Vermont Business Magazine Burlington businessman and philanthropist Tony Pomerleau has died, his family announced Friday morning. He was 100 years old. He grew up in Newport in hard times and made himself a millionaire. He liked to say that the only thing he knew how to do was "make money." But what he did with that money endeared him with Vermonters from across the state, especially those who needed a helping hand in order to have a better life. Tony Pomerleau's hand always seemed to be there.
Burlington Free Press Feb 9, 2018
Antonio B. Pomerleau, the Newport boy who launched his first business in elementary school, developed Vermont’s first shopping centers and became a major business, civic and philanthropic power in Chittenden County, has died, his family announced Friday morning. He was 100.
Vermont Business Magazine ARCHIVES
Alzheimer’s Association, Vermont Chapter honors Antonio B Pomerleau with community leadership and activist award
In a statement, son Ernie Pomerleau said:
"Our dad often said that everything has an expiration date except him. He was so right, because I know that together, our family and the Vermont community will carry forward his spirit and legacy.
"While every one of us may not accomplish as much and reach as many lives as he has, in this next century we can each be loving family members, caring neighbors and generous souls to shine in his example."
Statement Of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): "Marcelle introduced me to her Uncle Tony nearly sixty years ago when I was a young college student. Within a very short time, he was making me feel like a member of the family, and he became Uncle Tony to me also. Our children, and then our grandchildren, always saw him as Uncle Tony when we would visit him and his wife, Rita.
"During the past few days Marcelle and I, and the children and grandchildren, have talked about Tony, and the memories of our associations over the years flood back.
"We think of his enormous philanthropy in Vermont, his caring about Vermont and people throughout Vermont society. We think of the good he has done for others, but in the end we think of a loving member of our family, and while not unexpected, it is a loss that will be felt by all of us over the generations.
"Perhaps so much is summed up in the memories Marcelle and I have of being at the baptism of his great-grandchild last year at the time of Tony’s birthday. A hundred years separated the two of them, but the love in Tony’s face was the same love we have seen for decades."
[Below is a posting by Senator Leahy on his Instagram page this morning, with a link to the photo.]
"I thought of this picture I took on a foggy day in Burlington when we got the news that Marcelle's uncle Tony Pomerleau had left this life. But in the family his light will never go out."
US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) issued the following statement Friday: “Tony Pomerleau, a friend for over 35 years, was one of the most remarkable human beings that I've ever met. His love for Vermont and the city of Burlington was contagious, and his incredible generosity helped thousands of families in our state. Jane and I send our condolences to the Pomerleau family.”
Congressman Peter Welch (D-VT) issued the following statement: “It’s hard to believe that Tony Pomerleau is no longer with us. He was an indefatigable legend who improved the lives of countless Vermonters through his business and charity work. His ‘can do’ attitude was infectious. His legacy of generosity and entrepreneurialism will live on but his presence in Vermont’s communities will be sorely missed.”
Governor Scott and Tony Pomerleau share a laugh at the Burlington sailing center dedication, September 2017. VBM photo.
Governor Phil Scott today issued the following statement: “I’m deeply saddened at the passing of our friend, Tony Pomerleau, and I send my sincere sympathy to his wife Rita, son Ernie, and the entire family.
“I feel fortunate to have known Tony, and Vermont was fortunate to have him. He gave so much to others and was a leader in his community and beyond. You don’t have to look any farther than the attendance and appreciation expressed at his 100th birthday party, which we celebrated last fall, to see how much he meant to Vermont. That’s because he was always willing to help his neighbors, he had incredible work ethic, and he treated others with respect.
“He was the quintessential Vermonter and embodied our Vermont values. He set a positive example for all of us at a time when we desperately need positive role models, and his generosity has impacted the lives of so many. For all this – and so much more – he will be greatly missed, but his legacy will live on for generations.”
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said: “I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Tony Pomerleau. My heart and thoughts go out to his family. Tony lived a remarkable life, working his way up from a popcorn seller and potato packer during the Great Depression to become one of Vermont’s most successful business people and most generous philanthropists. Tony had an enormous impact on Burlington, both as a business person who pursued substantial ventures and made major investments here, and as a philanthropist whose remarkable generosity benefited our Burlington Police Department, as well as local organizations and institutions too numerous to name. I always admired Tony’s love of family, and enjoyed hearing about Rita and their children. And Tony created an even bigger family through pursuing one of his greatest passions – providing opportunities to Burlington’s children. Thanks to Tony, generations of Burlingtonians will grow up with greater access to after school and recreational activities. I am honored to have worked with Tony many times over the years as Mayor, and I will miss him very much.”
Like father, like son: Antonio & Ernest Pomerleau
This story is reprinted from December 2009
by Joyce Marcel Vermont Business Magazine There is no shortage of visionaries in Vermont, but only a handful of them have had the courage, talent and confidence to carve out empires.
What does it take? Seeing opportunities where no one sees them, jumping in with both feet, ignoring the naysayers who say it can't happen, finding the right partners, moving with the times, coming away with swimming pools full of money and giving back to the community. This is the way real estate moguls Antonio B Pomerleau, chairman, and his son, Ernest A Pomerleau, president and CEO of Pomerleau Real Estate, are playing the game. The Pomerleaus give developers a good name.
"I guess I wasn't born very smart," Tony likes to say. "All I knew was how to make money."
What kind of visions are we talking about here? For example, when Tony first started in the grocery business, way back when, the general rule was that customers came to a counter and asked a clerk for what they wanted.
"People come in and want a can of soup, the clerk would get it for you," Tony said, "I said, 'I can't afford the clerks.' So I changed my store to self-service. I figured people see things and they buy it. They don't see it, they don't buy it. So I had self-service years before the supermarkets did."
Then there are the shopping centers - somewhere around 25 of them in Vermont right now. Tony pretty much introduced them to Vermont.
"I was in Boston in 1953," Tony said. "I came out of the hotel and saw a building going up, a big-time motel with a parking lot in front. There was no such thing as a motel then. I walked over there and I was impressed with the parking. People just parked and walked in. I said, 'You know, Burlington could stand four or five of those.' So again, something nobody else had. There was a piece of land where the Ethan Allen Shopping Center is now, that was my first center, and the next morning I tracked down the guy who owned it."
Tony also had the ability to spot isolated parcels of land with a potential that no one else saw. Charles Cherhoniak, a senior vice president of TD Bank and the man in charge of the bank's relationship with the Pomerleaus, admires Tony's ability to identify locations that would one day be in the path of population growth and development.
"These locations would then have value to retailers, especially supermarket chains," Cherhoniak said. "These anchor tenants are always searching for strategic locations that would make their stores more appealing then their competitors. Tony understood this concept and capitalized on it through identifying these strategic locations, purchasing land at reasonable prices and then developing centers which attracted local residences."
All this makes Tony Pomerleau, at 92, a true Vermont original. He's a multimillionaire, a strong family man (he's been married to his wife, Rita, for 64 years; the couple had 10 children, eight of whom are still living), a philanthropist and a devout Republican (he takes credit for handing Vermont over to Ronald Reagan when he was running for president against Jimmy Carter - keep reading; it's a great story).
Tony's eldest son, Ernie, grew up in the business. Fit, handsome, pugnacious, driven and energetic at 62, Ernie works hard and plays hard. He is a world-renowned Tai Chi teacher who races sail boats for pleasure. He and his wife, Dee, have one grown-up daughter.
Ernie has been especially active in politics and community affairs.
"I live and breathe politics daily," Ernie said. "Not a day goes by that I don't, because if you're not dealing with this on a constant basis, you're on the menu. If you're not there, you're toast. So I have to deal with permitting reform, tax reform, storm water and the Conservation Law Foundation. It's endless. Archeology. Air quality. The permitting process. And what they decide they're going to do to people like me in Montpelier."
Is he so involved in the political police that he would consider a run for office?
"Never," Ernie said. "I'd rather put my head in a Cuisinart."
Politics is a calling, Ernie said. He appreciates the people who choose it, but it's not for him.
"I'm very busy," he said. "I do well financially here. I don't want to live in a glass bowl. I don't want every tax form to become public. I don't want to debate everybody on my policies. I know what I want, how I want to get there and how I'm going to do it and I fight adamantly for it. But I'm not a politician. I'm a real estate broker."
Ernie has served as the chairman of the Downtown Burlington Development Association, as a director of both the Chittenden Bank Corp. and Vermont National Bank, as treasurer of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, and on the board of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce - among many, many other things.
As chairman of Governor James Douglas's commission on climate change Ernie won an Environmental Merit Award in 2008 from the Environmental Protection Agency of New England. The citation reads, in part: "The commission is a diverse group of people that drafted recommendations on how Vermont can reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, limit production of greenhouse gases, develop a green and sustainable economic sector and retain a pro-business predisposition while getting residents to take responsibility for reversing the trend. Ernest engaged in delicate negotiations to get a collaborative win for business and the environment, universities, scientist and budget watchdogs."
Frank Cioffi, the president of Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, has known Ernie for decades and calls him "one of the nicest people you'll ever meet." He believes that as a leader, Ernie is ahead of his time.
"Ernie has led the GBIC through several different initiatives, like the Green Economic Initiative, which is now doing pretty well. We're a little ahead of the curve. Or the governor's climate collaborative. He was really ahead of his time with that. He's been a leader in trying to help and protect Lake Champlain. He's worked for a decade trying to advance some of the most progressive storm water cleanup legislation and regulations in Vermont. Vermont pretty much leads the nation in how we treat storm water. Now he's exploring more energy efficient designs for the properties they own around Vermont and the Northeast. Whatever he does, he wants to do it right. The Pomerleaus look at the long-term impacts of whatever they're doing, in order to leave a better Vermont."
Ernie and Tony Pomerleau at the Burlington Sailing Center dedication, September 2017. VBM photo.
Cioffi said Ernie is one of the most "even-keeled" people he knows.
"Part of it is that he's the oldest in a family of 10, so he really knows how to get along with everybody and make people get along with each other," he said. "Also, he's a master of martial arts and Tai Chi. Martial arts is about discipline and learning the mind, the body and the soul. He's a very spiritual person. The other thing a lot of people don't know about him - he donates a huge amount of his time to the hospice program. especially helping people in their final days and hours of life. People who know Ernie, when you mention him, will smile right away."
Even though the Pomerleaus are both famously Republican, they don't let politics get in the way of business - or friendship. US Representative Peter Welch (D-VT) and Governor Douglas were at Tony's 90th birthday bash, but then so was Vermont's favorite socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). When Sanders first ran for mayor of Burlington, Tony certainly didn't support him.
"But I was the first one to greet him in city hall when he won," Tony said. "I didn't vote for him, but he was mayor and it's my town as well as his. And I got along very well with him. We achieved a lot together."
Then there's their famous relative by marriage, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who is married to Tony's niece, Marcelle Pomerleau Leahy.
Tony takes some credit for starting Leahy's career as well as Reagan's. It was back in 1974, when Vermont was a rock-ribbed Republican state.
"Pat Leahy can tell you, only three people thought he had a chance," Tony said. "Him of course, his wife and Tony Pomerleau."
Naturally, I wanted to check this out with Leahy, so soon I was involved in a conference call with him and Marcelle. I told him Tony's comment and Leahy laughed.
"Tony loves to say that," Leahy said. "But the first people involved were my mother and father. And Marcelle's parents were strongly in favor. But Tony's a very strong Republican, and yet he was very supportive. It meant a lot to me."
Long ago, when Leahy was in private practice, he handled real estate transactions for Tony. So he knows something about how Tony does business.
"He doesn't mind that someone else makes a profit - if he makes a profit," Leahy said. "To his credit, business people have told him, 'Why don't you move to Florida and have a residency? Taxes would be lower.' Tony's response was, 'When I started in Vermont I didn't have anything. I made my money in Vermont and I'll pay my taxes in Vermont.' I'm very proud of him."
"I've heard him say that many times," Marcelle added.
Ernie, too, has a "tremendous" business sense, Leahy said.
"Ernie has grown the business in a number of areas, and he has also gotten heavily involved in philanthropy," Leahy said. "I know a lot of things Ernie has given money to and there's no public comment. It's just the right thing to do. This is a great family, and you know the next generation will carry this on."
Naturally, the Leahys were at Tony's spectacular 90th birthday bash, too, but it is more interesting that in 2006, when Tony was named Vermonter of the Year, Leahy read a tribute from the Burlington Free Press into the Congressional Record, where it will remain in the history books for all time.
It describes Tony as a man who "lives large" - which might include his 70-foot yacht, his penchant for private planes or his luxury hotel in Florida. It lists some of Tony's many achievements and philanthropies (comparing him at one point to Santa Claus), and goes on to say: "Everyone is welcome. Everyone has a seat at Antonio (Tony) Pomerleau's table. It's Pomerleau's giving spirit that makes him so deserving of the honor of Vermonter of the Year. His steadfast commitment to Vermont and the people of this state make him a fine choice."
A partial list of Pomerleau philanthropy would have to include donating a building to the Burlington police, throwing a large Christmas party for children every year, throwing another large holiday party for the Vermont National Guard, and setting up a $1 million challenge grant that helped build the new Rita and Antonio Pomerleau Alumni Center at Saint Michael's College. Their most recent effort was a large donation to fly the members of the Guard, who are training out-of-state for a mission in Afghanistan, home for the holidays.
It's not hard to find people to sing the Pomerleaus' praises. President Pro Tem of the Vermont Senate (and gubernatorial candidate) Peter Shumlin (D-Windham), call Tony and Ernie, "The Vermont Dream Team." He said they embody what is best about Vermont.
"Business success of this magnitude can be a gift or the plague, but they've never, ever let it go to their heads," Shumlin said. "Hard work, good judgment and an extraordinary willingness to treat everybody with fairness and respect. I can remember talking to Tony years ago, the first time I met him. He was then in his mid-80s. 'What drives you to keep building this company when obviously you've had great success?' I asked him. He said, 'My goal is to find thoughtful ways to make more money than I did last year, and so far I haven't failed.' He's just right out there. So I called him three months ago and asked how it's looking this year. He said, 'I made more than last year.' I said, 'How's that possible? You've got to be the only person in America ."
Tony was only six months old when his family, looking for a better life, moved to Vermont from Canada. He's been working almost since he could walk. He began the real estate company in 1951.
Today the privately owned company operates out of Follett House, a stunning Greek Revival mansion overlooking Lake Champlain in downtown Burlington. The Pomerleaus bought it when it was a wreck and renovated it to architectural elegance in the late 1970s.
The company's organization is complex.
"Dad owns some stuff, I own some stuff, we own some together and there are many holdings in family partnership," Ernie said. "There are many, many entities. This will all make your readers go to sleep; it's almost too complex to explain in a few sentences."
The Pomerleaus own real estate and developments in Vermont, New York State and Florida. They create new developments. They sell commercial properties. They managed commercial properties for other companies. They employ 25 people.
When I asked about yearly revenues, Ernie said, "We have ownership of two million square feet of space and millions of dollars of debt service. We make many, many millions a year."
Since Tony is fond of saying that he'll retire when he gets old, I asked how they split the responsibilities.
"Like any challenge, you have to develop a lot of trust and confidence," Ernie said. "You create areas of responsibility. It's trial and error to a great degree. You have to have a vision and have actions to support a vision. We have a great deal of respect for each other, and we cohabitate."
Making lots of money involves taking lots of risks.
"Everybody thinks that everything we touch turns to gold," Ernie said. "But we can show you 20 empty fields that we worked on for five years that never got built, that we spent $100,000 or $200,000 on. We didn't get the permits; the deals blew up. It happens all the time. Once I had five Wendy's and a partner went bankrupt. I had to pick up all the debt service and empty buildings and try to put them back on line, going down at $1,000 a day. That's a risk. I turned it around."
Real estate has been the same since the Roman days and it will be the same forever, Ernie said.
"You build something," he said. "You rent it out. There will always be post offices and restaurants and supermarkets. Real estate is real estate. We have to work through the ebbs and the flows and be prepared to take huge risks. It's not easy. Do a multimillion dollar transaction. Put your head on the line. Get all your leases and permits. Hope that construction doesn't come in over budget - it's endless. There's no such thing as being in business and not taking astronomical risks. If there was no risk, everyone would be in this business. The ones that survive are the ones that are a little faster, a little smarter and have a little better vision."
Besides their vision, the Pomerleaus are known for their tenacity and strong character.
"Grand Union was a significant tenant in many of their properties," said Cherhoniak. "When it went bankrupt, the situation was disruptive and uncertain. The Pomerleaus attacked the problem systematically, keeping their business partners informed of progress and failures. But also, they always instilled confidence that they would honor all their obligations and emerge stronger as a result of their superior locations and relationships with other supermarket executives. To me, their characters are their strongest asset."
The Young Tony Pomerleau
When they arrived in Vermont, the Pomerleaus started by farming. They sold the farm and moved to Newport when Tony was 10 years old.
"My father worked for the railroad, and then he bought a store," Tony said. "We were never poor, but we didn't have any money. We had a house. No money, but enough to get by. At that time we were fortunate. He came down with a cancer and died when he was a young man."
As a child, Tony was molded by two formative incidents. First, he fell down the basement stairs when he was three years old and was forced to wear an iron corset. Doctors feared he wouldn't live past 12.
The second incident has become a family legend. When he was 10, his mother took him to the healing shrine of Ste Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. There she removed his brace and left it. When they returned home, Tony was fine. He said the miracle was not the saint or the shrine - it was his mother's prayers.
By the time he was 12 years old, Tony was already on his way to his first million.
"I was always involved in things," he said. "From 12 until I was 17, I was a trimmer of windows for JJ Newberry. Every night. That was big money. The manager only made $25. Saturday I worked as a stock boy. I was making $10 a week."
During the summers, he honed his entrepreneurial skills. He told an interviewer for Vermont Livin' Magazine, "If I got a job for 50 cents, I'd find a friend, hire him and give him 25 cents. I'd keep the rest."
He and his crew washed cars, traded, mowed lawns - anything to make a buck and support his mother, brothers and sister. He was always the chief breadwinner, and he always involved the family in his businesses.
"I had one brother, he was 10 years older than me, but he always worked for me - all his life," Tony said. "I had a sister five years older, and her husband was a manager in Canada. When he retired, he came to work for me as a bookkeeper."
You might think that having an older brother - this would be Marcelle Leahy's father - working under you would cause tension, but that wasn't the case, Marcelle said.
"My dad and my uncle had a wonderful relationship," she said. "Tony was a born businessman. It was part of his makeup. And my dad wasn't. My dad had talent that certainly complimented what Tony was doing. My dad like overseeing the construction projects."
Right after high school, Tony started working as a shoe salesman for Endicott Johnson. He was transferred to Burlington in 1942, right after his father died, to be a company "troubleshooter." He only planned to stay for three months. "I overstayed," Tony said with a smile.
When he moved, he brought his mother with him. When he married Rita Murphy in 1946, they all lived together.
"My mother always stayed with me, all her life," Tony said.
"It's an extraordinary family," said Marcelle, who used to baby-sit for "Aunt Rita and Uncle Tony" when she was young. "Tony was just as supportive of my mom as he would have been of his own sister. He's always been very supportive of his extended family as well as his own. My mom was sick for 10 years, and there was a lot of care involved. Tony was always there. We've always been close, but now Tony is the only surviving sibling, and he has just thrived at being the head of the family. He's like that at 92, and we like to say that at 192 he's still going to be like that. He just loves being the patriarch. It's a very warm, loving relationship and we're lucky to have it."
Tony always wanted to go into business for himself, so he finally decided to buy a small grocery store on North Street in Burlington.
"I went to the bank and borrowed $3,000," he said. "I had just sold my car for $1,200, so I bought that store. Four years later I had four stores. Then I sold them and went into the wholesale beverage business - beer and wine - and I built that one up from a small business to a million dollars a year. And in the 1940s, that was big business."
It was in 1953 when Tony went to Boston and recognized the beauty of this new idea in hospitality - motels. But for him it was not the rooms; it was the parking out in front.
"On the way home, I was thinking motels," Tony said. "But Sundays and holidays is when they're busy. I only had four kids then. We lived on North Avenue, and my wife had to go downtown to buy things. I thought, why can't we have some small stores all together? Again, that's where the future was. I didn't want to build motels. Motels would have been for holidays. Shopping centers were different. You build, you lease, then the tenant has them."
To have shopping centers succeed, stores have to leave downtowns. Another of Tony's visions was that downtowns were on the way out.
"In the 1950s, I was on a panel regarding downtown," Tony said. "I said, 'Things are changing. Montgomery Ward will go. WT Grants will relocate. Kresge will go. Woolworth will stay downtown, but Sears will go.' So (publisher and co-owner of the Burlington Free Press) Mr J. Warren McClure said, 'Mr Pomerleau, I think you're right about Montgomery Ward, Grants, Woolworth's. But as far as Sears is concerned, you're full of baloney.' And he didn't say baloney. I says, 'I'm telling you Sears won't stay downtown. How much do you want to bet?' Because I was discussing the move with them. And Mr McClure said, 'I'll eat the paper.' And one morning there was a big headline, 'Sears moving to my shopping center.' I have a picture in my office of me shoving the paper down McClure's mouth. He really didn't eat it, though."
By the 1960s, Tony had shopping centers in Newport, Essex, Enosburg Falls, Montpelier and many other places.
One of the secrets to his success? Being careful with his money.
"If I made $25, I spent $25," Tony said. "And I always had more at the end of a year than the year before. Sometimes very little more. But I never went backwards. And I built what I could afford. Most of my centers are paid for."
Another secret? Tony did the building himself.
"I could tell you how much the light bulbs cost in my shopping centers," Tony said. "I knew what the sheet rock cost. I knew what the tile cost. And everything else. And I never ran over. So any amount of money I would ask, the bank would immediately gave it to me. Because they knew I never overran my budget. Because I knew what I was doing. If I said that building can be built for a million dollars, it could be built for a million dollars. Other developers borrowed to the maximum. I never did. I never borrowed more than I needed. And I didn't pay a lot for it. Even today, I borrow a lot less than other developers."
Tony worked to establish credibility with the banks.
"You've got to prove yourself," he said. "Young developers, I tell them, 'Say you need to borrow $30,000 for one month. Borrow for three months. Then pay it back in two. You establish credit. I always borrowed money longer than I needed it. They said, 'Pomerleau never overruns his liability.' Never once I came in and said I couldn't pay what we had agreed upon."
Reggie Greene, the senior vice president of Chittenden Bank, agreed. He called Tony a "prudent" man who plans for the future.
"Tony has been a customer since 1942," Greene said. "He started from fairly modest beginnings. Our first loan was that first $3,000 of his. Tony is an entrepreneur and a risk taker, but he's a very conservative risk taker. He doesn't borrow a lot of money, and he's not out there on the edge. He thinks about things and has a good sense of when things will be successful. The investments he makes are over the very long term. A lot of people will invest money hoping to get a payback in three or four years. But Tony will accept as a tenant someone who may not be paying the highest rates. But he sees they'll do well and be with him over the long time. In the end, he'll make more than someone who's trying to make a quick buck."
The International Council of Shopping Centers was founded in 1957. Tony was on its board for many years, and Ernie is its government affairs director for New England. Its first convention in Montreal had about 1,100 attendees.
"And we thought that was news," Tony said.
Now the ICSC has 60,000 members in the US, Canada and in 80 other countries.
"And we have our convention in Las Vegas," Tony said proudly.
When it comes to land, Tony's ability to spot the future has been extremely profitable. In the 1960s, for example, he saw a field and barn in New Hampshire with a big "For Sale" sign on it. Something about it sparked his interest, so he called the owner and asked the price. The man said $70,000.
"I says, 'I'm interested ," Tony said. "The guy said, 'Don't you want to know how much I paid for it?' I say, 'I don't care what you paid for it.' "
The truth was that the seller had paid $12,000 for the property a few months before. But Tony didn't care.
"I say, 'I'll pay it ," Tony said. "I went to the bank and borrowed some money. They said, 'You know how much he paid for it?' I said, 'Yes, $12,000.' 'Oh, you know.' I went to a lawyer in Newport, an old classmate. He said, 'Do you know what he paid for that?' I said, 'I don't care.' Because I could see what nobody else could see. I sold a small corner piece of that property for $90,000. I sold the field on the back of the top of the hill that was worthless for $60,000. I sold the front part for $150,000 for a supermarket. All in two months time."
Another time, he bought a farm for $250,000.
"Everybody thought I was crazy," Tony said. "It was a farm that never produced $5,000. But I'm not going to be a farmer. The banks wouldn't lend me the money. I went back to the guy, said, 'I'll give you 10 percent for rent, and in five years I'll buy it.' I did nothing with it for 35 years. Because I saw it coming, the highways and everything was coming in. I made a fortune at it. A lot of millions."
In another transaction, Tony said, he bought a piece of land for $35,000 that is today worth "many, many millions." But he wouldn't tell me where. He just said, "Somewhere."
And sometimes he won't buy.
"I've turned down buildings that have been tremendous buys," he said. "Even if they give it to you, you can't afford it."
Strip shopping centers have fallen into disrepute over the years; many are empty and crumbling. But Tony said he has no vacancies.
"Strip shopping centers now are most all gone because people didn't take care of them, fix them up," he said. "Mine are successful. I took care of them. I remodeled them. And if one of my tenants had a rough time, I'd work with them, I'd loan them. If they went out, I didn't get nothing. Half a rent is better than no rent. You never go broke taking a profit. You keep the cash going."
Tony once owned an insurance company as well, and he owned real estate in Florida. But he's sold everything but the shopping centers.
"But I'm a major stockholder in a big hotel in Florida. the Sea View Hotel in Bel Harbour," he said. "I was president of the hotel for a long time, 15 years. It was a political hotel. Tip O'Neil stayed there, Howard Baker, Bob Dole. (The late newsman) David Brinkley was a very close friend of mine. He was on my boat quite a few times. Amazing thing - outside of his family, I was the only one invited to his funeral. He used to say, 'My only real friend is Tony Pomerleau.' Real nice, nice guy."
Ernie Comes In
Ernie started in his father's real estate business when he was six years old.
"The joke in the family was that instead of getting a football, I got a briefcase," Ernie said. "I've worked ever since I was a kid - mowing lawns, doing carpentry. I'd bring a team from college every summer and we'd paint buildings. I worked on construction crews. I guess I grew up with the business. Dad paid me, but just a little bit. Not much. I spent it on beer."
His father was his mentor.
"Even when I was in high school, I would attend business meetings and go to supermarket gatherings with him," Ernie said. "So when I got out of college, Saint Mike's, it was just a given that I'd come into the company. I came in in 1969. We were a three person real estate office and a five person insurance office. So we've grown pretty substantially."
Ernie is the only one of the Pomerleau children to be in the business, and Tony is delighted to have him.
"Any father would like to have a son take over his business, instead of turning over a very successful business to someone else, he said.
A Call From Ronald Reagan
In 1980, Ronald Reagan was running against incumbent Jimmy Carter. He invited Tony to Cleveland, where they were holding a presidential debate. Vermont had been strongly Republican for a century, but Reagan was falling behind.
"I had met Reagan in 1954 when he was a salesman, but I didn't think he remembered me," Tony said. "Out of the clear sky at 11 o'clock one morning, I got a telephone call said, 'This is Ronald Reagan.' I thought it was a joke, of course. I thought an old Democrat was calling to pull my chain."
Tony was so unsure of the call, he said, that he called Allegheny Airlines to make sure a ticket had been reserved in his name.
"I didn't tell anybody," Tony said. "I thought if he had a very successful debate, he wouldn't need a guy like me. If he had a real bad one, it would be worse. At the hotel, I went upstairs and Reagan's aide said, 'The man from Vermont is here'. I had no idea I would be the only one. And I walked in all by myself and he was there to greet me. I had figured, 'How do I approach him to feel comfortable?' So first thing, I showed him a picture of my family. He said, 'Nancy come here.' 'Is this your wife?' he said. 'That's the only wife I ever had,' I said.
"He said, 'Can you deliver Vermont for me?' I say, 'Yeah, I think so. But why do want Vermont? It's such a small state, three electoral votes.' He says, 'You're a small state and you report early. At 8 o'clock at night. I don't want your state to go Democrat when I have thousands of people in California who haven't voted yet.'"
Tony went back home, Vermont went for Reagan, and Tony was invited to the inauguration.
"We were at one of the balls when the Reagans came out to dance," Tony said. "He hadn't seen me since Cleveland, and he must have seen thousands of people since then. But he came out, waved and said, 'Hi, Tony!'"
The current recession is hitting Vermont very hard, while real estate has been in decline all over the country. But the Pomerleaus have been in business so long that recessions don't seem to faze them.
"We're weathering the recession nicely," Tony said. "We saw it coming, took care of our property, and we're all leased up."
It all comes down to experience, Ernie said.
"At the height of the big economic boom, we had Grand Union go bankrupt," Ernie said. "We had 22 supermarkets with them. That was a bad day. At the height of the boom? So now I say, 'Hit me again. This is nothing. This is a walk in the park. If we can survive the bankruptcy of basically every major anchor tenant in each of our shopping centers, I can handle this one.' We put it in perspective. We've been at this a very long time."
Depressions? Wars? Inflation? High gas prices? Peak oil? Stupid bank tricks? The Pomerleaus have seen it all.
"We talk about real expensive gas," Ernie said. "I've been through gas lines. Try to get your customers to a shopping center when they can't get gas. Four dollars isn't fun, but it's not as bad as not getting gas. War? I was opposed to the Iraq War from the get-go. But look at Vietnam - 55,000 men were lost and it ripped this country apart. We had machine gun turrets around the White House. Watts was burning. Kent State. Berkeley went down. ROTC was ripped apart. This current political turmoil may be a bad thing, but it's not as bad as Vietnam. In 1982, we had 18 percent interest rates - they went as high as 21. Twelve percent inflation? Try to project the cost of what your center is going to cost. It's only 3 percent today. And 10.5 unemployment? We haven't gotten there yet. We're getting close, but we haven't gotten there yet. So if you put it in perspective, over the course of 30-odd years, we've been there. We've done that."
The more things change, the more they remain the same, Ernie said.
"Is this different? Yeah, they're all different. One's S&L, this is a systemic breakdown of derivatives on Wall Street. Stupid? Yes, but so was S&L debacle. There always will be stupid things every 20 to 30 years. It's happened since the beginning of time. We'll come out of it."
One of the main problems with doing business in Vermont is its progressive tax structure, Ernie said.
"Ten thousand people in Vermont pay 50 percent of the taxes," Ernie said. "I live here. I love this place. I'm an environmentalist. At the same time, I'm a business person. There's a limit to what taxes can happen here or you move to Florida. We'll die with our boots on, but there are three dozen of my best friends have taken up residence in Florida because they're tired of the process in Montpelier - the bitching and the moaning that business is bad and we can keep moving taxes anywhere we want. We can't do that. People leave."
Ernie blames Montpelier for having an anti-business attitude.
"Montpelier has been disappointing for the last 10 years, but it's now at a tipping point," Ernie said. "I could pull apart a whole bunch of issues - tax policies, permit reform. But it's really the attitude that business is bad and there's no limit to what you can tax. If you need something, go after business. We have a huge deficit, $200 million. Why? Because 15,000 less people are working, so they're short a billion dollars of income they could have taxed. So instead of saying, 'All the companies left standing, let's charge them more,' why not go to them and figure out how to incentivize them to get more jobs and get more people employed. That doesn't occur to them."
The "business is bad" ethos hurts even the major employers in the state, Ernie said.
"IBM is a multinational corporation," he said. "It has 6,000 people working in Vermont at an average of $50,000 apiece. That's a good thing. Green Mountain Coffee is a classic poster child for Vermont. Yet they keep changing the tax rules. They don't look how to keep people here. Other places like upstate New York have brownfield remediation protocols, have reduction in electric rates, have bonding, have support, have financing. They help you through the permitting process. And we're competing with them."
Ernie said he was grateful that his cousin-in-law, Senator Leahy, is good at funneling federal money to Vermont.
"Thank God we have Patrick getting a lot of funding," Ernie said. "He's personally responsible for keeping General Dynamics and IBM here. IBM could leave Essex Junction and it wouldn't be a rounding error on a decimal point. It's nothing. They could close it and they wouldn't blink. We have to keep IBM here, promote likes of Magic Hat, who developed here, and Green Mountain Coffee. They can go anywhere. We're trying to get Vermont to be more conducive to supporting businesses rather than creating obstacles to businesses."
As Tony keeps saying, it's all about the future.
"The future of anything is not what's past," Tony said. "You learn from what's past. The future is the future. You can look ahead to what's happening. This is why most people don't succeed. They don't look. They just work for today, and yesterday's gone by and then today's gone by. I always did things the other guy didn't do. I was always looking ahead. I've had a great life. I came up the hard way. The odds of my succeeding the way I did are probably one chance out of one hundred. But I never knew I didn't have a chance."
The future for Ernie? Bring it on!
"Our industry is 'doomed'?" he said. "I heard that dozens of times. We're actually a growing industry. I've survived every challenge they've ever given me. I'm pugnacious and an eternal optimist. Being a Republican real estate developer in Vermont, you goddamned well better be. And the future? The future is solid. We've never been so busy. "
When I asked Ernie if he ever thought about retiring, he sounded just like Tony.
"When I get old," Ernie said.
Joyce Marcel, twice the recipient of national business writing awards, is a freelance writer and author from Dummerston. Her new book, a collection of her columns called, "A Thousand Words or Less," is now available. Learn more about her and how to order the book at her Web site: www.joycemarcel.com.