Liz Robert: Succeeding by setting up employees to succeed

Photo by Scooter MacMillan. Liz Robert biking on Greenbush Road in Charlotte.
Photo by Scooter MacMillan. Liz Robert biking on Greenbush Road in Charlotte.

A dozen years ago, Elisabeth “Liz” Robert, a rising star in Vermont’s business firmament, gave a speech to the Vermont Women’s Fund in which she praised the strong, accomplished women in her family for demonstrating that shattering glass ceilings was her birthright.

“Never at any point in my life,” she declared, “did I imagine that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted to do because I was a woman.”

Not everyone among the audience of several hundred women stood and cheered; some felt Robert hadn’t acknowledged the struggle for equal treatment and advancement — and they let the speaker know it. “That got me into very big trouble,” said Robert, adding without apology: “I was able to grow up in the workplace and never feel as if I was somehow being dealt with unfairly or discriminated against.”

Robert — rhymes with “teddy bear” for the company she used to run — is no one’s idea of a plush toy. You want cuddly? Try Ben, her love-sponge of an Australian shepherd.

The Charlotte resident — her latest venture is running a specialty cycling company for women — has made her mark on Vermont’s business world much as she did playing varsity lacrosse and field hockey for Middlebury College: By being quick and decisive and unafraid to use her stick.

“I told her once she was a compassionate hard ass,” said Katie Langrock, operations director at Shelburne-based Vermont Teddy Bear, who worked almost a decade with Robert. “She definitely asks people to do more than they think they are capable of doing. And they often prove her right.”

Valentine’s Day at Vermont Teddy Bear is comparable to Black Friday at many companies that hope that day will make the year profitable. On Feb. 13, Robert would get her staff to think of ways to keep the UPS and FedEx trucks late so they could fill as many orders as possible. One year Robert lay down in front of a UPS truck like the lone protester at Tiananmen Square. Another year, Langrock recalled, Robert chartered a FedEx Boeing 727 so it would stay as late as she wanted. “Liz even went to Burlington Airport and drove the tow that leads the plane out to the runway,” she said.

Robert turned 67 in early June, and currently serves as president and CEO of Terry Precision Cycling, a Burlington-based seller of cycling apparel and accessories. The company, which was acquired by Flagg Bicycle Group in late 2021, meshes perfectly with her current lifestyle. Looking fit and road-ready in her Rapha vest and Middlebury cap, she described how her own wheel has turned.

“What motivates me now is a little bit different; it’s other people’s success,” she explained. “Like with my new batch of employees at Terry, it’s more about making sure they’re set up to succeed.”

In a four-decades long business career, the Charlotte resident has built an enviable resume of success in Vermont businesses, whether startup, like AirMouse Remote Controls, or sinecure like Vermont Gas Systems, companies trending up or sliding down. She has done so, colleagues and coworkers said, with an analytical mind, a rigorous work ethic and a leadership style that says “You don’t want to disappoint me, do you?” Robert embraces challenges like long-lost relatives at a family reunion.

Vermont Teddy Bear’s director of operations Cathy Carlisle recalled the company was struggling before Robert moved up to CEO from chief financial officer. “There was a lot of chatter about who’s driving the bus,” said Carlisle, a Bear vet of 28 years. “On the day she was named she showed up in an official Green Mountain Transit uniform.”

The bus gained speed with Robert at the helm. The modest, lovable but underperforming company became a lean, mean teddy bear machine with annual net revenue hovering above the $70 million mark. Using catalog and internet marketing she developed the PajamaGram and other instant gratification delivery systems.

Amidst the carnage of the 2007-08 recession, new ownership at Vermont Teddy Bear tried “financial engineering,” an approach little understood and opposed by Robert. The bear stuffing hit the fan and after she refused to resign, Robert was taken off-campus and fired, barred from returning to Shelburne Road. “I was devastated,” Robert said, “I felt like I lost my family.”

A shock, to be sure, but Robert didn’t spend much time drafting invites to a pity party, “It didn’t take me too long to realize in some ways it was fortunate because I got out on top … while the company was absolutely at its peak.”

In 2009, a catalog consultant with whom Robert had worked mentioned that Rochester-based Terry was for sale. This meshed perfectly with Robert’s new passion for cycling; Terry had pioneered bikes and gear for women, including an anatomy-friendly bike seat.

Robert bought the firm, moved it to Burlington and switched gears on marketing. “I changed it from being primarily a catalog business and wholesale operation to selling to small independent bike bicycle shops and to being primarily an e-commerce driven company.”

In late 2021, Robert sold her controlling interest in the firm to Minnesota-based Flagg Bicycle Group, while remaining president and CEO of Terry.

Now Robert has more time to spend riding or in the company of her two grown daughters from a previous marriage, and three grandchildren. Younger daughter Ruthie manages a family real estate business and lives in Burlington with singer-musician Josh Panda and their two young boys.

Panda was inducted into the Robert family dynamic in 2007 when his then-girlfriend Ruthie invited him to Vermont for Christmas. His train from Brooklyn arrived late so Liz was asleep when he got to Charlotte.

“I’m awakened early in the morning by Catie, the older sister, and told there was a crisis at work and could I help,” recalled Panda. “The next thing I know I’m in the car and I’m heading to what I’m told is a teddy bear factory. And then, you know, I’m putting clothes on bears on an assembly line. And that’s when I met Liz.”

Panda — who swears that was his name even before he met the Bear-in-Chief — said Robert has aided his vocation whenever possible. “She’s really been a huge champion of my career and my life, my growth. She’s just one of those people you don’t want to disappoint. And you want to make proud.”

Pride and resourcefulness were indeed in play when Panda was selected to represent Vermont in NBC’s “American Song Contest,” where contestants from all the U.S. states and territories perform songs they’ve composed.

Panda learned that contestants were permitted to give gifts to judges Kelly Clarkson and Snoop Dogg. “I started thinking what kind of Vermont gift would get me to the top of the list. And we’re in the kitchen where Liz is preparing dinner for my little kids and she says what about teddy bears?”

Before Panda said anything, Robert hit speakerphone, got the current head of Vermont Teddy Bear’s voicemail and left a message asking for a favor.

“Next thing I know,” Panda said, “I’m on an email thread with folks making plans for teddy bears that look like Dogg and Kelly. I got to present the bears to them on live television!” That he didn’t make the semifinals seemed almost an afterthought.

Panda’s voice was filled with awe and admiration. Not an uncommon occurrence with folks who’ve met Robert — rhymes with “teddy bear.” And there the similarity ends.