Nothing to lose Featured

9:58am EDT July 22, 2002

When he was a 20-year-old college student, Wil Schroter sat at a table with 20 executives of Auto Club Insurance Co.—none younger than 50—and suggested they begin using an intranet so all agents could communicate internally.

“I’m sitting in this meeting, just me by myself in a cheap suit,” remembers the fresh-faced president of NGDA, a then-fledgling computer interactive and Web design company he’d founded less than a year earlier.

When Schroter finished his presentation, no one said a word—at first.

“The director of marketing looks at me and says, ‘Do you know that we have letterhead older than you?’” Schroter recalls.

Schroter is among a surprising number of Central Ohio executives who started their businesses before they finished college—or even high school, in cases like Rick Winnestaffer of WinnScapes Inc. in Gahanna and brothers Mike and Kevin Kurlas of Pepper’s New York Delicatessen & Restaurant downtown.

Their early success brings lessons of drive and determination from which any business owner can benefit.

Schroter convinced Auto Club Insurance to become his first big client by using a theory that’s become the company mantra: “There’s nobody really too big, too bad, too unstoppable” to pursue as a client. That has allowed him to grow NGDA from $1.5 million in capitalized billings his first full year in business—1996—to $6.5 million in 1998. The 24-year-old has lofty plans to expand his company from 30 to nearly 100 employees this year and generate revenues nearing $30 million.

As he sits at his desk surrounded by a Slinky, a Darth Vader telephone and other youthful paraphernalia, Schroter devises a word—ageism—for the expectations he’s encountered from people who pay more attention to his birth date than his skills.

“I think people can have capabilities and insight that are independent of their age,” Schroter counters.

Schroter’s capabilities, contends his attorney, John Stock of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, are boosted by his personality.

“He’s always very bright and personable and one of the few people I’ve met able to combine the technical skills with person skills,” Stock says.

Stock met Schroter at his law firm in 1995 when Schroter, a college junior at the time, worked the reception desk to make some extra money. When he heard of Schroter’s business plan, he knew it was good, and, because Schroter was young, that it carried little risk. Although he was concerned about whether Schroter could convince others twice his age of his abilities, Stock says, Schroter overcame that by providing superior service at a lower cost.

Despite Schroter’s business success—his client list now includes Eli Lilly & Co., MasterCard International, Bank One, Best Buy, Univenture and Max & Erma’s Restaurants—his youthful appearance still raises some eyebrows.

As recently as 1997, when he moved from his campus apartment to a house he purchased in Worthington, his neighbors didn’t know what to make of him. After about three months in his new abode, a senior citizen neighbor greeted him as he unloaded his groceries and asked the inevitable: “Young man, when are your parents coming home?”

He’s learned to overcome the age obstacle by being wise to others who try to manipulate him and by learning as much as he can—he reads at least one business or industry book a week.

When he interviews job candidates more than twice his age, he tells them if they’re looking for excitement and a challenge, they’ll get it at NGDA.

“They see an aspiring young entrepreneur who has a track record of success,” says Schroter, noting that no employee has left the company since its founding more than three years ago. “It’s easy to get past the age thing.”

He also relates to employees with the unique perspective of looking at corporate life from the top down so early.

“I think, being young, I probably have less pretense. I’m a little more receptive,” he says. “I can’t say, ‘Been there, done that; I’m not interested in what you have to say.’”

Selling 60 percent of his business to Gerbig, Snell/Weisheimer & Associates Inc. in 1997 helped Schroter, too, by giving him an association with a company that already had an “impeccable reputation,” he says, and access to more big-name clients.

Considering that nearly everyone he works with is his elder, Schroter also learns from them.

One mentor has been GSW Chairman and CEO Robert Gerbig, 53, who provides the experience and hindsight Schroter lacks because of his age.

“There are certain things that transcend the industry,” Schroter says of what he’s learned from Gerbig. “It’s just business as a whole: how to manage money, how to manage employees, how to represent yourself to clients.”

Now Schroter—who remains a few classes short of a double major in marketing and computer science at Ohio State—offers his own advice to young entrepreneurs: “Do it and do it now. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

After all, Schroter himself has come a long way from his first campus area office, which did not have heat or air conditioning and was located above the Newport Music Hall. Last year, he was listed as one of America’s “top 50 up-and-comers” by P.O.V. magazine, a 300,000-circulation publication that caters to young male professionals.

“It’s funny, because 20 years from now I’ll be able to say I’m one of the oldest veterans of this business,” he says, “which is so strange.”

Kevin and Michael Kurlas

What bothers Kevin and Michael Kurlas most is that no one took them seriously when they spoke about their dreams of opening a New York-style deli in Columbus.

Now, however, the brothers admit they can hardly blame their skeptics. They were, after all, 14 and 16 when they hatched the idea while having lunch at The Carnegie Deli in Manhattan on a business trip with their father.

About two years later, in 1994, they made good on their vision by opening a delivery and catering business in rented space down the street from their high school in Reynoldsburg. The business expanded into a rented, converted garage nearby and, in 1996, became the full-fledged Pepper’s New York Delicatessen & Restaurant on High Street downtown. By September 1997, the then-21- and 23-year-old brothers were making enough money to take home regular salaries and, in 1998, they expected annual revenues of $700,000. This year, their goal is to hit $1 million.

It took years of research—visiting New York delis, asking questions of the owners, often on the pretense of completing a high school project, and talking to suppliers—to recreate the Manhattan experience, right down to the exact layers of meat and cheese on the sandwich and the autographed pictures of celebrities lining the walls.

“You don’t reinvent the wheel when it rolls down the street correctly,” Kevin Kurlas, now 22, points out. “New Yorkers do it a certain way and it’s phenomenal.”

The two are quick to give credit where it’s due for their success. Their father, Nick Kurlas, gave them advice from his military experience and family restaurant history, and their mother, Linda, took early retirement from a nursing career to help them. They also give kudos to their former Reynoldsburg High School principal, Dan Hoffman, who allowed Kevin to split his senior year days between classes and work at the business.

Hoffman, now project director for the Ohio Principals Academy and executive director of the Coalition of Essential Schools, says Kevin provided Reynoldsburg with an example of how a school can help students by thinking “out of the box.”

Hoffman, who didn’t know Michael as well, credits Kevin’s success to h is personality.

“Kevin’s got a great smile. He’ll look you in the eye with a firm handshake and he wants to do business with you,” says Hoffman, who occasionally has lunch at his former students’ deli.

The Kurlas brothers say their goals are to make Pepper’s a household name and sell licenses for other restaurants. Already they’ve got agreements with Caribou Coffee to sell their sandwiches and salads. While they’re boasting 12 employees between the two Pepper’s locations—a second opened in Ashtabula in late 1996—they’re aware of the problems and the advantages their youth gave them.

“You’d run into a lot of food vendors that would try to give you cheese that had been dropped and was misshaped—they’d think you’d think that’s just the way it came,” says Michael, who just turned 25. “Nobody took you very seriously. The ones that believed in us, we continued doing business with them.”

Robert Welcher, president of Restaurants Consultants Inc. in Columbus, says he’s impressed with the quality of Pepper’s food, the loyal following the deli draws and the fact that the Kurlas brothers have diversified into catering.

“I think it’s interesting, the fact that they started young enough without any preconceived notions that they couldn’t do it, and that it’s such a high mortality rate in the business,” he says, noting that restaurants have an 80 percent failure rate in the first year, and even if they make it the second year, they have a 50-50 chance of making it to the fifth. “Their ignorance is bliss, I guess.”

The brothers say young entrepreneurs should realize that starting a business takes a lot of sacrifice.

“Stay focused, stay focused and stay focused,” says Michael. “That would definitely be it. It’s so easy to be derailed if you’re not really focused, especially being young and seeing a lot of what everybody else has.”

“I think the key to finding the early success like they have done is they found something that they’re passionate about,” Hoffman says, “and then they work hard and have big dreams.”

Rick Winnestaffer

Officially, Rick Winnestaffer says he founded his landscape services business in 1981, when he was 18. Unofficially, however, the roots of his entrepreneurship sprouted much earlier.

“I remember when I was in elementary school, I made my first [lawn care] flier and paid the elementary school secretary to mimeograph it,” he says.

In eighth grade, he hired his first employee, a classmate, and bought his first tractor, which he drove to the site of his first commercial client, KinderCare Learning Center in East Columbus.

His business, which came to be known as WinnScapes Inc., simply grew as he did.

“At that time, it was a simple equation. The harder I worked, the more money I made, which is far from the truth today,” he says, noting that his focus is now more on how he’s doing his work rather than what he’s doing. “Those were like the good old days compared to today.”

As a teenager starting his own business, Winnestaffer didn’t realize his age might work as a disadvantage for him.

“I’ve always believed I could do anything that I decided to do,” he says.

Soon, however, his youth got in the way. One of his first challenges came from a family that owned multiple properties and, despite being pleased with Winnestaffer’s work, told him they’d pay him 50 percent of his bill or he could sue them. Initially he reacted like a typical 17-year-old and flew off the handle.

Then he decided to hold his ground.

“I ended up collecting about 90 percent,” he says.

At age 18, he decided he’d be taken more seriously if he raised his prices.

“If they were paying $100 and I could do it for 50 bucks, then I’d be perceived as a half-price person,” he says. Raising his prices made him appear more professional—especially when he was competing for commercial business, he says.

Some fellow business owners found Winnestaffer’s youthful energy refreshing.

“Working with other business people, when they’d interact with me and see my work ethic and drive, they wanted to almost reward that by giving me more business,” he says.

Thomas F. Luft, secretary/treasurer of Luft & Associates Insurance Agency Inc. in Columbus, was one of them. At the time, Luft had an office building in East Columbus, and Winnestaffer, then in his late teens or early 20s, offered his landscaping services for Luft’s business and home.

“He was very aggressive, very outgoing,” Luft says of Winnestaffer. “He sort of reminded me of me, because that’s how I was when I was that young—first one to get ahead and wanted to make a good impression and wanted to do things for people.”

Winnestaffer also took advantage of what he could learn from business owners like Luft.

“I spent a lot of time talking to clients who were business people, not to learn from what they said, but to be exposed to how they thought,” he says.

Now 36, Winnestaffer sees 15 percent growth per year in the $2.5 million to $3 million combined revenues of WinnScapes Inc., his landscape services business, and WinnProperties Inc., which owns more than 70 single-family rental homes. Together these businesses have 46 employees.

Winnestaffer says he had certain advantages starting out young: he had minimal investment, he wasn’t supporting himself so he had no overhead and he could afford to make mistakes.

He would, however, recommend that a young entrepreneur wait until completing college before starting a business, because both will suffer if they’re attempted at the same time.

“I would be more successful if I had a Harvard business degree,” says Winnestaffer, who studied landscape architecture part time at Ohio State and often considers completing the degree. He also toys with the idea of obtaining a law degree from Capital University.

“I’m intrigued by the law, fascinated with the moral and legal dilemmas that you’re faced with—balancing the morality, the religious convictions and the legal aspects of a given situation,” he says.

When asked to offer advice to young entrepreneurs, Winnestaffer—who was a 1996 and 1997 finalist for the Greater Columbus Small Business Award—rattles off a litany.

  • “If you want to be successful at business, be prepared to make the sacrifices.”

  • “Get the best education you can afford to provide the best foundation to grow from.”

  • “The earlier you get up, the harder you work, the more you’ll get done.”

  • “‘No’ never means ‘no.’”

  • “You’re only limited by what you can think of.”