Left in Bankruptcy’s Wake: Some Who Loaned Andrew Button Money Now Lament Trusting Him
Technicians Roland St. Sauveur, left, and Jeff Hamel look over a car at Dean Hill Saab Service in Charlestown earlier this month. Both lost their jobs when Andrew Button’s Dean Hill Saab dealership abruptly closed in 2006. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Shelley Gilbert, a prominent area real estate agent, lost $600,000 investing in Andrew Button’s five car dealerships in 2004. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Roland St. Sauveur on the computer at his shop, Dean Hill Saab Service in Charlestown. St. Sauveur had started working at the original Saab dealership as a teenager in the 1970s. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Shelly Gilbert, a prominent area real estate agent, lost $600,000 investing in Andrew Button’s five car dealerships in 2004. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Ten years ago, it would have been difficult to find a bigger golden boy in the Upper Valley than Andrew Button. He was on his way to owning five car dealerships. He accumulated real estate like he was playing Monopoly. Mascoma Savings Bank was loaning millions to his business ventures. Individuals were writing him six-figure checks. He flew airplanes and belonged to an exclusive private golf club.
And he hadn’t turned 35.
“When you looked at what he was doing, you had to admire him. He was so young,” said Shelley Gilbert, a Hanover Realtor. “You kind of wanted in on it.”
She wasn’t alone.
By the time Button filed for bankruptcy in October 2006, he owed creditors more than $10 million. In April 2012, when Button’s bankruptcy became final, his five car dealerships had long been shuttered or sold. His real estate portfolio had been wiped out, with many of his properties, including his home in Wilder, taken back by lenders.
Button, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed for this story. But the tale of his rapid rise and fall unfolds in hundreds of pages of court documents that his U.S. Bankruptcy Court case generated over six years. The Valley News also reviewed other civil suits and divorce proceedings involving Button, as well as interviewing former employees and other people who had business dealings with him.
Button, who is now 43, has rejuvenated his business career. In 2011, he became president of Yankee Barn Homes, a post-and-beam company in Grantham that markets itself nationally and in Canada.
But the financial wreckage and ruined relationships that Button left in his wake haven’t healed. Some former employees who lost their livelihood and private investors who combined lost millions haven’t forgotten the havoc he raised in their lives or the promises he broke.
Shelley Gilbert is one of those people.
In 2003, a friend called Gilbert to tell her about a guy she had met at a party. His name was Andy Button. He was looking to make some real estate investments.
Gilbert could certainly help, the friend had told Button. A person would be hard-pressed to find anyone more successful at the real estate game in the Upper Valley than Gilbert. She sells 100 or so properties annually. Year in and year out, her gross sales figures place her among Coldwell Banker’s top 1 percent of agents nationally.
After meeting, Gilbert and Button learned they had something in common. Both had graduated from Hanover High School. She in 1977; he in 1988.
Gilbert sold Button a $600,000 house in Hanover, a $260,000 condo in Wilder and two building lots in Grantham. They were easy sales. “Every time he wanted to buy another property, he came up with financing, instantly,” said Gilbert.
She threw business his way, too, recommending his dealerships to friends and business associates. When her car — a new Volkswagen that she bought from his dealership in Keene — needed servicing, Button arranged for it to be picked up and dropped off at her Hanover office. He provided her with a loaner while her car was in the shop. “He made life real easy for me,” she said.
They saw each other, socially. Lunches and dinners. He wore crisply pressed white button-down shirts and a Rolex. On weekends, Gilbert joined Button at Montcalm Golf Club, where he was a member. (Currently, an annual membership at the club costs around $6,000.) She liked that he didn’t take golf too seriously. If he shanked a drive or hit a ground ball, he laughed.
One day, after they finished playing, Gilbert mentioned that she needed to get home to do yard work. Let me help you, he said. He mowed her lawn.
“He’s not at all what you’d expect,” said Gilbert. “He’s not extremely good looking or slick. When you meet him, he’s like the boy next door. He makes you feel like you’re his best friend.”
Gilbert, who was single, said their relationship didn’t go beyond the friendship stage. Button was married in October 2002 in Stowe, Vt., but it didn’t last. Even when he was married, Button spent much of his time tending to his car dealerships in Keene and the Upper Valley, while his wife, Carol, lived at their home on Lake Champlain.
Gilbert and Button joked about their 10-year age gap. “There was no romantic interest at all from either side,” she said. “He was really like another brother to me.”
A Button family tragedy brought them even closer. In 2004, a few days into the new year, Button’s father, Henry, killed himself. Gilbert was one of the few people, Andy told her, who understood what he was dealing with. In 1993, Gilbert’s husband had died by suicide. Button used that connection “as a way to deepen our friendship,” she said.
They were good enough friends that they could talk about almost anything, including personal finances. Gilbert mentioned in 2004 that she had just finished paying off the mortgage on her house in Hanover. (The house and 10 acres is assessed at $601,300, according to town property tax records.)
The Upper Valley real estate market boom in the early 2000s had been good to her. Starting in 2001, Gilbert was recognized as Coldwell Banker’s top sales agent in New Hampshire for six straight years.
But Gilbert tended to be cautious with money, a product of her middle-class upbringing. Her parents owned an ice cream shop in Hanover. Starting in real estate when she was in her early 20s, Gilbert worked days, evenings and weekends for nearly 20 years. She made enough to buy her parents a house in Florida and another in Vermont. With no children of her own, she made plans to contribute to the college educations of her five nieces and nephews. “I worked hard, so I could do things for my family and myself,” she said.
As she approached her mid-40s, Gilbert’s goal was to sock away enough money to retire at 50. Button kept reminding her that she was crazy not to take advantage of the good times that much of the Upper Valley was enjoying. He talked about how she could work less by making her money work harder. “With the kind of money you make, you should be earning a lot more on your investments,” she recalled him telling her.
Button showed her financial information on his car dealerships. He shared 10 pages of cash flow projections and financial forecasts for 2004 through 2007. He projected the five dealerships would have more than $90 million in total revenues and a combined $13 million in “total gross profit” in 2007.
Gilbert was impressed. Besides, she asked herself, “If banks were loaning him all this money, why wouldn’t I?”
In the fall of 2004, Gilbert withdrew $300,000 from her investment account at Merrill Lynch to give Button. A few weeks later, she completed the paperwork to obtain an additional $350,000 through a home equity line of credit. Button met her at the bank. Before leaving, she gave him a check for the entire $350,000.
On Nov. 4, 2004, Button signed a promissory note that he had drawn up. In exchange for the $650,000 loan, Button agreed to repay Gilbert at an interest rate of 12 percent, three times the rate that U.S. Treasury notes were paying back then. Starting in February 2005, Button promised to send her monthly installments of $50,000, plus interest, until the loan was paid off, the note stated.
For making a 13-month loan of $650,000 to her “best pal,” Gilbert stood to earn more than $70,000 in interest payments. “I thought I was helping a friend and making a good investment at the same time.”
Gilbert thought she knew a lot about Button — enough to trust him with a sizable portion of her nest egg.
By his early 20s, Button had dropped out of college. He took flying lessons and later became a flight instructor at Lebanon Municipal Airport, which helped his business career take off. He earned his commercial pilot’s license and at age 27, bought a private charter service with his father, Henry, that operated out of Burlington. (Henry Button was married to a physician, Christine Rowe-Button, of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., who helped finance her husband’s and stepson’s business ventures.)
In 2002, the Buttons sold Heritage Flight to Robert Stiller, who had started Green Mountain Roasters, the coffee company. Andrew Button, who by now was in his early 30s, and his father then turned their attention from planes to automobiles. By the end of 2003, they owned three dealerships, including Dean Hill Motors in Charlestown.
Meanwhile, Andrew Button started making himself known in the area’s upper crust social circles. At one event, a charity auction to benefit Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, he placed the high bid on a $10,000 vacation package to a villa in Provence, France.
He also seemed determined to raise the profile of his company, Button Automotive Group. In December 2004, less than a year after his father’s death, he signed a five-year lease with Dartmouth College to move the company headquarters to the upscale Centerra business park in Lebanon. Before the move, the college agreed to spend up to $165,000 to renovate the offices to Button’s liking. The reception area featured cherry woodwork and granite counter tops. The new digs also included a kitchen and a small shower room.
At Button’s invitation, Howard Myers, his lawyer, moved his practice into the company headquarters in the spring 2005. Carolyn Cole, a Cornish lawyer who worked for Myers, joined him at Centerra.
Around that time, Michael Luciano, the chief operating officer for Button’s company, came to Cole with a business proposition: Button Automotive Group was in the process of refinancing the real estate for its Saab dealership in White River Junction with Lake Sunapee Bank. (The Buttons had moved the dealership from Charlestown to a new building on Ballardvale Drive in late 2003.) The company needed cash to purchase used vehicles to re-sell at the Saab dealership, Luciano told Cole, according to court records. Luciano asked Cole if she’d consider providing a $300,000 short-term loan, which would be secured by the equity in three homes that Button owned.
After talking with Myers, Cole made the loan. In August 2005, Cole invested an additional $250,000, so the Saab dealership could buy more used vehicles. For the loan’s collateral, Cole was offered a house in downtown Woodstock, which she was told had more than $300,000 in equity.
On Sept. 17, 2005, Cole informed Button that the first note for $300,000 was due. He told her that the refinancing with Lake Sunapee Bank had fallen through. Cole agreed to extend the loan for a few months.
A few weeks later, Cole was at work, when she came across documents left on the office’s copy machine. That’s how Cole learned that Button was seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for his Saab dealership.
Cole called Myers’ cell phone. He was driving back with Button from Concord, where Button had just filed for Chapter 11 protection, which allows troubled companies to reorganize while shielding them from creditors.
Myers told Cole that he still believed her money was safe. In a later conversation, Myers also revealed to her that he had made a personal loan of $150,000 to Button earlier to help the company get over a “financial hump.”
But shortly thereafter, Cole discovered a problem with the four homes that Button had put up as security for her loans: She wasn’t the only one with a claim. Button acknowledged in an email to Cole in the fall of 2005 that he had “kept these mortgages to use as collateral to another lender.”
In a recent interview, Myers said he was unaware what Button was up to. “I didn’t know all of his business dealings,” said Myers. “I wasn’t part of the real inner circle.”
As new collateral, Button offered Cole a mortgage on two parcels on Route 120 in Lebanon that he had acquired in his $2 million purchase of the former Smith Auto Sales.
On Nov. 11, 2005, Button reached a new loan agreement with Cole. It called for him to make monthly interest payments of $6,875 to Cole for one year. Except for the months of November and December, when in lieu of receiving interest payments Cole could use the French villa “vacation package” that Button had won at the DHMC charity auction.
“Andy was a guy who made all kinds of deals,” said Myers.
Roland St. Sauveur had a front row seat to Button’s rise and fall. He started working at Dean Hill as a teenager in the early 1970s (Raymond Lemieux, who sold the dealership to Button, is his uncle) and advanced through the automotive repair ranks to become a Saab master technician.
St. Sauveur, now 57, had a bad feeling about Button from the beginning “The only time he’d talk to you was if he needed something from you,” said St. Sauveur
Button didn’t seem to know much about the car business, said St. Sauveur. The new location in White River Junction for the Saab dealership was hard to find, hidden behind a gas station and three hotels at the end of a dead-end street off Route 5. (It’s now the headquarters and warehouse for Ibex Outdoor Clothing.)
He brought an attitude that just about anyone could repair cars, according to St. Sauveur. “I think he got some of his techs from Jiffy Lube.”
In late 2003, while walking through the dealership’s repair shop, Henry Button approached St. Sauveur. “Do me a favor,” he asked, “look after my son.”
A few days into 2004, Henry Button killed himself. That left his son solely in charge of the business.
Employees had little confidence that Andrew Button was up to the task. They began referring to the dealership as “Downhill Saab,” said St. Sauveur.
Before the Buttons bought the business, employees received end-of-the-year bonus checks, said St. Sauveur. “Andy didn’t believe in them,” he said.
Instead, at Christmas-time, the service manager handed out small hams. Meanwhile, according to court records, Button received $250,000 in wages in 2004. The next year, he made $222,320.
Longtime Dean Hill employees, including St. Sauveur’s brother, jumped ship when they had a chance. In January 2006, Mike St. Sauveur, a technician, left for a dealership in Springfield, Vt., after experiencing troubles with Dean Hill’s health insurance plan, which cost him $60 a week in premiums for family coverage. Medical bills that St. Sauveur thought were covered weren’t getting paid by the insurance company. He went to Button to ask him why that might be happening. “I never got a straight answer from him,” said St. Sauveur.
Employees’ suspicions that Button was in financial trouble grew when Mascoma Savings Bank, which had loaned more than $3 million to his businesses, set up an office at the Saab dealership.
In what is known in the car business as a “floor plan,” dealers pay off a portion of their bank loan each time a vehicle is sold. But Button had gone “out of trust,”meaning the bank wasn’t getting paid every time a car was sold, Mascoma alleged in a December 2006 lawsuit filing.
To protect its investment, Mascoma Bank stationed one of its employees inside the Saab dealership. Any time a potential buyer asked to take a car for a test drive, the sales staff visited Mascoma’s “key man.” He kept the keys to the cars on the lot to make sure none were sold without the bank’s knowledge.
In early May 2006, Roland St. Sauveur was working alone in the repair shop on a Saturday when a truck backed up to the doors and movers carted off the showroom’s big-screen TV.
A few days later, after Mascoma Savings had obtained a temporary restraining order that effectively prohibited the Saab dealership from selling cars, employees learned the business was closing. “We were worried that the sheriff was going to close the doors before we could get our tool boxes out,” said St. Sauveur.
Employees in the repair shop weren’t paid for their last few days of work, said Jeff Hamel, a former Dean Hill technician. They also lost vacation time that they had accrued.
“He used a lot of people,” said St. Sauveur. “Anyone who dealt with that man got burned.”
As their agreement called for, Gilbert, the Hanover Realtor, received a check for $50,000, plus interest, in February 2005. But when the next payment came due, Button acknowledged to Gilbert that his company was having cash-flow difficulties, and he didn’t have the money to repay her as scheduled. “It’s coming, it’s coming,” Button assured her.
Weeks passed. Still no check. But Gilbert wasn’t extremely worried about the $600,000 that Button owed her. “We were buddies,” she said.
Then Button stopped calling her. When Gilbert called him, he wouldn’t take her calls. She visited Button’s dealerships, but was told he was not in or unavailable.
Cole took another tack.
In January 2006, Button told Cole that he couldn’t repay her and that he was filing for “bankruptcy protection.” The next day, she filed a lawsuit against him in Windsor County Superior Court.
In the suit, Cole alleged that she had been misled about where the $550,000 that she had loaned was going. The money didn’t buy used vehicles to re-sell. The first loan of $300,000 was used to pay off a debt to General Motors. The second loan of $250,000 was used to “pay off one of Andrew Button’s personal friends who had loaned him money,” stated the lawsuit.
One week after filing the suit, Cole returned to the courthouse in Woodstock. This time, she filed a motion asking that her suit be dismissed “as the matter has been completely resolved.”
It was her belief, Cole stated in the court filing, that neither Button nor “many of his employees” had given Myers “honest or accurate information with respect to the financial activities of the various Button entities.”
Cole didn’t say in the suit how the matter was resolved. But in a recent interview, Myers explained. Some of the $550,000 that was returned to Cole came from Button’s sale of the former Smith Auto in Lebanon to Miller Auto Group in February 2006, Myers said. The rest?
“I paid,” said Myers, not giving a dollar figure but acknowledging that it was a “significant amount.”
Myers said he paid the money to Cole “out of a sense of honor. I was responsible for introducing her to Andy Button. I was going to make sure that she wasn’t harmed. I felt that I needed to make her whole.”
In October 2006, Button filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would lead to a total liquidation of his assets. “The entire purpose behind the bankruptcy code is to give somebody a fresh start,” said Michelle Kainen, a White River Junction bankruptcy lawyer who was not involved in Button’s case. “The idea is that you can make mistakes, and it doesn’t define the rest of your life.”
It took nearly six years for Button’s case to wind its way through the bankruptcy court system. During that time, Button tried his hand at running a mattress factory outlet store in Claremont. The building, which Button didn’t own, was destroyed in a large nighttime fire in November 2007. Authorities ruled the fire accidental.
He also remarried. Ten months after his first divorce was finalized and a month after he filed for bankruptcy, Button married Jennifer Noll, a veterinarian whose parents live in Lyme. Noll, a Yale graduate, and Button started a company called GFA Products, which imported bed frames.
Button and Noll divorced last year. As part of the settlement, Button agreed to assume a $195,000 note still due to her parents. Button is supposed to start repaying Walter and Joyce Noll this year. Walter Noll, a retired DHMC pathologist, declined to comment.
The company, GFA Products, also owes $75,000 to Jennifer Noll, according to divorce records. She didn’t respond to phone messages or emails.
Two years after starting GFA Products, Button took a sales position with Yankee Barn Homes, which was founded in 1969. The nationwide real estate slump that began around 2008 took a toll on the company. In 2011, Yankee Barn shut down briefly. Woodsville Guaranty Savings Bank, which had a lien on the company’s assets, sold Yankee Barn in September 2011 to Paul Marinelli, of Hartland.
Button is now president and general manager of Yankee Barn, but he doesn’t have an ownership interest in the company, said his lawyer, Peter Tamposi, of Nashua.
Marinelli, through his lawyer, declined to be interviewed about Button’s role with his company. In a statement that Nashua lawyer Scott Flegal emailed to the Valley News , Marinelli said, “I have known Andy Button for a number of years. I consider him a friend. I am aware of Andy’s past successes and his failures. They have no bearing on our present endeavor at Yankee Barn Homes whatsoever.”
In May, the Valley News published a story in its Sunday business section about Yankee Barn’s turnaround with Button at the helm. The company is building 25 homes a year, he said. Yankee Barn has 20 employees with annual sales of $5 million. In June, Yankee Barn opened a sales office in Maryland. Michael Schmell, who was once part of Button Automotive Group’s leadership team, has joined his former boss at Yankee Barn, where he’s the design manager.
“The company is back here to stay,” said Button in an interview for the May 5 story. “The community couldn’t have been more supportive. We have loyal employees who have been tremendous through all of this. Now, we have a great opportunity to grow and expand. I plan to put in a full career here.”
In a sidebar to the story on Yankee Barn, Button said he “learned a lot” from his earlier experience. “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.
“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.”
Not everyone who worked with Button or loaned him money is buying that self-portrait.
“When I read that story, I wanted to puke,” said Mike St. Sauveur, the former Dean Hill technician.
After Dean Hill Saab abruptly closed in May 2006 about 20 employees found themselves out of work. “When you get hit in the head with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, it takes you a while to get used to it,” Lennie Veilleux, who worked in the service department, said in an interview back then.
Roland St. Sauveur, who had 25 years of experience repairing Saabs at the time of Dean Hill’s closure, was among the fortunate. He found a job right off with the Saab dealership in Concord, although it required him to make a daily commute from Claremont.
A couple of times, he spotted Button in the service department’s waiting room. When the two men came face to face, Button didn’t say a word. “He’s not the kind of guy who would ever apologize for anything,” said St. Sauveur.
Shelley Gilbert hasn’t spoken to Button in years. As part of Button’s bankruptcy proceedings, she filed a claim for $600,000. When the bankruptcy became final last April, she received a check for $386.
Raymond Lemieux, the previous owner of Dean Hill Motors, filed a claim for $650,000. He received $418. (Lemieux declined to be interviewed for this story.)
Mascoma Bank’s claim was for $2.1 million. It got back $1,380. The loss was among the largest the bank has suffered in its 114-year history, Chief Operating Officer Barry McCabe said in an interview.
McCabe, who is a private pilot, had met Button at the Lebanon airport, but didn’t know him socially. When Button approached the bank about helping finance his operation, he wasn’t an unknown quantity. “He was a native; people knew him,” said McCabe. “People knew that he had gone to Burlington, and with his father had been very successful with a business there.”
Mascoma conducted a “post-mortem” to determine if “we missed something” prior to approving the loans, said McCabe, but the internal investigation didn’t turn up any red flags.
At the time of Button’s personal bankruptcy filing in 2006, Howard Myers was listed as an unsecured creditor who was owed $450,000. However, when it came time to file an official claim, Myers didn’t submit the paperwork. “There was no sense,” he said in an interview. “I knew he didn’t have the money. I’ve washed my hands of Andrew Button.”
Myers is a 1965 Dartmouth graduate and earned his law degree from Columbia University. A former state and federal prosecutor, he’s spent some of his time in private practice representing auto manufacturers in product liability suits. He successfully defended Saab in a multmillion-dollar suit in the 1990s, a case that required him to visit the company’s Swedish headquarters multiple times. He drove Saabs.
When he met Button, “I was excited about representing a local Saab dealer. I wanted the business to succeed, but I didn’t look at things as closely as I should have. Andy could be very charming. He charmed the banks, and he charmed a lot of individuals as well as me.”
Myers wouldn’t go into details. “As much as I may not respect Mr. Button, I have to respect the (attorney) rules of professional conduct,” he said. “This is a chapter of my life that I’m not proud of. It’s painful to remember.”
Myers has a second-floor office in a small complex in Lebanon. Cole, who didn’t respond to interview requests, is no longer part of his practice. Roland St. Sauveur opened his own a Saab repair shop in Charlestown 31/2 years ago at the site of the old Dean Hill Motors. Jeff Hamel works for him. “Button destroyed Dean Hill Motors, but we’re still repairing all Saabs ever built,” said St. Sauveur.
Shelley Gilbert continues to sell real estate in Hanover. She’s stopped waiting for Button to call.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.