Speaking from experience: Business owners see challeneges, opportunity in economy

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

The local economic climate gets mixed reviews from a small sampling of business owners, but all agree opportunity is available to entrepreneurs with a good business sense and work ethic.

A construction worker who supplements his income commercial fishing, the new owner of an established flower shop, a retail manager who quit her job and recently opened a feed store, and a computer specialist who works out of his home have different stories to tell, but their themes are the same -- small businesses don't succeed by chance.

Gary Heaverley operates Rocks Drywall out of his home. He's been in the construction business for 35 years, moving to the Kenai Peninsula in 1995. He's feeling the sting from a downturn in new construction.

"Things have been pretty slow," he says. "I don't get as many calls as I used to."

Despite the tough times in the construction industry, Heaverley says his finances are stable. The keys to his success as a businessman, he says, are being opportunistic and good at what he does.

Drywall and painting work is busiest in the fall, says Heaverley. When business is slower in the summer, he fishes commercially. Last summer was a good fishing season, helping pick up the slack from his drywall business.

Because new construction is down, competition for jobs has been tough this winter. Heaverley was able to find work on the new Kenai library, he says, because he has built a good reputation and developed contacts in the industry.

"I'm pretty sure everyone is feeling the pinch" says Heaverley. "It helps quite a bit to be diversified."

Kim Mariman attributes much of her success to customer service. Mariman purchased Tammy's Flowers and Gifts in Soldotna about a year ago after being the business' banker for a number of years.

"I knew it was a great business," she says. "I thought, 'What the heck.'"

Although Tammy's was a well-established business, Mariman knew it would not thrive on reputation alone. She worked hard on customer service, injecting her own personality and energy into the store. She paid attention to the quality of her flowers and offered her product at competitive prices. She takes advantage of her 1,600-square-foot store, offering a variety of gifts and creating a fun shopping experience for her customers.

As a result, profits are up 3 percent in her first year.

From her experience, Mariman says business owners that struggle tend to focus too much on the nuts and bolts and not enough on the customers.

"You gotta love everybody," she says. "(Some business owners) think 'Build it and they will come,' and it's not that way because people have options."

Mariman's advice to new business owners?

"Believe in yourself and believe in your product," she says.

Sarah Donchi is a brand new member of the small business community. She worked in management and operations at Home Depot for six years before deciding to take a chance opening Kenai Feed and Supply a couple weeks ago. Donchi is banking on her experience as a retail manager and her community knowledge to make the new business successful.

She has raised a variety of animals -- including horses, chickens, goats and sheep -- in the area for the past 14 years. As a result, she knows many people in the "animal community." She also has noticed an increase in the number of people who are raising chickens and livestock, which she attributes to a downturn in the economy and a desire to eat homegrown food. With only one feed store in the area, she saw an opportunity to turn her love of animals into a business.

"Obviously it's been a tough economy and not a great time to open a brand new business," Donchi says. So far, though, "things are going real well."

One unexpected frustration is her inability to get loans. Interest rates are low, but convincing a bank to loan her money has been difficult, despite her excellent credit, she says.

Currently she operates out of a 1,700-square-foot building and is constructing a warehouse for storage. She was hoping business loans would speed her growth and not force her to dip so deeply into her personal savings.

"This will change how the business proceeds," she says.

Instead of hiring a full-time and part-time employees to help her run the business, Donchi is doing everything by herself. She hopes to hire a part-time worker in the spring when the feed business picks up.

Donchi encourages other entrepreneurs to look beyond the bad economic headlines.

"Just because the economy isn't doing great doesn't mean there aren't opportunities out there," she says.

John and Kristine Viens have a unique perspective on the local climate for small businesses. They have operated Alaska Computers out of their Nikiski home since moving to the area from Kansas City in 2005. Kristine keeps the books while John helps small businesses and individuals with their computer and networking needs.

Computers are a necessity in almost all small businesses, offering the Viens a window into the local economy. In general, their customers are cautious and a little nervous, but "it's not to the point where people are caving in," the Viens say.

Kristine notices people are more conscious of costs than they were a year ago.

"One of the first questions people ask when they call is, 'What do you charge?'" says Kristine.

Another disturbing trend the Viens have observed is customers not paying their bills. In the past year, the Viens have absorbed a half-dozen bounced checks. In their previous five years of business, it never happened once.

Even though some of their customers are struggling, the Viens are doing well and love being the owners of a small business.

"We've been very pleased," says John. "We hit a niche market."

Not all computer businesses like the Viens have been successful in the local economy, though. Phone calls to a couple other businesses listed under "Computers -- Service and Repair" in the phone book ended with messages that the number is no longer in service.

The Viens take pride in their product and customer service. Computer technicians are not known for their people skills, says John. His ability to talk with people and establish good relationships has been a key component to the success of the business.

"I just had a customer tell me, 'Most computer people make me feel stupid and you don't make me feel stupid,'" says John. "I think what has kept us going is we do what we say we're going to do and we keep the customer informed and involved."

Another key to their success, say the Viens, is they have done everything out-of-pocket, refusing to take out loans. That's critical in months when income drops.

"We're not looking at massive bills we have to pay out," says John.

The Viens haven't done everything perfectly. They jumped into the business without a formal plan and early on learned the hard way about managing money and paying attention to the details of running a business.

Overall, though, owning a business has been a dream come true. It has allowed them to work together and homeschool their three children. They haven't become rich, but they are comfortable and happy and John no longer works 14-hour days for an IT company in Kansas City.

"I was going for quality of life," says John.

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