Jim Kenyon: Andy Sigler saw success, but also saw the little guy


Valley News Columnist

Published: 07-13-2021 9:34 PM

Andy Sigler was a captain of industry who earned millions as the CEO of Champion International, once the largest forest products company in the U.S. that made everything from plywood to copier paper.

In 1984, after he stepped in to save a competitor from a hostile takeover by billionaire Rupert Murdoch, Sigler was described in The New York Times as a “white knight” and “one of corporate America’s premier nonconformists.”

Over the years, Sigler served on the boards of General Electric, Bristol-Meyers, Morgan Stanley, John Deere and Dartmouth College, his alma mater.

No doubt, he was a big deal in the business world.

But that’s not the Andy Sigler whom I came to know after he and his wife, Peggy, retired to Norwich in 1996.

I respected Sigler, who died Sunday at age 89, the most for what he did for a small-time trucker from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom 15 years ago.

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By that time, the Siglers had started Norwich Farms, a state-of-the-art dairy operation on Turnpike Road. In February 2006, Jimmy Eastman, of Irasburg, Vt., was delivering a load of sawdust to the farm, a few miles outside of the village, when Norwich police pulled him over.

After weighing Eastman’s rig on the town’s new truck scales, Norwich police ticketed the trucker for carrying a load that exceeded the town’s weight limit on secondary roads without obtaining a $5 town permit ahead of time.

But it was no run-of-the-mill traffic ticket. Norwich police wanted Eastman to pay a fine totaling $11,550 — most of which, under Vermont law, would land in town coffers.

Andy Sigler had never met Eastman. And since Eastman was an independent contractor, Sigler wasn’t obligated to help him out of the legal jam.

But that’s not how Sigler saw it.

“My father loved taking on people who he thought had exceeded their authority,” said Patty Ryan, who lives in Tampa, Fla.

Sigler paid one of his lawyers, Geoffrey Vitt, of Norwich, to represent Eastman. After an initial court hearing — but before a judge decided the case — Norwich police agreed to reduce Eastman’s ticket to $56 — or roughly $11,500 less than the original amount.

Before the commotion ended, Norwich had mothballed its truck scales, and the Selectboard, acting on the wishes of Town Meeting voters, also eliminated the police department position in charge of enforcing restrictions on overweight trucks.

Some Norwich officials blamed Sigler for pressing the issue. But he was a thorn in their side long before the police encounter with a sawdust truck.

Much to the dismay of the town’s listers, Norwich Farms was set up as a charitable foundation, making it exempt from local property taxes.

The farm, which featured prized Holsteins, hosted agricultural students from the University of New Hampshire and Vermont Technical College, who used it as a farming laboratory, of sorts.

Although not required by law, Sigler was willing to make an annual payment to the town in lieu of taxes.

“Andy made a very generous offer, and the town turned it down,” Vitt told me Monday.

The case went all the way the Vermont Supreme Court, which in 2002 decided unanimously in the Siglers’ favor. The court ruled the farm’s work in education served a “public interest” and was fulfilling its mission to “encourage the preservation, survival and advancement of dairy farms in New England.”

In 2015, the Siglers donated the farm to Vermont Tech. They contributed an adjoining 350 acres, most of which was forest land, that Vermont Tech then sold to the Upper Valley Land Trust.

Jeanie McIntyre, the land trust’s longtime president, worked closely with Sigler on ensuring the land was preserved. “He understood a healthy forest takes decades of thoughtful care,” McIntyre said. “He appreciated nature and knew what was involved in being a good steward of the land.”

Norwich Farm (the “s” was dropped from its name a while back) is now the subject of a dispute between Vermont Tech and its tenant, a cheesemaker. Sigler stayed clear of the controversy. “Not my problem,” he told me more than once.

In 2019, Sigler sold Montcalm Golf Club, the private 18-hole course that he built from scratch on 400 acres in a remote part of Enfield nearly 20 years ago.

“Andy loved this place,” current owner Chuck Currier said Monday. “He spared no expense in making his vision come true. But it was not all about the money for him. He wanted this course built the right way.”

As members of his golf club could attest, Sigler had his cantankerous side. I’ve heard stories of members getting tossed from the course — or the club entirely — for not abiding by his rules, including replacing fairway divots.

Some people say that Sigler could be a bully, but even his Marine Corps background didn’t make him as tough as he seemed, said Ryan, the second-oldest of the Siglers’ three children in a phone interview Monday.

When it came time to buy a new car, her father wouldn’t even attempt to negotiate a lower price with the salesman. “The guy has to make a living, too,” he’d say, a quiet nod to his starting out in sales with Champion, which he ran for 22 years.

During a business slump in January 1982, the company froze employees’ salaries. Rather than lay off any workers, Champion also cut its quarterly dividend.

When asked by the Times about the kind of shared sacrifice rarely seen in corporate America, Sigler responded, “How can I ask a secretary in St. Paul to freeze her salary when I’m paying out a dividend to the Morgan bank?”

On Monday, Peggy Sigler told me that her husband of 65 years had been suffering from advancing dementia for some time.

McIntyre, who heads the land trust and paid him regular visits, had not seen Sigler since the pandemic. “He’ll be missed,” she told me.

I already do.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.