BURLINGTON, Vt. — Burlington real estate developer Tony Pomerleau, dressed in a grey suit with blue windowpane striping, is already waiting in the downstairs den of his low-slung brick home on DeForest Heights when his guests arrive to talk about the latest milestone in his life.
On Thursday, Pomerleau turns 100. He has spent most of the past century building one of the largest fortunes in Vermont’s history, primarily through relatively small-scale real estate developments. At the same time he gives significant amounts of that fortune to various causes.
Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, said that in spite of his homegrown approach — Pomerleau says he never does business outside a 100-mile radius of Burlington — Pomerleau was playing on a “national level” in real estate before anybody else in Vermont.
“He had contemporaries in commerce that were national players,” Cioffi said. “He brought national concepts to Vermont.”
The best example, Cioffi said, are the shopping centers Pomerleau built in many Vermont towns and a few towns across the lake in New York — as many as 20 centers at his peak. At the time, beginning in the 1950s, shopping centers were “extremely brand new,” Cioffi said.
“He was doing marketing before anybody was doing marketing,” Cioffi added. “He understood how to touch the consumer, find out what the consumer wanted.”
Cioffi said Pomerleau was “versatile and agile,” shifting in whatever direction he needed to respond to consumers’ desires.
“The thing that amazes me about him, to this day he will spring to life at the snap of a finger if there’s a deal,” Cioffi continued. “He loves negotiations. He loves the art of the deal and he is good. He understands people. He understands that everybody’s got to win a little bit in a deal. He’s probably the best closer I ever met.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, who is married to Pomerleau’s niece, worked for the man he refers to as “Uncle Tony” for a short time when he was a young lawyer. Leahy remembers a deal he witnessed in New Hampshire about 45 years ago, when Pomerleau paid $75,000 for a piece of property he had identified as valuable.
“He had such an eye for location,” Leahy said.
At the time $75,000 was a lot of money. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s the equivalent of $558,000 today. Pomerleau was told he was crazy, Leahy said, because the owner had only paid $10,000 for the property. Pomerleau replied, “OK, so he’s making a profit. I’ll make a bigger profit.”
“He sold one corner for $150,000, another corner for $150,000 and in the middle of it he had a shopping center,” Leahy said. “You never go broke making a profit.”
That last bit is one of Pomerleau’s mottoes, honed over the past century. His other mottoes include: Everything has a time limit. Timing is the success of everything. Don’t get too big, too fast, too soon. And most important, never skin the bear until you shoot him.
Pomerleau’s son, Ernie Pomerleau is the president of Pomerleau Real Estate. His father calls him an “outstanding guy” who is the “closest thing to me.” Ernie Pomerleau jokes that most fathers get their sons basketballs or footballs when they’re born.His father got him a briefcase.
Tony Pomerleau won’t put a number on his net worth, but he conceded it’s more than $100 million. He just won’t say how much more.
Pomerleau similarly declined to put a dollar number on his philanthropic efforts, but he has certainly given away millions of dollars. The Pomerleau name is on Burlington’s police station, the YMCA and the Boys and Girls Club, to name a few of his beneficiaries.
Tanya Benosky, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club, said Pomerleau has entirely funded the organization’s Early Promise Education Program, offering college scholarships to area children. Pomerleau pledged $1 million to the program, with gifts of $100,000 yearly beginning in 2014 and continuing through 2024.
“That was our first gift of that size,” Benosky said.
This summer, Benosky said, she accompanied a 20-year-old immigrant from Kenya, Aden Haji, to lunch on Pomerleau’s yacht, docked on Burlington’s waterfront.
Haji, a senior at the University of Vermont studying anthropology, had benefited from Pomerleau’s gift to the Boys and Girls Club, and wanted to meet his benefactor.
“Mr. Pomerleau was so genuine in asking questions of Aden, sharing life lessons,” Benosky said. “It was really beautiful to see someone with 100 years of life experience talking to someone who is 20 years old and having them both enjoy it.”
Tony Pomerleau says, “I started with nothing.”
He was born in Marbleton, Quebec. When he was six months old, his father, Ernest, moved the family to a 25-cow farm in Barton. Pomerleau took a terrible fall when he was 3 years old, into a cellar hole, and spent about six years, he says, in “cast iron,” a kind of metal corset to keep his body straight as he grew.
“The doctor said I might live to 10 years old,” Pomerleau said. “They’re all dead and I’m still alive. Whether you believe in miracles or not, I had one.”
In 1927, the barn burned down on the farm in Barton and Pomerleau’s father moved the family to Newport, the town that claims him as a native son.
Pomerleau was 12 years old when the Great Depression began in 1929. He had already been working for several years, selling popcorn for 5 cents a bag and packing potatoes up and down two flights of stairs at a local grocery store. He also had a lawn mowing service.
He went to work for J.J. Newberry, a five-and-dime store in Newport, and showed a talent for window dressing. The manager noticed, as Pomerleau recalls.
“He says, ‘You can create a window better than I do,'” Pomerleau remembered. “And he says, ‘I spoke to the company this morning. If you want to take the windows every night and Saturday work downstairs as a stock boy, we’ll give you $10 a week.'”
That was a good salary, especially for a 13-year-old boy. The manager only made $25 a week, Pomerleau said. Pomerleau did J.J. Newberry’s windows every night until he was 17 years old, learning an important lesson.
“The success of my life today was because I realized you got to see things to buy things,” he said, quoting yet another of his mottoes.
From J.J. Newberry, Pomerleau moved on to Endicott Johnson, a national chain of shoe stores, and made his mark there as well, increasing sales by double digits in every store he managed. How? By displaying the shoes in a way they had not previously been displayed.
In 1942, Endicott Johnson sent Pomerleau to Burlington to take over its flagship store, but he decided to go into business for himself. Pomerleau said he sold his car for $1,200, borrowed $3,000 and opened a small grocery store at the intersection of North Union and North streets.
Pomerleau went on to own four grocery stores, then sold them and went into the wholesale beer and soda business.
“In 1951 I sold out and I got a pretty good price,” Pomerleau said. “Timing again.”
Next Pomerleau built Vermont’s first shopping center. He formed a partnership with Burlington builder William Hauke to develop the Ethan Allen Shopping Center on North Avenue, a few blocks south of Pomerleau’s home at the time.
When Sen. Bernie Sanders ran as a Progressive for mayor of Burlington in 1980, he ran “very strongly” against Pomerleau’s controversial proposal to build a waterfront development that included a 100-boat marina, 100 condominiums and a 70,000-square-foot shopping center on 12 acres.
Sanders’ position on the waterfront development cast him as an adversary of Pomerleau’s.
A few days after Sanders won the mayorship, Pomerleau, a lifelong Republican, visited him in City Hall and told him he loved the city and wanted to work with Sanders in any way he could, Sanders said.
“That’s what he said, and that’s what he did,” Sanders said earlier this month.
Sanders first put Pomerleau in charge of a committee evaluating a proposal to build a trash-burning plant in Burlington, a proposal the former mayor, Gordon Paquette, had supported.
“Tony came forward with a proposal we should not go ahead with the trash burning plant and history proved him right,” Sanders said.
Sanders continued to work with Pomerleau on various issues..
“I got to like him,” Sanders said. “He’s a very down to earth, decent human being. We got along well then and we’re still good friends today.”
“There is a reason Tony is such a successful businessman,” Sanders said. “He is very, very smart. An incredibly quick mind.”
Pomerleau and his wife, Rita, had 10 children, eight girls and two boys. He notes he has a great-grandson “100 years younger than me,” born this year. Another great-grandson was born last year.
Two of Pomerleau’s daughters, Ellen and Anne Marie, died of cancer as adults. For the past five years, he has been dealing with another tragedy. Rita, his wife of 71 years, has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Pomerleau pays for 24-hour care at home.
Pomerleau’s wife does not recognize him. But every day starting at 4 p.m., he spends two hours holding her hand and talking to her.
“A lot of times she squeezes my hand. She’s still very attractive, see her picture there,” Pomerleau says, pointing to a wall of family photos behind him. “We had a very, very successful life. We’d had that same successful life whether I made money or not.”
Information from: The Burlington Free Press, http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com