Joan Wall

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:02

Pass it on

The holiday season has allowed Columbus advertising agency Young Isaac Inc. to spread cheer - and provide evidence of the firm's mission: to craft messages that change behavior.

"The behavior we wanted to inspire was charitable giving, and we wanted to do it in a way that didn't toot our own horn as much as give our recipients the direct experience of giving," says agency President Artie Isaac.

In 1995 and 1996, the firm sent $5 checks, with the payee line left blank, to its A-list of customers, friends and prospects, encouraging them to fill in the name of a charity of their choice and forward it to that organization.

Isaac says similar direct mail pieces generally garner a 2 or 3 percent response rate, but of the approximately 1,000 checks he mailed over the course of those two years, more than 50 percent were forwarded to charities.

The project cost Isaac less than $5,000 each year, including the design, printing and postage of the direct mail piece, plus the donations. His agency also received positive publicity and kudos from clients-who often increased their donation by adding a second check of their own.

In an effort to increase the participation rate in 1997 and this year, Isaac's chosen a different route, sending tangible gifts that he says could be "directed to charities and other happy secondary recipients."

"We are unwilling to have anything less than 100 percent redemption," he adds.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:02

A NICE place to find money

Necessity may be the key to invention, but what happens when there's no money to back the invention?

Kent Knaebel, president of Adsorption Research Inc. in Dublin, needed to find out after he'd been encouraged by Ashland Chemical Co. to devise a way to recover sulfur dioxide, a catalyst used in foundry operations.

Sulfur dioxide and a carrier gas are used only once in such processes and then discarded.

"The two turn out to be expensive," Knaebel says. "Not for a minute's worth of use, but when you combine, say, 16 hours a day, 300 to 365 days a year, it really mounts up. It's a tremendous expense. Not only that, but it hurts the environment and it consumes a lot of energy."

Adsorption Research worked with Ashland to devise a process to recover 99.5 percent of the sulfur dioxide and 99.8 percent of the carrier gas used in metal casting operations.

However, Knaebel had no funds to manufacture the special units in which the process needed to take place-or to market them to the industry.

Knaebel found his answer in a U.S. Department of Energy grant program called National Industrial Competitiveness through Energy, Environment and Economics, referred to as NICE3.

The overall goal of the program is to encourage new technologies aimed at improving energy efficiency, reducing industry costs and promoting clean production processes.

Knaebel estimates it took him about five days to complete the grant application. Without the grant of about $250,000, he says, he would not have been able to attempt the project, because he would have been forced to take out a loan, against which his company does not have a lot of collateral to support.

"This way if the business is successful, the government will make back easily what they put into it, mostly in taxes," Knaebel says. "Plus there will be less pollution and the amount of energy consumed by the different industries will be reduced."

The NICE3 program is designed to benefit the state's economy and industry through technology developments. Companies funded under the program must share information on their project by, for example, publishing their findings or presenting papers at technical meetings.

Knaebel is using his grant-which will pay for about 45 percent of the project-to develop a prototype unit to be tested in a foundry, he hopes by June 1999. Once the project is proven successful, he'll make larger units and then decide whether to sell the units, lease them or furnish them but charge for product processed.

For more information on the NICE3 program, call John Greenway at the Ohio Department of Development's Office of Energy Efficiency, 466-7406.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:01

Total exposure

D. Searcy, owner of Terra Cotta, tells job interviewees what a dirty, back-breaking job they’ll get themselves into if she hires them at her pottery and garden accessories store.

“They don’t see the underbelly of the workings of Terra Cotta,” she explains. “They just see, ‘Oh, isn’t this a lovely environment.’

“In the interview process I try to be realistic, but if anything, I want to err on the side of how difficult it is to work here.”

Her frankness is the first step in ensuring that she hires the right person. After interviews, she tells candidates to call her the next day if they’re still interested.

“That tells me two things. One, they have to take some sort of initiative on their own to call me. Two, it lets me know whether they follow up in a way I ask them,” she says.

Then she hires them for a week, during which time either party can back out of the deal. It isn’t until after that week that she even thinks about putting them on her permanent work schedule.

Searcy says giving the candidate an honest, complete description about work expectations—and about her management style—sets the stage to bring up any discrepancies in the employees’ work performance later. She also has a better chance that the person will fit in with her staff of nine.

“We are a small business, and this is practically my second home—some people say it’s my first home,” she says. “I tell people, ‘I want to be happy here, and I want you, if you’re working here, to be happy here, because life is too short for both of us to be miserable.’”

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:01

National Realty Services Inc.

Dramatic growth awaits National Realty Services Inc. this year, due to a partnership with a well-capitalized New York-based firm.

National Realty partnered with Apollo Real Estate Advisors LP nearly a year ago to acquire real estate in the Midwest. Already, National Realty has purchased five properties—worth $50 million—and has nearly $70 million more under contract, thanks to the Apollo agreement.

The National Realty team will use its talents of purchasing empty or underleased buildings, rehabilitating older buildings and purchasing new ones to accomplish Apollo’s goals of acquiring real estate and creating value in it, says National Realty Services President Ron Huff.

Apollo does not enter a market unless it can acquire at least $100 million worth of real estate, says Huff, adding there’s no limit on investments. That’s an overwhelming explosion from the $5 million to $6 million value National Realty might have added to its real estate portfolio—property it either owns or manages—in a given year without Apollo’s assistance.

On the revenue end, Huff is anticipating 25 to 30 percent growth in 1999. He’s also got a window of opportunity. With the real estate market slowing, there’s not as much competition for buying buildings, so prices have come down, he says.

Look for Huff to take advantage of the opening and launch the company into a fierce cycle of growth.

National Realty Services Inc.
5131 Post Road, Dublin
Ronald A. Huff, president/CEO
Founded 1976
Employees: 50
1997 revenues: $3 million range
Estimated 1998 revenues: $3.4 million
Revenue growth, ’96 to ’97: Flat
Ownership: Private
Major projects: Port Columbus Executive Park, Westbelt Corporate Center, Crosswoods Center, Cumberland Trail golf community

Sunday, 21 July 2002 20:00

Clearing the air

Local agencies provide plenty of free assistance to small businesses interested in pollution reduction and prevention, but the differences between agencies can be confusing.

Sunbury Cleaners & Laundry Ltd. President Dennis Bell received financial assistance from the Ohio Air Quality Development Authority's Clean Air Resource Center, created when the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 were passed. The center acts as an ombudsman, dealing with financing and complaints against the Ohio or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Created at the same time was the Small Business Assistance Program at the Ohio EPA, which functions as a consultant to advise businesses about air pollution issues, says program supervisor Rick Carleski. The program can assess the business to determine what kind of air pollution permits are needed and help the business owner fill out necessary forms.

"We do this as an on-site service, so the business owner doesn't have to leave the company," Carleski says, noting that the program serves independently owned businesses with 100 or fewer employees.

Another unique facet of the Small Business Assistance Program and the Clean Air Resource Center is its records and services remain confidential to encourage small businesses to seek assistance.

Overseeing both the resource center and the Small Business Assistance Program is a board, independent of the EPA, that ensures the effectiveness of both organizations.

Assistance in pollution reduction is also available through the EPA's Office of Pollution Prevention, which works to help companies minimize waste emissions to air, water or land. That office has a loan program, too.

In addition, business owners can contact the EPA's Small Business Assistance Office, which offers a hotline for questions regarding environmental regulations and on-site visits to discuss air, waste, water and other EPA requirements. Again, the office does not share information with EPA enforcement or inspection staff.

The Small Business Assistance Office also helps with permit applications and forms and holds environmental workshops on topics such as preparing for an EPA inspection. The office's assistance is available to independently owned businesses with fewer than 100 employees in Franklin and nine surrounding counties.

For more information, contact:



Monday, 22 July 2002 10:00

Technology road well traveled

Ohio's Division of Travel and Tourism struggled to find and track marketing leads. The Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau's expenditures included a call center and mail response.

Thanks to technology, the two have swapped responsibilities, saving time and money in the process.

Changes began in 1996, when the travel and tourism staff investigated how telephone and computer technology could improve the 1-800-BUCKEYE system, through which tourists request travel information be mailed to them.

Now, an advanced system, called the BUCKEYE Information Network, has streamlined that process, decreasing costs at a time when call volume is up nearly 33 percent.

Planning the trip

Developing the network involved creating an advanced, Web-based databank that would serve as a unified source for tourism information previously maintained in separate databases with 1-800-BUCKEYE travel counselors; the division's Web site,; state tourism publications; and division staff.

The network would not be complete, however, without a telephone system that would handle a large call capacity. It also had to include automation capabilities and the ability to track the time and source of calls.

"What we ended up with was a combination between AT&T and CallTech Communications," says Jim Epperson, interim state tourism director.

AT&T has the capacity to handle the call volume and the computer network to collect caller information, including the originating number, date and time. Columbus-based CallTech, which created the new databank, has Web and intranet capabilities enabling travel counselors to access the databank when callers request personal assistance instead of using the automated system.

Multiple phone numbers can also be wired into the system, meaning tourist attractions around the state can maintain their own phone numbers and track call volume without having to staff a center of their own. That prompted 14 other entities, such as the Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Cedar Point and SeaWorld to partner with the tourism division.

Partners pay for advertising and promotion to motivate calls to their numbers, which ring into the BUCKEYE system. The travel and tourism network then mails out requested information with an OhioPass Travel Planner and a state map to encourage additional state travel.

In essence, the partners do advertising and marketing work for the division.

"If we just rely on our money for advertising and our money to answer the phone, it can cost us anywhere between $5 and $20 to generate an inquiry," Epperson says. Now, Travel and Tourism can use money it would have spent on advertising in conjunction with those partnerships to support other marketing plans.

In 1997, the division placed $4.1 million in advertising to generate calls to 1-800-BUCKEYE, with private tourism entities providing $3 million of that. In contrast, last year the division expected $6 million of the $7.1 million in advertising money would come from the private sector.

That's OK with Kari Kauffman, director of tourism for the Greater Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau, who appreciates not having to staff a call center of her own anymore.

"We see roughly a savings of somewhere around $115,000 to $125,000 over a year's period," Kauffman says. "So that enables us to put those dollars into other marketing programs."

Reaching the destination

Going high tech and joining forces has saved the tourism division and its partners more than money. It's cut down on headaches and inefficiencies.

Kauffman says the bureau used to rely on a paper trail of updates and changes to events in the city when callers requested information.

"Now we can update our own information on the database or on our Web site, because those are the two resources they use to answer callers's questions," she says. "The whole process is streamlined so much easier."

The databank includes information from almost 4,000 private sector tourism entities. Changes in that information can be made by the individual entity and will appear on the databank and Web site in less than 24 hours. Previously, the state division compiled information yearly through a mailing.

"When you have a mass mailing once a year, you're treating the business as though it's static," Epperson laments.

Partners receive information-on a daily basis-about callers.

"It's a good tool to measure the effectiveness of our advertising and our marketing efforts," Kauffman says.

In addition, the Division of Travel and Tourism benefits from a name/address lookup feature. Previously, callers recorded their request and address on tape, which were then manually entered as an order. Now, the system prompts the caller to input a phone number and matches it automatically to a mailing address in a matter of seconds at a match rate of 80 percent.

"It means we've had a drop in the call length on the automated ordering from over two minutes to under one minute," Epperson says.

The division can now more accurately process the mail and take advantage of more postal discounts.

Postage costs per order have dropped nearly 18 percent, and that doesn't even show the savings the division has realized from a reduction in undeliverable mail due to bad addresses. The division estimated savings of more than $150,000 in transcription and postage costs per year because of the new technology.

The division expects to see an increase in revenues to the state as more marketing leads are generated through partners and tourists find greater ease in using the Web site and automated system.

"If we can get the statewide material in somebody's hands-regardless of why they were initially interested in Ohio," Epperson says, "they travel to the state and not only travel to their initial interest, but we get either a longer stay or an additional visit."

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:58

Frank Simonetti

Frank Simonetti says he has three heroes: Groucho Marx, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Orson Welles.

“Each one of them took the best of what they had and went as far as they could with it. They were all great at what they did,” says the owner of Frank’s Diner at the North Market and Damon’s franchises in Gahanna and Pickerington. “I’ve always appreciated people that make the best of what they are or what they have—what God’s given them,” he says.

Simonetti, who initially wanted to be a teacher, says he found his God-given gift during a summer job he took while attending college in New York.

“I thought teaching was the most honorable profession in the world. I always have—I still do,” he says. However, when this son of an Italian father and Russian/Prussian mother, both of whom loved to cook, went from waiting tables at a friend’s restaurant that summer to taking over for a chef who quit, he knew his life was headed in another direction. After all, Simonetti, now 54, has worked in restaurants since he was 12.

“I realized I had a gift that I could cook, and that’s when I decided I was going to develop it,” he says.

He didn’t stray far from his belief in the benefits of teaching, however, and sought apprenticeships under chefs throughout the country, including at such famous venues as Tavern on the Green in New York, where he was kitchen manager, and Chasen’s Restaurant in California.

“I did nothing but whip and chop and peel for a year before I could do anything,” he says, admitting that’s how he earned his wings.

He even traveled to France, Italy and Austria for a year to learn more after selling out of a restaurant venture in California.

“I’d go to restaurants and if they wouldn’t hire me, I’d offer to work for nothing just to get the experience,” he says.

He was seven years into a stint in Colorado when, at his nephew’s wedding in Columbus, his brother Gene asked if he wanted to go into the restaurant business here.

The two opened Simonetti’s Many Moods Cafe in the Continent in 1979 and, a year later, agreed to a partnership suggested by Irving Rossman, who owned a rib joint at Broad and James called Damon’s.

At that point Simonetti faced a difficult decision: stay in fine foods, or “do this rib thing.”

“I thought if I was half the chef I thought I was, I could do anything. I could take this rib thing and turn it into a growing concern,” he says. He did. In the nine years that followed, Damon’s grew by 20 restaurants under the leadership of Rossman and the Simonettis.

In 1989, Simonetti and his brother sold their interest in the chain that has now grown to 130 restaurants. Simonetti kept two: sentimentally, the original at Broad and James, which he later moved to Gahanna, and one in Pickerington. He’s still working to bring Frank’s Diner, which opened in 1996, to profitability, but hopes that his plans to add a private entrance will bring more customers—since people mistakenly think the diner closes when the North Market does—as will the nearby development of Nationwide Arena. Simonetti’s three businesses currently net $5 million annually and employ nearly 200.

The value of teaching resurfaced abruptly in Simonetti’s life about two years ago when he began to lose some interest in the Damon’s operations.

“Sales were slipping all of a sudden. Things weren’t rolling along as they usually do, plus competition stiffened,” he says. “I was basically letting employees run the business without the direction from me they wanted and needed.”

Without Simonetti as their teacher, employee morale slipped. It was a rude awakening for Simonetti. He knew he needed to reinvest—financially and mentally—in the businesses.

“Knowledge doesn’t do anybody any good unless you share it,” he says.

He returned to making his presence known at the restaurants, taking check-signing privileges away from employees, personally managing all the cash flow aspects and ensuring that managers had the tools—and know-how—they needed to be more productive.

By mid-1998, he began to see an upswing.

“I’ve made this business and I built it. I wasn’t going to let it dwindle to nothing, which is where it could have gone if I just kept my back turned,” he says.

Simonetti’s also sharing his expertise outside his business, serving as president of the Central Ohio Restaurant Association and as a board member of the Greater Columbus Hotel and Motel Association and the Ohio Restaurant Association. In addition, he regularly participates in career days at Westerville schools.

Cameron Mitchell, who Simonetti succeeded at the helm of the local restaurant association, notes Simonetti’s creativity and passion for food.

“I find he’s always in the middle of things somehow, someway, and always trying to push the envelope and further his career in the restaurant industry,” Mitchell says. “And I think he’s done a terrific job at it. Last year when I took over the restaurant association, I really wanted to turn it around and move it forward, and I think Frank, in his presidency this year, has done a phenomenal job of keeping things going in furthering our association and our industry in Central Ohio.”

Simonetti coordinates the catering for the annual North Market Apron Gala and is a member of the Columbus Italian Club and House of Hope, an organization that runs rehabilitation centers for indigent men and women.

Asked what he considers to be his greatest accomplishments, the normally verbose Simonetti shrugs and pauses.

“I’ve got a life,” he says, referring not just to his family and home, but also to his businesses and employees. He carries in his date book a sort of photo biography—a stack of pictures, actually: his wife of 15 years, a 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter, an 80-acre farm in Knox County and a Harley-Davidson Heritage Softtail, which he’s ordered anew since it was stolen last summer.

“My dream when I was a kid was to open my own restaurant, and I’ve more than accomplished that,” he says. “To obtain a childhood dream like that is more than I could hope for.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:58

Nothing to lose

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.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:57

Street smarts

Looking for a key to Wall Street’s secrets? Think baby boomers.

A trio of Fifth Third Bank executives predict that 1999’s successful stock market picks will be influenced by this now-aging generation, as well as developments in technology.

As the 35 to 65 age group grows, it will influence health care and financial industries, says John B. Schmitz, the bank’s director of portfolio management. He and colleagues James D. Berghausen, senior vice president and chief investment officer, and Roberta O. Tucker, director of fixed income strategy, outlined their 1999 investment forecasts earlier this year at a panel discussion in Columbus.

“Baby boomers continue to demonstrate that they fight the aging process,” says Berghausen in predicting that health care industries will burgeon.

In the financial realm, Tucker says, those baby boomers, who have of late been spending their money, will begin looking toward retirement.

“They’re thinking Social Security probably isn’t going to be there, so that is great for brokerage and investment stocks,” she says.

Technology also will be a safe stock bet, notes Schmitz, considering statistics that show half of all American households have PCs and the usage of the Internet is doubling every 90 days.

“In five years, usage of telephone lines will be taken up 90 percent by sending data,” Schmitz says. “So there are opportunities in technology and communications.”

One local company — Cardinal Health Inc. [NYSE: CAH,], which the panel noted for its “excellent management team” — was among the panel’s stock picks for 1999. The remaining list:

• Intel Corp.; NASDAQ: INTC;

• EMC Corp.; NYSE: EMC;

• Texas Instruments Inc.; NYSE: TXN;

• MCI WorldCom Inc.; NASDAQ: WCOM;

• Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.; NYSE: BMY;

• Marsh & McLennan Cos. Inc.; NYSE: MMC;

• The Bank of New York Co. Inc.; NYSE: BK;

• Tyco International Ltd.; NYSE: TYC;

• Service Corp. International; NYSE: SRV;

• Comair Holdings Inc.; NASDAQ: COMR;

• Illinois Tool Works Inc.; NYSE: ITW;

So how have Fifth Third’s experts fared in past Wall Street gambles? Their 1998 list of 14 stocks returned 37 percent; Standard & Poor’s 500 returned 30 percent for the same time period, Berghausen says.

Keep in mind, he adds, a portfolio isn’t built on just a handful of stocks.

“The principle of diversification is the most important,” he says.

Joan Slattery Wall ( is a reporter for SBN Columbus.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:57

In a rush?

Just call them the pinch hitters.

Employees at A.E. Cole Co., an East Columbus manufacturer of injection molds for plastics, have made a habit of coming through when clients get stuck short of a deadline.

In fact, it happens so often that the company is carving a niche out of this service. Just a few years ago, the rush jobs — which company project and sales engineer Jay Minor calls “escalated deliveries” — made up about 20 percent of A.E. Cole’s business. Now, it’s closer to 35 percent.

Take, for example, a recent project for The Ohio Plastics Co., a Honda supplier with several plants in the state. Minor quoted Ohio Plastics a 12-week delivery time for the requested molds, but like many such orders, the product development and design process on the client’s end took longer than expected. By the time the job arrived in Minor’s hands, he had only seven weeks to complete it.

Minor sees this ability to deliver in emergencies or incredibly tight time frames as the most important service he offers customers.

“Quality is expected,” he says. “I’m not going to get customers because our quality is good, because everybody can produce top quality in this market. I can’t compete with everybody’s price. One thing I can do for my boss or my customer is to make sure the product can succeed by making sure their delivery date is set.”

The result: customer loyalty. A.E. Cole president Ron Cole says repeat customers make up about 80 percent of his business.

The $2 million company makes a profit on about 60 percent of its rush jobs, Minor says, but even the break-even or money-losing jobs are worthwhile if they allow the company to introduce its skills to a client or prove its ability to meet a hefty request.

To prepare for the pinch-hitter role, A.E. Cole focuses on:

  • Cross training Everyone at A.E. Cole knows how to run certain machines, Minor says, and some jobs can be completed by numerous different employees.

  • Technology Last summer, A.E. Cole invested $100,000 in a computer software program that enabled the company to quickly alter an entire project with a change in one detail along the way. The software came in handy during a recent short-deadline project for Mid-South Electronics Inc., a Kentucky refrigerator parts supplier. “We were able to jump in and build our end of the mold while they were still developing the part,” Minor says.

  • Scheduling Minor says he often sets up a “microschedule,” where a seven- or eight-week job, for example, is plotted hourly to show what deadlines employees have to make to complete the job on time.

  • Flexibility A.E. Cole can switch to shift or weekend hours if necessary to complete a job, and its employees can choose flex time to put in extra hours early in the morning or later in the evening. “Even though we demand a lot of hours of our employees, we try to make it less intrusive into their private life,” he says, adding that during slower production modes, employees are permitted to leave at noon.

In what Minor calls a very competitive market, A.E. Cole’s ability to respond to a client in need gives the company the upper hand.

“In our industry, there are so many varieties of shops that build molds. There are garage shops, with two to three machines, where [a] brother and son-in-law are doing the work. Then you go to Dayton or Detroit, where 300 employees are building molds,” Minor says. “For a 25-man shop to exist in that kind of competition, we’ve got to be above and beyond.”