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Staff Photo by Grant Morris

Gerald Nash sits for a portrait in his Nashua office on Temple Street.
Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tamposi Sr. was unafraid to take risks

There was something about the way this guy talked, especially when the subject was business, that compelled budding Nashua businessman Gerald Q. Nash to listen extra closely.

Although the two met in Boston – at a friendly poker game – both were Nashua natives, born just over a year apart and raised on real-time lessons in sacrifice, frugality and personal discipline that instilled their rock-solid work ethic and set the tone not only for a lifelong friendship, but also for the formation of one of the most enduring and successful business partnerships in local, state and regional history.

Samuel A. Tamposi Sr. arrived on the family farm, on the outskirts of the little city he’d one day revolutionize, late in the summer of 1924.

Working hard and turning an honest buck was not only rewarding – Romanian immigrants Nasi and Aspasia Tamposi told their young son – it was the American Dream, and in this wonderful country, dreams do come true.

Like so many of their fellow Americans of the period, nothing came easy for the young, growing Tamposi family, which would eventually include three boys and two girls, all of whom chipped in with the endless chores that running a dairy farm requires.

The boys eventually took to spiffing up the cows and, in a much more rural, agrarian time in Nashua, showing off their purebred Holsteins at regional fairs.

At one such event, called the “Nashua Hay Fair,” Sam Tamposi made what may have been his first foray onto the local news pages when he won a blue ribbon for one of those Holsteins.

Few, perhaps even Sam himself, had any idea back in that spring of 1949 that this young dairy farmer was destined to become a household name synonymous with phrases such as real estate, land development, building boom and property management – but especially, with a cutting-edge experiment his peers deemed too risky: building “on spec,” or the philosophy that “If we build it, they will come.”

Within a single decade of winning that blue ribbon, Sam Tamposi had gone from farmer to New England’s No. 1 Electrolux salesman – he peddled them door-to-door – to selling life insurance, again rising to the pinnacle of sales success, and finally to establishing the modest real-estate firm that became the foundation for a multimillion-dollar sales and development empire built largely on kept promises and sincere handshakes.

“Sam took a lot of chances. He was a real gutsy guy,” said John N. Sias, Tamposi’s longtime friend and biographer whose 1989 “A Risk Worth Taking” traces Tamposi’s life through the words of dozens of relatives, friends and business associates.

While each contribution is unique, all have at least one common thread: Sam Tamposi was rich, but never flashy; frugal, but never afraid to take a chance; at once trustworthy and trusting; and blessed with an uncanny ability to sell the proverbial drowning man a glass of water.

And the oft-repeated, almost cliche “Sam made million-dollar deals on a handshake?” All true, Sias and his interviewees agree.

“Sam was a big-picture guy, the idea guy,” Sias said. “He would close these multimillion-dollar deals by shaking hands and saying something like, ‘OK, we have a deal; let’s let the lawyers work it all out later.’

“He didn’t want to bother with all the details. That’s why he and Gerry (Nash) did so well together – Gerry is a detail guy.”

Surely, even in his build, buy and sell heyday of the ’50s through the ’80s, before greed and scurrilous fine print designed to mislead rather than inform began infecting American business practices, the Tamposi method was still a rather curious, unorthodox philosophy to most of his contemporaries.

“It worked for Sam because there was a lot of trust there,” Sias said, setting the scene for most Tamposi deals, whether out on the building site or in one of his offices.

“He trusted people, they trusted him. That simple.”

That kind of trust was what convinced Nash to take his old poker buddy up on his offer, even though he was all but guaranteed a lucrative, secure future as co-owner, with his brother, of their father’s successful Nashua Paper Box Co.

“We’d owned a couple of properties together, and one day Sam told me he’s selling his interests and had an idea. He said, ‘Let’s go into commercial and industrial development,’ ” Nash said, recalling that after Tamposi laid out the details of his vision, Nash was convinced he was onto something big.

Commercial and industrial development is “where the future of this area is,” Nash remembers Tamposi telling him.

“So, I sold my part of the (Paper Box) business and we got to work.”

Seemingly blessed with a knack of predicting trends and envisioning the next step before he, or anyone else, got to it, Tamposi had the next best thing to a crystal ball: access to private aircraft.

Having dabbled as a youngster in flying and maintaining small planes as a member of the old Gate City Flying Club, Tamposi made a habit of flying over the Nashua area now and then, studying the landscape so he could sit down with maps and pinpoint the ideal locations for his next projects.

Initially, most of his targets were in the Northeastern Boulevard/Main Dunstable Road area, where a new “superhighway” called the Nashua Bypass had just opened to traffic.

“One of our first jobs was putting up a 10,000-square-foot building on spec,” Nash said. “That had never been done in these parts. Some people thought we were crazy, that it was way too risky.”

But as signs such as “For Sale, Call Nash-Tamposi” or “For Lease, 20,000 SF, Call Nash-Tamposi” began growing like wooden weeds up and down the boulevard and along and across the newly minted Everett Turnpike, the skeptics changed their tune.

While both men pursued real-estate and development interests individually, and sometimes with other partners, the Nash-Tamposi signature was the most readily recognizable, by far.

“Sam was a hell of a good salesman; he never stopped working. A bunch of us would be out to dinner or something, Sam would still be out, 7, 8 at night making cold calls, door-to-door,” he said, referring to Tamposi’s Electrolux sales days.

He did have his detractors. A public works official once remarked that the city of Nashua was “Santa Claus for Sam Tamposi for eight years” in accusing one of Tamposi’s companies of overcharging the city for road improvements around his newly developed New England Automotive Village.

But he earned the respect of his business and political allies and foes alike.

Despite his rapidly accumulating wealth, friends and acquaintances always said, Tamposi was far from the stereotypical flashy, cigar-chomping, chauffeur-driven magnate.

Indeed, noted an attorney representing Tamposi’s sons Sam Jr. and Stephen in the recently settled legal battle against their sister Betty over the family fortune: “Sam (Sr.) drove a Buick, shopped at Marshall’s and never wanted to pay full price,” Robert Stein wrote in court documents.

Nor did he cotton to million-dollar, hilltop castles, living instead in relatively modest digs such as the longtime family home on Indian Rock Road – part of yet another 1960s Tamposi residential development.

“The secret to our success? We always had buildings built and ready” for occupancy, Nash said. “Our standard (commercial/industrial) building was 25,000 square feet, with 6,000 square feet for office space, and each one could easily be split into two.

“We always had three or four of those going at once,” Nash added. “Today, there are hundreds of those around the state.”

“He was unafraid of failure,” Sam Tamposi Jr. said in an interview with writer Tim McLaughlin shortly after his father’s death in May 1995.

“He had a great vision at succeeding because he could tolerate risk other people would shy away from.”

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.