Strategies for success
Trying to do big business in a small town
May 13, 2005
Tri-State Equipment Comp–any is hardly recognizable from the business it was a decade ago.
Since it started 12 years ago, current owners Suzanne and Tom Walsh have taken the idea of selling farm and garden equipment, with brands such as John Deere and Bobcat, and pushed it toward its potential.
Their handful of employees has grown to about 20, with a business that now involves selling parts, servicing equipment and offering rentals. The storefront west of Craig off U.S. Highway 40 sells its wares to local customers as well as those in Grand, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties.
“We’re not limited like everyone else,” Tom Walsh said. “We know you have to diversify.”
Spreading out a customer base and making changes has helped the business grow to “making in one month what we used to do in a year,” Walsh said.
It’s a commitment to customers and a “try before you buy” policy that keeps people coming back, Suzanne Walsh said. Success also has come with paying attention to the market — which showed that more people are willing to rent rather than purchase equipment for some projects.
“I think we’re a success story, but you can’t just rest on that,” Suzanne said. “You just have to take care of everything the customer needs, whether they are right or wrong. You have to follow up after the sale or sometimes just sit and visit.”
Employees are known to deliver equipment and parts to far-flung areas in Wyoming or south to Silverthorne.
Like the Walsh’s philosophy, customer service, paying attention to trends and diversifying seem to be some of the best peices of advice coming from business people lately.
Some merchants at a recent meeting by the Craig/Moffat County Economic Development Partnership, echoed some of these same sentiments.
Small town, big ideas
EDP members say there are 300 small businesses in Northwest Colorado. One of those filling a niche market — and shelves at Costco in Denver — is a meat packing plant in Craig.
Gary Baysinger, owner of Mountain Meat Packing Inc., said the business works by making a product that isn’t dependent on local hunting dollars or the energy boom.
Employees at Baysinger’s Craig plant and another in Fruita hand-mix a company’s unique blend of spices to buffalo, wild boar, elk and yak meats.
Both plants are certified organic meat processing plants, which hold the majority of the market for certified plants in the state. The Craig plant employs 13 people, and the Fruita plant has 11 people.
But Baysinger said at the meeting that Craig is not an ideal place for a factory, as he can pay less money to operate elsewhere and be closer to shipping his product. He asked the group how they could make it more attractive for businesses to locate here. He said his business is bulging, and needs to expand.
“I ask myself, ‘Why am I doing it in Craig, Colorado?” he said. “There are a lot of economic reasons to take this out of the area and into another place. People are depending on hunting, but we’ve got to build ourselves up so we can get through the rest of the year. “
EDP member Dave DeRose thinks a business such as Baysinger’s has the potential to be the “Cabela’s of Craig.” Cabela’s touts itself as the largest mail-order, retail and Internet outdoor outfitter in the world. The company, which employs about 500 people, was started in Chappell, Neb.; a town with a population of fewer than 1,000.
“I see Craig as being between really profitable and destitute,” DeRose said. “I think retailers need to find their niche markets. They can’t go head to head with a major retailer.”
Another business that may have found its niche is River Ranches All Natural Beef. The Yampa Valley-based operation sells organic beef to natural restaurants and health food stores across Colorado.
Chuck Cobb, a golf professional at the Yampa Valley Golf Course said at the meeting that he wonders whether some business owners are aware that they could make huge gains “if they realized what they had.”
Indeed, EDP board members said it was proven that about 80 percent of job growth in an area comes from existing businesses.
“We need to take businesses that are already here and say you have a gold mine, if you only knew it,” Cobb said. “We have to believe that there are things underfoot that can have a great opportunity to expand out.”
Tapping new markets
Chris Muzik is looking toward the Internet these days to sell her wares. The owner of SpiritPass said she’s getting into the online business to continue to offer the same reasonable prices for customers at her store.
“I really believe in the Internet,” she said. “It’s not going to go away.”
Muzik said she started selling her wares through eBay’s online auction site after realizing that’s where local people were buying goods.
She and other vendors during the holiday craft shows figured that 90 percent of customers did their holiday shopping online before attending the fairs. Those who did shop in local stores didn’t start until mid-December — hardly making a dent in holiday sales compared with what shopkeepers have been used to in the past.
“We can just sit at home and go boo-hoo about it, or we can join it,” Muzik said about selling online.
Muzik said she also has learned to diversify by offering an array of goods, from jewelry to home furnishings. She said staying open long hours also helps fit with customers’ schedules.
“You have to be up with changing trends and changing with everything,” she said.
It seems Muzik isn’t alone in trying the e-commerce route.
According to American City Business Journals, small businesses that use the Internet have grown 46 percent faster. In sum, 44 percent of U.S. businesses are selling online, and 36 percent more say they will do so by the end of the year, reported the Association of National Advertisers.
If they’re not going online, some merchants are looking to expand their existing business in an attempt to fill a need.
Craig merchant Mary Kay Sherman took note from an experience she had recently with a newly married friend. The owner of The Giving Tree attended a friend’s wedding and wondered out loud to the new bride what she would do with a lot of the wedding-specific decorations. The woman’s lack of a plan to deal with the adornments after the wedding sparked an idea with Sherman.
“I thought, ‘What if I started renting those things?'”
In addition to a smattering of wedding supplies, Sherman offers silk floral arrangements, candelabras, altar pieces and other materials.
“That way, they don’t have to spend a fortune,” she said. “They won’t have to worry about what they’ll do with it later.”
Mary Kay and her husband, Jonny Sherman, may have stumbled upon another niche when the two opened stores next door to each another. Although The Giving Tree shares an entrance with Nimrod’s, the goods each store offers vary. The dichotomy has a way of attracting people with different tastes to shop in the stores, Mary Kay said.
She said two teenage siblings regularly shop at the stores, but they’ve chosen sides. Nimrod’s offers contemporary clothing and goods that may attract a younger crowd.
“Some people won’t be caught dead in there, and some people won’t be caught dead in here,” Mary Kay said, laughing.
DeRose is pretty certain that no matter how many people fill downtown, no one is going to want to buy a toilet during Grand Olde West Days on Memorial Day weekend. It’s just the nature of his plumbing, heating and air conditioning business, Masterworks Mechanical.
“People don’t think about those things until they need them,” he said.
It’s for that reason DeRose won’t open his doors during the festival, but he thinks others would do well to stay open during times when an influx of people are expected.
One attempt to get more people out and shopping is the start of once-a-month nighttime shopping opportunities.
Second Saturday, presented by the Downtown Business Association, has businesses on Yampa Avenue and Victory Way open until 9 p.m. today. Future late-night shopping opportunities will be June 11 and July 9.
In an effort to circulate people around town during the Whittle the Wood festival, DeRose plans to shuttle them during a concurrent car show. The south half of Yampa Avenue should be closed for the car show event. DeRose said having shops open during those key festivals may help give retailers a boost.
“Those shops need to be open,” he said. “They may never make a sale, but people may decide to go back later.”
Sherman said that staying open after 5 p.m., as some shops do, also will help create consistency.
“You do hear that complaint,” she said, about some stores closing before most people get off work. “It’s extremely important to honor your hours.”