GRAFTON—John Bramley, president and CEO of the Windham Foundation, will retire May 31 after three years at the helm.
He will be succeeded by Robert Allen of Dorset, former president and CEO of the Vermont Country Store, as well as a board member of several businesses and nonprofits. Allen will come on board in early May, so there will be a bit of overlap.
Enthusiastic, welcoming, and informal, Bramley, 61, was wearing a green Windham Foundation sweatshirt for our interview. He was forthright when answering questions about the goals, holdings, and operations of one of the state’s most affluent private operating foundations.
Like many charitable and grant-giving entities around the country, the Windham Foundation suffered significant investment losses in the stock market crash of 2007-2008.
An operating foundation — according to the Vermont Community Foundation, which publishes the Vermont Directory of Foundations — is a fund or endowment, “the primary purpose of which is to operate research, social welfare, or other programs determined by its governing body.”
And that, says the outgoing Bramley, is exactly what he’s been doing for three years.
He says convincingly, “I’ve loved it.”
The Bramley family — John, Janet, and their son and daughter — previously lived in Burlington during John’s 20-plus years at the University of Vermont, where he served as a professor, teaching animal science, microbiology, and molecular genetics.
He also held several other notable positions with the university, including acting president in 2006, as well as senior vice president and provost from 2001 to 2006. Prior to those positions, Bramley was the dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Science, and the chair of the Animal Sciences Department.
Bramley says that his goals for the foundation meshed nicely with the foundation’s mission to “promote the vitality of Grafton and Vermont’s rural communities...” and that, as a British native (born in North Wales, raised in England, where he began his life sciences career), he was accustomed to village life.
“It was important to us from the outset to be part of the community,” Bramley says, speaking of himself and his wife, Janet, noting that they had each lived in that sort of setting in the past.
In Grafton, the family lives in a handsome brown clapboard house on Townshend Road, at the western edge of a wide swath of foundation property that is home to Grafton Ponds and other outdoor recreation sites. The site’s grassy fields also provide the space for the Vermont Symphony’s annual Fourth of July concert. The foundation owns about 2,000 acres.
“We’ve really loved it,” Bramley says. “It’s close enough, but not slap bang in the middle of everything.”
The house was purchased several years ago from former Grafton lawyer Phyllis Wishnie for $560,000, specifically as a residence for the foundation’s president.
Grafton surprised Bramley with its diverse socio-economic makeup.
“Whilst you would expect (the town) to be dysfunctional,” he says, “that diversity has actually proved to be warm and supportive,” citing the recent residential fire that destroyed the home of well-known town activist and family anchor Bea Fisher. He says that the town came together to help with fundraisers, as well as other support.
Both Bramleys regularly show up at town events, pleasing the circumspect citizens of Grafton, accustomed to more limited contact with foundation administrators.
“When I asked if we could come and cook at the weekly Grafton Cares lunches, almost a deathly hush fell in the room,” Bramley says.
“One of my roles with the foundation was to contribute to the community just by being engaged,” he adds.
He specifically cites the successful makeover of the cafe behind the Inn at Grafton, complimenting Stan and Pat Mack for their enterprise, and the vitality of the Grafton Country Store, functioning much like a classic country store, but now one with homemade bread and a diversified meat department.
He also points to the new retail outlet behind the Grafton Inn for cheese, wine, syrup, and other local products, as well as the expanded store in Brattleboro.
At the same time, the foundation’s potential profit-making business, the Grafton Village Cheese Co., has increased production and sales rooms, and has opened new shops and manufacturing spaces in Grafton and at the Retreat Farm in Brattleboro.
Although the Grafton Village Cheese Co. is not yet a money-maker, Bramley expects that to change in the near future.
He says that the number of employees at the cheese company has about doubled, and that the inventory of aged cheese is also growing.
“I’m very proud of what we’ve done at the cheese factory. It costs to build inventory of aged cheese, and we’re close, maybe within a year,” of viability, he says.
He also points out that the cheese company is helping to support 30 of what he calls the best dairy farmers and paying them premium prices.
Another foundation business, the Grafton Inn, which, Bramley pointed out, is not there to make money, has been host to a slew of new events under his stewardship, from “localvore” dinners, to tavern concerts, to happy hours and other activities.
“When elk is on the menu, it is Vermont elk,” he says.
“It hasn’t made money probably for most of its 200 years,” Bramley says. “That’s not why we own it. If you want to make money, don’t own a small country inn. The reason the foundation owns the tavern is because it’s a critical part of the community.”
The hotel’s drawing power is part of its value, Bramley believes.
Bramley’s intellectual commitments and academic heft were also engaged by the nature of his job at the foundation, calling on his knowledge of agriculture and the animal sciences. His believes that Vermont’s trend toward producing high quality food, especially locally, is a trend that is not merely pleasing, but environmentally necessary.
“As a country we are used to cheap food,” Bramley says, describing the connection between cheap food production and the use of fossil fuels in its production. “Our food system is not sustainable.”
He believes that the foundation can develop a “food campus that will really take food from field to plate. On some level, that’s been my life’s work,” he adds, citing his efforts to increase the viability of the Vermont dairy industry.
“We have to take into account (issues) such as land transfer and pricing structure,” he says, emphasizing the need to transfer these concepts “from the political to the practical.”
He has the sense that “this is probably my last full-time job,” and acknowledges the good fortune of having secured what he sees as “the best job in Vermont.”
Meanwhile, contemplating the impending late spring move makes his shoulders sag because, he says, “Most of our house has been furnished at Kit’s [H.K. ‘Kit’ Martin of the Townshend Auction Galleries].” He notes that his family still has the house in Burlington, as well as a home in Tucson, Ariz.
In a letter of farewell to the Grafton News, apart from a list of thank-yous, he and his wife said that they expected to spend time “in warmer climes” but return part of the year to Vermont.
As for what will take up his time, besides board work with such nonprofits as Vermont Public Radio, Bramley says that he loves to cook, and that he definitely plans to continue racing his vintage red Mazda Miata.