Small change lands couple big Alaska business award

Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2004

ANCHORAGE It took a love for what they do and a melding of talents for Mike and Michele Robuck to grow the Alaska Mint from a one-coin operation to a diversified and thriving business.

That love, mixed with hard work has delivered the Robucks personal satisfaction, business success, and has earned them the distinction of being named the 2004 Alaska Small Business Persons of the Year.

Awarded since 1963 by the Alaska District of the U.S. Small Business Administration, the small business person of the year award is given to a business that among other criteria displays staying power, grows its financial and employee base, overcomes adversity and innovates.

"It's the people really more than the business," that the award recognizes, said William Wheat of the public affairs office of the Alaska District of the SBA.

As the people behind the Alaska Mint, the Robucks have poured their energy into building their business successfully on several fronts. With one medallion design featuring a fisher, Mike started the Alaska Mint, expanding on the coin division at the family jewelry store that his father started in 1967.

In 1989, Mike ran his business from a sidewalk vending cart in downtown Anchorage before leasing the "Old City Hall" building on Fourth Avenue. In 1991, the Alaska Mint struck 18,000 medallions, selling them for $9.95 each. Now, Mike and Michele design, manufacture, wholesale and retail an array of unique medallions, watches, Alaska souvenirs, jewelry, and custom designs, with the majority of products retailing for between $30 and $75.

Alaska Mint products are still available at their newest store at 429 West Fourth Avenue, but can also be found on the Internet and in catalogues, as well as being sold wholesale to other retailers. The Alaska Mint even had a three-minute stint on the QVC home shopping network, during which they sold $35,000 worth of medallions.

Michele became Mike's business partner after the two married in 1994. Michele's strong business background complemented Mike's design talents. Michele said the two have been able to learn from each other and, in turn, make the Alaska Mint a stronger business.

"Mike and I are a good combination. I come from a business background and he comes from a background in jewelry," Michele said. "When we started working on this together, it allowed me to be more creative, and I brought the knowledge of the business end of it."

Michele partly gives credit to clever and well-directed advertising to the business's success in addition to the QVC appearance, the mint has broadcast the start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on its Web site. But all the advertising in the world will not sustain a business if those behind it lack an honest desire and intense dedication to their work.

"You have to start with doing something you really love to do," Michele said, speaking about what makes some businesses succeed while others fail. "Every day you're going to come and spend hours and hours at work. You really have to want to be there and do it. And it really just takes a lot of hard work, and maybe a little bit of luck, maybe a lot of luck."

The mix of creativity and business sense that goes into the Alaska Mint has helped keep the passion alive for the Robucks.

"I can do two different things, I can be very active in the business end, which I enjoy doing, as well as designing coins and designing jewelry, which makes me a more well-rounded and happy person," Michele said.

Variety also has made the Alaska Mint a more profitable place to work.

"We're not just a retail store, and we're not just manufacturers ... we don't get bored with just doing one thing," Michele said. "We've diversified so if wholesale is down, then maybe retail is up."

Winners of the yearly award are not chosen haphazardly. First, they must be nominated by an outside source. Although anyone can nominate, the SBA's Wheat says it is often banks or other lending institutions that provide the nominations. The nomination process entails describing why the nominated business meets a long list of criteria that evolves each year. Those nominees are then evaluated by a judging committee

Nominations are limited to those businesses that qualify as a "small business" under the administration's guidelines. Wheat said the term "small business" may have a broader application than that which is perceived by the general public.

"Most people just think of a mom and pop business," Wheat said. But the award criteria allows the distinction to be earned by "rather large business in terms of money and number of employees." Wheat said most businesses in Alaska generally fit the small business profile.

The Robucks were nominated by their bank, First National Bank.

"It's quite a honor to have your own bank nominate you, they've always been very helpful," Michele said.

First National Bank has a good track record of delivering the eventual winners to the SBA's judging committee. First National Bank also nominated last year's winners, Julie Drake and Steve Lloyd of Title Wave Books.

"First National Bank consistently puts together good packages," Wheat said.

Other recent winners of the Alaska Small Business Person of the year award include George and Peggy Brown of the Lucky Wishbone in 2002, and Dave Cottrell of Mikunda, Cottrell & Co. in 2001.

Tyler Rhodes is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

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