This August, as I do every August, I hit the Church Street Marketplace for the Sidewalk Sale, a five-day shopping extravaganza. This year, I walked away with a new butter knife for 99 cents and a couple of throw pillows at two bucks a pop. Woo-hoo.
Which brings me to Michael Kehoe — not the man himself (a Queen City legend), but his namesake men's clothing store, located in downtown Burlington, right in the heart of the marketplace. The merchandise purveyed in this old-school haberdashery is a step above every other menswear shop in the area, with each item evincing timeless sophistication and uncompromising quality. In a word, the clothes are exquisite.
For the sidewalk sale, Michael Kehoe put out a couple of racks of cotton shirts marked at the cut-rate price of $99. "Regularly $149-$268," the sign read. Don't get me wrong: The shirts all looked gorgeous and were surely worth every penny. But I don't live in a universe where I can plunk down $99 on a single shirt, let alone $149 or $268.
That universe does exist, obvi. I get the opportunity to visit with its denizens most commonly when I pick up a taxi customer at the Vermont National Country Club in South Burlington. Since opening some 20 years ago, it quickly established itself as the place where the local elite meet, tweet and overeat. (And play golf.)
When I pulled up to the club entrance on a mild mid-September evening, the man waiting outside for me appeared decked out in full Michael Kehoe gear: an impeccable plaid cotton shirt, nifty tan shorts and the kind of bespoke boat shoes favored by folks who own big boats, if not yachts.
"So, you're going to Boulder Hill off Webster Road?" I asked as he buckled up in the shotgun seat.
"That's the place," he replied. "I'm Steve, by the way. Thanks for coming to get me. I had a few too many and didn't want to drive."
I introduced myself, and we shook on it. "That's a nice development you live in," I mentioned as we pulled out.
"Oh, I don't live there. I'm up here visiting and staying with a friend. I live full time on Marco Island in Florida now. I do miss Vermont, especially this time of year."
"Are you still working, or are you retired? You actually look a little young for that, but you know, moving to the Sunshine State — that's a telling bit of evidence."
Steve chuckled and said, "Well, you're correct — I am indeed retired. I sold my medical software business about seven years ago."
"Good for you, man. Did you do well with it?"
"I did, and — what the heck — I'll tell you the whole story. I sold it to a private equity firm that, when they purchase a company, requires the seller to put some of his or her own money into the ongoing business entity after the sale is complete as a sign of good faith. At least, that's how I read it. Anyway, I initially offered to ante up a quarter of a million.
"They said, 'Well, our decision whether to buy might hinge on how much you put in.' I thought about it and said, 'OK, I'll put in a million,' and the sale went through.
"That turned out to be the best financial decision I ever made, because a few years later, they resold the business at five times the price they had paid me."
I quickly did the math in my head. Five times a million equals five million, plus whatever they paid him originally. I guess he can shop at Michael Kehoe, I thought.
"So, Steve, what was your key strength that allowed you to build such a successful business? Like, was it the technical aspect, or marketing skills, perhaps financial acumen?"
"These are very acute questions," he said smiling. "You must know a thing or two about business."
"Well, as I often say, my knowledge is a mile wide, which allows me to talk with at least a modicum of intelligence about most everything. Sadly, it's also about an inch deep, so go easy on me."
"So, to answer your question," he said, "my strength lies in the people skills. I'm pretty good at developing talent and mentoring. To me, that's at the core of any successful company. For the other stuff, you can always bring in experts."
"I'm not surprised. I could see that. So, what do you do now with your life? You seem like a creative guy. I can't picture you hanging out in some Gulf Coast cabana drinking margaritas all day. You gotta volunteer somewhere and put your skills to some positive use."
"I am going a little nuts, to tell you the truth, although I do appreciate a good margarita. I'm actually mentoring a few young entrepreneurs, both up here and down in Florida."
"That's great, man. It must be gratifying."
When we arrived at his friend's house, Steve asked me if I take credit cards. "Sure," I replied. "If you don't have cash, I could take a card." (My motto is "Cash is king." I didn't coin it.)
"Let me see how much cash I have," he said. "What do I owe you?"
"Twenty-five dollars," I replied.
"Oh, shit," he said, taking out a silver money clip. "Can you split a hundred? That's all I got."
"Lemme check," I said, extracting my own wad from my shirt pocket. "Sorry, I only got — let's see — $42. So, I can run your card."
"No, that won't be necessary, Jernigan," he said, peeling off and passing me a crisp Benjamin. "The 42 will work fine. You provide a great service, and I appreciate it."
That worked out to a $33 tip on the $25 fare. I felt like the humble beneficiary of a modern-day form of noblesse oblige.
That generous gratuity will finance two Sears or JCPenney shirts, I thought as I drove back toward town. Or three at Walmart.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.