7 Entrepreneur Stories
Seven local entrepreneurs
let us inside the unique lives
(or death), successes and
struggles of the businesses
Lemons to lemonade
When it comes to the countertop business, there isn't much Alyssa Henning hadn't experienced in her ten years with Traverse Tops.
One thing she hadn't counted on, however, was that a successful company would have to close its doors due to an embezzlement case that left the company high and dry. After things shook out, she was left with a choice: try something else, or go with what she knew best.
"I knew about the business, and I knew a lot of people from the industry," she said. "They asked if I wanted to go into the business for myself."
After wrestling with the decision, she decided the answer was an unqualified "Yes." That was in June. By July she had put together a plan and, with backing from Northwestern Bank, Traverse City Tops opened its doors in October.
"I knew enough people and had made enough connections that it made sense," said Henning.
So much so that she opened her doors at 1222 Veterans Drive in Traverse City in Suite E, the same location as the previous shop in which she worked. Her store showcases numerous countertop styles, colors and surfaces. There's granite, composite, stainless steel. The colors are a veritable rainbow.
Henning says she loves the opportunity to work with clients to help them determine the right surface and best color choice for their home. "I love to educate people. That's gratifying," she said.
Henning is quick to credit others for their help in establishing herself, from her former boss at Traverse Tops, Brian Follansbee, to those who helped her with planning and getting the loan to start the business.
And she says she is already busier than she had hoped for, with eight jobs on the books within the first week she was open. "I'm bidding on two or three jobs a day."
"There aren't going to be any regrets," Henning said. "I love doing this."
TC Tops is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. To 4:30 p.m. and by appointment on Saturdays.
Necessity may indeed be the mother of invention, but it doesn't hurt to have a little Disney-esque inspiration, too.
Nearly broke after the Detroit advertising company he worked for went under, Kevin Clark took a page out of Mary Poppins: He became a chimney sweep.
His father, a teacher in Traverse City, cleaned chimneys in the summer. So Clark borrowed some equipment from his dad, then spent his days cleaning chimneys and his nights looking for more work.
The work caught on in a big way for Clark, who used it as a stepping stone to what's become one of the largest animal control businesses in the country.
"I'd call and get two or three jobs for the next day," he said.
Imagine his surprise when he came across his first raccoon comfortably ensconced in a chimney. Then another. Plus squirrels, birds, bats.
"I started to get calls to remove animals from chimneys," Clark says from his branch office in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Nobody was doing it. It was the opportunity I was looking for."
Thus Critter Control, Inc. was born. The concept proved so successful it soon expanded to offices throughout the Midwest, then beyond, at the rate of approximately one per month for ten years. Clark even moved the company headquarters back to his adopted hometown of Traverse City in 1996, despite the objections of some of those supposedly in the know.
"Some of the franchisees said we'd close, but as long as you have computers, accountants, and electricity, you can do anything," Clark said.
Now Critter Control offers all kinds of services for pest control, from whole building treatments (he just did a 10,000-square-foot, six-story building in Oklahoma) to providing do-it-yourselfers with the tools and products needed to combat moles, bats or skunks on their own.
Despite the economic downturn of the past few years, Clark says his company has remained stable – and that after steady growth for its first 20 years.
"In 1987 we started franchising, and we averaged one new office a month for the next ten years," he said. "Before 2008 we never had less than double digit growth. We did 7 percent that year, and in 2009 we were even. This year we are up 6 percent."
With that growth came a steady climb in the company's stature in the industry, from 27th in the country to 25th, 23rd, and eventually to No. 16. Clark said Critter Control continues to maintain a top 20 standing in the field, with revenues approaching $50 million, 130+ offices, and more than 500 employees nationwide.
Clark wasn't content to just be the critter guy. He got his HVAC and builder's licenses, but found that he'd only get 30 to 40 percent of the jobs he'd bid on in those fields, compared with 80 to 90 percent of the animal control and removal jobs. But the experience stood him in good stead as he approached it differently, looking to repair damage caused by the animals.
"We grew to become a one-stop," Clark said. "Most contractors won't look at a real small job. Now we also offer inspections of homes, both inside and out, and make recommendations to seal things to stop the animals before they get in."
Little shop takes on local expansion
Todd Bruce never set out to be a pizza king.
After graduating from college with a business degree, he was casting about for a place to start, and his father recommended he look into a food franchise. After learning some lessons there, he decided he would rather do it all on his own.
"I was 23 years old and pretty fearless," Bruce remembers with a laugh. "My dad said they don't put people in jail for debt anymore, so I figured, what the heck."
Bruce knew he wanted to do something in his hometown of Frankfort, and he asked friends and acquaintances what they thought. One thing kept coming up: Frankfort needed a good pizza place.
"I thought we would employ some kids and have a good time. I never thought it would turn into what it turned into," he said.
What it turned into was a series of A. Papano's pizzerias around the area, two convenience stores, and even two locations in Germany.
Bruce opened the first shop in Frankfort in April of 1993. And it seemed he was right about the desire for pizza in Frankfort. "We ran out of food every night for the first three weeks," he said. "We worked hard. We started with six employees, and had 10 or 11 by the end of the summer."
Bruce was satisfied with his success, and figured that would be it. They had a fairly strong clientele from the Beulah/Benzie area and even further east and north, but there were no plans for expansion – until the old IGA store in Beulah suddenly became available.
"Our landlord was buying the IGA. We were afraid we'd cannibalize our sales from that area, but it ended up helping us grow in both locations."
From there it was on to Interlochen and then briefly in Traverse City before that location moved to Kingsley. Meantime, a college friend from Germany who had visited Bruce suggested the success could be duplicated overseas.
"Thorsten Ketelsen and I met in college, and he called me up and said they were ready to open," Bruce said. Bruce jumped on a plane and discovered they weren't as close to an opening as Ketelsen thought, but after a couple weeks of hard work, American Pizza Pan (with a little A. Papano's logo) opened in Germany. The menu was a bit different – with tuna, corn, and, of course, beer – but the concept was roughly the same.
Stateside, things continued to percolate along, though there were some bumps along the way. The manager of his Beulah location abruptly left, leading Bruce to recruit his friend Andy Miller, who had helped out a couple times in the Frankfort store. Miller had a background in film, not food, but he bravely stepped into the breach.
"Todd asked me to help out for a couple days," Miller recalls. That was 13 years ago, and now Miller and his wife Becky own the Beulah store. Miller formerly co-owned the Interlochen and Kingsley Papano's with his one-time manager, Jeff Yacks, who now owns those two locations. Bruce's brother, Kirk, owns the original Frankfort store, while Bruce still is the owner of the Crystal View Mini-Mart/Papano's and Stapleton's on the south end of Benzonia, which he bought in a partnership with his parents and brother in 2004.
Bruce also runs the Bistro at Crystal Mountain.
"Crystal Mountain approached me, and said, 'We have a little pizzeria, the Little Betsie Bistro. We want to see if we can get another operator in. Do you want to do it?'
"It's been an awesome partnership," Bruce continued, citing the management team at Crystal as well as the clientele there for helping the other Papano's look at things in a new light. "We added 14 new pizzas to our Papano's menu as a result."
Bruce still believes in using the best ingredients he can. He spends much of his time in Chicago, and gets many of his toppings and other ingredients from there. "I live in Chicago about half the time, and I see things before they happen here," he said.
In total, the A. Papano's and convenience store operations employ between 130 and 150 people. And Bruce may not be done yet. His pal Andy Miller says Bruce enjoys building and opening stores more than running them, a statement with which Bruce agrees.
"I'm looking at a couple opportunities," he says with a smile. "The economy has been tough, but this is the first year in a while that customers have had a positive attitude. We're really solid. We're not going away."
Pizza fanatics across the area will no doubt be pleased to hear that.
Grand Traverse Pie Co.
Conquering the state and beyond
Mike Busley admits he never used to have a passion for pie.
That may come as news to fans of the Grand Traverse Pie Company, the homegrown store that has now expanded to 18 locations with a 19th on the way. But Busley and his wife Denise came to pie as much by happenstance as design.
Like many others, the couple wanted to escape the rat race. Their particular race found Mike working for Lockheed and Denise in medical sales.
They wanted to move to Traverse City and create a family-friendly business, but weren't sure what that business should be.
Enter fate in the guise of a vacation to southern California. They stumbled on the Julian Pie Company, a family-owned pie shop outside San Diego, and the proverbial light bulb was lit.
"We were thinking about a lot of things when we went into this pie shop," recalled Mike Busley. "It felt good, it looked good, it was family-owned, and the people working there were having fun. It was a nice feeling.
"We thought maybe that was it."
The moment they returned, Mike began working on a business plan to see if it made sense. The more he "doodled," as he puts it, the more it did, and he eventually called Liz Smothers, owner of the Julian Pie Company, and asked if they would look at his business plan. She agreed, and next thing you know, the Busleys were apprenticing for a week in her shop.
The entirety of the business model appealed to Busleys. In addition to the store, he company sold pies to area groceries and restaurants. "It wasn't just a mom & pop making a few pies in the back room," Busley said.
The dough was cast, and after securing financing and a site, the Grand Traverse Pie Company was born, opening its doors in 1996.
Fast forward 14 years. The company now has 14 stores throughout Michigan and another four in Indiana. The newest Grand Traverse Pie Company store is about to open in downtown Lansing, and Busley is still excited about the business.
"This will be our third-generation store," he said. The first generation stores were basically pie shops, as he puts it, while the second generation included a more extensive food menu. This new store will be its first with what he calls "an urban footprint."
"We feel good about the location and the market," he said. "There are 35,000 people working in a half our of the store. We want to be able to deliver a warm apple pie to your office in an hour."
Of course, there were other firsts along the way. When the store first opened, Busley was driving to Detroit once a week to deliver pies to eight accounts in that area. The company soon opened a store in Brighton, which enabled him to turn over that part of the business to that location. The pie company's first college town was in East Lansing, and that store took off as well.
Busley credits the stores' connections to the communities they serve as much as the business with the success they have been able to sustain. That is a particular focus of his wife's.
Busley said the goal is to serve the communities as well as be a gathering place for community events and individuals.
"We want to be on the list of places where people will come to meet," he said.
Oh, and that passion for pie? It's now obvious whether Busley is meeting with vendors, discussing new menu options, or just wandering through one of the stores.
"The East Lansing store may become the #1 store in overall sales, but this one is still number one in pie," he said proudly, beaming at the pecan, cherry, apple and myriad other types of pie on display in the flagship Traverse City store.
When Dave Mathia built Distribution Solutions, he never envisioned it becoming as successful as it did. Of course, neither did he foresee its dissolution after he sold it.
"I've been gone since 2005," Mathia said. "I don't really know what caused it."
Mathia says he built the company, which provided delivery services to the pharmaceutical industry, on the relationships among vendors, clients and the employees. The company opened on Jan. 1, 1990, and he sold it in September of 2005.
"We started on a shoestring, and the last year we won the first Business of the Year award from the chamber of commerce," Mathia said.
It was shortly after that accomplishment that he sold the business, but not because of any business problems. A double transplant survivor, Mathia decided he wanted to enjoy life more than he wanted to run a company, even a successful one. The company was first purchased by Arsenal Capital Partners, which merged its operations with Priority Air Express of Swedesboro, New Jersey, to form Priority Solutions. The company was subsequently acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific, and in 2009 it was announced the Traverse City office would be closed.
Mathia says he was disappointed the business, which employed over 70 people in Traverse City at its peak, ended up closing.
"I do know there were philosophical differences between me and the new management," he said.
"We were a very collaborative company. I'm not saying we were perfect, because we made mistakes, but when we did we would all work together to solve the problems and make sure they didn't happen again.
"We wanted to have a good relationship with our vendors, the delivery people; our employees, the administration and management; and the clients. We worked together."
Mathia, who endured a bout with lymphoma after selling the company, now is an owner of Centerpointe, the commercial building on West Bay near Cherry Bend Road. He's much more bullish on the prospects there.
"We've had 11 percent occupancy (when it was purchased in 2007), and we added a 55-slip marina and floating docks. Now we're at almost 80 percent tenancy, and that's great in this economy."
Still, it's easy to tell he's unhappy that his former company and its people are no longer there.
"Four of them started new companies when they left, and I'm really happy for them," Mathia said. "But it is sad seeing something go away that was prominent and a good employer. That's kind of hard to take."
Mother Goose Time
Spearheading change with in-sourcing,
automation, a merger, and more.
Even though she is the CEO of Mother Goose Time, Leslie Falconer says she's no fairy-tale character.
Her proof? "I don't even own a bonnet," Falconer said with a laugh.
Bonnet or no, Falconer oversees Mother Goose Time, a 25-year-old company that publishes theme-based pre-school curricula. The program consists of packets of theme-based activities for children ages 2? to 5, which are mailed out monthly. The packets provide a month's worth of activities for as many children as needed at that particular site, be it a home-based daycare or a school-based preschool program.
Falconer says her background in education and her husband Eric's in finance led them to purchase the Interlochen company three years ago. Its owners were looking to retire, and after what Leslie calls "a few months of evaluation" of everything from the company's health to its mission, the Falconers decided to take on the challenge.
Since then, they have modernized the operation, including replacing two old presses with one large new one that has allowed them to keep all their printing in-house. "We used to outsource some of our printing, now we can save money and increase the quality," Falconer said.
The company employs between 25 and 30 people, Falconer said, though the mix has changed since their purchase. For example, the company automated its conveyor line and bagging system, eliminating the need for a large staff to put together the mailings. But Mother Goose subsequently hired a sales and customer service director, who oversees a staff of four, and the company also expanded its design team from one to four people.
"We've been able to launch new products and increase our value," Falconer said.
They also merged into Mother Goose their existing business, Financially Literate Youth. FLY offered a series of seminars for families with young children, which have now been subsumed into the summer Mother Goose program.
Despite the economic downturn of the past couple years, the company has held its value. While some of the home-based daycare centers that were customers went out of business, they managed to keep or even pick up others, including those based in schools.
Now the company is once again expanding. In addition to its English version, Mother Goose Time is now published in Spanish as well, which Falconer says is great for customers in California, Texas and Florida.
In addition, Mother Goose Time has just entered into a partnership with the Polish company Speak & Spell, whose focus is on teaching English to children ages 3 to 7.
"We continue to build global relationships with providers who recognize the importance of early childhood education," said Falconer. She noted that the company also donated materials to refugee camps in Haiti and continues to support schools in Western Africa.
"There is more of a global awareness and emphasis on the importance of nurturing the whole child from a young age, and incorporating a range of experiences for the child regardless of their geography and resources," Falconer said.
Falconer says there is a real global and financial literacy link, which they were able to utilize by merging FLY with Mother Goose.
This is the busiest time of the year for the company. Like many other school-based programs, its busy time of the year is the fall, when schools ramp up their efforts. "We drop to about half (the business) in July and August," she said. "That's when we can do our planning for the year ahead. September, October and November are the busiest months."
Managing the satellites… across the border
He doesn't run around with tights, a cape, and a big W on his chest, but make no mistake, Mike Johnson is Weed Man.
Actually, he and his wife Laura are both Weed Man, the owners of a franchise lawn care business in Traverse City. The couple owns two Weed Man franchises. Not in itself so unusual, perhaps, except for the fact that while one is in Traverse City, the other is in Canada.
And that presents some unusual challenges for the couple, ones that other franchisees seldom have to cope with. Beyond the questions of learning the streets of a new town, the Johnsons had to learn about both the cultural and the business differences between their home country and their adopted home.
"There are definitely some differences," said Mike Johnson from his Traverse City office. "We had to bridge a little bit of a gap. The biggest is the environmental issue."
Seems that Johnson's native country has now banned the use of pesticides altogether, while in the U.S. they are regulated in the industry, but still available.
"I think Ontario has gone too far, and has taken things away from the consumer," he said. On the other hand, here in the States, it's the industry that is regulated, and not the retail side of things. "There's no regulation for homeowners," he said. "They can put too much on and burn their lawns."
Like so many others, the Johnsons had vacationed in the Traverse City area for years before deciding to move here. But unlike those who ventured north from Chicago, Detroit or Grand Rapids, they were coming south from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
"We've been here since 2006. It's a beautiful city," Johnson said. He points to not only the area's natural surroundings but its many cultural offerings as reasons to move here.
Another one, though, was the fact he believed they had just about reached their potential in the Soo.
"We started in 1983. It's not a big metropolitan area. We'd drive about two and a half hours north or west. But there wasn't much in-between. We'd maxed out our growth potential."
So they looked at one of their favorite vacation destinations, and decided the time was right for a move south.
"There's lots of green in Traverse City," Johnson said. "People care about their homes and the environment."
While the Sault Ste. Marie operation is under the direction of a longtime employee familiar with the company and the industry, Johnson says the decision to move here when they opened the office was based at least in part on his becoming the face of the company.
"We needed an owner presence here," Johnson said. He said it was easier to turn over the business that was already successful to someone who knew the drill, rather than trying to train someone new. "We couldn't give (someone new) enough knowledge."
Despite the challenges of running a business in two different countries, Johnson says he is happy to be here, and to be working in the field.
"We're in the business of making lawns beautiful in a way that is healthy for families to enjoy their green space," he said