Dake at helm, Stewart’s sailing through recession
Family immersed in local community, longtime business
SARATOGA SPRINGS Gary Dake says “not falling prey to excesses” has helped Stewart’s Shops generate healthy profits even during tough economic times.
“We try not to get too far out on the limb,” said Dake, who has been Stewart’s president for the past six years.
Some businesses — Starbucks Coffee Company, for example — built too many shops in recent years and had to start closing some of them because they were losing money.
“In the last two or three years, we have opened very few new shops,” Dake said. “The [real estate] market is overpriced.”
Instead, the company that employs 4,200 people and has 327 Stewart’s Shops in upstate New York and southern Vermont has been renovating some of the company’s older stores.
“We stay in the mode of, we do what we want to do, not what we have to do,” Dake said. “We address problems early.”
Dake, 48, said being honest with people has served him well since he became president of Stewart’s Shops.
“We have a tendency to be upfront and candid,” he said of Stewart’s corporate culture.
Dake said telling employees and business associates what he really thinks is sometimes a “greater kindness” than beating around the bush.
If he feels someone is not doing a job well, he tells that person directly.
“We work in small groups,” Dake said. Only about a dozen people work at an individual Stewart’s Shop, three or four on a shift. This means everyone knows the strengths and weaknesses of the other employees.
The employees work hard, in part, at least, because many of them are involved in the company’s profit-sharing program. The employees own one-third of the privately held company.
Stewart’s Shops generate about $1.2 billion in sales each year. Some $50 million of that is revenue for the company.
Even in difficult economic times, the company does well, generating double-digit growth each year.
Dake started his career at Stewart’s on May 13, 1985, after working three years for Agway and Farm Credit in Pennsylvania. At one point during this time, he lived in a mobile home.
It’s a Dake family rule that a family member has to work two or three years at another business before taking a job with Stewart’s Shops.
Dake lives in Greenfield with his wife, Karen, who owns MINOR Improvements PT, a pediatric and adolescent physical therapy business in Saratoga Springs. They have two grown sons, Charlie, 28, and Zack, 25.
Zack works in Stewart’s gas marketing department — 270 Stewart’s Shops have gas pumps — and Charlie works at Adirondack Trust Co. in Saratoga Springs.
Other Dake family members involved in the company are his father, William Dake, who was company president but is currently chairman of the board, and his stepmother, Susan Dake, who is head of the company’s charitable giving. Some other family members are on the company’s board of directors.
When you visit Gary Dake at Stewart’s corporate offices on Route 9 just south of Saratoga Springs, you are likely to find William Dake, his father, at a desk in the same office.
“He gets to do all the work,” William Dake said. “I get to do the things I like to do.
“He’s done a great job,” William Dake continued. “He enjoys it and he’s very good at it. He has a positive attitude.”
Gary Dake said having his father nearby — they each have a glass-topped desk in the window-lined executive office — is often a blessing. But, he said it can be “the best and the worst.” He said sometimes he has to roll his eyes in frustration when father and son disagree.
“I am blessed to have that kind of resource at my finger tips,” Gary Dake said. “He won’t intrude unless he thinks it’s important.”
Raymond O’Conor, president of Saratoga National Bank and Trust Co., and Dake go back more than 20 years, to a time when Gary Dake served on the Wilton Planning Board and O’Conor was a town councilman.
“I have known him for a long time,” O’Conor said. But, O’Conor said, it wasn’t until Dake was named to Saratoga National’s board of directors did he get to see his business savvy.
“What a good head for business Gary has,” O’Conor said. He said he quickly developed a firm grasp of the banking business and the bank’s financial statements.
“He’s very candid about everything,” O’Conor said. “If he sees anything that might be amiss or could be done better, he is never shy about bringing those thing up.”
James Rossi of Saratoga Springs, the managing partner of Saratoga Polo, spent a lot of time before Dake as Saratoga Polo’s plans for a $70 million polo retreat near the Whitney polo field off Denton Road were reviewed by the Greenfield Planning Board.
The board eventually approved the project two years ago after more than a year of meetings and public hearings. Construction of the project has been put on hold because of the sluggish economy.
“He is so thorough and dedicated,” Rossi said. “It’s sort of amazing, doing that on a volunteer basis.”
Rossi called Dake “fair-minded and comprehensive” as Planning Board chairman.
“He’s doing a lot of work very quietly without a lot of fanfare,” Rossi said.
Dake said both he and his parents feel serving the community in some capacity is a way of giving back to a community that supports their business.
Bill Dake was a long-time chairman of the Saratoga County Planning Board and is currently chairman of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s board of directors.
Gary’s mother, A.C. Reilly of Saratoga Springs, was chairwoman of the Saratoga County Board of Supervisors and later mayor of the city of Saratoga Springs.
“We have been blessed by the local community and have a responsibility to give back to it,” Gary Dake said.
He said this tradition is carried on by his youngest son, Zack, who is a volunteer firefighter in Greenfield.
Gary Dake is also on the board of directors of the Adirondack Film Society and is a member of the Performance Improvement Committee of Northeast Health. He also serves on the board of directors of Arrow Financial Corp., the company that owns Saratoga National Bank and Glens Falls National Bank and Trust Co.
He is part of the Karen and Gary Dake Foundation for Children. The foundation, which is directed by Karen Dake, is a 501c3 charity that pays for things like adaptive bicycles and extra positioning equipment for children with disabilities. Such equipment is often not covered by normal insurance policies, Dake said.
Open and fair are words used by people who know and have worked with Dake.
Greenfield Town Board member Daniel Cochran served 10 years on the Greenfield Planning Board with Dake.
The town Planning Board is a volunteer organization. None of the members are paid.
“He was a very fair chairman,” Cochran said. He said Dake always did his homework and always had “the best interests of the town” in mind when decisions were made.
People in town know that Gary Dake “is a very powerful man. He owns Stewart’s,” Cochran said.
But Dake never referred to this or used his position in the community to his advantage when serving on the Planning Board, Cochran said. The board reached consensus under Dake in a very democratic fashion. Cochran said Dake was very straightforward and reasonable.
“This guy runs a heck of a meeting,” said Dick Rowland, Greenfield town supervisor.
“He’s there to help the process along and that is what good government is all about,” Rowland said. “You can’t find anybody fairer.
“We are proud of the Dake family tradition in Greenfield,” Rowland said. “It goes way back.”
The family’s roots are in Greenfield. Percy W. and Charles V. Dake began making Dake’s Delicious ice cream in Greenfield in 1921. Members of the Dake family were living in the town several generations before that.
There is a Daketown Road in Greenfield where the old Daketown one-room schoolhouse is located. The old school is owned by the Greenfield Historical Society and open to the public.
Before becoming president of Stewart’s, Dake operated the company’s ice cream plant-dairy-product distribution center on Route 9N in Greenfield. In those days he was able to play golf on a regular basis.
“My golf game went to hell with this job” Dake said.
Instead of playing a lot of golf, Dake said, he and his wife enjoy spending time at a rental house in Ogunquit, Maine.
Dake said if he tries to vacation in the Adirondacks, he’s always checking out a Stewart’s Shop in the vicinity.
He said he can really relax when he vacations near the ocean, out of the region where Stewart’s has convenience stores.
Dake wore a light blue, short-sleeved polo shirt during a recent interview and khaki pants, no tie or jacket.
He drives a dark blue BMW sedan. He graduated from St. Lawrence University after attending Saratoga Springs High School.
His favorite flavor of Stewart’s ice cream was chocolate buttered almond, but that flavor has been discontinued because of low sales. Of the current dozens of ice cream flavors offered by Stewart’s his favorite is chocolate peanut butter cup, he said.
As for other Stewart’s products: “I drink skim milk almost every day,” he said.
He also noted that Stewart’s popular Make Your Own Sundae will remain a store feature “as long as customers want them.”
Sitting at his desk he thumbs through a thick stack of printouts dealing with Stewart’s sales, including the many products it makes itself.
He said a new product, called Stewart’s Country Club Half and Half, is a mixture of lemonade and ice tea.
“It now outsells our regular ice tea,” Dake said. He noted that Stewart’s regular ice tea has always been a very big seller.
Dake said he tries to accommodate college students and college professors who want to interview him on his business or have him speak in the classroom.
He said he has been involved in the Rensselaer County Chamber’s Leadership Program, and he often learns a lot when participating in such programs.
“It’s fun,” Dake said.