Critics have said 2008–09 was one of the worst times to start or own a small business. Entrepreneurs in these troubled times faced tighter lending standards. Less available capital. Rising energy and supply costs.
The challenges should sound familiar. They’re ones we all faced as consumers. But for businesses, the budget—and need for balance—was even greater.
An Optimistic Bunch
Research shows the recession didn’t stop aspiring business owners. The Kauffman Foundation, a leading firm that researches entrepreneurship, found that 503,000 new businesses were created each month in 2008, which was a slight increase over 2007.
The ability of small businesses to survive puts money in the pockets of employees and contributes to the health of the economy as a whole.
So why did more than half a million new businesses enter the market each month in 2008? And how did millions already in the market keep going strong?
There isn’t just one strategy that kept businesses on the right path, or just one that led to a wrong turn. Yet, among the vast coverage of failed establishments, many more survived, and some even thrived. Here are a few.
A New Deli
Ten years ago, Thu Aram wouldn’t have imagined herself as a business owner. Even though she had experience in management, she was happy as a mother of three. But then last year, something changed, and she saw an opportunity with a friend named Sunny Yoon.
Sunny’s husband worked for Anthony Aram, Thu’s husband, an orthopedic surgeon, and so the two families had known each other for a while. Thu decided to approach Sunny about Sunny’s long-held dream of running a deli.
“I asked Sunny if she’d like to partner, offering to take care of finances and marketing while she ran a restaurant,” Thu says. “It was a tough economy, but I knew I could provide the financial backing for the project. I thought it would be a great adventure to go into business together, and I just knew it would work.”
Not long after Thu and Sunny set off on their adventure, Thu contacted Pete Eisert, her ERIE Agent, to see what he could offer her for commercial insurance. Pete, who had helped Thu with her auto and homeowners insurance, was happy to help.
“Thu is the kind of person that no matter what she touches, it will succeed. She has an internal drive to make things happen, and so when she told me about the deli, I was really excited for her,” Pete says.
Their deli, ’TiS Corner Café, combines the first initials (T and S) of two friends who got together and took a leap of faith, says Thu. It’s also poetic for the simple statement, “It is.”
On the menu: Breakfast and lunch, with homemade ingredients. “Our roast beef is roasted and hand-carved in-house, and we make our own chicken and egg salads fresh every day,” Thu says.
Their catch phrase, “Peace, love and sandwiches,” is written on the bottom of their menu. But the most important message they want to send is that they stand by the quality of their food and belief in a home-cooked meal.
A great start: “I thought it would take a year to get up and running,” Thu says. “But, even in the current economy, it was a risk worth taking. We put up a lot of capital to make sure our customers knew we were focused on quality, and it’s paid off.”
The café opened in Sept. 2009. They broke even by October.
Plans for the future: Thu hopes to add more seating to the café by making the kitchen smaller and more open. “It will also allow our customers to see how we make the food,” she says.
Number of employees: 5 full-time employees
On the Web: tiscornercafe.com
Business location: 1317 East West Highway in Silver Spring, Md.
A Spark for Safety
Jodi Frank had always known she wanted to be in business for herself. But such dreams are easier said than done. The economic crash of 2007–08, for her, lit the spark.
She was returning to the pharmaceutical industry after taking a 10-year break to raise two children—Michael, now 16, and Rachel, 14. She remembers that “things just weren’t the same.” The company she worked for was acquired, and soon after the economy went sour. The result for Jodi was being laid off.
“Had the economy been in better shape,” she says, “I would have just gotten another job. But that wasn’t an option for me. It gave me the inspiration—and reason—to start out on my own.”
The new entrepreneur formed Keystone Safety Supply, a source for hard-hats, goggles and other equipment for construction workers and the like.
One of her first steps was to get insurance. She talked with an old colleague who is married to ERIE Agent Dave Rajtik. Dave helped Jodi purchase the insurance she needed for keeping her commercial vehicle safe and her liability risk low.
A lot to learn: Jodi started in the industry with no prior background. She had a lot to learn, but learn she did. She taught herself safety equipment inside and out.
Facing the challenge: Jodi started Keystone Safety Supply in Sept. 2008, right in the middle of the recession. To boot, her husband Steve, who had planned to provide financial security for their family while she began the business, lost his job.
“We knew we were going to sink or swim,” Jodi remembers, “and we decided to swim, making the best of everything as it came.”
The turning tides: Jodi and family stayed the course until things got better. Now, she’s noticed a lot more opportunity in the safety industry due to stimulus money. New roads and new buildings, for her, means new business.
How she stands out: Exceptional, personalized service. Jodi meets with customers before they order to make sure they get the equipment that’s right for the job. She finds out what exactly their needs are and what products fit.
Advice to start-ups: “Don’t look at what’s been done; look at what’s not been done,” she says. “Find a niche, find out what’s missing in the marketplace and try to fill it.”
Number of employees: For now, just one
On the Web: keystonesafetysupply.com
Business location: Harrisburg, Pa.
A Historic Mill
Across industries, those who serve business customers have been hit the hardest during the recession. The Mill of Bel Air, a historic farm and garden supply store in Maryland, is no different.
“Most of our challenges are on the commercial side,” says third-generation owner Henry Holloway. “Our retail marketplace has been very good, but the agriculture industry and others are hurting, and that hurts us in the long run.”
Henry cites dairy farms, which need milled food (feed) for cows, and construction, which plants grass seed when building new projects, as two industries where he’s noticed the most change.
The Mill continues to thrive with a booming retail side, though, giving the other areas of business a chance to bounce back.
A family tradition: Henry purchased the The Mill of Bel Air from his grandfather, Smith Walter, in 1986. At the time, The Mill mainly served the agriculture business, which Henry always had a love for. (He went to school and earned a degree in Agriculture.) In 1997, Henry had the foresight to develop the retail side of the business.
Historic significance: One of The Mill’s storefronts is an 1887 vintage building that was originally built as a feed mill.
The Mill’s specialty: In addition to feed and seed, the Mill sells products for birds, wildlife, horses, pets and gardens. Their tagline? “Making the world a better place for plants and animals.”
Why ERIE? “Our Agent, Jeff Rosenkilde, has been a customer of ours for years. So, when he approached us a couple years ago to see if he could help us with insurance, I said ‘sure.’ He presented us with a great package, and we’ve enjoyed working with him,” Henry says.
Number of employees: About 100
On the Web: themillofbelair.com
Business location: Four locations around Maryland
When Joe Bastian retired as a CFO for Allied Signal International (now Honeywell) and moved back to Michigan from Hong Kong in 1999, he wasn’t sure what to do next.
He and his wife, Diane, wandered into a Panera Bread for lunch one day and really liked what they saw. They came back often, and eventually Joe contacted corporate to inquire about franchise opportunities.
There was an opportunity to purchase a Panera franchise in North Carolina at the same time. Joe talked it over with his sister Casey, who lived with her husband Jeff and children in St. Louis. She agreed to bring her restaurant management experience to the team. Both families picked up their lives and moved to the Tar Heel State.
Since then, they’ve made customer service, quality and good people their winning combination. And it’s paid off.
The brother-sister team accepted the “Franchisee of the Year” award at Panera’s annual convention, held last October at the Grand Ole Opera House in Nashville. The award came the same year Joe and Casey celebrated the 10th anniversary of owning the franchise.
Number of locations: Currently 15. The plan is to grow to 18.
Challenges and opportunities: Joe and Casey saw a hit in the lunchtime business, but they were prepared. They made sure the customers still got the best service and food for their money. The effort led to steady sales growth. They also found opportunities that made growth easier, such as dropping real estate prices that provided opportunities for new locations.
Why ERIE? Joe and Casey purchased insurance through ERIE Agent Don McClintock last year when they decided it was time to re-evaluate how they insured the business. He had been a good office neighbor and friend for years.
“One thing that’s nice about working with Don is that we had an existing relationship with him. That was important to us. He also knows the industry really well in North Carolina, and ERIE seems to be a very comfortable fit for our business model,” Casey says.
Advice to other business owners: “Stay true to your brand,” Casey says. “In tough times, you have to just get better at being who you are. We’ve done that by focusing on improving the quality of products and customer service we already had, making sure customers got the most for their money.”
Joe adds, “Be attuned to the climate and who you do business with. We’ve been proactive about our purchasing programs, including our insurance.”
Number of employees: 700–800
Business locations: Throughout North Carolina
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