Although necessity is the mother of invention, it’s the mother of all frustrations which led to the creation of a small business in Lincoln, one that’s building a reputation nationwide as the go-to place to mix technology with historic preservation.
Tired of climbing up and down to swap out windows, so he designed his own
John Spencer was a historical renovation contractor by trade who bought a century-old home in Lincoln some 20 years ago. While the house was a dream, with classic moldings and quality workmanship, it came with a catch: every spring, he had to climb up and down ladders to remove each wooden storm window and replace it with wooden screens, and every fall had to do the reverse – and we’re not talking just a couple of windows, either.
After a few years he was frustrated with all that work every time the seasons changed. So he looked for a better way.
“I couldn’t find a wood frame with the storm window and screen combination,” Spencer said, “so I went to my workshop, designed one myself and came up with a prototype that worked.”
If the story ended there, it still would be a nice tale of ingenuity. And for about 13 years afterward, that’s where it stayed.
As Spencer continued to find jobs renovating historic homes in the area, and customers who demanded materials which preserved the appearance of days gone by, he reached back to his invention to offer it on a particular task. His customer was delighted with the results; the next job asked for building his custom windows for a 50-unit apartment building.
Owners of classic homes passionately sought to retain their home’s original windows, but they often leaked, and a single pane of glass did little to insulate against a winter’s chill. Spencer’s design kept the classic character adorning these houses yet offered solid insulation and ease to switch storm windows and screens. From the outside, the work looks just like a traditional storm window – all the mechanics are concealed.
“A few more people I did restoration work for told me they wanted those windows, too,” Spencer said. “So I said to myself, ‘there might be a future in this.’”
Riding the wave of historic renovations
The timing was perfect for SpencerWorks. As customers across the country were put off by lowered standards in modern housing construction, the value of older homes rose, especially “since they look that much more impressive. These homes and the way they were built are irreplaceable.”
So he found a niche market with his wooden storm windows. Time to find out if further fortune favored the bold.
Spencer was flipping through a magazine one day and discovered a trade show in Philadelphia where vendors offered the latest in archetypal designs. So he made plans to travel across the country – then picked up the phone to chat up the editor of the magazine.
“I met with them at the show,” Spencer added. “I showed them my design and asked them if they had seen anything like this before, and would their readers be interested in learning more?”
The answer: They hadn’t, and they would be. A month and a half later, Spencer opened the latest edition to find that the editor had put a picture of his wooden window design in their new products section along with a couple of paragraphs in explanation.
Just like that, the endorsement from the magazine propelled Spencer into a national market. He got a patent on his design and a stamp of approval from the American Architectural Manufacturers Association, and became a regular at traditional-builder trade shows, and built a network of architects and builders who would rely on his windows for their clients. One such project completed two years ago was with the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. Other jobs include a historical building in Kansas, and the company has done work from Oregon to Denver, across the Midwest and the eastern seaboard.
Time to turn to the SBA to help with a bigger shop
Eventually the business outgrew the shabby old metal building in Lincoln the company used as a shop; with the landlord only offering a month to month lease, he turned to Lee Anderbery, senior vice president at Heartland Community Bank in nearby Bennet. The lender financed Spencer’s purchase of a larger shop in Dec. 2010 which more than doubled his previous space.
“When he first started out,” Anderbery said of SpencerWorks, “he was trying to to keep the overhead as low as he possibly could, and consequently was working in very cramped quarters. You can only do that for so long before you need to give yourself some elbow room.”
The building needed a new sprinkler system, a three-phase electrical system and Spencer wanted to make energy efficient improvements such as thicker insulation to bring it up to code and save money in the long run, but that asked for a further amount Anderbery admitted his bank’s loan committee was uncomfortable approving without an SBA guarantee.
While the locally-owned bank had made 16 SBA-backed loans over the past 15 years, they had only made one in 2009 and another in 2010 before the deal for SpencerWorks.
Anderbery leaned on the advice from Suzanne Stearman, a lender relations specialist at the Nebraska District Office.
“It’s nice to have someone hold your hand and walk you through the process,” Anderbery said. “After we got the approval, I went back to her to answer a few questions when it came to closing. If I didn’t have her support, I’d be in a world of hurt.”
Stearman also led him through a potentially thorny eligibility issue: Spencer had set up a company — JMS Rentals, a passive-income company – which would own the property and lease it back to SpencerWorks. That was solved with Stearman’s quick suggestion: make the loan to both entities. The bank was approved Aug. 1 for an SBA Express loan for $73,200.
Stearman also made a face-to-face visit to Heartland for a lesson in E-Tran to set them up to submit future applications electronically.
“This deal helps stretch out some short-term debt into a longer amortization, frees up some working capital and the deal has a pretty good interest rate on it,” Anderbery said.
Opening for the window business to pick up
Just in time for the fall, which Spencer said is his busiest time of the year. Currently, SpencerWorks is working on a building at the Herbert Hoover National Park in West Branch, Ia., and has been named to work on another structure in the village, work which may begin this fall.
“It’s not just about building the windows,” Spencer said, “it’s about solving a problem. I kind of enjoy that.”
SpencerWorks, with two employees in addition to Spencer himself, has seen steady growth, with revenues of $250,000 last year and as much as $275,000 this year, “and that’s in spite of the downturn economically.”
Still, that’s not bad business. And a whole lot less frustrating than climbing up and down a ladder every few months to swap out windows.
When Tia Love was a 10-year-old kid living nearby the Applewood Golf Course in Ralston, she would spend summer days bolting down the fairways, wading into the ponds to retrieve errant balls to sell them back to the golfers at 25 cents apiece.
These days, she’s still hustling business for her own North Omaha-based Love Enterprises, and last year revenues for her companies under that corporate umbrella hit a combined $275,000. An owner of a retail store, salon, construction company, rental property management and lead paint abatement consulting firm, she often heads straight from work at a steamy construction site in tee-shirt, jeans and a ballcap to handle other parts of her businesses. It’s apparent she’s come a long way from selling second-hand golf balls.
“She’s very entrepreneurial with diverse interests,” said Vicki Wilson Tederman, executive director of the Omaha Small Business Network, who over the years has offered Love guidance on growth, tax filing, and advice on tracking the flow of cash through her different ventures.
From a young age, Love had a mind for business
Love’s entrepreneurial spirit grew in junior high and high school, when she would purchase wholesale candy and sell it to her fellow students at a markup. By 17, she was heading to Arizona to bring back niche items not yet available in Nebraska to resale at Omaha area flea markets and festivals. She expanded that Arizona-to-Omaha pipeline, reselling classic cars kept rust-free in the dry desert climate. Four years later, she opened a storefront in the city’s quirky Benson neighborhood where she found a wholesaler in California ship to Nebraska low-rider bikes and pedal cars, popular retail items which had caught on in other parts of the country.
She hit a snag after a move to a place on 72nd Street and adding airbrushing services to the mix didn’t work out. But Love rebounded by taking a class at the area YWCA to learn construction trades: electrical, painting, plumbing and carpentry. One instructor mentioned opportunities in lead abatement inspecting, so she eventually earned a license as a lead supervisor risk assessor inspector.
With experience running a retail and construction business, Love looked for her next opportunity. She found it in 2004 while working with another company with an office at OSBN’s Business and Technology Center at 24th and Lake, and later moved into her own space.
Love’s construction firm had won a handful of contracts with the city, but needed the cushion to handle the 60-to-90 day lag in payment; she turned to OSBN for a microloan to purchase materials and enough working capital to handle payroll expenses.
“She has a good business head,” Wilson Tederman said in admiration. “We’ve only honed those innate entrepreneurial skills she has."
OSBN offered guidance and financing
One of four micro-lenders in Nebraska to use a loan from the SBA at favorable rates to expand access to capital to start-up businesses and firms in underserved markets, OSBN has made nine microloans this year at an average of nearly $30,000 each to entrepreneurs in its target area east of 72nd Street. Wilson Tederman said the microloan program is a non-traditional means of loaning capital to businesses denied credit by financial institutions.
“One goal is to develop these borrowers into viable businesses that can then acquire financing from financial institutions going forward,” the OSBN executive director added. “We develop bankable entities.”
While OSBN offers spaces at the 24th and Lake building serving as a small business development center to up-and-coming business, there’s a limit to their generosity for area entrepreneurs. There is an expectation after a period of discounted rent for their business that tenants will grow into an “anchor,” paying market price for the office space, something Love has done.
Last year, Love’s company served as a subcontractor on a huge project excavating yards for lead abatement work as part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund declaration in Omaha, which affected some 15,000 homes in the eastern part of the city. Already enrolled with the federal government’s Central Contractor Registry, Love is pursuing further federal contracting opportunities, seeking certification as a minority-owned and 8(a) business to leverage set-aside contracts to greater success.
In addition to financing help from OSBN, Love credit’s the non-profit for offering her business accounting services and credits vital networking events for helping her continue to grow.
“It’s a great way to find out about the different things going on in the era and get others’ perspective on things,” she added.
Always on the hunt for more opportunities
Love also has a real estate business, buying run-down properties at bargain prices, “fixing them up,” she explained, making them available for rent and expanding the pool of affordable housing in the city.
Last October, Love took out another microloan from OSBN to open and hire a manager for Rare, a full-service salon and boutique on south 13th Street in the Old Market tabbed as “Hollywood in the Heartland.”
And if that wasn’t enough, she acquired a commercial building and a dealer’s license to open what she calls an “auto spa for cars,” not only to sell vehicles but provide customers with detailing and customization services.
“Sometimes, it’s just hard to find sources to give you the capital you need. That’s where OSBN came in. They were the ones there for me,” said Love, who added that she also has put “a lot” of her own money into her projects.
These days, she’s spending time on a business plan that will get larger, SBA-backed financing to expand her enterprise even further.
“Definitely have a plan and map out your goals,” Love said. “Stay encouraged, find people to support you and always look around to find new information about opportunities out there. There might be people around you who are negative, so stay true to your goals, don’t let them talk you out of what you want to do. Stay committed and work hard until you see your vision through. If you want to do something, do it. I say it’s one percent the idea, 99 percent sweat.”
Thanks to the purchase of a high-capacity laser cutting tool, a manufacturing business in Beatrice is going to see a jump in its ability to turn out its products, and create some new jobs in the process.
Precise Fabrication turns raw sheet metal into component parts for its customers, which demand exacting effort. Once the laser slices the sheet metal, the process includes press brakes for bending sheets, a fabricator, shearing, and cold saws. There's a welding department, and powder coating and plating subcontractors to finish the jobs.
The company's owner, LeRoy Janzen, who was born and raised in Beatrice, recognized the company eventually would need room to grow, and broke ground on Precise Fabrication's current 41,250-square foot facility in the Gage County Industrial Park about 4-1/2 years ago. That project was financed in Feb. 2007 through Pinnacle Bank's Beatrice Branch using the SBA's 504 program, offering fixed-rate interest over 20 years, and sales tax proceeds used for economic development and tax-increment financing to pay for infrastructure improvements at the site
Customers depend upon Precise Fabrication's solid products
Janzen built the business on a reputation of producing good products in a timely fashion, and boasts relationships with local firms such as Lincoln-based GT Exhaust, supplying parts for mufflers, silencers and catalysts for dredging machines and large trucks.
"The CEO of GT told us they do business with us because we can supply quality parts, and we get them the parts when they need them," said Dave Smith, the company's business manager.
The company also provides kiosk equipment and store fixtures for Store Kraft, a nationwide firm which has called Beatrice home for nearly a century.
Another Precise Fabrication customer, Industrial Maid of Cortland, even notes on its web site its commitment to dealing with local manufacturers," Smith said. "In the local paper they identified us as a key supplier, because they want to do business in the Midwest, and we enable them to do that."
The company also provides parts to Toro's plant in Beatrice, which manufactures walk-behind and riding mowers for landscape professionals; and, parts to nearby Plymouth Industries, which offers products for agriculture-based businesses.
And, with Encore Manufacturing in Beatrice selling its assets in March to China-based Worldlawn Power Equipment Inc., a move which also brought the company's headquarters from California to the southeast Nebraska town, Precise Fabrication will find a new customer for its work.
Success did have a cost, though. Since the company was founded 10 years ago, the work inexorably caught up to the firm's capacity. Their existing 1,500-watt laser had been running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep up with customer demand, said Smith. The new 4,000-watt laser will be a big help, and the company will expand its current staff of 23.
"This is a state-of-the-art laser cutter we're having shipped from Japan that we'll receive in June," Smith explained. "Our current laser is our bottleneck. So in some ways, we're adding more than double the capacity of our current laser. We'll be able to make more parts, hire more people in fabrication and hire welders. In the last two years we’ve had tremendous growth which gave us the confidence that this was the right move for us."
Turning to SBA to finance the deal
To finance the purchase of the laser cutter, the company again turned to Pinnacle Bank, and the bank again turned to the SBA to mitigate its risk.
"This was a specialized piece of equipment," said Beatrice branch president Stan Wirth. "It's something that if we had to sell, it would be tough to market."
In early May, Wirth visited with Suzanne Stearman, a lender relations specialist in the Nebraska District Office, who directed the bank president to the SBA Express program, which offers a temporary increase to the program's loan limit from $500,000 to $1 million through the end of September, and a 50 percent SBA-backed guarantee.
"They're a business that's viable with a definitive plan on handling the debt," Wirth explained. "Just by adding this machine, it'll add jobs to their workforce, something in this day and age is important, because every job counts."
Stearman reviewed the SBA Express application forms with Wirth, offering a few suggestions before the banker submitted the deal to the Sacramento loan processing center. As a result of her help, with the except of a couple of minor additions the center requested, Pinnacle had its approval within three or four days.
"Part of the comfort level working with the SBA is that we've seen an increase in communication between the SBA and the lender, and it's much better than it's ever been" Wirth said. "Suzanne has been in my office, I know who she is, and we're happy to have them as a partner."
Without the SBA's help, Smith added, Precise Fabrication's customers would have looked elsewhere for their needs, and likely outside the Beatrice area.
Keeping much-needed jobs in the area
“Beatrice and Gage County has some of the highest unemployment in the state because of the downsizing of the lawn mower industry," said Smith, who has lived in the area for 23 years. "So for businesses like ours to do well and thrive, and adding people, to me is a plus in a town the size of Beatrice. And we have a couple of vendors who we do a lot of businesses with, and they’d be greatly affected if we were not around."
The company also is committed to growing the Beatrice economy; Janzen participates in Beatrice First, an organization encouraging retention and growth with local firms collaborating on marketing ideas and brainstorming other ways to promote the area's commercial environment.
"I’ve had the chance to move to the big cities, but this gives me the chance to stay in this community and raise my family," Smith said.
And thanks to the new laser cutter, Precise Fabrication will be able to create jobs, helping more families to stay in Beatrice.