What Makes Entrepreneurs Tick?
Individual Merit and Initiative Are Keys to Success
OCTOBER 01, 1994 by GARY WILLIAMS
Filed Under : Entrepreneurship
Mr. Williams operates a bookmobile service in southeastern Ohio,
It seems it has always been hard times in southeastern Ohio. When the glacier stopped just short of the region several million years ago, it defined the economic future. It left the region with beautiful hills, but there was a flip-side to this blessing. The hills broke up the landscape so that only small-scale development was possible. Consequently the region has lagged behind economically, even though it was the first part of the state to be settled.
Hardship to one, however, may represent opportunity to another. It is true that unemployment rates have been high in the region, particularly now that many of the natural resource-based industries are in decline. But some enterprising individuals have seen this as a place of unfettered possibilities where a lack of restriction and a welcoming of any enterprise makes it a place where dreams can come true.
The entrepreneurs profiled here have succeeded through the strength of their own merit and initiative without outside help. In fact, they have overcome bureaucratic obstacles in the pursuit of their vision. And while their stories are regional in character, the principles involved are universal.
Zoned Out of Cleveland
For sportswear manufacturer Alan Marcosson, southeastern Ohio offered an unhindered opportunity to pursue his dream. Marcosson, 43, is the owner of Good Stuff sportswear. He moved to Woodsfield (Monroe County) in 1985, after his home-based mail-order business was turned in for a zoning violation in suburban Cleveland.
Alan got into sportswear because of a lifelong talent and passion for bicycle racing. The Amateur Bicycle League of America named him Best-All-Around Rider in 1971, and he just missed making the Olympic cycling team in 1972. Many serious bicycling enthusiasts wind up in bicycle-related jobs, but Alan jokes that, “I decided I was going to try and be normal.” After graduating from Michigan State with a degree in engineering, he took a job in electrical engineering. “It was fascinating for about ten minutes,” he says of the job, “after that the biggest problem was staying awake.” He quit after three months.
He next found employment at a ski shop, where he taught cross-country skiing and sold equipment. He was not overly fond of this job either but it gave him time to race and he concedes that he “learned about retailing and the business picture” from this experience.
Alan began making his own cycling clothes for races and found he had a knack for it. In 1976, he started making clothes for others as a hobby, liked the feeling, and soon expanded his efforts. In 1980, he was able to quit the ski shop, although he still had to go back seasonally for a few years. He might have gone on this way indefinitely except that an overzealous neighbor noticed the UPS van making frequent fabric deliveries to Alan’s apartment and turned him in for violating the zoning law.
City officials told Alan he had four weeks to get out or quit his business. He rented a storefront in Cleveland, but paying two expensive rents for his home and business was a losing proposition. Alan saw himself faced with a choice of “downtown or way out in the country.”
In 1985, Alan relocated to southeastern Ohio. While visiting relatives in the region, he had been impressed by the hills that offered a vigorous challenge to bicycle training. He also found that the economic climate was receptive to his entrepreneurship. He was able to purchase a house with a five-year mortgage just two blocks from the county courthouse, with no restrictions on working out of the home. A recently closed shirt factory had left a large pool of skilled laborers.
Since the move, his business has grown steadily to the point where Good Stuff sportswear now employs 13 full-time workers and expects to gross a half-million dollars in sales this year. The community has welcomed Alan and he returns the favor by sponsoring races and tours that bring people to the area.
Of his livelihood Alan says, “There’s nothing else I’d rather do. I’ve never handled authority figures very well, but with customers, you’re on an equal footing. And selling something that you did gives more satisfaction than a paycheck. A lot of the time I forget the purpose is to make money—the doing it is the most important thing. Free trade is at least more immediate and tangible and certainly more gratifying than anything I’ve done. I’m not sure whether fact follows philosophy or vice versa, but I’m doing what I do because I could figure out no other way to do it.”
Bringing a Farm Back to Life
What Launny Kramer wants to do is make his 170-acre farm in Washington County “virtually self-sufficient.” Kramer, 40, grew up on a farm in eastern Ohio. He believes his rural upbringing was “the driving force” that brought him back to the land, but his plans took a circuitous route.
After high school, Launny enlisted in the Navy, where he spent several years, including a tour of duty in Vietnam. A specialist in helicopter electrical repair, he found work in Philadelphia after leaving the service. There he and his wife, Lucy, started a family that eventually grew to nine children: eight sons and a daughter.
But city life didn’t suit the Kramers and they found it difficult to find anyone who would rent to such a large family. In 1988, they purchased a rundown farmhouse near Lower Salem on land that hadn’t been farmed in thirty years. Launny had left a lucrative field to move to a region of high unemployment, a risk since regular income would be needed to get a farm operable. But with Lucy’s encouragement, he made the leap.
Launny found work as an independent coal truck driver, but a series of over-weight citations and major repair problems made this a losing proposition as the truck was often off the road. He was between jobs when Lucy, pregnant with their ninth child, developed complications that required medical attention. Health clinic officials assumed the Kramers were on welfare and were surprised when Launny said he would pay the bills himself. Their reaction was to accuse the Kramers of child endangerment and to threaten to take custody of the children unless the family went on public assistance.
The incident left Launny with a bitter aftertaste. “We brought these children into the world and we were going to take care of them,” he says. “The threat of being forced to accept welfare was a scary proposition—government intervention at its very worst. They want to get people dependent on them and take away their means of making it on their own. They just justify their existence by making regulations. You know, sooner or later, a parasite will kill its host.”
What saved Launny from public assistance was finding a job as a replacement worker at Ravenswood Aluminum. The West Virginia plant was embroiled in a bitter strike and was hiring to replace striking workers. Launny took this dangerous assignment and when the strike was settled after 20 months, he was one of the replacement workers who was kept on. Returning strikers have been hostile to Launny—his tires were slashed a few months ago—but he shrugs it off. “I wouldn’t be any better off if they liked me,” he says, “and I want to work there until the farm is paid off.”
When the discussion returns to his farm, Launny becomes animated as he describes his plans. The jobs he hopes to create are for his children. “I want to diversify for however many of my sons want to join in.” Currently he has beef cattle, corn, and fruit trees, and has plans to get into aquaculture and dairy farming. He would like to have a partner who will put up venture capital in return for a slow but steady rate of return. As he says, “With a partner, it would go faster if I didn’t have to be the artist and the backer at the same time.”
Launny thinks of farming as a creative undertaking. “It’s like poetry,” he says, “taking a place that’s almost dead and bringing it back to life. I came here with a certain amount of faith that I could do it, although there were periods of doubt.” He likens his experience to that of novelist Tom Clancy, who has said that the only reason he was successful in his writing career was that he didn’t know it couldn’t be done. “You have to make your opportunities and be willing to pioneer a path,” Launny concludes. “I came here with the intention of farming full-time, but I knew it would take a long time. But I’ll be virtually self-sufficient in time and I know I can do it.”
A Birdbath for Indoor Plumbing
Ron and Debbie Pruitt relocated to southeastern Ohio in 1980 to pursue a self-sufficient lifestyle. Ron quit his job as a steelworker in Cleveland and the couple bought a 53-acre tract in Monroe County. They got the basement of their log cabin covered over on Thanksgiving Day the first year, and with the help of neighbors they soon became adept at gardening, canning, hunting, and firewood cutting.
In the spirit of Thoreau, the Pruitts made themselves wealthy by keeping their wants few. But they needed cash for such expenses as their twice-yearly shopping trip for bulk groceries. Ron found employment in a government-sponsored job training program but found the experience distasteful. He left the program vowing, “If I couldn’t do better than that on my own, then I’d starve.”
Ron and Debbie then became chimney sweeps, which gave them a seasonal income. But it was while building his own chimney that Ron discovered his true calling. He became fascinated with stone work, and with the aid of an antique stone mallet purchased at a flea market, he began sculpting. His first effort was a sandstone birdbath that took nearly 200 hours to complete. It won a prize at a local craft show and sold almost immediately.
Since then, Ron, age 39, has gone on to different kinds of stone and varied subject material. The self-taught artist has come to specialize in mythic figures and has recently completed a mermaid and a dragon. Ron’s larger works sell for several thousand dollars and he is busy enough that the couple’s chimney sweeping days are over. Their finances are still precarious and subject, of course, to the vagaries of the art marketplace. But in the past few years the Pruitts have been able to purchase a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for Debbie (to match Ron’s), and they have installed indoor plumbing in their home.
The Pruitts have made some sales to public agencies but generally disdain grant money and most government projects. Ron maintains that bureaucrats will “buy modern art with government money but they wouldn’t put it in their back yard.” Debbie puts it more succinctly: “People know what’s good and they buy quality.”
Just Do or Die
The spirit of entrepreneurship is not limited to people moving into the region, as Dean Carpenter of Washington County illustrates. He is the owner of Carpenter’s Woods, a wooden toy-making business he started after he lost his job as a coal miner.
When Carpenter, 38, was hired in the mines in 1975, he was told his job would last until retirement, but he observes that “from the way they operated, I knew it couldn’t last.” When he was laid off 12 years later, the operation he worked for had shrunk from 1,600 employees to fewer than 200.
While he was employed in the region’s largest industry, Dean had indulged his hobby of woodworking by purchasing a table saw, band saw, and other equipment. He had made wooden toys and even sold a few to Hallmark. When he lost his job and inquired about unemployment benefits, he found out he was already considered a business and could not receive unemployment unless he sold his wood-working equipment.
Looking back on this, Dean observes, “I wasn’t ready to be laid off—no one is—it’s just do or die. But if they’d have given me unemployment, I might have gotten fat and lazy, so I never signed up for anything. It kinda made me mad then but now I wouldn’t go back to the mines if they called me.”
So Dean chose to support his wife and four children with his own business. He soon discovered that “there’s a big step between crafting and manufacturing—between tinkering and making a living. I just had to learn things that nobody could tell me.” Dean set up shop in a former one-room schoolhouse on his property and at one point was making 140 different kinds of wooden toys. To market his products, he rented storefront space in the nearby river town of Marietta. Business was precarious, for the most part, but during Marietta’s big Sternwheel Festival, over 8,300 people passed through his store and he sold out of wooden boat toys. This led to his decision to specialize in boats and to sell directly to gift shops. His biggest customer now is the Delta Queen boat line.
Today, Carpenter’s Woods no longer has a storefront, still has difficulty getting financing, and is down to three full-time employees from a high of five. But as he finishes an order of 140 boats that are to be shipped to New Orleans the next day, Dean Carpenter announces, “I’m gonna stick with it.”
What makes an entrepreneur? As these profiles show, part of it is having a dream, and another part is fighting city hall. But perhaps the most important—and business schools haven’t found a way to measure it—is willpower, sticking with the dream against the odds.