Riding the wave
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
Foster Motors, a Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, SRT, and GEM dealership in Middlebury, has been serving northern Vermont drivers since its founding in 1924 as Persons & Foster Brothers. Ed Foster (front) is the son of one of the founders, and his sons, David
(rear left) and Scott, have moved into the everyday management.
“It’s been a very volatile 10 years,” says Scott Foster. He’s talking about the effects of the Great Recession on his family business. The business is Foster Motors, a Middlebury dealership selling Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, SRT, and GEM electric cars. It was founded in 1924 as Persons & Foster Brothers.
The volatility, he says, “probably started back in the late ’90s when Chrysler had a CEO who took over from Lee Iacocca and sold the company to Mercedes and it became DaimlerChrysler. We thought at first it would be a pretty good marriage, but the synergy didn’t work really well.
“We were a cash cow for a while, and when things got tight, they wanted out and sold to a private equity firm called Cerberus around 2005.”
Cerberus probably had eyes toward building Chrysler up and selling it quickly, he says, but “things went south. The company went from selling 16 million to under 10 million. I don’t think Cerberus knew what to do with us; they were trying to sell us, and along came Fiat and Sergio Marchionne.”
That was in June 2009, says Scott, shortly after the company came out of bankruptcy. Fiat bought the U.S. shares and Marchionne now owns about 65 percent. “The auto unions own the other percentage,” Scott says. “Our hope is that Fiat/Chrysler will become an American-owned corporation in the future, but we don’t know what will happen.
“Things were difficult for a while,” he says. “We lost one of our finance sources for selling cars, and Ally, which was GMAC at the time, took us over.”
Fortunately, the Fosters had a working relationship with the National Bank of Middlebury and could access a line of credit when things were uncertain.
The bank’s president, Kenneth Perine, had been doing business with Foster Motors for over 30 years. Ed Foster, Scott’s father, at one time served on the bank’s board. “They’re very special people,” Perine says. “Not only have I purchased vehicles there, my mother has and my in-laws have. We just feel like they are people who are interested in our community, and neighbors, and good people to work with. They take care of us.”
Now, Scott says, Chrysler has paid back all its loans to the government. “Sales have gone up tremendously — we’ve had 40 months in a row of increased sales year over year so we continue to keep market share — and Foster Motors is riding that wave.”
Scott and his brother, David, are at the helm of Foster Motors. Ed is semi-retired, but continues to work during the four months of the year he’s in Vermont. He retains the title of president.
Ed’s last name was not always Foster. He was born in Massachusetts, but his parents divorced when he was 3. His mother, a Vermonter, brought him back to the state.
She was hired, when Ed was 6, by Ellis Foster, one of the founders of the dealership, “to create a household and be the housekeeper for Ellis Foster and his daughter,” says Ed. Eventually Foster and his mother were married. “I was adopted by him and changed my name.”
Ed served in Okinawa during the Korean war, and when he returned, he entered the University of Vermont on the GI Bill to study marketing and merchandising.
UVM is also where he met Carolyn Knapp, whom he married in 1957. “She was in the five-year nursing program and came out as a registered nurse,” he says.
Scott was born during their senior year. He’s the oldest of their four children — two boys and two girls. After graduation, Ed went to work for a fertilizer company that sent them around the country. When they returned in the fall of 1962, Scott was 5 and David was 2.
They returned at the request of Ellis and Edgar Foster, who had bought out Clifford Persons in 1949. “Edgar wanted to get out, and my father-in-law loaned me the money to buy his share of the business,” Ed says. “Back then, $29,000 was a lot of money.”
The company had eight employees and had been a Chrysler dealer since 1936. In 1978, the Dodge franchise was added, says Ed. “In 1983, I was awarded the AMC-Jeep franchise. After that, Chrysler purchased AMC.”
The boys cut their teeth in the business — literally. “One of the things about our family is we’ve been in the automobile business our whole lives,” says David. “Our diapers were changed on the parts room counter. All our lives, from washing cars right up through today, it’s been a part of our blood. My father’s picture is on the wall here, and he’s about 6 years old.”
“When we grew up, we didn’t watch cartoons on Saturday mornings” says Scott. “We were dragged over here — pulled weeds, washed cars — he had us working as little kids, and I think because of that our work ethics are built around that.”
They were sent to work at other places as teenagers. “I had to go to work at the IGA, and I think David did, too,” says Scott. “And we both worked through college.”
The Foster children attended Middlebury High. Scott graduated in 1976, then majored in business management at New Hampshire College in Manchester, now known as Southern New Hampshire University. After graduating in 1980, he moved to Pittsburgh and sold automotive glass for four years.
“Then my father started bugging me to come back. I must confess I was ready to come back at that point.”
David graduated in 1979 and studied at Randolph Technical College in Asheboro, N.C. “From there,” he says, “I worked at another Chrysler store in South Burlington, then came back here in 1982 and started selling cars here.”
In 1990, when Foster opened a Chevrolet dealership in Waterbury, David ran that until it was sold to the Freedom Group in 1998, when he returned to Middlebury.
“When David and I came back we worked for the sales manager at the time, Ray Bourdeau,” Scott says. “He had worked here since the late ’50s under Edgar. David and I worked for him the first 10 years, probably. He retired sometime in the ’90s. Then we assumed leadership roles in the company. As time went on, we kind of jointly took different departments of the business.”
Scott says that, although he tends to more of the financial side of things, and David does more of the hands-on management side of it, they share just about everything.
“We have a body shop here that’s been here a long time and is called a ‘pro shop.’ We do repair work with just about every insurance company for customers in Addison, Chittenden, and Rutland counties. We kind of split up that department.
“We also split up the service department and parts, and we both work in the sales department. We talk to each other every day about each department.”
Foster motors has 48 employees and sits on 13 acres on U.S. 7 just south of town. Since 1924, there have been about 14 additions to the building, says Scott, who adds that the whole place was redone about 20 years ago. The company also sells used cars.
Coming soon, Scott says, is a system that reads a car arriving for service when it pulls into the lot, so a report is printed out and ready before the customer enters the building. Technology has transformed their business. “We spend over $100,000 a year in technician training and we service all makes and models.”
Community service is important to the family. Beneficiaries are a slew of organizations such as United Way, the Lions Club, the Rotary Club, high school teams, and government committees.
Ed is in most days when he’s in Vermont (he spends eight months a year in Florida). “We use him as a consultant,” says Scott. “We bounce things off of him. He has a lot of history here.”
“We’ve got a lot of wonderful customers and friends in the community,” says Ed. “I think we’ve always felt we owe the community our backing and our help and to be there for them whenever they really need us.”
David Wulfson, president of Vermont Railway, can verify this. He has been buying cars from the Fosters for the railway and his family for years and considers Scott and David close friends.
“We met through a mutual friend in Middlebury about 25 years ago,” he says, “and as both our businesses grew, we got more and more friendly. They took care of us, and we started hanging out. Nowadays, there are very few people you can do business with on a handshake, and they are still one of those types of business, and live by it. I respect that.”
David and his wife, Lisa, have been married 28 years and have two daughters. Lisa was his high school sweetheart, he says. “I took her with me to North Carolina.”
Scott and his wife, Alyce, whom he married in 1989, have two daughters — Alyce’s by a former marriage. “She was my neighbor,” he says. “She went jogging one day, and I said, ‘Gee, I think I gotta go jogging!’” They married in 1989. “None of our kids — David’s or mine — are interested at this point in the business.”
“The company is now owned by David and Scott,” says Ed. “I’m just an employee — and they don’t pay me very well,” he adds, laughing. In truth, David and Scott own 49 percent each; Ed and Carolyn own 1 percent apiece.
The brothers work six days a week and on Sundays spend most of their time with their families. “We love to boat when we can,” says David. “And snowmobile, watch football. I used to ski, but don’t do that anymore.
“I’m very proud of the way they’ve taken over,” says Ed, “and they’re doing a great job. I’m totally comfortable. They find me when they need to.” •