It took three years of careful planning, but judging by the number of area folks excited about Bellevue's newest sporting attraction, it's a small business which looks to be an overnight success, thanks in part to some SBA help.
Take Aim is a new, clean and well-lit indoor range offering 10 shooting lanes that can be rented in 30-minute or hour increments with an inviting, small bistro-like waiting area with snacks, drinks and free Wi-Fi. Need a refresher on gun safety or have a first-timer needing to learn how to use a weapon? There's a well-lit and comfortable 25-seat classroom space and patient experts ready to teach.
"I guarantee on weekends you’ll see whole families here,” said Mary Whaling, a four-year veteran of the Air Force, who started the business along with her husband, Bob, a 20-year Air Force law enforcement supervisor with experience as a self-employed federal investigator doing background checks for security clearances.
Take Aim, Bob said, won’t be “the typical testosterone-filled firing range.”
While they’ll allow the public to train shooting from the holster, offering practice to those with concealed-carry permits, customers shouldn’t expect any lack of range safety rules.
If anything, safety was the most important lesson on running this type of business these two veterans learned during their time in uniform. But that’s not just the goal of Take Aim, that’s also part of their marketing appeal. There are no images of weapons or bullets on their business cards; on the flip side is a list of gun safety tips. Even when you walk into the place for the first time, you’d be hard-pressed to know it’s a range.
And, as it turns out, safety is good business.
"As we did our research into what customers liked and didn't like in a range, the biggest dislike we kept finding was problems they saw with safety and monitoring," Mary said.
While they’ll have a small inventory of ammo for sale, don't expect to be able to stock up on tactical gear, or rent or buy a gun here. The margin on those types of sales, Bob said, didn’t make business sense for them.
The new range, Bob explained, is designed to meet the need of people who want to keep their dollars in the city where they live. "We found doing our research that there are tens of thousands of gun owners within a 25 mile radius of Bellevue."
Area law enforcement and military personnel have been supportive of the business idea, he explained, as many government agencies could easily use space for tactical training and weapons qualifications. Mary has been attending Omaha's monthly Veterans in Business Forum to network with other small business owners to learn how best to apply for federal contracting opportunities.
The couple also expect to be active in the community, offering weapons safety and skill training for scout groups and clubs.
"I'd spent the last 15 years thinking about starting a small business," Bob said, "and the wheels were always turning. I would love to give you a good story about where the idea of a range came from, but it literally just hit me out of the blue. I don't know, maybe I went shooting with a friend somewhere and I realized the market could support more than one range. I asked my wife about the idea, and said, hey, let's give it a shot."
Soon enough, Bob was off to Reno and a convention of prospective range owners to learn how to develop a firing range business, devouring every word from the experts there. He even reached out to other range owners across the country, and even small business owners not in the field for pieces of advice.
"We kept the idea for an indoor range close to the vest," Mary said. "Before we moved forward, we consulted with our close friends to see what they thought, and met with the Bellevue Chamber to see if they would support the plan. We just didn’t do this on a whim. You know, we had some doubters, we saw other people rushing into this business just because they wanted to open a range."
Mary met with Omaha SCORE chapter chair Gordon Yager to go over the couple's business plan, and sat down with an economic development specialist from the Nebraska District Office for a quick brief on the SBA guaranteed loan programs and application process. They looked all over for a suitable location, leaping at the chance to lease a soon to be relocating flooring retail outlet near the bustling Twin Creek shopping center.
Still, despite all their preparation, there were a few snags with financing.
"We put our plan in front of them, spent a year perfecting it, researching what other ranges were doing wrong, what we could do different," Mary explained. "But what hit us was the amount of money down we’d have to pay. One bank said this amount, another said another amount--we went to three banks before we did the deal."
The effort paid off as Take Aim was approved for a 7(a) guaranteed loan in March 2013.
"My advice for another small business, maybe make a brief visit to the bank and ask them for an opinion before you move ahead," Mary added. "Be prepared to go to two or three different banks, and you better be able to take your lumps."
The proceeds from the SBA loan were used for working capital and leaseholder improvements, transforming the remnants of the former 9,600-square foot retail outlet into a modern firing range. The walls are cinder block reinforced by several inches of concrete.
"Nobody will carry anything in here that will go through that,” Bob explained. “We have installed a total containment trap capable of taking a 50-caliber impact. With a state-of-the-art ventilation system installed, we will eliminate any risk of lead exposure to our customers, employees and to the environment.”
To help build anticipation for their grand opening, the couple have posted photos on heir web site of the construction work inside the range, and leveraged social media to reach out to potential customers; women outnumber men among the 4,500 fans on their Facebook page. There already are plenty of teenagers visiting the site seeking a place to improve their skeet shooting skills, and soon enough, Take Aim also plans to offer instant specials through Twitter.
"We're going to break the mold," Bob said, "on what people expect from a gun range."
Providing a bridge between Omaha-area Nebraska entrepreneurs and the access to capital they need to make their dreams a reality, Enterprise Bank has been honored by the SBA as the Cornhusker State’s Small Lender of the Year for 2013.
The SBA recognizes one locally-owned and operated lender which dedicates its commercial lending operations to develop new business and through visionary leadership building relationships with its clients beyond its immediate financial needs.
The bank is proud of its impressive efforts providing the right community-level financing to small businesses, keeping and creating jobs, especially with veteran-owned small businesses. Thanks to an expanded use of SBA Express loan programs since 2010, Enterprise Bank has funded 25 loans for $9.8 million to small businesses through the 7(a) guarantee and 504 programs. The Express program in particular has been an efficient and effective way for Enterprise Bank to accommodate loan requests from small businesses needing quick responses.
In Fiscal Year 2012 alone, Enterprise Bank made nine SBA 7(a) guarantee loans for more than $4 million to firms seeking to refinance existing debt; help build new business; and helped boost the confidence of existing small business in economically underserved markets to expand operations and create new jobs.
Enterprise Bank, from its two locations in the West Omaha area, has enjoyed steady year-to-year growth in the number of SBA loans and the loan volume in its portfolio. The lender made a significant effort to expand its access to capital for small business three years ago, bringing aboard Katey Lenczowski, an expert in SBA lending with previous experience with Lincoln-based Nebraska Economic Development Corp. (NEDCO), named in 2010 as the nation’s top 504 Community Development Corporation. In that first year, the bank’s SBA loans grew from $700,000 to $3.9 million; by 2012, the bank booked and additional $5.2 million in SBA loans with another $4.8 million approved and in the process of funding, a remarkable achievement for a lender of its size.
Expanding access to capital to Omaha's underserved markets
Enterprise Bank also has developed a partnership with Davis Companies, other community lenders and private donors, known as the Eastern Omaha Collateral Guarantee Fund, to provide $500,000 for a five-year pool of short-term microloan funding to minority-owned contracting firms in an unfortunate region of the city plagued by consistent unemployment and only sporadic economic development, so these small firms, who do not qualify for conventional commercial loans, may successfully bid for contracts and perform the work. The owners of Davis Companies, Dick and Sharon Davis, understand business can be one of the most important tools for turning around a community. It's the way they have been looking at poverty and economic development in north Omaha for years, both as a backer of entrepreneurs through his own business and as a member of a long list of community organizations. They’ve helped several small-business owners—a barber, a radio DJ and a transportation company operator, among them—to launch their own ventures, along with helping to create scholarship and mentoring programs. The firm also has worked with Omaha, along with other cities around the country, on plans and rules related to minority contractors and small and emerging businesses.
In 2010, thanks to access to capital through the SBA, NEDCO and Enterprise Bank, the company relocated to a new million-dollar building across the street from Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park, and the new home of the NCAA College World Series.
As a result of their outreach to improve the community and their own entrepreneurial success story, Lenczowski nominated Davis Companies for the SBA’s Minority Small Business Champion award, an honor the business subsequently went on to claim nationwide.
Helping small businesses grow and succeed key to nomination
Another example of the lender’s efforts to aid entrepreneurs: In 2011, John Carroll and Steven Watson decided to start their new law practice specializing in medical malpractice. As Carroll was an Air Force Veteran, Lenczowski knew the Patriot Express program would serve to provide the firm with a loan for $20,000 for computer equipment and a $330,000 line of credit. After 18 months, thanks to the start Enterprise Bank helped to provide, Carroll and Watson have won settlements large enough to retire their debt.
Then, in August of 2012, Enterprise turned to the 7(a) program to help William and Colleen Barstow, the owners of Main Street & Aksarben Cinema, who sought to bring their independently owned Nebraska-based chain of theaters to rapidly redeveloping Aksarben Village. While the new theater could serve as an anchor to draw in more development and residential activity, Aksarben Cinema found its access to capital blocked by a lack of collateral and a need for a high loan amount for a specific-use facility. The theater group initially financed the leasehold improvements and equipment through a mix of private investors, equipment leases and a small amount of bank financing. After their first 18 months of successful operations, the developer reached out to Enterprise Bank, and asked if the Aksarben theaters would qualify for SBA financing. As a result of the debt restructure using the SBA 7(a) guarantee program, the theater was able to save over $225,000 in annual debt service payments. The theater is consistently ranks in the top two for ticket sales in the Omaha Metro Area, competing against national theater chains.
Then there’s Aspen Athletics of Nebraska, and Tony Dahmen, who began working in the fitness industry at 19 in his hometown of Seattle. By 2000 he was ready to start his own business and purchased an old tennis club in Iowa for $400,000. After growing the business to locations in Oklahoma, he sold that venture, and teamed with another investor in fitness clubs in Texas. Nine years later, he tackled the Nebraska market with Aspen Athletics, a member-focused health club also in Aksarben Village. Two months after he opened, he had 500 members; he moved the club to a $300 million development in that neighborhood a year later. Further growth soon reached a ceiling. The small business’ cash flow barely allowed the company to meet its current obligations; for example, their loan and lease financing rates ranged from 6-1/2 to 18 percent. Getting a loan to bring down those payments was crucial, but the collateral, much of which was tied up in exercise equipment with diminished resale value, meant it would be impossible to obtain traditional bank financing.
“A perfect fit for the SBA,” Lenczowski explained. The improved cash flow relieved financial pressure on the business, and as a result of the refinancing project, will permit the small business to continue to expand and as a result provide more jobs in the Omaha community.”
Beyond service to its small business clients is Enterprise Bank’s service to the community. Among a large number of philanthropic efforts is working with Aksarben Cinema promoting “Together, Inc.”, a non-profit homeless prevention agency to its neighbors in the area. In exchange for a small donation or a can of non-perishable food, families can enjoy a free movie. Their officers also serve as board members of CREW Omaha, Angels Among Us, Midlands Mentoring Partnership, and Midlands Latino Development Corporation.
Henry Aschoff and Keith Wiehn, president and vice-president, respectively, of Petersen Ag Systems, Inc., have been named the Nebraska Small Business of the Year for 2013. The Norfolk-based firm is an agricultural equipment supplier of irrigation and grain handling products with outlets in Osmond, Hartington and Fremont, and Onawa, Iowa.
The company was nominated for the honor by Loren Kucera, Director, Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC), Wayne. They have been invited to attend the culmination of National Small Business Week June 21 in Washington, D.C., and will compete against candidates from all 50 states and territories for selection as the SBA’s National Small Business Person of the Year.
As part of National Small Business Week, the U.S. Small Business Administration will take the opportunity to highlight the impact of outstanding entrepreneurs and small business owners. More than half of Americans either own or work for a small business, and these firms create about two out of every three new jobs in the U.S. each year.
Petersen Ag Systems was chosen as the state’s top small business based on its history as an established business, growth in number of employees, increase in sales and unit volume, response to adversity and innovation in products and services offered.
Seeking to purchase the business in 2000, Aschoff and Wiehn turned to NBDC for technical assistance and help packaging an SBA 7(a) loan application.
Since buying the business 13 years ago, Aschoff and Wiehn have grown the company from 11 employees to 41; the company hires 15 to 20 part-time employees during the summer, and plans to hire an additional 10 to 12 employees over the next 12 to 18 months.
Sales steadily have grown from $3.2 million in 2000 to nearly $20 million in 2012, a figure which includes sales of 12 used center pivot irrigation systems to a U.S. company which in turn exports them to agricultural businesses in the Ukraine. Over the next five to 10 years, Petersen Ag Systems expects indirectly to export another 300 more used pivot systems to the eastern European country.
The pair guided the company through the recent nationwide economic downturn by cutting their own salaries, freezing new equipment purchases and reducing inventory, all while keeping its workforce intact.
“How we do business has separated us from the competition,” Adchoff said. “We want to be able to go to church on Sunday and not have to hide from anybody.”
As the region climbed out of the recession, Petersen Ag Systems expanded its operations by becoming a dealership for GSI, the world’s largest manufacturer of farm storage systems. The company also serves as the third-largest dealership in the world for Lindsay Zimmatic Irrigation Systems, with a territory which covers a large part of the state and counties in Iowa and South Dakota. Recently, the company was named one of Lindsay’s top 10 dealerships in the country thanks to high marks for its sales and service.