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President: ‘I Learned a Lot’ From Saab Debacle

Grantham — After he graduated from Hanover High School, Andrew Button gave college a try, but it didn’t work out.

What he really wanted to do was to fly airplanes, so he learned how, got licensed and became an accomplished pilot. He got a job in Burlington with Valley Air Service. He flew jets and other aircraft. He was 23.

Being a pilot suited him, and eventually he and his father, who also was a pilot, got an opportunity to buy the company. That suited him too. He was 27, personable and a good salesman with a solid understanding of the business of providing private passenger flights out of the state’s largest city. They changed the name to Heritage Flight, and the air service grew.

In early 2001, Button and his father sold Heritage’s fuel service. It was a good move. Then came the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and he thought no one will ever fly again. He believed they’d made a big mistake buying an air service, but he was wrong. While commercial flights dropped off after the Twin Towers and Pentagon were hit by hijacked airliners, “people felt safer taking private jets,” he said during a recent interview.

The next year, he and his father sold the business to Robert Stiller, who had started Green Mountain Roasters. They did well and made a lot of money. Button was 33. He was still young, lucky and willing jump back into a new venture, he said.

Dean Hill Motors in Claremont had been around for 34 years — a year longer than he had — and it was up for sale in January 2003. Button and his father decided to put their money into the Saab dealership, which had sales of around $8 million a year.

Button Automotive Group was formed, and the partners moved quickly. They acquired four other dealerships in Lebanon, White River Junction and Keene, N.H., all under the Dean Hill brand. Sales took off, hitting $80 million.

Later in 2003, Button moved the Saab dealership and its employees from Claremont into a new building in White River Junction. Business was great for a year.

Then, in January 2004, his father died suddenly. “Things started to go south after that,” Button said.

In January 2003, Button had a $2 million line of credit, called a “floor plan,” with Mascoma Savings Bank. A little more than a year later, he needed another million. The floor plan required Button to pay the bank every time he sold a car, an arrangement that encouraged a rapid turnover of inventory.

By 2005, sales had dropped at Saab and elsewhere. Mascoma accused Button of violating the agreement by selling cars without paying the bank for them . Button filed for bankruptcy in October 2005 to buy some time to reorganize and find another bank to back his floor plan. After all, sales were picking up and the company was beginning to show a profit.

But help didn’t come. He closed Dean Hill Mazda in White River Junction in December 2005, sold the Keene dealership in January 2006 and sold the Lebanon Buick-Pontiac-GMC dealership to Miller Auto Group that February in hopes of keeping Saab going. But that dealership closed in May 2006 after Mascoma gained a restraining order to prevent Dean Hill from selling Saabs. The 22 employees, who were led to believe the dealership was righting itself, were out of work.

In September, a little more than 31/2 years after he’d gotten into the car business, Button was in Vermont District Court, pleading no contest to criminal charges that he sold two cars that the dealership technically didn’t own. Button was placed on probation for a year.

The dealership actually sold 27 Saabs that were collateral on a $500,000 loan without paying Mascoma. Some $20,000 more in taxes and registration fees were collected and not sent to the DMV, according to court records.

Most of the money was paid eventually, except for $40,000 from two cars sold to customers in Etna and Lebanon, and charges were filed in those cases.

In court records, Button, then 36, said he took the money because he needed to pay $100,000 in legal fees. He also said he repaid the $40,000 with money he borrowed from his mother, who took the funds from her retirement account.

“I was young, and I really didn’t think I wouldn’t make money. That’s no excuse. I’m responsible for everything that I’ve done, and I’m very, very sorry. I hurt some people and cost jobs, and I’m really sorry about that. It just got out of hand.”

After Dean Hill, Button dropped out of sight. “I lost everything. The bank took my house,” he said during the recent interview.

He and his wife moved to Grantham and made a living from a small home business importing products made of scrap metal. “If you don’t have a lot, you don’t need to make a lot of money,” he said

By 2009, he’d gotten to know Tony Hanslin, who owned Yankee Barn Homes. Hanslin offered him a position selling the houses, a job that suited him well. Button became president of the company in the fall of 2011.

“I learned a lot from my experience (with Dean Hill),” he said.

“I’m not happy with what I’ve done. But out of it, I’ve gained wisdom. I learned that making a lot of money isn’t that important. Other things, like family, friends and health, mean a lot more. I’m a very different person now.”

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