E-Day honorees say surviving hardships means sacrifice but rewards often follow
Entrepreneurship begins with a dream. Success requires much more. Do your homework, advised several business leaders honored by the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center during its annual Entrepreneurship Excellence Awards event.
Think ahead of where you want to be and put your plan in writing, advised Dean Sangalis, who opened his insurance business more than 60 years ago.
Sangalis, senior financial representative with Northwestern Mutual in Merrillville, said it takes hard work to succeed.
“I always had dinner with my family, but I had three night calls a night to get started,” he said.
Long days are part of being an entrepreneur.
“You work long hours — still do,” Sangalis said. “It’s a habit you form. Worked on Saturdays, (and I) still do.”
Keith Fingerhut, who operated Fingerhut Bakery in North Judson until he retired, understands the never-
“You want to be a baker; you only have to work half a day,” he said. “Which 12 hours do you want?”
Patti Komara, owner of Patti’s All-American in Dyer, has been in business half a century. She, too, can relate. “This business is mostly nights and weekends,” she said.
“For 20 years, I worked straight Mondays through Fridays, 4 to 8, and all-day Saturday,” Komara said. She has learned to delegate.
Komara also advised budding entrepreneurs to make sure they have enough capital to succeed in the long haul.
“I see more people (who), when they run out of money, they can’t afford to buy the right equipment, they can’t afford to keep the right staff,” she said.
Moe Musleh, CEO of Crown Point-based Anytime Fitness, knows this well. “We maxed out all our credit cards. We sold our house. We moved in with our brother with two kids” before realizing success, he said.
In his early days, Sangalis said, just making ends meet was an incredible struggle.
Networking is important, something young people just starting out in business should think about more often, Komara said. She joined the Dyer Chamber of Commerce soon after she heard about it and has found that relationship rewarding, both personally and for her business.
“All small businesses operate, obviously, in different ways. But getting involved in the community, giving back to the community, I think that has served us well,” she said.
Getting good advice is important as well. When Komara started her business in 1969, there weren’t as many support systems for new entrepreneurs as there are now.
Komara’s gymnastics and dance business is doing well now, she said, and she is a frequent speaker at big conferences. Since 1986, she has sold instructional videos and lessons as well.
Following the SBDC E-Day honorees offer their own lessons for readers.
Valpo Ventures LLC
Tammy Wendland was looking online for the hours of a Plato’s Closet store when she discovered it was a franchise. She bought her own franchise in Valparaiso.
Plato’s Closet buys and sells newer fashionable clothing, the kind sold in trendy mall stores. The secondhand clothing is typically priced at 70 percent off retail, Wendland said.
Her education degree and teaching certification has helped her to explain the buying and selling process to employees and customers, Wendland said.
“We want to tell them the whole gamut of info right from the get-go,” Wendland said.
Something that sets her store apart is working with the community, especially young people. “We have over 500 entries annually to become a Plato’s Closet model,” she said.
The judges examine the applicants’ responses as well as photos to determine who should win. The lucky ones are “treated as kings and queens,” Wendland said.
Other business partners in the contest offer limousine rides, neck and shoulder massages, makeup and more for the models.
The winners are featured in advertising for the store, including electronic billboards and what Wendland calls min-mercials, or short promotional videos.
Making a small business succeed takes “a ton of dedication, and it does take a ton of energy and time,” she said.
“A great portion of small businesses fail within five years,” Wendland said.
Kiel Media Co.
Kiel Media Co. is at the six-year mark. Publisher Justin Kiel said he and his mother, Kelly Kiel, the editor, had little time to prepare for their business venture.
The previous publisher of the Regional News, which serves La Crosse and Wanatah, and the Westville Indicator printed an article in March 2014 saying the publications would cease in two weeks if no new owner was found.
“It turns out the price was reasonable, and a week later, I was a 17-year-old newspaper publisher,” Justin Kiel said.
He had been a freelancer since the previous September.
Kiel rapidly made changes, including the design of the newspaper, the price of advertising and the method by which it was delivered to the printer. It is now sent electronically.
“It’s nice being able to be your own boss,” he said, but now it’s time to look for backup. “It’s just my mom and I; we’re the only paid staff.”
Retired baker Keith Fingerhut lit a fire under his father, sort of, to get the family into the bakery now operated by his descendants.
Keith and his brother were playing in the haymow when they needed light to see better, so Keith brought candles and matches from the house. The hay bales caught fire, burning down the barn as a result.
Keith’s father gave up his dream of being a successful farmer. “He was no farmer,” Keith said.
Keith’s father and uncles were raised at the family bakery in Chicago, where Keith lived until age 10.
So, in 1945, Keith’s family moved into a shuttered bakery in North Judson, near their former farm, and fired up the ovens.
As was the case in Chicago, the family lived above the bakery.
“We had a wood-burning oven,” Keith recalled, so wood had to be brought inside every day. “The oven never really got cold.”
Keith went to college but returned to operate the bakery. His father had died soon after Keith graduated from high school.
Over the years, the business invested in machinery to speed the process and save labor. It began with a cookie machine, Keith said. “We didn’t change anything except the speed.
Eventually, the business grew and included storefronts elsewhere that are supplied by the North Judson bakery. Doug Fingerhut, Keith’s son, bought out his father and owns the business.
Doug’s son Christian will be among the next generation of family owners, and Christian hopes he will have children who will take over the family-
Doug studied baking for a year in Minnesota to learn the chemistry involved. The same basic recipes are still being used, Doug said, but have had to be tweaked over the years as federal regulations on ingredients like shortening ebb and flow.
The Fingerhut family has found it useful to partner with others.
During Christmas season, visitors to the local train museum are given a coupon for a free doughnut on their train tickets. That can draw another 50 customers on a weekend, Doug said.
The bakery also cooked turkeys for the local Catholic church at Thanksgiving, roasting up to 36 birds at a time in the oven. The bakery also gets business from events at the local high school gymnasium, Christian said.
Christian is responsible for bringing the bakery into the internet age. He posts photos on Facebook and Instagram to let potential customers know what’s available at the bakery.
The current foodie craze has been useful for helping market bakery products, Christian said. Doughnut designs appear on inflatable pool toys, socks, shirts and other items.
“The doughnut is coming back into style,” he said.
Flavored doughnuts — coffee, banana, pumpkin, blueberry — bring in high-school students, Christian said.
The online presence has brought in customers who say they wouldn’t have known about the bakery if it weren’t for the posts on social media.
Downtown North Judson doesn’t have the foot traffic it used to. Both supermarkets are now closed, and other businesses are gone as well. That makes the bakery’s promotional activities vital.
“Next thing we know, they’re coming to North Judson just for the bakery,” Christian said.
Outstanding Tradeshow Exhibit Services, North Judson
Nan Wellman chose North Judson to locate her business, Outstanding Tradeshow Exhibit Services, because she wanted to provide jobs in a community that needs them.
“We build custom trade-show exhibits,” Wellman said, for companies around the world.
“There’s literally a trade show for everything.”
Her company designs and builds exhibit space for customers, paying attention to details like whether a mini-fridge or a meeting room is needed, how many and what size monitors, whether running water is required and more.
Her workers build the exhibit, set it up, assist during the trade show as needed, disassemble the exhibit afterward and, if the exhibit is purchased instead of rented, stores it for the customer.
“This is a tough business. There are over 250 exhibit houses across the United States,” she said.
The challenge is making sure your company can perform and supply what the clients demand, she said.
Wellman used to work for a defense company in Fort Wayne.
When the economy tanked in 2008, the start of the Great Recession, she moved to Chicago to look for work. She ended up working in sales for an exhibit house and opened her own company in 2012.
“It was super scary, but it was super exciting too,” she said.
When her accountant suggested she buy her own building because the business was growing, she wanted out of Chicago because of its high taxes.
“We looked at several buildings all over Starke County and several counties all around,” Wellman said. “I just really liked what we could contribute here to this town.”
Wellman advised entrepreneurs to get a good accountant for helpful advice. She also credited her parents.
“I’ve learned from my parents to just live a humble, grateful life and always give back,” she said.
Crown Point based
Moe Musleh, CEO of Crown Point-based franchise operations of Anytime Fitness, also had family support — his brothers.
“We were always passionate about fitness,” he said.
He and his four siblings each have their own role in the organization.
It was a rocky start.
“We went in blindsided,” he said. “We didn’t know anything about the fitness industry.”
They had to learn quickly.
The first location was in Winfield, followed by a second in Dyer. Now the company has 23 franchises with 11 locations open. This year, Musleh said, the company plans to open three more.
“We grow as fast as the company allows us,” he said.
When Anytime Fitness opens in a new market, the community involvement begins right away. The company reaches out to schools, clubs and others to make a good first impression.
“We’re new people, and we want them to feel comfortable with us,” he said.
Musleh’s advice to entrepreneurs sounds much like what he would tell a client at an Anytime Fitness gym — aim for a certain goal, and don’t stop until you reach it.
Don’t just shoot for the moon, he said, but hang on the stars.
Dawn McIver was a science nerd in school. In fourth grade, she did a science fair experiment on blood types and saw technicians at work during a laboratory tour.
“I loved it,” she said. “I wanted to take every science class possible in high school.”
McIver planned to become a medical technician. In college, she was advised to get a general degree instead of specializing in a single field.
“It was probably some of the best advice I ever got,” she said.
Several med techs were returning to school for four-year degrees to pursue career changes, McIver said.
Her first job out of college was in the food-testing industry, where she learned quality control processes. Now she’s in the biotechnology business and operating MicroWorks, a consulting, testing and training business, along with its own laboratory, in Crown Point.
“We were traveling all over the country and even out of the country sometimes,” McIver said.
There weren’t many people who focused on microbiology work, she said, and she kept getting more and more opportunities. Setting up the laboratory was hard work.
“We started from scratch. We wrote all our own SOPs (standard operating procedures),” McIver said.
But buying the company’s own equipment and establishing its own protocols meant it was easier and quicker to accomplish tasks than to adjust to a pharmaceutical firm’s own laboratories. The construction of the laboratory came just as the economy was crashing in 2008.
“A lot of the consulting opportunities went away,” McIver said. “It was pretty scary.”
That gave more time to focus on the laboratory but not the revenue to support it.
“We got lucky and got a big consulting project,” she said, which helped keep MicroWorks afloat.
McIver advised would-be entrepreneurs to change course if necessary, to go with evolving market conditions. In her industry, the focus of the federal Food and Drug Administration changes over time, so companies must adapt.
And as companies come up with new technologies, her company has to figure out how to test those new products.
Flexibility with staff also is important. If a staff member wants to work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days, accommodate their personal lives if possible, she said.
“We feel like your life outside your job is important.”
Sangalis grew up during the Great Depression, when his father was hurt financially by a couple of business partners, he said. That convinced Sangalis to work for himself. Between college and service in the U.S. Marine Corps, Sangalis was about 28 years old when he was finally able to start his own insurance practice. It was rough.
“It was very, very difficult in my business in those days,” Sangalis said. He remembers those struggles.
In one case, he worked almost a year on a proposal to insure a key employee for a client’s business. But when it was finally time to get the employee to sign, he balked. That’s when Sangalis figured out the employee was getting ready to jump ship, so Sangalis warned his client.
Sangalis also determined he shouldn’t devote all his attention to a single proposal like that. Instead, he needed to have multiple projects at the same time in case one fell through.
Success came for him. For more than 60 years, he said, he has achieved worldwide recognition by qualifying for the Million Dollar Roundtable based on policies sold.
Komara was a sophomore in high school in 1969 when she started her gymnastics and dance business. Her parents couldn’t afford to pay for college for her, so she taught tumbling at Dyer United Methodist Church, charging $1 weekly for each of the 36 students.
It was a different era then.
“Fifty years ago, people didn’t even know gymnastics. This was before Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut,” she said. “Lake Central didn’t have a gymnastics team. There were not gymnastics clubs.”
Now there are four or five competitors within a radius of about 6 miles, she said.
“When you’re the only game in town, it’s easy. When you’ve got competitors, you’ve got to be the best,” Komara said.
“People don’t compete on price in this industry,” she said. “We’re putting children on a 4-inch beam 4 feet in the air and on a bar that’s 8, 9 feet in the air. You’re not going to go for, ‘Let’s see, who’s the cheapest one I can get? I think I’ll try that.’”
After her first year in business, the church elders decided the risk of getting sued was too high, so she rented space at the Elks club.
Thirty years ago, she built her own gymnasium in Dyer.
Her facility is about half the size of the industry average, she said, which helps her maximize profits and plow them into the business, offering higher wages for employees.
Among the workers’ benefits is a work anniversary bonus of $10 for each year of service. Longevity pays off.
Komara said she takes care of her employees in other ways, too, including taking soup and bread to them when they’re sick.
“I’ve had a lot of people who stay longer because of that personal touch,” she said.
Three times a year, her business conducts customer service surveys. The response rate is high. Families who express concerns get phone calls to follow up. For example, a remark about crowding might result in a call alerting the customer to a class at another time that has fewer students.
Excellent customer service is important, she said, which is why she has the phones open 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Listening to the advice of others, not just customers, is also important, she said.
Economic Development Corp.
Clarence Hulse, executive director of Economic Development Corp. Michigan City, has seen impressive results since 2012. In seven years, the city has experienced a total of more than $1.5 billion in public and private investments, he said.
That number is money spent, not just promises made. This shows the importance of a municipality investing in infrastructure, he said.
Hulse rapidly lists recent developments in the city, including a $45 million project to build apartments downtown. “You’re talking more shopping at retail, more people eating at restaurants,” he said.
The double-track project to speed commuter rail service on the South Shore Line will bring Michigan City within an easy commute of downtown Chicago. This year, he expects, properties will begin being purchased to accommodate that project. Among the results will be a transit-oriented development near the train station that could bring even more residents to the area, possibly even putting apartments above the parking garage, he said.
When Hulse meets new entrepreneurs, he often gives them personal advice as well as professional guidance.
“It’s not 9 to 5 anymore. It’s a 60-hours-a-week job,” he warned.
Many people want to open restaurants, but catering might be a better option for some of them, he said.
In getting financing for a new business, a person’s credit history can be a big stumbling block.
It’s not just about borrowing money to get the business started, although that’s a big issue, but also to meet personal expenses.
Business owners can go six months to a year without a paycheck and need to be prepared financially, he said.
But the first thing an entrepreneur should do is have a conversation with the family, because some families are more demanding than others, Hulse said.
Once the commitment to start a business is made, networking is important. Spread the word about the business and get advice from others.
Reach out to the Indiana Economic Development Corp., local chamber of commerce and others for advice. Use these resources, and more, to get advice up front to help the business succeed.
The Indiana Small Business Development Center will help entrepreneurs write their business plan. That plan includes understanding the expected sources of income and identifying the market.
“Do your homework. Do a lot of research before you spend your money,” Hulse said.