For years, Ultra Graphics provided top-notch service to its customers in the Columbus area and beyond. But when the owner needed to spend more time with his family, he reluctantly decided to look for a buyer for his company.
That’s when Tony Windingstad stepped in.
Windingstad had been working with a business broker for a couple of years trying to find a small business to purchase both a building and the land it was on to reach his goal of becoming a successful entrepreneur. The printing and graphic design company seemed a perfect fit--and the seller was willing to work with Windingstad during the transition to show him the nuances of the business, introduce him to key customers and help him preserve the legacy of a longtime Columbus fixture.
To finance the purchase, Windingstad and his lender, Wells Fargo, used a SBA 7(a) loan approved July 2012.
And business has been good. “Since then,” Windingstad said, “we’ve been up 10 to 15 percent each month compared to the same month this time last year.”
Not bad work for a guy who spent most of his professional life in the wine and spirits distributorship business.
Originally from Minneapolis, Windingstad started out in his career with a wine distributorship as a merchandiser two days after graduation from college, working up the ranks eventually to serve as a sales manager for 11 years for one of the company’s five divisions.
“I always knew I wanted to own my own company and after years of experience and working for other people,” he explained, “the time was right when I learned about Ultra Graphics.”
Taking over a printing business wasn’t completely foreign to Windingstad; the last two companies for which he’d worked were large enough to have their own smaller printing shops. And with his experience with sales and managing employees, by taking over Ultra Graphics Windingstad hoped he could kickstart new growth beyond the business from company’s loyal customers.
“I wanted to seek new business in new areas,” he said. “We picked up 30 new regular customers in six months, which is pretty good.”
Ultra Graphics offers a wide, professional variety of printing, collating and bindery. From offset to digital printing, from large orders to just a few copies, the firm even offers wide format printing and laminating for banners and larger images, such as posters. The company also provides a direct mailing service to help its clients target messages to specific customers.
Ultra Graphics is more than just ink and rollers. The staff of highly-trained designers crafts artistic and creative promotional products, including work on a client’s new logo and branding.
And continuing to build new business is a priority to Windingstad.
“I do a lot of networking,” he explained. “One of the areas we’re looking at is focusing on franchises, where we can do printing for multiple locations. We want to print all the printing from companies we work with, a one-stop shop for convenience, quality and price.”
The company also snagged a contract to print real estate guides, and in a state with plenty of gun enthusiasts, Ultra Graphics has begun supplying archery and hunting practice targets to local sporting goods stores and for sale online.
Access to capital in his case, Windingstad said, wasn’t daunting, but that’s because he already lined up an accountant and an attorney he trusted to help complete the necessary paperwork for the application.
“I don’t know how you would do it otherwise,” he said.
Being a business owner wasn’t quite an eye-opener for Windingstad, who drew upon his previous management experience as he assumed ownership of the company. But there would be a few things he would tell an aspiring entrepreneur. The first: don’t expect to be in the black right away.
“The first 45 to 60 days, you’re basically paying out everything and nothing is coming back in, but by the third month, everything starts to come back to you,” he said.
And make certain you talk to the employees first.
“When I took over the business, I knew I had to learn, and then afterward apply my control systems and procedures. The number one thing was to get the trust of the employees, and get a good idea of what each employee is doing. So I interviewed all the employees, asked them what they liked, disliked, and what they would like to change. So I took three months to make the changes I had in mind to positively affect the company.
“If you have a knowledgeable staff,” he added, “things will take care of themselves.”
He says it's kind of funny how his feed lot resembles a hotel, but instead of handing out fresh towels for his guests, he provides "clean water tanks and fresh feed."
Tom Feller's family has been in the cattle feeding business for a hundred years in this part of northeast Nebraska, a remarkable legacy in a tough industry. Most of the beef consumed in the United States comes from feedlots like Feller & Co. of Wisner, where cattle arrive from ranchers after living for six months on pasture and grass to be fed for another six months or so on a diet of corn and other grains. Pretty simple business model, right?
"We have two things we can’t control, weather and markets," said Feller, who has owned the operation since 1985. "Weather can cause cattle not to gain weight and hurt our performance with our customers, or if markets go crazy over things like a drought which raises our feed prices, our ranchers will back away from sending their cattle to us. And you can't take time off--cows are hungry every day. It's not an easy business, and people often come and go."
In 30 years Feller said he's learned to prepare in advance for unpredictable weather and tricky markets by building a solid network of area ranchers that, if all of them demanded room for their cattle, would overflow his lot some 30 percent.
That would be a lot of cattle: since taking over the operation, Feller has built the company's capacity from 1,000 head to 20,000, complete with an on sight grain elevator to store supplies of corn, and has an employee in his cousin’s commodity trading brokerage firm to handle his in-house accounts and hedging strategies. The firm also has added a cattle trucking company to handle logistics for byproduct feed supplies.
And thanks to proceeds from an SBA guaranteed loan, the company's cash flow looks solid well into the future.
Currently, Feller's son, Jordan, who earned a degree in agriculture from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, is the fifth generation of the family to work in the cattle feeding business; his younger brother, Drew has a degree in animal science from UNL, and plans to return to Wisner to help run the business.
"I’m 58 years old, and I have two boys who want to come back to run the business, so to make room for them, you have to get bigger," said Feller, who started learning the ropes from his dad and uncle some 15 years before he started out on his own. "Basically, I wanted to get more money long term, especially with interest rates low." By setting up a loan structure to finance the operation for the next 15 years, he ensured his sons and longtime employees could step into running the company without having to run to the bank.
"I was getting nervous, thinking, you know, I got to get this up if something happens to me at 65 or 70 years old, so we’re not scrambling," Feller said. "I’ve been bootstrapping it since 1985 building this thing from the ground up."
Building a legacy for the next generation and his employees was one reason to turn to the SBA, "but putting stability into the operation was another," Feller said. "High feed prices have hit us–-with the drought, corn got high, hay got high, so it was a good time to get that debt restructured."
Thanks to a change in eligibility rules from the provisions of the Jobs Act, Feller applied through First Community Bank in Beemer for the highest SBA 7(a) guaranteed loan amount in the state's history at the time. While Feller often had to visit Omaha-area banks for financing, the SBA guarantee was "a heck of a deal" for the small, rural lender, which could consolidate "the land deals over here, equipment loans over there, into one big package."
Feller added that the loan was so large due to current high prices of agricultural land; the proceeds not only extended the existing debt on the lot, but even allowed him to purchase the lot next door, bringing up the operation to 480 acres in feedlot pens. Add another $3 million for equipment, and "it's a big loan, no doubt about that." The deal was approved March 2012.
"The cash flow has definitely increased, and we've put more cash into our current assets," Feller explained. "I have to finance the feed bills and the operations every week and month, so it definitely helped all that."
Feller also offers a breezy, easy-to-read newsletter, The Beef, to keep clients aware of changes to the cattle industry, and his sage interpretation of market factors crucial to making solid decisions in the agriculture industry often is a must-read. It's not just a business with cattle ranchers. "We are not just each other's customer," Feller has written. "We are each other's partner with the same end, bringing safe, healthy, high-quality beef to America's dinner table."
What also helps is the passion Feller has for his profession. "I’ve watched a lot of people start a business, and as soon as they buy or start one, they think they can quit working," he said with a chuckle. "All of a sudden they’re playing golf and soon enough the business fails. If you’re bootstrapping it, you gotta go at it like it’s your last day, you gotta put passion into it. I'm in a business where we’re open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, Christmas morning, Thanksgiving, daughter’s birthday, that place is open and we’re there. Whether you’re running a quick shop, or a movie theater, if you’re not there putting in the time it’s going to be tough to make it work."
After all, there are hungry and thirsty guests waiting.
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."