Local Business Survivors

By+Dan Blacharski and S.R. Emeigh

IN SPITE OF THE DOWN ECONOMY, LOCAL BUSINESSES SURVIVE AND THRIVE.

 

Photos by Bruce Veclotch, Photography by Bruce

The Michiana area was clearly hit hard by the national economic decline that began in 2007. With the House and Senate recently debating the debt ceiling, it appears that recovery will not be swift. Substantial job losses, high unemployment rates, low real wages, and modest new home construction are all signs that Michiana continues to bear a heavy burden.
 

The press has not been kind either. Newsweek listed South Bend as number eight in the list of “America’s Dying Cities” in January – a distinction that isn’t intended to promote pride, but it’s not something to dwell on either, according to Shannon Kaser, President of Royal Excursion Motorcoach and Limousine Service, located in Mishawaka.
“This negative PR is an opportunity,” says Kaser. “This is an opportunity for the community to prove itself. It seems like things are starting to head in that direction.”

Kaser is one of three local business owners who appear in this story. Their individual experiences tell a different story about the region – one that proves the adage true, never underestimate the underdog.

 

ROYAL EXCURSION, MISHAWAKA IN

 

Kaser always had a passion for being an entrepreneur, he says. After graduating from college, he started Royal Excursion Motorcoach and Limousine Service on his own with one 12-passenger van and an advertisement in the local news. Now, the company maintains more than 50 different vehicles and employs more than 100 people in the area.

“I probably couldn’t do it that way today, starting from scratch,” Kaser says. “But it did help me build a foundation of relationships that helped us get where we are today.”

Establishing good relationships is one of the reasons Kaser feels that Royal Excursion has been able to weather the economic storm. Positive experiences bring customers back again and again, he says.
The business, which provides corporate sedan, limousine, and bus services to clients traveling locally and throughout the U.S. and Canada, primarily makes trips to Chicago and Four Winds Resort and Casino. A luxury motorcoach service to and from Chicago might be in the works soon, according to Kaser. Diversifying the business is another avenue that he believes helps Royal Excursion to stay strong.

“We actually doubled our size in the last two or three years,” he says. “Instead of cutting our budget and marketing, we’ve actually increased our budget and fleet. Other aspects of the business remained flat, which was a good idea.”

“It’s hard getting started,” Kaser admits, reflecting on his humble beginnings.  “Nobody knows who you are. Gaining trust and confidence is crucial and it takes time. In general, I think just being responsive and service oriented is important to maintaining a strong business.”

 

HOOSIER CRANE SERVICE COMPANY, ELKHART IN

 

Tom Schmidt, CEO of Hoosier Crane Services in Elkhart, IN agrees. Hoosier Crane Services has managed to sustain a profitable growth despite the difficult economic climate. Schmidt attributes this success to customer care and working smarter not harder.

Schmidt established Hoosier Crane Services in 2002 with four employees and the determination to create a company that reflected his values in life and in business.

It was an unusual departure from his initial plan. He graduated from Western Michigan University with a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice and minor in Sociology.

“Once I graduated, I got married and needed a job to support the family,” Schmidt explains. “I actually started in mobile crane and scissor lift/boom lift sales. One of my customers asked me to start an overhead crane service department locally, and I thought it would be a challenge.” 

He succeeded at increasing the profits of two businesses in the area by millions, he says. A decade in the industry taught him valuable lessons that he put to use when he started his own company.

Elkhart, IN, the RV manufacturing capital of the Midwest, is an ideal location for a business building, selling and repairing cranes, and anything remotely related to cranes. The company grew quickly. With approximately 20 employees in 2008, Schmidt geared up to make the transition from a small to a mid-sized business. Then recession hit hard.

Nowhere in the country was hit harder than Elkhart, where in 2009 the job loss was projected at 15.3%. Schmidt contends that it was actually closer to 20%, because the average did not account for approximately 1/3 of the local workforce that does not accept unemployment benefits.

“We have very low debt,” Schmidt explains. “Why do companies make it through a recession? They don’t owe anything. We’ve never been in a situation that I felt we were on the edge of a line. I’ve never been that way. My wife won’t let me. She works here, too.”

During the most difficult time in 2009, Hoosier Crane cut a small percentage of their workforce and lost between $75,000 and $150,000 in business, but was able to minimize the damage, according to Schmidt.

“There was a six to eight month period where it was difficult to collect on debts,” Schmidt recalls. “It’s hard telling a customer that you’re not going to do work for them until they catch up, but we stood firm.”

Hoosier Crane’s success can be attributed to more than simply a careful balancing of the books. The company prides itself on thinking outside the box, and it’s their creative approach to problem solving that has helped them to stay competitive and innovative.

“The downturn made me focus on getting more exposure,” Schmidt says. “I think it made us stronger.”

Schmidt turned his focus to online exposure. He taught himself how to build a website. After seeing initial results, he contracted with a local design firm to develop four bigger and better sites.

“It occurred to me that hoosiercrane.com is just one avenue,” Schmidt explains. “I thought, ‘Why stop there?’ Now I’ve got four or five times the opportunity to get people to notice who I am and what I am and how I do things.”

Hoosier Crane also started an EBay store. In the first two or three years, they sold an average of 10 to 15 items a year on EBay. Today, they have approximately 550 items on EBay, ranging in price from $1 to $30,000. They sell approximately 20 to 30 items per week, according to Schmidt.

Virtual expansion has done great things for the company’s exposure. They began within a 150-mile radius, and now they conduct business across the country. They own three buildings and will likely buy another to accommodate a new, cutting edge project.

Hoosier Crane is partnering with Structural Components of Indiana (SCI) to design a system that will help to increase the safety and efficiency of coal transporting trains. SCI designed a fiberglass cover for smoke stacks on coal-transporting trains that protects against air pollution and makes the train more aerodynamic. According to Schmidt, the cover system, which Hoosier Crane will manufacture, marks a turning point in train innovation.   

 

MERRY ME EVENTS, GRANGER IN

 

Necessity is the mother of invention, as Cher Goggins understands all too well. Merry Me Events, located in Granger, is the event planning business she began in 2007 in order to spend more time at home with her daughter, who has special needs.

“I thought of starting something on my own, so that I could regulate the pace of things in my life,” Goggins says. “Merry Me Events started kind of as a hobby and an outlet, then it continued to grow to where it kept me busy all the time.”

Despite the difficult economic climate, Merry Me Events expanded to a point where Goggins could no longer run it out of her home. She moved the showroom to a cottage in Granger, located at 12349 SR 23. The company also owns two warehouses in Edwardsburg for storage and a design facility.

“In every growth opportunity that we’ve had I’ve tried to do it gradually. It was all just a slow process,” Goggins says. “Growing small and trying to grow with the business. I didn’t experience huge debt.”

Weddings are very popular in the area, particularly at Notre Dame’s Basilica, which has helped keep Merry Me Events busy, Goggins says. Many people come back to the area to get married at their alma mater. Weddings are life moments that people prepare for, regardless of the economy.

“Between 2008 and 2009, when the recession really started to hit hard, I found that some of the clients that I was working with certainly scaled back, others postponed their wedding,” Goggins recalls. “Whether my clients had the money or not, they wanted to be sensitive to everybody else that was going through a horrible time. I dealt with that, and then of course my corporate sales that year were not as heavy as they had been in years past. But I would say that that’s all picked back up again.”

Merry Me Events covers all aspects of an event, including decorations, inventory, furniture, tablecloths and accessories. They create floral arrangements, design and coordinate weddings, corporate events and birthday parties for clients within 60 miles of Michiana. 

“We continue to get better at what we do,” Goggins says.  “I’m not necessarily concerned with the quantity of events we plan, but the quality of them.”

The North Central Indiana Small Business Development Center has helped her to define and shape her business goals, she says.

“One of my goals was to be able to completely design all of my floral arrangements without subcontractors. This year that’s what we’ve done,” she says. “I’m very content with how things are going now. I don’t want to upset the fruit basket. The ability to enjoy the things that are most important to you – that’s the hallmark of a successful business.”

In the event planning business Goggins often sees members of the community at pinnacle moments in their lives. In her experience, the Newsweek assertion that South Bend has one foot in the grave is not accurate. 

“I would estimate that two out of seven weddings I plan are for gals that move back to the community to start a family,” she says. “The area is growing. This is a great hometown for so many people. They come back and get married here.”

More information about Merry Me Events, Royal Excursion Motorcoach and Limousine Service and Hoosier Crane Services can be found at the following websites: www.merrymeevents.com; www.royalexcursion.com; www.hoosiercrane.com.