By the Yard

Moving a revered family company forward

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

handb_lesleeIn 1992, Vermont native Leslee MacKenzie returned to the state and joined the sales force at Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman in Burlington. Now company president, she owns the company in partnership with Brian and Scott Boardman.

Leslee MacKenzie could be said to have moved from one kind of “yard goods” to another when she left a career as a buyer with Jordan Marsh and returned to her home state, subsequently to join Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty in 1992.

She has since joined Brian and Scott Boardman, third-generation scions of the family that founded the Hickok & Boardman group of companies. MacKenzie is the company’s president.

At first blush, one might assume that MacKenzie was destined to work in real estate. Her father, Dick MacKenzie (recently retired), sold commercial real estate at Hickok & Boardman for many years. But the truth is more nuanced.

hand_brianBrian Boardman, co-owner of Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty, is the third generation of Boardmans in the company, which bears his family name.

Born in Burlington, she spent middle school and part of high school in Pennsylvania. “My dad was with GE here and was transferred there,” she says. “They elected to move back to Vermont and, in 1977, bought Hall’s Card & Gift Shop, which my mom, Marilyn, ran for many years.”

MacKenzie earned her bachelor’s degree in finance from University of Vermont and took a job with Jordan Marsh department store in Boston, where she progressed from department manager to assistant buyer to divisional sales to buyer.

“I went through their training program, and I was a buyer for four years in the menswear area,” she says. “It was fabulous.”

After 10 years, knowing the business was in flux because of changes taking place with Federated Department Stores, MacKenzie knew it was only a matter of time before the Boston office was dissolved, forcing her to move to New York or leave.

“I decided to be proactive about it,” she says. Wanting to travel, she put her things in storage at her parents’ Shelburne home and traveled for four months.

“I went to Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii backpacking,” she says. “I came back, with the plan to be here for Christmas and head out west, but I came down with hepatitis, which I probably picked up somewhere at the end of the trip. I stayed here, recovering, and that’s when I read that you could take a class to prepare for the real estate exam.”

She had a longtime interest in real estate, but had been reluctant to pursue it on her own in Boston. “It’s commission based,” she says, “and I wasn’t in a position to do it.”

She decided to take the exam. “It was spring, I had missed the ski season, so I said, ‘I’ll try real estate.’” She interviewed with Hickok & Boardman and decided to stay in Vermont.

MacKenzie joined the agency in 1992, “ironically,” she adds, “within about six months after Brian started. That has proven to be a terrific thing for both of us — the way the business has developed.”

“Leslee and I are a mutual admiration society,” says Boardman. “She really is quite a woman.”

MacKenzie and Boardman were not strangers. When they were growing up in Burlington — “She was a year or two behind me in school,” says Boardman — their families knew each other.

Boardman had moved to New York following graduation from UVM and spent 10 years on Wall Street in interbank brokerage. “I did currency arbitrage,” he says. “There was a small, narrow niche of guys doing it in New York.

“Imagine a 21-year-old kid from Vermont going down there. I connected with an international company and was able to travel the world related to my work. But I sat at a desk all day, trading currencies. It was very finance driven, and besides the travel, I didn’t enjoy the job at all. It made me realize I wanted to stay in sales, but find something I was passionate about.

“My wife, Brooks Barton, and I married in 1988, and we decided shortly after that we wanted to live in Vermont and have the quality of life this affords.”

Back in Vermont, Boardman and his wife opened a waterfront shop, Barton & Boardman Interiors. He approached his uncles Dave and Bob, who were then the company principals. “I had always wanted to be in real estate, and they had always said, ‘We’d love to have you.’”

MacKenzie sold real estate for about a year and a half. “Then,” she says, “the general manager left and I applied for that job and started managing. At that point there were 14 of us: one manager, one staff person, and 12 to 13 agents.” Being manager then meant wearing many hats — everything from marketing and sales management to recruiting and training.

What Boardman had brought back from New York was a sharp ability to read between the lines. “I’m very intuitive because of that experience,” he says. “I can read people’s gestures and facial expressions, because what people think they want to buy and what they want to buy are very different. I have people at the table saying, ‘Thank God we hooked up with you. You’re constantly playing devil’s advocate.’”

In 1998, MacKenzie and Boardman joined Scott and Dave Boardman as owners, forming the first group of owners for Coldwell Banker Hickok & Boardman Realty not completely family held. MacKenzie was named president.

In 2010, the trio of MacKenzie and Brian and Scott Boardman bought the company outright. Scott is a silent partner, not active in the real estate end of the business.

Boardman and MacKenzie are perfect foils for one another — he, the consummate salesman and she, the expert manager.

Sales associates and employees now number 70, including a full-time vice president and director of real estate services, vice president of finance and operations, vice president of marketing, vice president of relocation, and director of information technology. MacKenzie’s job has become more one of oversight and strategic planning. The service area includes Addison, Chittenden, Franklin, and Grand Isle counties.

“I’ve always loved selling,” MacKenzie says, “but I felt I had better skills in marketing, management, human resources, and budgeting. Retail is a great training ground for running a lot of businesses.

“Brian’s a phenomenal sales associate. He’s incredibly knowledgeable, hard-working, and very actively engaged in our community — involved with the Flynn Theatre, Fletcher Allen, a number of nonprofits in town. And he’s especially knowledgeable in the luxury and high-end market.”

The profession has evolved in the last 20 years, says MacKenzie. Transactions have become more complicated in terms of the diligence required. For example, today it’s expected that, as part of the transaction, a property will have a building inspection, perhaps a radon test, a water test, and disclosures for lead if appropriate. The lending environment has changed, too, especially over the last few years.

Agents now need to be actively engaged and very knowledgeable about the business in terms of market information. “Twenty years ago, marketing was nearly all print and flyers,” says MacKenzie. “You didn’t need to be a particularly good photographer. That’s where my marketing director has been incredible, keeping us ahead of the curve for the last 10 years.

“When others were still focused on other things, she was developing exclusive relationships to put us on websites others weren’t considering. For example, go to WCAX.com and click on ‘real estate.’ It will take you to hickokandboardman.com. Seven Days; the Burlington Free Press mobile site — the real estate sections are driven by our website.

All along, the focus has been, first, on the person-to-person aspect of real estate sales, says MacKenzie. “When people choose to buy and sell real estate, they think first of the individual they worked with and then the company, so I work to bring people on board who are skilled and well trained.”

This belief is at least in part responsible for continuing to operate from only one location, at 346 Shelburne Road in Burlington. “We didn’t believe from the beginning that having more bricks and mortar and multiple locations would provide more value,” she says, “but that we would be better served from having a state-of-the-art location here in Burlington with the strongest staff to serve them.”

The real estate firm occupies about 10,000 square feet on two of the seven floors in the Hickok & Boardman building, which is owned by five principals, including MacKenzie. The fifth and sixth floors have just been sold to other occupants of the building, she says, “so now it’s essentially one large condo and two other condos.”

All of the Hickok & Boardman network of companies are based there — financial and group benefits on one floor, insurance on one floor, and real estate on two. A ground-floor conference center that seats 50 and features an LCD projector and kitchenette, can be rented by the tenants for presentations.

While commercial real estate has ebbed and flowed over the years, the growth has come from the residential side. “We do more relocation work than any other firm,” she says.

In addition to work with outside relocation companies, the firm developed its own relocation company managed by Brenda Bouchard, vice president of relocation services. “We knew we had the skills and attributes from our work with a number of local employers who have relocation needs.”

That list includes the likes of Fletcher Allen Health Care, Champlain College, and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters. An impressive relocation information packet covers almost any questions a newcomer might have.

Away from work, MacKenzie’s life is concentrated on her children, Sam, age 10, and Kate, 7. “I’m a single mom by choice,” she says. “They’re involved in a lot of sports: hockey, soccer, baseball. I spend every spring Saturday at Callahan park. Then we ski, hike, go to the Adirondacks in summer, and travel when we can.”

Community service continues to hold a place of importance in MacKenzie’s priorities. She sits on the boards of the Visiting Nurse Association and the Burlington Business Association, and is the Vermont director to the National Association of Realtors. “What we’re actively selling is this great community, so I think it’s part of our responsibility,” she says.

She particularly finds fascinating “the serendipity of having a job you never thought you’d end up in. There’s no easy balance between running a business and running a family and being involved in a community, but it works out when you involve yourself in relationships. That’s one of the skills I took from retail: The stronger those relationships, the more you’re providing for them.” •