A Good Ride

This family enterprise in its third generation is humming right along

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

handy_26_jeff0910_LEADHandy Toyota in St. Albans was a Dodge dealership when Floyd Handy opened it in 1970. Three years later, Toyota joined the mix, and Dan Luneau joined the dealership as the son-in-law of the boss. There are now two dealerships: Handy Toyota and Handy Chevrolet. Floyd died in 2001; Dan, his wife, Karen Handy Luneau, and her brother, Dan Handy, are co-owners of the dealerships.

Dan Luneau gleefully gestures toward a tiny school desk in his office. “We have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and four grandchildren — two girls and two boys,” he says. “Now I have a desk in my office so I can see where the fourth generation is training.”

Dan is the owner, with his wife, Karen Handy Luneau, and her brother, Dan Handy, of two auto dealerships in St. Albans: Handy Toyota on South Main Street in St. Albans and Handy Chevrolet on Highgate Road. Dan Luneau is the dealer-principal of the Toyota store; Handy is dealer-principal of Handy Chevrolet.

Asked for her title, Karen laughs. “Sometimes I feel like I’m related to everybody. I’m this one’s daughter, this one’s wife, that one’s mother. I’m the human resource manager for Handy Toyota and Handy Chevrolet, so I take care of insurances; do things other people don’t want to do that might be of a sensitive nature.” If I’m over there [Handy Chevrolet] I say I’m Little Dan’s sister.”

“Little Dan” is the nickname given to her brother not long after her husband joined the family. Even though each dealership is a separate corporation, the three partners lunch together every day to keep abreast of corporate issues.

In 1973, the year Dan Luneau graduated from Champlain College with a degree in accounting, he joined the company, began building a house, and married Karen. They had known each other since 1965, when she was a freshman at St. Anne’s Academy in Swanton and he was a sophomore at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans. They dated, she says, “a little in high school and pretty much throughout my time in college, his time in the U.S. Army, and his time in college.”

When he joined the company, it was a Dodge dealership, launched by Karen and Dan Handy’s father, Floyd Handy, in 1970.

“My dad was originally in the farm machinery business,” says her brother, the Chevy dealer. “It was a John Deere tractor franchise in Swanton he started in the 1950s.

“Then Floyd and my Uncle Larry acquired a GMC truck franchise, so that’s where our relationship started with General Motors.”

Toyota came on board in 1973, and in 1989, the company was awarded a Nissan franchise. The Chevrolet/Oldsmobile franchise was obtained in 1991 and was put with the Nissan dealership, where Dan Handy was the general manager.

Nissan was dropped about six years ago, Oldsmobile went out of business, and the Dodge franchise was sold about four years ago. Floyd died in 2001, and Dan Luneau, who was general manager at the Toyota dealership, officially became dealer-principal.

The Handy family’s roots are planted deep in St. Albans’ heart and history and have borne fruit that continues to be felt in many quarters. Floyd was quite active in Democratic politics during his life. He was an alderman in St. Albans for several years, served two terms as mayor, and was elected to the Legislature, where he served a couple of terms in the House.

“My father believed in the principles and ideals of the Vermont Democratic Party, heart and soul,” says Karen. “He worked very hard all his adult life; did a lot in the community. He truly loved Franklin County.”

“Floyd was like a mentor to me,” says Ron Firkey, who followed Floyd as a Ward 6 alderman and was also his successor as mayor. “They’re for real,” he continues, referring to the family’s service. “They’ve done a lot of things over the years, but always well under the radar.”

The apples have not fallen far from the tree, as the ideals of community service have traveled through the generations.

A history major, Karen graduated from Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., and taught history and social studies at Missisquoi Valley Union High School until their children were born. She devoted herself to raising the children and immersed herself in business pursuits, such as the couple’s growing accumulation of properties, and community affairs whenever she could.

“I’d been on school boards,” she says, “chaired the local elementary board, the supervisory union board, Bellows Free Academy board; and I’m currently on the Vermont State Colleges board. I’ve been with those almost since I stopped teaching, to keep abreast of education.

“ Then I served on local zoning boards, the Board of Civil Authority, taught religious education, was involved in various political campaigns, and was a delegate to the 1980 Democratic Convention.”

Her husband served as an alderman — for 14 years — and currently chairs the regional Act 250 board. Joe, the eldest of their three sons, the director of service at Handy Toyota, sits on the regional planning board and is a city of St. Albans alderman. Peter, their middle son, a lawyer in Manhattan, was a White House intern and a U.S. Senate page. Adam, the youngest, in addition to his full-time job as business development manager at the Toyota store, is on the board of the Franklin County Field Days and is active on the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

“Floyd’s other passion was aviation,” says Dan Handy, who began flying with his father at age 9 and was licensed at 18. “He always had a little sideline business peddling a few airplanes.” Handy is still an active pilot and keeps a plane at the state airport, where he has a hangar.

In recent years, owning car dealerships — especially Toyota and Chevrolet — “has been challenging to say the least,” says Dan. “Start with the Chevrolet situation: Who would have thought in their wildest imagination that GM would have suffered through a bankruptcy?

“What we learned in the ’70s from the financial disaster and the two oil embargoes was that, when you have an investment, you manage it so that when times get bad, you can pay for it.

“We were lucky to get out of the ’70s,” he continues. “It was stifling for the car business, and Chrysler never regained traction. At one point, we went 31 or 32 months without making a profit. This time, we were not overextended and could pay our obligations.”

The Toyota situation, he says, is a bit different. “It was very political. I make no excuses for Toyota, but this isn’t the first battle we’ve gone through. When business is tough, protectionism raises its head, and we can say that and be very objective, because we also have a domestic product in Chevrolet.”

As Floyd became more and more involved in politics in the late 1970s, he began to rely on Dan as his relief at the business, says Karen. “My dad was a child of immigrants, and I think he welcomed the opportunity to go off and do all the things he’d wanted to do, so Dan received the responsibility for things at a young age.”

Floyd was a great trainer, Dan adds. “And I’ve always been willing to learn from somebody else’s heartache.”

In spite of everything, the business is having a good year, says Dan. “Customers are shopping in a totally new way with the Internet,” he says. “We feel the industry standard now is that 80 percent of people — and growing every year — do their research on the Internet. By the time they get to us, they know exactly what they want.

They even know what we pay for things, and we love that, because everybody overestimated what our margins were. Folks come in and know as much about the car they’ve chosen as our salespeople do, and you can’t sell cars unless you’re certified by the manufacturer — I won’t allow it.”

”They are terrific people,” says Steve Salls of JC Image, a custom corporate outfitter in St. Albans. “Dan Luneau and I have known each other almost from childhood, and professionally for almost three decades. They’re a great family; down to earth; very successful; very humble; very smart — it’s the perfect storm of great qualities!”

Together the two dealerships employ just under 60 people. The Toyota store, which sits on the site of the old Park View Hotel, is about 14,000 square feet; the Chevrolet store, built four years ago near I-89 Exit 20, has about 24,000 square feet.

“Most of our employees are longstanding,” says Karen. She mentions Steve Courville, the sales manager, who joined the company in August of 1975. “We were all kids together.

“One thing about our sons: We didn’t press anybody to go into the business. Our eldest son, Joe, a graduate of Boston College, came home to become service manager. Because of Joe’s efforts, we’ve won many awards for quality service. Not just Joe, but all the people around him. He’s very detail and customer satisfaction oriented.”

His brother Adam is a graduate of Northwood University — in automotive circles, this would be the school. He is manager of business development. “Adam has brought excitement to the business. He’s very people-oriented.

“It was Adam who got us involved in Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and it is largely because of Adam’s association that we became involved in cow power,” she says, referring to the fact that 100 percent of the company’s electricity comes from Vermont farms.

It’s not all work for the Luneaus. Dan has been trying for a lighter schedule so he can pursue activities that interest him, such as skiing and woodworking.

He’s looking forward to teaching his grandchildren to ski. He puts his woodworking skills to good use maintaining their properties and building the occasional piece of furniture.

“For the last four years, I’ve tried and been pretty successful in taking Saturdays off,” says Dan. The goal is to eventually take off Thursday night and come back Monday morning.

Karen loves gardening. “In fact, it’s beyond a passion,” she admits. “Everywhere we have a place we have flowers, and I treat them all like children.”

She wants to study and become fluent in a couple of languages. “If I take the time to learn a language fluently, my husband ought to be nice enough to take me to a foreign country.”

On the future of the business? “Homes and transportation are the leaders into recessions and the leaders out of recessions,” says Dan.

Karen picks up the thought. “My father was a child of immigrants and grew up with a lot of love. He was creative, but knew how to function lean. Dan does, too. We function lean.” •