Family owned business sold after 25 years

Jan. 15, 2009

By Greg Elias

Observer staff

Clark’s Sunoco in Williston is much more than just a gas station to its regular customers.


    Observer photo by Greg Elias
New owner Nicholas Pitt (left) stands with former owners Liz and Allen Lemieux next to the pumps at Clark’s Sunoco in Williston. Pitt and partner Amin Pothiawala bought the business last week.

The business beside Interstate 89 is also a place to chat with fellow residents, grab a sandwich for lunch or eat a creemee on a hot summer day. Not to mention an honest repair shop that can fix your brakes or replace your tires.

Since 1984, the family owned business — William and Mary Ann Clark operated it for two decades before handing it off to their daughter, Liz, and her husband, Allen Lemieux — built goodwill with their attention to customer service.

Now they are leaving.

On Friday, the couple sold the business for an undisclosed sum to a two local men. Nicholas Pitt, a product engineer with IBM from Richmond, and Amin Pothiawala, a retired IBM employee from Essex, will be the new owners.

Liz Lemieux explained why she and her husband decided to sell during an interview Monday at the business.

“I liked my job,” she said. “But there was the responsibility not just for the customers but all the employees and their families. We did it for a while and it was great. But now it’s time to move on.”

Clark’s was hit by two late-night robberies over the past few years. One suspect was armed and the other implied he had a gun.

Massachusetts-based Sunoco distributor A.R. Sandri owns the property. The lease mandated the station stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Concerned about employee safety, the couple tried to convince their landlord to change the requirement. When that failed, they lobbied the Williston Selectboard to impose limits on businesses hours. The board declined to pass an ordinance that would apply to every business in town.

The couple started looking for a buyer around that time, Liz Lemieux said. The 24-hour requirement played a role, she said, but was not the only factor in the couple’s decision to sell.

“The worst thing was just the overwhelming responsibility, because it was 24/7,” she said. “Every time the phone rang at night it was like, ‘Oh, now what?’”

Pitt promised to maintain the business largely unchanged. He said all current employees will stay on. Sara Spear will continue to operate the deli and Harland Stockwell will still repair vehicles.

Nonetheless, longtime customers bemoaned losing their beloved owners.

“It’s a sad day,” said Pete Bryant of Williston. “I really haven’t experienced a business that provides good old-fashioned service the way they did.”

Williston resident Tom Vieth said for 20 years Clark’s “has been keeping our cars and therefore our marriage running.” He has three vehicles, including a ’51 Chevy pickup that Stockwell practically adopted.

“Going there is like joining a family, except that everyone is actually glad to see you,” he said. “No other business has people so nice, happy greetings so genuine, or such reluctance to make me part with my money.”

“They’ve done a really good job of taking care of us,” said Charlie Magill, another Williston resident who has for years had his vehicles serviced at Clark’s and even programmed the number into his telephone’s speed dial. “They are just really straight shooters.”

For example, Magill said when his brakes wore out sooner than expected after they were previously serviced at Clark’s, the follow-up work was done at a discount.

Other customers recounted instances when Clark’s passed on repairs deemed too complex or just unnecessary. But it wasn’t only the honest service that the regulars worry about losing.

“My main concern is that they continue the maple creemees,” said Bryant, who has in the past brought his three children to Clark’s for the cool treats, which could be consumed at picnic tables beside the business.

In fact, the new owners plan to keep the creemees, Liz Lemieux said.

Pitt said he will continue working at IBM while operating the Sunoco station with his partner. With the uncertainty surrounding IBM’s future locally — for months, rumors have swirled that there will be more layoffs — Pitt admitted the Sunoco station could offer a Plan B for him. He also owns a coin-operated laundry in Waitsfield.

“We wanted to branch out a little bit and kind of open up new horizons,” he said.

Pitt said the Sunoco station appealed to him and his partner because of its proximity to their homes and the high-traffic location next to I-89. He also liked the customer base, a mix of Williston residents and commuters.

“It’s such a family atmosphere,” he said. “That’s what we want to maintain.”

Liz Lemieux said she and her husband will help the new owners over the next few weeks. After that, the couple — she’s 39 and he’s 40 — will finally have a chance to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. The money from the sale isn’t enough to retire, she said, but it will buy some time to explore opportunities.

Her husband said he was recently looking at old repair calendars and was overwhelmed by the number of cars and customers who had passed through the shop. They will be missed.

“We were like a family here, between the regular customers and employees,” Liz Lemieux said. “That’s the sad part about leaving, but we’re excited about the change.”