Four years ago, Sandhills Glass and Garage Doors was on the verge of closing for good. These days, not only is business booming, but Bradley and Gina Babb, the owners of the Ord, Neb., business, were in Washington, D.C., a couple of years ago up on a dais with SBA Administrator Karen Mills.
How they got there is quite a story.
The Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO) sought four outstanding small businesses to shoot a documentary for its new web site showing the importance of microenterprise development across America, and Gene Rahn at the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) had just a business in mind. That business would get attention far beyond its Loup Valley home.
Some 14 years ago, Bradley took a job with Sandhills Glass; his step-father wanted Bradley to take over the business when he retired. Tragically, before the business could be passed on, Bradley’s step-father died. Worse, the company’s other partner didn’t want to keep the business open, preferring to sell and dissolve the corporation.
But the Babbs didn’t want the story of the business to end there.
After working together to come up with a business plan, Bradley and Gina approached First National Bank in Ord. Though they got a loan from the bank, it wasn’t enough to complete the deal.
“That’s when someone suggested we go talk to REAP,” Bradley said. “They were able to give us the last piece of the puzzle.” REAP’s Gene Rahn packaged the bank loan with a microloan from the Ord Revolving Loan Fund and another from REAP, enough to re-open Sandhills Glass in the summer of 2008, nine months after it closed.
“Without these funds,” Bradley added, “we wouldn’t have a business. Without them, maybe we would have moved out of the area and done something different.”
Other community organizations in Ord were crucial in re-opening the business, including the Ord Area Chamber of Commerce and the Valley County Economic Development, which has made more than $1.5 million in microloans to area businesses since 1996.
From cutting a small piece of glass for a picture frame up to a new contract to install all garage doors, windows and entranceways for the Ord Volunteer Fire station Department, Sandhills Glass is as successful as ever. The business also handles all types of auto, tractor and other machinery glass, flat glass, mirror and plexi-glass work and repair, even repairing screen windows and putting in storm doors and show doors. Bradley completes the shop work, installation and repair work; Gina handles supply and equipment purchases, inventory control and helps with sales.
Sandhills Glass returned to Valley County Economic Development for funds to buy a scissor lift for a large local contracting job.
“Business has been doing fantastic,” Bradley said. “I had worked here for 10 years and knew the business in and out. I was a little bit leery when we shut down, even though I thought people would come back. They have and we've been busy every since.”
Since re-opening, the business has hired one full-time employee and another part-timer, and may hire another full-time employee sometime in the future.
Sandhills Glass subsequently was recognized in Feb. 2010 with the Center for Rural Affairs Entrepreneur Award, and they’ve been mentioned in several nationwide home and design magazines.
One day Rahn surprised the Babbs with some news: the Center for Rural Affairs would fly the Sandhills Glass owners to Washington to represent small business recipients of microloans at the AEO’s national conference.
So there they were in May 2010, on a dais, telling their story.
“We loved every minute of it,” Bradley said. “It was such an honor to represent rural business. That's something that's very important to us.” And it was important for conference-goers to hear the story straight from the Babbs; rural small businesses from the heartland who receive microloans often don’t have the chance to tell their story in person to Washington decision-makers and supporters.
The help from microlending programs also led to Sandhills Glass hiring more people, creating jobs for their friends and neighbors in Ord, and a glimpse of how a small business loan can be such a huge lift beyond mere figures on a balance sheet.
And there’s even potential for a happier ending to the story: With their business success, the Babbs are seeking to start an apprenticeship for young students in the area wanting to learn a trade.