Nina Chenault’s West Bank Karate Club was doing well enough to justify the new building she and her husband were planning to construct. But she was seeking advice on communicating about the move and expanding services with current and future clients.
Chenault got free expert advice from the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business, courtesy of the faculty-written Outside Consultant column, which runs each Monday in the Business section of the Star Tribune.
This fall marks the 10th anniversary of the column, which made its debut in October 2003. To recognize that milestone, we’re checking in with Chenault and two other entrepreneurs who were among the first to submit queries to the feature and who still are in business 10 years later — after the Great Recession, a credit crunch, a continuing slow recovery, the rise of online, mobile and social marketing and more than 500 Outside Consultant columns.
‘Grow with us!’
The recommendations Chenault received in August 2004 included using a “Come grow with us!” message, one that Chenault said she continues to use in her advertising for the West Bank Karate Club. The club offers Shotokan karate, a noncontact, Japanese form of the martial art, in addition to yoga, Tai Chi, and aikido.
Other suggestions called for first emphasizing the continued strength of existing programs to current customers before announcing the arrival of the new studio, dubbed the Movement Arts Center, to neighbors in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis and then hosting a grand opening a few weeks after the move, which took place in March 2005.
“We did all of those things,” said Chenault, who is looking to expand next year by adding new classes after the recession forced some cuts. “It was helpful in the sense that I had a sounding board to bounce my ideas off of. It was interesting because that was my intention, to have a professional say, ‘Yes, this is definitely what you should do and in this order.’ ’’
Mark Engel, co-owner of Meribel Enterprises in Minneapolis and the third person to submit a question to the Outside Consultant, agreed that the feedback he received largely validated the plan that he and co-owner John Peterson had in mind for making strategic acquisitions. The consultant, Mike Ryan, director of the Small Business Development Center at St. Thomas, cautioned Engel against getting overleveraged. Ryan also mentioned cash, bank financing and seller financing, which Engel said had worked well in two deals.
“You always think there’s something magical, like if you could just rub an Aladdin’s lamp and all of a sudden something would appear that you didn’t know existed before,” Engel said. “But there really isn’t. Basically, it’s hard work and risk-taking. If you’re willing to do those two, then the consultant is pretty well right.”
Engel and Johnson, former Donaldson Co. executives, formed Meribel Enterprises in 2002, the same year they acquired Atlas Manufacturing, a precision sheet-metal fabrication shop in Minneapolis. In 2007, they acquired Accessible Systems, which makes adjustable-height shampoo bowls for senior care centers and commercial salons. In 2009, they invested heavily in automation equipment at Atlas, moving to add national accounts to their local work, and the next year they acquired a Chippewa Falls, Wis., manufacturer that they are rebranding under the Atlas name.
Since 2003, the number of people they employ has increased 50 percent to 99 and their revenue is approaching $20 million, Engel said.
Business plan challenge
Book-cover designer Laurie Ingram, owner of Laurie Ingram Design, was the second person to write the Outside Consultant. As a visual artist, she found writing her business plan to be a challenge and asked how long the document should be. The reply suggested an executive summary of 2,000 or fewer words, plus details on management, marketing, operations, financing and growth plans.
“I was working by myself down in my basement,” said Ingram, who specializes in academic and trade titles and has designed covers for Garrison Keillor’s “Life Among the Lutherans” and several books about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Having the opportunity to write in and ask a professional about that, it was very helpful.”
Ingram, who left a job as an art director so she could work at home while her sons were young, said she has updated the plan as her business has evolved. At its peak a decade ago, her company generated $70,000 a year. Today, her design work is more of a sideline, as the advent of e-books has slashed what clients will pay for cover designs and as she began working full time for one of her clients. She’s revising her business plan with a goal of finding clients among university presses outside the Twin Cities and even overseas.
Mark Spriggs, director of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship at St. Thomas, was the school’s entrepreneurship department chairman when Dean Christopher Puto asked him to help start the Outside Consultant column.
“It can be lonely as an entrepreneur,” Spriggs said. “They don’t have somebody necessarily to talk to, except maybe their accountant, who tends to be the small-business adviser. This is a service that we provide to the business community. And for people like me, it’s fun. I talk a lot about business but it’s good to connect to these businesspeople. Their questions tell me what everybody’s thinking about, and I’ve talked about some of those issues in class.”
Frequent topics of Outside Consultant questions include human resources matters and marketing, with a good share of the latter getting responses from Mike Porter, director of the master of business communication program at St. Thomas.
Porter has answered close to three dozen such inquiries, or about one a month, in recent years. Companies often want to know how to take advantage of new ways technology enables them to reach customers and sell products and services.
“They’re stuck on these kinds of questions because their businesses were started by an inventor or a businessperson who was not a marketer and they are challenged by or trying to clarify how to use new media,” Porter said. “I try really hard to have something substantive in the response that works for that person but also works for any reader that has any small or medium-sized business.”
In some cases, small companies that survived the recession now are looking to put money back into marketing, and some free advice from an outside expert may help them decide what they should do themselves and what they should hire others to do, Porter said.
“They want to be judicious and smart about how they do that,” Porter said. “They’re doing the bare minimum, now they can justify spending some funds, they want to make sure they’re doing it in a way that’s cost-effective and appropriate.”
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.