps with apartment showings. The third office is kept for those occasions when Ray is up from Florida.

In addition to her property management duties, Karen keeps in touch with the other Unsworths through a quarterly report — “three typed pages to parents, siblings, and nieces and nephews over 18 regarding what they need to know about what’s happening in the business.”

At 63, she is thinking about retirement a few years down the road. “The thing about a family business is you have to figure out how that happens, and I haven’t had time to figure that out yet.”

Each summer, she takes her nieces and nephews on a two-day camping trip. “We’ve been doing this a long time, since they were little guys,” she says. “There are 13 in all, and now a lot of them are in college or have jobs, but seven of them were with us in August when we camped at Branbury State Park and climbed Mount Abraham.”

This annual trek is called, alternately, “The Moose Club,” for Mount Moosalamoo, which is in the park, or “Aunt Karen’s Boot Camp,” she says, adding, “I’m pretty easy on them, I will admit.”

An avid skier — downhill and cross-country — and canoeist, for several years, she and a friend have been attempting to canoe the length of the Connecticut River. “We only get to do about two day trips a year, so we’re going to have to live to be really old if we want to make it. We’re down to about White River Junction now.”

Karen is also active in the North Avenue Alliance Church in Burlington and has held various offices over the years.

Being on call day and night — for emergencies such as leaky pipes or tenants locked out of their apartments — means she needs to head out of state for relief. “I do that a few times a year,” she says, and mentions her annual fall sailing cruise on a schooner out of Maine. “It’s delightful, because there are no cell phones; no computers; just six days. It’s cheaper than going to Nepal and probably almost as effective in terms of getting out of the 21st century,” she adds.

It seems clear that Ray Unsworth has left his legacy is in good hands. “I see myself as more of a manager rather than a developer of ideas,” Karen says. “My dad was the classic entrepreneur. I am proud that he’s been a kind of pioneer in real estate in Vermont: one of the first people to develop ski chalets in the ’60s, and the first one in Burlington to do an industrial incubator. In the ’70s, he saw that there were more single people in Burlington, and decided that apartments would be a good investment.” •