Doing Business in Vermont

We asked a few folks how things are going

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Read these interviews in their entirety at

Just for curiosity, we put together a list of questions and made a long list of business owners/operators (many of whom we’ve written about in the past) to hear what they like and don’t like about doing business in our state. We interviewed everybody (six) who got back to us in the short turnaround time we had.

katy-lesserKaty Lesser, founder and co-owner of Healthy Living Market in South Burlington

Our panel: Bob Conlon, co-owner of Leunig’s Bistro & Café, Burlington; Frank Cioffi, president of Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.; Katy Lesser, founder and co-owner of Healthy Living Market in South Burlington; Don Mayer, co-owner of Small Dog Electronics in Waitsfield, South Burlington, and Rutland, plus Key West, Fla.; Dave Mount, founder of Westaff in Burlington and a columnist for Business People–Vermont; and Matthew Nadeau, owner of Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville.

don-mayer-small-dogDon Mayer, co-owner of Small Dog Electronics in Waitsfield, South Burlington, and Rutland, plus Key West, Fla.

What do you appreciate most about doing business in Vermont?

One thing stands out: an appreciation for Vermont’s small size and sense of community. This means great access to government officials and community leaders, said Cioffi. “We are small as a state, but we’re very accessible, and I think we’re agile and nimble.”

Mayer agreed. “Small Dog Electronics is a socially responsible business, and we’ve been in the push to get health care and other reform.” Doing that is a lot easier to do here than in other states, he said. “I don’t know any other state capital where you park, put a quarter in the meter, and walk into the statehouse and half of the people know your name.”

For Nadeau, it’s customer loyalty, particularly from local fans who seek out Vermont products. He and his wife have longtime family ties in Vermont, he said. “We could pick up and move to a city or state with 6 or 12 million people and probably sell a lot more beer, but we’d have to move.”

“Honesty,” said Conlon. “I don’t worry about stealing. If somebody leaves a purse at a table, it stays there, and we pick it up and give it to the customer when they come back.”

frank-cioffi-free-press-glenn-russell_copyright_burlington_free_press_2014Frank Cioffi, president of Greater Burlington Industrial Corp.

What’s your biggest gripe? Are there particular regulations you find difficult or easy?

Lesser encapsulated most responses: “Like working with any state or muni­cipality, things move more slowly than a business person would like. If we’re going to be successful, we need to be nimble.” (There’s that word again.)

“I don’t want to sound like a whiner,” Conlon said, “but every day I open the paper and read about something else that the Legislature wants business to pay for. They don’t pass them all, but it’s nerve racking, whether it’s paid sick time, maternity leave, higher minimum wage, mandatory composting — a million things they pile on you.”

Mount also mentioned paid sick leave. Westaff uses the “paid time off” concept. “That means everybody accumulates a collection of vacation, sick days, and personal days, which employees can use at will. All we ask is a little bit of notice if they will be gone for an extended period.” He cited the Legislature’s “populist attitude” as creating an anti-business atmosphere.

On the positive side, said Mount, “dealing with the Department of Labor has become a much better and easier thing to do than in the past few years. I think the Tax Department is fairly easy to work with if you ask for help. If you don’t ask, they’re cops; if you do, they’re friends.”

“The state is in the business of saying no instead of, How can we help you?” said Nadeau, who has had an ongoing back-and-forth with the Agency of Natural Resources over stormwater permitting.

The issue began when he bought the land in Morrisville where the brewery is located. After years of working on the situation and presenting various scenarios for making things right, all of which were declined, he said, “finally there’s a possibility of help from one of the folks in the Stormwater Division to come to a potential solution. Three years ago if we’d had that approach, we wouldn’t have gone through this aggravation. Local government here is fantastic,” he added, “but at the state level, things seem to fall apart.”

By virtue of his work, Cioffi sees this question from a broader perspective. “Certainly our tax policy has been inconsistent. And I understand why, but that said, we’re a really small state. The needs of the state have to be funded, and we’re in an environment where the federal government really is not providing the level of support it used to for state government. That is really impacting what our legislators have to contend with. They’ve got to raise revenue and can’t really cut our social programs significantly or a great number of people will be hurt.”

Bob-Conlon-by-ReznikBob Conlon, co-owner of Leunig’s Bistro & Café, Burlington

How hard or easy is it for you to find a workforce here?

“We’ve been very fortunate,” said Conlon. “My partner, the chef, is somebody the cooks want to work for, and then they stay with her a while. Then, in the dining room, we’re fortunate to have a good location and good business. We’re lucky that we retain them.”

Nadeau, too, feels fortunate, “in the fact that a lot of the people who like craft beer are very passionate people, and those folks that want to get into the industry are around and we’re able to find them. But I know that my friends in various other businesses don’t have it so good. One of them even went so far as to say that he hires a lot of folks from Jamaica.”

Mayer has found that when he’s able to find an employee who’s been a Vermont resident for a long time, “they tend to work out better than when I import somebody to the state. It takes a certain type of person who wants to live here. You just can’t take somebody from New York and plop them down here and hope they’ll do well.”

In more remote locations, for example at the company’s headquarters in Waitsfield, he said, it’s sometimes harder to find people, “but I wouldn’t call that out as being more difficult than anyplace else in the country.”

“I feel we are successful in finding good people and nurturing them and turning them into great staff,” said Lesser. “Good longevity? We no longer have any preconceived notions about that.”

“It’s becoming increasingly harder everywhere in this country; Vermont isn’t an exclusive challenge,” said Cioffi. “The challenge is how we make things, produce things. How we do services in our country requires much more education and training than it did in the past. And the growth is in more technically proficient job opportunities, so you need more skill sets.

“Certainly institutions of higher ed here are ready,” he said. “I credit Rich Tarrant Sr. and the Richard E. & Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation for addressing this. They have been focused on introducing children to technology in middle schools, and now at UVM, a program that teaches high school teachers how to introduce technology to their classrooms.”

Dave-Mount-2014Dave Mount, founder of Westaff in Burlington and a columnist for Business People–Vermont

What advice would you give somebody looking to open a business here?

Across the board the advice is to do something you love.

Lesser stressed tenacity. “And you have to love what you do,” she said. “And you have to understand that the government is not going to go away. You’re going to have to work with them from day one, so learn to comply and make peace with the fact that we have a small state government and we do have a voice.”

“Make sure you love what you do,” said Nadeau, “because it probably isn’t going to be an easy road. It’s going to be a lot of hours and probably low pay for a while. It’s not all doom and gloom; it’s just that you’ll be dealing with things you probably thought you never would be.”

Take advantage of resources, suggested Mount, “from the state, the federal government, the Small Business Administration, and SCORE [Service Corps of Retired Executives]. The state Department of Taxes has had seminars on what things you have to do to be legal in Vermont, which is a very important aspect.

“After that, entrepreneurs are entrepreneurs. You’re going to start a business here whether the regulations are onerous or not. Just keep it straight, keep it simple, and make sure you dot all your i’s and cross all your t’s.

“Work,” said Conlon. “Don’t get discouraged. Everybody thinks at first it’s going to be wonderful. But you’re going to lie awake nights worrying about where the money’s coming from. You’re going to think about it all the time, so don’t give up. Once you think you’ve got it done, you’re probably on the way out.”

dba-matt-rock-art-breweryMatthew Nadeau, owner of Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville.

Mayer’s primary advice would be “to think a lot about what type of company you want to be. I think Vermont is very receptive to companies that look at being involved in the community as well as being a business in the community. Our triple bottom line is people, planet, and profit. We measure our success by those three criteria in equal measure.”

“I think Vermont is a welcome place for creating business and economic opportunity,” Cioffi said. “We get a bad rap at times of not being business-friendly, and I think we’re community-friendly and people-friendly, and people are the ones who start businesses.”

Addressing the direction we must take, he said, “The only way is economic growth — to pick some winners and go after them. The last time we had a focused concentration on an economic center was captive insurance, and everybody got on the train for that.”

He praised recent changes by the Department of Financial Regulation to the Vermont Small Business Offering Exemption that will make raising capital easier for small businesses. “Political leaders need to come together to support policies that encourage economic growth, that expand economic opportunity for working Vermonters and their families in new areas.

“Could we be friendlier? Sure. We’re trying. And it is the greatest place to live.”