The two partners had a great idea and needed a little capital to make it happen. So they got a bank to loan them the money, leased an office, made some improvements to it, and jumped into business.
Wait. There's a little more to the story than that.
Always had a big heart to help the helpless
Let's go back to when John F. Carroll (above, left) was a boy, long before he shook the hands of his law partner, Steve Watson, to celebrate their new practice, before he started raising San Clemente Island Goats, before law classes at Creighton, before nursing school, before he was a star on the CBS reality TV show "Survivor," before he enlisted as a medic in the Air Force and served for nearly three years at Scott Air Force base near St. Louis.
Back to when he brought home wounded dogs and birds home to nurse back to health, back when he started an Explorer Post with a few of his grade school friends at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha. That's where the seed was planted, an idea that Carroll would spend his life as an advocate for those in need.
After he left the Air Force, Carroll headed off to Los Angeles to work with AIDS patients at the second-largest clinic of its kind in the country. This was long before the miracle cocktail of drugs which today allow people to live with the syndrome; the best Carroll could do was to offer comfort and ease their suffering. But after eight years, during which he raised money and devoted time and effort to various AIDS advocacy organizations, the work took its toll.
Carroll returned to Omaha where he worked as a sales consultant and corporate trainer for Qwest Communications; in return, the company helped him pay his way through Bellevue University and a summa cum laude in criminal justice, and where he delivered the senior commencement address. But he wasn't done with school. He then finished what he had started in Los Angeles, his nursing degree.
"As a nurse, I watched the health care system go from having time for a bedside manner to a corporate machine," Carroll said. "And in that process, I saw people getting hurt, people without recourse, people who needed help. All I wanted to do was give them a voice." So he applied to Creighton's law school.
But Carroll made a small detour in his law studies. He was asked to join the cast for the fourth season of "Survivor" on the island of Marquesas in the South Pacific. Cast by the show's producers as one of the bad guys, Carroll relates, a decade later, the tale of his time spent in the tropical elements for a chance at $1 million. He didn't win, but he did last 24 grueling days in the game.
He returned to Omaha and as he finished his law studies, he worked as a Legal Nurse Consultant, using his experience in medicine reviewing documents and records for a local firm, and later joining as a full-fledged plaintiff's medical malpractice attorney.
How the partnership came together
At the same time, Watson (above, right) was working at a white shoe law firm in downtown Omaha. Every so often, the two would meet at legal conferences. "We were like two dorks always sitting up front and taking notes. As time went on, we'd get together and talk about our own cases, shooting ideas back and forth," Watson said. Of such conversations, a natural professional friendship and soon a business partnership was born.
That brings us to April 15, 2011. Carroll had just been let go from his firm, and called Watson to discuss a potential client's case he was considering taking on. The conversation turned from the case to Carroll’s decision to strike out on his own. That's when Watson, with 30+ years with his firm, decided to do the same, and join his friend.
"When you have same desire and drive as the other person you can build on it," Watson said. "You can try new things, while more established firms look in the rear view mirror, smaller firms are more willing and able to embrace the rapid changes occurring around you. Being on your own is more fun."
A lunch and a handshake later, a new partnership was born. But it is one thing to form a partnership; quite another to open the doors and turn on the lights. And for that, the two first turned to Cliff Mosteller at the Nebraska Business Development Center in Omaha for some business plan advice. Mosteller offered advice to make their plan more "bankable," including work on cash flow projections and then correcting some line items; he then provided a list of bankers who might look favorably on a start-up law firm.
Turning to the SBA to make it all happen
One of those was Katey Lenczowski at Enterprise Bank, whose bank had experience financing plaintiff's attorney firms. She was brought aboard due to her experience with the SBA including her work with the Nebraska Economic Development Corp. (NEDCO) working deals through the SBA’s 504 program. Enterprise Bank had done very few deals over the years with the SBA, but when Lenczowski joined the bank, she worked with Lead Lender Relations Specialist Mike Niehaus to ensure the lender was signed up for the complete list of SBA Express programs.
Upon learning that Carroll was an Air Force Veteran, Lenczowski knew the Patriot Express program, which allows for up to $500,000 for a project with a 75 or 85 percent SBA guarantee, would serve to provide the firm with a loan for $20,000 for computer equipment and a larger amount for a line of credit.
Lender Relations Specialist Suzanne Stearman from the Nebraska District Office also played a role, helping sign up the bank to use the E-Tran system to file applications electronically and receive a quick response from the Sacramento processing center, and Stearman, along with Niehaus and Deborah Wilson on the lender relations team, answered the banker's Patriot Express program questions.
"We have just three commercial lenders in our bank, and we do most of our own work," said Lenczowski, who never had completed a Patriot Express loan before and needed the streamlined application to complete the deal quickly. How quick? The partners went from their handshake April 15, to closing their bank deal May 13, to signing the lease to their office at 160 Centre Place on 160th St. and West Center Road on May 17, to opening their doors June 6.
Understandably, Lenczowski is a strong supporter of small business. She owned a coffee shop in West Omaha for about five years, and received a 7(a) loan herself through the SBA. "It helps me be a better banker because I can relate to challenges of starting and owning a small business. It really does make me feel good to put people in business."
Continuing to help those in need
As plaintiff's attorneys specializing in medical malpractice, Carroll and Watson consider themselves investigators, examining suspicious injuries and deaths as part of their role in oversight of the health care system.
"The problem is when great care doesn't go that way," Carroll said. And other than product liability and mass torts, he added, "often medical malpractice cases are the most expensive cases to litigate, due to the need for practicing medical and nursing experts and other resources."
These cases sometimes take a year or longer to reach a verdict, Lenczowski said, and the line of credit will help the firm survive those long gaps between payments.
"A $5,000 or $10,000 medical bill due to medical negligence means the patient is left holding the bag," Carroll said, "That often leads to ruined credit, or a second job they'll have to work for the next five years to prevent bankruptcy. And those are the lucky ones that survive or are not permanently injured. All I want to do is give a voice to those injured and to help the families of those killed by medical mistakes."
"Without the Patriot Express program," Carroll said, "I don’t know what we would have done. Certainly, the process would not have been done as quickly. I was working out of my farm kitchen, surrounded by fresh farm eggs and medical records. We had deadlines to meet if this firm was going to survive and I needed a place to meet them." He told the Omaha World-Herald that the program "rescued" him from a potentially disastrous situation.
"That's what it's designed to be there for, for the veterans," he told the newspaper. "All you have to do is access it.”
He traded in a button-up shirt and tie for an apron, and hungry barbeque lovers in Nebraska couldn’t be happier.
Mike Popelier was a branch manager for a copier retailer in Omaha when he was downsized two years ago. But instead of updating his resume on job sites, he waved goodbye to the workaday world and turned his grilling hobby into a business—Desperate Husbands BBQ.
The name comes from Popelier’s barbequeing team, which was given the easy-to-remember moniker by his wife, Lisa. As part of his team or as an individual, Popelier had competed in barbequeing events around Omaha for five years, winning several awards for his delectable sauces and rubs. And his talent around the grill has rubbed off on his sons, both of whom won their divisions at the Nebraska State BBQ contest at nearby Bellevue’s riverside Hayworth Park.
“This is a culmination of everything I’ve been doing with barbeque for the past 20 years,” Popelier said. “I’ve been smoking (meats) for a long time.”
Popelier’s combination of spices, seasonings and herbs adding just the right flavor and texture to his grilling meats took him more than 10 years to perfect.
“It’s just me in my kitchen, trying different things,” he said. “I love to cook.”
Hy-Vee previously had sponsored his team during barbeque competitions, and had urged Popelier to go into business “for more than a year now.”
He took his product on the road, setting up a small table inside the stores, grilling up the grocery’s meats to help market his recipes.
“I’ve got a rub for ribeye steaks, fish, pork,” Popelier said. “I’ll hand out my ribeye steak recipe for customers, and their first reaction when they taste it is, ‘this is fantastic!’”
Popelier researched the cost of growing the business beyond demonstrating his products at local grocery stores, and met with Centris Federal Credit union to pursue financing. He was approved Nov. 9, 2010, through the lender for an SBA Express loan, the proceeds of which went to Palmer House Foods of Omaha, which followed his closely-held recipe to manufacture his rubs, and Original Juan in Kansas City, which does his sauces, shipping 156 cases of product back to him for distribution on shelves.
Already, Popelier offers his products at 20 different Hy-Vee locations, and nine SuperSaver stores in the Omaha and Lincoln area. He’s reached across the Midwest to place his rubs and sauces in markets in Rock Island and East Moline, Ill., and had plans to add his marinade recipe to his line.
“Through my product demonstrations, the growth has been unbelievable,” he said. “Revenue forecast is $60,000 by the end of the first year.”
And, in case you don’t want to hang out at a grocery store to get a sample off some freshly rubbed and grilled steak, he has hopes in the future to open a restaurant.
Enes, Mira and Sandro Sljivo of EMSA Inc., pose in their sparkling clean kitchen.
One taste of their hearty, garlicky beef kebob sausages and you understand how this family-owned business bringing authentic European flavors to Nebraska is enjoying great success in the marketplace.
Lincoln-based EMSA, Inc., crafts unique recipes for inside a couple of spotless, bright kitchens in a nondescript office park, offering its delectable meat delights for distribution to a local grocery store specializing in European products and to nine wholesalers across the country, from Clearwater, Fla., to St. Louis, and to places in 38 states. Last year, they began exporting to Canada delectable beef kabobs and ready-to-eat products such as beef goulash and bean soup with smoked beef.
From war-torn Bosnia to business in the Cornhusker state
The story of this thriving business begins back in 1998, when Enes, along with his wife, Mira, and their two children, fled their home in Banja Luka in war-torn Bosnia, with only two small suitcases in his hand and a dream in his head of a prosperous life. The war ripped the former Yugoslavia apart and forced many thousands of refugee families to leave the country throughout the 1990s.
Eventually, the family settled in Lincoln, and Enes got a job at a local factory. But after years of sweat and hard work, he left the shop floors behind and with his wife and son working alongside, opened a small grocery store at 27th and Superior, where the family could sell the gourmet meats and foods they enjoyed in Bosnia to their American neighbors.
"We started making the recipes in our basement," remembered Enes, who speaks with a twinkle in his eye and an easy smile. They found customers in the Bosnian community in Lincoln, which numbers around 2,000 people, and soon found demand in a larger diaspora in Des Moines. By 2002, they'd moved production from their basement to a USDA-approved kitchen in back of the grocery store, and by 2003 they began producing sausages for another nationwide label in addition to wholeselling under their own brand.
The Sljivos were grateful for the help offered by the Lincoln Action Program, a local non-profit focused on self-empowerment, which gave them business advice on marketing, record keeping, USDA regulations and building and safety requirements as the business began to grow.
Going the extra mile to spread the word about their tasty meats
When it came to a loan for the equipment and machinery to meet the growing demand for their food products, Cory Smathers, the program's entrepreneur development administrator, referred them to Rick Wallace, the director of Community Development Resources (CDR), a micro-lender serving the area, who gave them a $5,000 micro-loan, using the machines as collateral.
"Nobody would give us a business loan until we had two years in the business," Mira said. "Rick was with us from the beginning. He saw how we grew, he was confident we’d be okay." They would be better than that.
Two years later, EMSA outgrew the back of the grocery store and moved to its present home on Fletcher Avenue in the northwest part of the city, not far from the family's home. And according to Enes, the business has averaged annual growth of 10-15 percent since. These days, hungry customers can find their products in two Hy-Vee grocery stores in Lincoln, but the small company lacks a sales person to market their frozen dinners, microwave products and smokehouse meats on more store shelves.
"Our product is really good," he said with pride, "but our problem is advertising. Our advertising is word-of-mouth."
They go the extra mile to spread the word--literally. They'll drive down to St. Louis, where there is an estimated 70,000 Bosnian expatriates living, to grill their beef kabobs during a festival in an area park where 200 to 300 of their former neighbors from Banja Luka gather to share stories and plenty of food.
The company also uses their web site, with content in both English and Serbo-Croatian accompanied by mouth-watering pictures, to market their products. They’ve gotten calls from a distributor in Jacksonville for a community of more than 20,000, and a getting call from a woman in Alaska who wants to stock the meats for a Bosnian group of 60 people—except to ship that far away would be expensive!
"Watching everything come from when it started I was there and I saw what it was like when we were making sausage from a Kitchen Aid now to big machines that produce a couple thousand pounds every day," said their son Sandro during a segment on Lincoln's KOLN-TV. He's worked for the family business since he was a teenager.
"It's amazing how it all just grows and grows and keep growing," he added.
EMSA returned to CDR for another micro-loan last fall for $35,000 to defray the cost of translating their packaging into French for sale in Canada, for overnight printing of full-color print catalogs and for web site bandwidth. The rest of the proceeds were used for machines to add goulash to their product line and for refrigerators.
Not everything is perfect, though.
"You can feel the economy slow down the business," Mira said. "Ethnic stores in other parts of the country have closed." And while EMSA's expenses have increased, the profits haven’t as they keep prices low.
According to Enes, the company plans to expand into the burgeoning demand in Halal certified products to break into Islamic ethnic food stores, and already has paid membership dues to a group which certifies kitchens and products. Someday soon they want to expand the meat production into a new facility, which would allow a leap ahead in turnaround time.
They've come a long way since they left Banja Luka behind.
"It's really hard to believe, it's really rare to get his kind of feeling knowing that we didn't have a lot," Sandro said. We were running away from the war so coming to a country like this and become something, it's just amazing to me."