Doing business in Benzie: Small town values keep owners grounded

BENZIE CO. – Tucked along Lake Michigan, with its scenic bluffs, country roads and friendly towns, Benzie County-known for years by outdoor enthusiasts-has been rediscovered and is now one of the fastest-growing areas of the state.

Those in successful businesses have learned to adapt to the seasonal nature of the area and all place a high value on community.

Mary Weishaar was the first women-owned CPA firm in the county when she founded the business in 1990. She helped revitalize the Beulah business district in 2000 when she bought a large building that was condemned.

"Mary is a great supporter and visionary for Benzie County," said Betty Workman, Benzie County Chamber of Commerce president. "She is very supportive of new businesses; she has great input and always wants the best for the community."

Born in Benzie County, Mary came from a long line of women business owners, so it wasn't a stretch for her to come back and open her own business.

Whether supporting area 4-H groups, discounting fees for students, employing people with special needs, building boats with at-risk youth, promoting the Benzie Area Symphony Orchestra and Betsie Valley Trail, or mentoring new business owners, Mary and her staff are tireless contributors to the community. Weishaar, in fact, was awarded the Citizen of the Year in 2005 and her company was recently recognized as one of the top ten small businesses in the 2007 Hagerty Small Business of the Year Award program through the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.

In Benzonia, another long-time business owner, Jack Gyr, admits it would have been a lot easier to run his screen printing business, Fieldcrafts, if he had moved closer to a city years ago.

"Commercially, it would've been the smart thing to do; I even looked at some buildings at one time, but I like being out here," Gyr said. "I don't regret it at all. My business wouldn't be what it is today if I had moved."

In the early-'90s, Fieldcrafts was at its peak with 63 independent sales representatives and a staff of 32. And then, mall and franchise fever hit in the mid-'90s-Gyr refers to it as "the war years"-and sales fell 35 percent.

"Huge screen printers across the country went out of business," Gyr explained." All the personal and original art disappeared and you could buy T-shirts of every kind everywhere. I'm still paying off debt from those years."

BookWear by Fieldcrafts is what is now carrying the company into the future.

"I knew we had to come up with something new, and quick," Gyr said.

His original and patented idea of a T-shirt compressed into and packaged in the shape of a book was introduced in 2000 and caught on with the higher education market. Bookwear can now be found at over 400 colleges and universities across the country.

Gyr admits it's not an easy profit margin and requires a lot of marketing. He and his staff travel to approximately 25 gift shows each year all over the U.S.

"I have the best staff ever; many are still here who made it through the war years with me," said Gyr, "I couldn't imagine being anywhere else."

In the northwest corner of the county, surrounded by pristine lakes and winding country roads, Almira Township and the Village of Lake Ann are trying to hold onto the small town qualities that make people want to live there. In the past few years, the population has doubled.

One business that has seen and benefited from the growth is Lake Ann Hardwoods, a business run by two brothers who are growing the family business started by their dad in 1980.

"We grew up around it," explained Mark Gabrick, who with his step-brother Mike Brigham have grown the company into one of the main purchasers of standing timber in the northern Michigan area.

Considered a "green mill," Lake Ann Hardwoods sells its 1.2 million board feet each year to regional lumber mills where it is kiln dried and turned into wood for cabinets, furniture, trim and flooring. Over the years, they have watched their shipping costs escalate.

"Trucking is just out of sight," Gabrick offered, "but our location is good because we are in a good timber area, and besides, this is home."

Graceland Fruit Inc.'s president Don Nugent also cites high freight costs as the downside of doing business in Benzie, but can't imagine being anywhere else.

"This is not the most ideal place for moving freight; it's our highest cost because we are way up here on this peninsula," Nugent said. "But this is home, this is our community."

The original Nugent family farm is just up the road and Nugent's son and brother are all involved in the business. They purchase and processes close to 20 percent of Michigan's annual cherry crop, and are a major buyer of frozen blueberries. Graceland Fruit currently sells its products in over 40 countries and buys from 12. It has grown from three employees in 1998 to over 200 today and is one of the area's largest employers.

Their food processing expansion, which started around a year ago, will increase their processing capabilities by 40 percent. This translates into approximately 45 new jobs and is a major contribution to the economic growth of Benzie County under Michigan's Renaissance Zone Program.

Life in small town America endures in Benzie County. It's a place where neighbors greet neighbors and everyone turns out for Friday night football games at the local high schools. Blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and not yet over-developed, it offers the best of both worlds.

"We ask businesses what makes them locate here and the most often answer is because of the passion they feel for our quality of life," said Art Jeannot, president and CEO of Honor State Bank. BN