New dealership owners went from washing cars to calling shots

MIDDLEBURY — What started in 1974 as a used-car lot across from the Middlebury A&W now includes a Ford dealership on Route 7, a commercial store on Foote Street selling trucks and heavy equipment, and a detailing and reconditioning shop back on the original site — all under the G. Stone Motors umbrella.
Along with founder Gardner Stone, now 75, two other Stones have been on the scene since day one: his children, Todd and Darcy Stone. 
“Todd and I both grew up in the dealerships,” Darcy said. “We started washing cars. Well, we thought we were washing cars. I think we made more of a mess for Dad to clean up afterwards. But when we were little kids he used to pay us 5 cents to wash a car. When he started in 1974 on his own down there Todd and I pitched in and did whatever we could to help, and we both worked in the business our entire lives.”
Gardner, sitting with both his children last week in Todd’s office on Route 7, agreed the work didn’t always get done perfectly back when Darcy, now 51, was 8 years old, and Todd, now 48, was 5.
“We used to have hose fights,” Gardner said. “Remember those?”
But over the years all three Stones have done their jobs well as G. Stone thrived and expanded, something for which all three unfailingly credit their employees.
Todd and Darcy have worked their way up through the ranks — selling cars, buying inventory and then managing the used-car department in Todd’s case, and working the front desk, keeping books and managing parts departments in Darcy’s.
And as of December, the kids own and operate the shops. Todd runs what is now a Ford store after years of selling both Fords and GM products, and Darcy operates the commercial division.
But both acknowledge that Gardner still calls some shots.
“Our opinions are sometimes totally different,” Todd said. “But at the end of the day he’s still my dad, you know. He’s the one who built the business. It’s his business until he dies, is the way I look at it. I might be the owner on paper, but he built it.”
Darcy said the trio’s family connections have benefits, both professional and personal.
“It’s just nice to be able to bounce ideas off each other and have a confidant and somebody just to release your anxiety to,” Darcy said. “You’re upset about something and you need somebody to talk to, and you don’t want to vent to the employees, so it’s nice to have the relationship that we can vent to each other and help each other out with our problems.”
Gardner said the working relationship has brought him closer to his children.
“One of the high points, working with Todd and now with Darcy … is I know exactly what he’s thinking, and he knows what I’m thinking,” hesaid. “We feed off from each other, but we can read each other like a book. And that’s great when you have that camaraderie. And I’ve got that now with my daughter.”
Back in the day, Gardner started G. Stone as a solo venture. After getting a degree in aircraft maintenance technology from Wentworth Institute in Boston, Gardner found little market for his services in his hometown of Middlebury.
“You couldn’t buy a job in 1962,” he said. “I got a job peddling milk on Lake Dunmore.”
He found graveyard-shift work at United Aircraft in Connecticut, but didn’t really enjoy it. After a stint in the Connecticut Air National Guard, Gardner opted for a career change and a return Vermont.
Gardner loved cars, decided to sell them, and went to a Rutland dealership where he had purchased a Chevrolet.
“I kept going back every other day until they finally hired me to get rid of me, knowing that I wouldn’t make it,” Gardner said. “Well, I did.”
He eventually landed in Middlebury at Beckwith Motors — it became Shea Motors and then Denecker Chevrolet. He became its truck manager and also sold high-performance cars.
But Gardner wanted to be his own boss, and started the used-car business in 1974. At that point, Hendy Brothers — now Mountain View Equipment north of the village — had the local GM franchise, but was more interested in its equipment business. Gardner liked GM products, and was interested.
“I knew Hendy Brothers was the GM dealers and they wanted out,” he said. “When I moved down across from the root beer stand it was in the back of my head maybe I could do this.”
Before long he wrote Hendy Brothers a $25,000 check, and the GM franchise went first to Route 7 South and then to the corner of Route 7 and Boardman Street, where G. Stone is now.
In early 1983, before that move could be finished, the town’s Ford dealership, Gallaudet Motors — then doing business in what is now Countryside Carpet and Paint — folded its tent. Gardner said its owner first offered him a partnership.
“I said, nope, I don’t want any partners,” he said. “I said I’m OK, I’m going to do it by myself.”
When Gallaudet closed, Ford knocked on Gardner’s door. At first he wasn’t interested enough to make a deal.
“Back in the ’50s and ’60s, I wouldn’t have gone across the street to spit on a Ford,” Gardner said. “But Ford had made a lot of inroads through the late ’70s and early ’80s. They were more listening to the customers and they were building a better product.”
Then he saw the opportunity.
“Some of the local people started coming by. ‘Gardner, are you going to take on Ford?’” Gardner said. “So now I called up the Ford guy.”
First the Ford people said, yes, but no GM. Gardner held his ground. They relented. Then the GM people were upset about sharing with Ford.
“You would have thought a bomb went off in Boston,” Gardner said. “I said this is the way it is.”
GM backed down at end of 1983 after Stone moved the GMC products to his new site. After all, he was selling plenty of their product, although gradually, and especially recently, Ford proved to be the bigger seller in one of the only dealers in the nation with both lines.
“We were GM’s fair-haired boys in the Northeast,” Gardner said.
By then Todd was a young teen and a fixture at G. Stone.
“I worked here after school, weekends, snow days. When I was younger Dad would haul me out of bed, drag me to work. I used to wash cars after school. I didn’t go to college. I went to G. Stone Motors College,” Todd said.  
After earning a diploma from Middlebury Union High School in 1987, Todd sold cars and trucks full-time. He said he never considered another option.
“I always liked cars. I liked racing and stuff. It all went kind of hand in hand,” Stone said. “I came straight to sales. It was sink or swim. It was straight commission, no guarantees. I moved out of the house when I graduated high school, got an apartment. I bought a car. I bought a snowmobile and a four-wheeler and a jet ski. And I was in debt right up to my eyebrows. And I had to sell cars. It was no gimme.”
Gardner approved of his son taking on debt.
“I encouraged him to buy everything he wanted to buy,” Gardner said. “I wanted him to be broke and hungry.”
Before too long, Darcy also came on board full-time, working her way up the ranks at G. Stone’s car dealership before taking a management position at the Foote Street commercial division in 2003. Gardner, a national-level tractor-pull competitor, explained the family attraction to the business: Todd is a regional racecar champion, and Darcy has a similar affection for cars, trucks and equipment, he said.
“We’re motorheads. I’m a motorhead. He’s a motorhead. My daughter’s a motorhead,” Gardner said. “We’re all the same.”
Of course, like in any family, disagreements crop up. Some are shrugged or laughed off, Todd said.
“Most of the time even if I disagree, if he (Gardner) wants to buy something he’s going to buy it,” Todd said. “It doesn’t matter what my opinion is, to be perfectly honest with you. It’s no different with my sister. As long was we’re not losing a bunch of money on the stuff he bought, I’m good with it. He just got four dump trucks, and my sister said to me, ‘Dad asked, Do you care if I buy them?’ Well he had already bought them.”
Other decisions trigger more serious debate, Darcy said.
“There are times we go right at it,” Darcy said. “We have our differences of opinion or whatever, and respect given back and forth. But at the end of the day he’s still my dad and I’m still his daughter and we still give each other hugs and say I love you. So I mean we’re very fortunate we can all work together, because most families can’t do that.”
More often than that, Todd and Darcy both said Gardner’s experience is a resource for them, although Darcy said at times the advice can also create some discussion.
“Dad will laugh about this, but quite a few years ago he was saying, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do that.’ And I said, ‘Dad, you need to let me make my own mistakes,’” Darcy said.
“And what did I say?” Gardner responded. “I’ve made that mistake. I know how to get out of this. Go make a different one.”
Their most recent decisions have been to build 2,620 square feet onto the back of the car dealership to add tire balancing and front-end alignments to their service menu, a proposal that just won town approval; to expand their G. Stone Make It Shine detailing business to undercoating and spray-on truck bed lining, coming in June; and to cut ties with GM.  
Retaining GM would have meant spending at least $2 million on a new building, at GM’s insistence, and creating a second sales team. Todd and Gardner disagreed at first.
“At first I had enough,” Todd said. “But he wanted to hold on, and I understood that.”
Gardner began to have second thoughts before a do-or-die decision this past October, and they sold the franchise back to GM.
“That was the hardest decision I’ve made,” he said. “But once we made the decision, it was like a thousand pounds off our shoulders.”
Already a fourth Stone has been a regular presence on Route 7: Todd’s son Justin, who sells cars and buys used vehicles for G. Stone during the summers and attends a Florida dealer development school the rest of the year. If all goes well, Justin will be at G. Stone full-time in two years.
Gardner and Todd insisted Justin faced no pressure to follow the family path.
“His mom says find something else,” Todd said. “He says, ‘I want to be in the car business.’ He loves automobiles.”
Pressure or not, Gardner is looking forward to further bonding with a new generation.
“I’m thrilled about that. Third generation,” he said.
And he couldn’t he happier about how things have gone with the second generation.
“I’m very proud to have my kids in my businesses,” Gardner said. “How many kids do want to follow their dads? They know what we go through, and the heartache we suffer, and how hard we work and so on. Why would they want to do that? But both of my kids do, and both of them are go-getters.”

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