She was a great friend at the bank for small business owners who just couldn’t get the hang of accounting. She even went so far as to suggest her bank president boss sponsor a Saturday morning class where seasoned business owners could mentor less skilled entrepreneurs in bookkeeping.
Her boss was exasperated continually with her efforts, scolding her that the bank didn’t have the resources to guide every small business owner having trouble tracking where their dollars went.
So Connie Harvey set her jaw, quit her job at the bank, and turned to helping those frustrated business owners – and in the process, became a small business owner herself.
Reaching out to other small business owners
Harvey’s business, Efficiency Counts, has served for the past eight years as a trusted consultant in central Nebraska, offering QuickBooks Training and support, regular bookkeeping and database design and consultation.
And, she says with a smile, she’s now reaching out to area bankers to host those Saturday morning classes to help teach small businesses essential skills to track their cash flow.
“There are all these really beautiful business owners who are really talented with lots of skills in what they do. When they sit down with me I think I'm able to give them a grasp of what they're doing. But sometimes, they find it’s cheaper to pay somebody like my company to tend their books rather than struggling to do it themselves.”
“And without these small businesses our community doesn’t exist,” she said. And quoting Aristotle: “Cities are a partnership for living well together. We need everybody. What I can do to help a small business succeed will help the bank and will help everybody.”
The idea to start her own company germinated from her associate’s degree studies at McCook Community College.
“I was in my last class, on entrepreneurship, and the teacher asked us to pick a business, write a business plan and present it to the class,” Harvey said. “And that’s what came out of my head!”
The name of her company, which she started in McCook in April 2004, came from her knack for attention to detail and pursuit of efficient ways to get things done. Before her bank job, she worked at the local post office; she spied a messy stack of mail route sheets and decided to consolidate and color-code them into a simple, five-sheet tool. The post office management was so pleased that they use her system to this day.
While she was building her small business, she linked up with Nebraska Workforce Development, teaching recently laid off workers Microsoft Office products to help them get a job. She also began building databases for her clients from horse shows to trucking companies and local sheriff’s departments, helping them reduce redundant data input and produce helpful reports.
Leveraging the help from the Women's Business Center
In early 2007, Harvey moved with her husband from McCook to Hastings, and business started to pick up, especially after meeting Monica Braun of the Women’s Business Center.
The Women's Business Center, through the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) and funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the Small Business Administration, specializes in outreach and training for rural women entrepreneurs across the state.
Braun worked with Harvey, connecting her with businesses which really needed her expertise on how to properly market and price her services. Turns out Harvey really needed help with the latter.
She has a watchful staff of three people these days to help her with that.
Harvey admitted to a steep learning curve as an employer.
“I work myself hard, and I really can’t let go of something until it’s resolved, like untangling someone’s books” she said. “It’s really hard for me to expect anyone else to do that.”
In 2009, Harvey received a $3,000 grant from the Women's Business Center to purchase equipment; the next year, she snagged a $12,500 contract to work with REAP’s clients. By 2011, she took home the "Entrepreneur of the Year" award from the Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA). Thanks to Braun’s prodding, her booth is a regular one at REAP’s MarketPlace, a trade show for small businesses to learn skills and demonstrate their wares and services.
With Braun’s further encouragement, Harvey developed a training brochure-- "Bookkeeping Basics For Business Success"--sponsored jointly by the SBA, Department of Agriculture, REAP and the USDA, now in its third printing. The brochure encourages small business owners to plan daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual tasks. The theme is simple: if a small business owner tends to the financial books as if tending to a garden, the books will produce a beautiful crop of reports.
“Working with REAP and the Women’s Business Center really broadened my horizons,” she explained.
Still growing and still chasing her dreams
Harvey has grown her business from her home to occupying a fairly expansive office with nine desks in use, and to 16 regular clients and around 130 occasional clients.
She’s also giving back to the business community as a part of the growing Hastings Entrepreneurship Group.
Did Harvey ever think she’d be where she is now?
“Honestly, I felt most of my life I was paralyzed with fear when dealing with people,” she said. “Before I was 40, nobody knew me, I was super shy and becoming increasingly depressed. But my husband asked me one day, ‘what have you always wanted to do?’ Well, actually, I wanted to play the drums. So he got me a drum set. ‘What else?’ he asked me. I wanted to go to college. So I went.
“Even if you’re 40 or 50 or older, you can still do wonderful things, grow as a person and even create a new business,” she said with a smile.
Folks needing that hard-to-find tire for their four-wheel drive vehicle know they have a friend to do the work at Hardcore 4x4—thanks to SBA financing.
What customers get there is service from somebody who turned his obsession into a successful business.
Cory and Heather Schmidt (above) started the St. Paul, Neb., company in 2008, building a garage to specialize in four-wheel drive work, lift kits and modifications. The business was a natural fit for Cory, who, at age 17, owned four-wheelers and spent his spare time "lifting them, customizing them," he said. "So when we had the opportunity to turn my hobby into a career, we did it. If you don't love your job, your job probably isn't right for you."
And this job is a perfect fit for him. Schmidt loves "taking a customer's car that's average and turning it into something extraordinary, and making it stand out in a crowd."
Would even take vacation time to work on his Blazer
After Cory graduated high school, he joined the Air Force as a firefighter. At times, the schedule was grueling, exchanging 24 long hours on duty with 24 hours of free time.
Free time to tinker with a '74 Chevy Blazer he picked up while stationed there.
"On my off days, I worked at an auto parts store to supplement buying auto parts for my Blazer," Schmidt said. "I got an employee discount."
The base enjoyed an auto hobby shop where a young airman could rent a shop stall and tools and lose himself in customizing work.
"Some guys took vacation to travel and see the sights," Schmidt said. "I took vacation just to work on my Blazer."
Getting help from NBDC and a Patriot Express loan
Four years of Air Force duty behind him, Schmidt returned to Nebraska, eventually able to open his own shop. Schmidt’s father-in-law helped him start by renting out part of his tire business building for an auto repair shop, in due course, Schmidt and his wife sought to expand the company beyond repair work to take over the tire business.
To do this, he needed financing for equipment, including $30,000 for an alignment rack, plus lifts and jacks, some fixture purchases and shop supplies–and some working capital. The Schmidts got help to put their expansion plan on paper from Cliff Mosteller at the Nebraska Business Development Center in Omaha, and sat down with Dave Richardson at Equitable Bank in nearby Grand Island for the loan. Richardson accepted a second lien on the small business’ building and used equipment as collateral; thanks to Cory’s service in the Air Force as a firefighter, Hardcore 4x4 was approved Oct. 21, 2010, for a $80,000 Patriot Express loan.
“The loan made our business possible,” Cory added. “Without the SBA we could not have done it.”
Last year, Hardcore 4x4 made just under $400,000 in sales. And with two full-time shop guys, plus Schmidt doing the work and two front office people keeping it all straight,
"We're on track to top that this year," he added.
Keeping the customers happy and back on the road
That line of credit was crucial to serve their friends and neighbors in this farm community. Often, Schmidt will hop in his truck and head off down a dusty country road to meet a customer on a farm with a blown tire.
"Farmers like to charge things, it's the way they do business," he said. "But there were times when we'd have $30-40,000 on the books that people owed us. And it might be a month or two before we get paid"
And Hardcore 4x4's vendors needed to be paid right away.
"There are other businesses in a farm community who say 'we're not going to let you charge' and they've lost business because of that," Schmidt said. "So we let our customers charge to keep them happy."
Hardcore 4x4 has built a network with other retailers in the area who sometimes refer customers to their garage. One customer referred to the shop by another dealer posted on an internet forum how within a couple of hours of a quick call, Heather had scoured her suppliers and found discontinued tires for his 4x4—even at a slight discount from the manufacturer’s price, with no shipping charge.
One customer, who happened to be an Army veteran, posted on the company's Facebook page how he was grateful for the "amazing price" Hardcore 4x4 offered for his Chevy Blazer work
"A lot of our business doesn't just involve the four-wheel drive stuff," Schmidt said. Over the Memorial Day weekend, he wasn't out grilling. Because other shops in town were closed, he was responding to calls from people broke down on the highway.
"You know, I enjoy doing that work because I can picture myself broken down on the road and I know I'd want it to get fixed and get back on the road myself. I figure I owe it to them. You have to sacrifice some personal things to do that, but with my wife working here, I can do that because she understands."
Taking out the four-wheelers for a ride
Don't think it's all work for the Schmidts at Hardcore 4x4. What's the point in lifting and customizing a four-wheeler if you don't have some fun with it?
There's an annual rally event in the shallow Platte River in nearby Central City -- yes, that's in the river -- but the summer floods which plagued Nebraska in 2011 made the stream too deep to take Jeeps out for a spin.
There's no denying 4x4 folks their fun, so soon enough the Schmidts started getting calls from their friends who knew they had a place on the Middle Loup River outside of town.
"They asked me, 'do you mind if we tell other people?' So we got phone call after phone call, and by word of mouth it turned out to be quite the big deal," he said. "It's just for people to have a good time. It's neat to see kids, families, wives and husbands out at a big family event. They like to use their four-wheel drive to go around and have a good time. It's an opportunity for people with the same interest to enjoy same hobby or sport."
Serving customers like that is what keeps him in business.
“In a nutshell,” he said, “we go out of our way to make customer feel they're our only concern at that time," Schmidt said. "We greet them at the door, we treat them as long lost friend, we take that extra time to give them our personal time. You know, it’s nice to grow, but our priority is to keep that relationship going with our customers.”
Since the deal with Hardcore 4x4, Equitable Bank has been approved for 10 more Express loans for a total volume of $628,200. That includes a subsequent Patriot Express loan to Hardcore 4x4 for a line of credit approved Jan. 12, 2012.
For their friends and neighbors, they're the perfect solution for a good night's sleep. Never mind the work they do also can improve health and save lives.
Since 2006, Western Sleep Medicine, the SBA's Nebraska 3rd Congressional District Small Business of the Year for 2012, has provided polysomnographic services to aid physicians in identifying and treating sleep disorders in hundreds of patients.
The business was nominated for the honor by Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) Scottsbluff Director Ingrid Battershell.
The SBA Nebraska District Office names one outstanding small business to represent each of the state’s three congressional districts based on staying power; growth in number of employees; an increase in sales and unit volume; current and past financial performance; innovativeness of product or service offered; response to adversity; and, contributions to community-oriented projects.
Fast growth fit a critical need
With exceptional patient care as its foundation, Western Sleep Medicine’s net income grew from just below $300,000 in 2007 to more than $1.2 million by 2010, and now employs 17 people.
Now with nine laboratories in western Nebraska, eastern Wyoming and southwest South Dakota, including two independent sleep labs, and partnerships with seven critical access hospitals in the region, Mark Schultz (pictured above), a Registered Polysomnographic Technologist (RPSGT), and co-owner Dr. Gerald Amundsen offer the experience of years of clinical and administrative experience to improve the health of patients of all ages through the identification and treatment of sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea. Estimates say one in three who suffer from hypertension also have obstructive sleep apnea; treating apnea also has proven to lessen the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and mood disorders.
Amundsen is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and is a board certified family physician.
Schultz completed a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Wyoming and master’s degree from the University of Louisville, achieving national recognition for rural arts development and earning a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts Locals Program before returning to Scottsbluff in 1994.
Mark Schultz (left) chats with Scottsbluff KHUB-AM news director Kevin Mooney (right) about his selection as the 3rd Congressional District Small Business of the Year for 2012.
Suffering from severe apnea himself, Schultz consulted Michael Kearns, who helped diagnose Schultz’s condition. The two developed a good friendship as professional colleagues in the sleep lab at Regional West Medical Center.
Schultz’ successful treatment of his apnea with an auto titrating continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device inspired him to visit Ingrid Battershell, Scottsbluff director of the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) to put together a business plan for an independent sleep lab in Scottsbluff. The goal of Schultz, and his partners, Kearns and Amundsen, was to reduce the four-to-six week turnaround time for sleep services and to perform sleep diagnostics and therapy in a single visit to a sleep lab, saving patients time and money.
In Oct. 2006, Dr. Norman K. Imes of Oklahoma City, Okla., a pioneer in the field of sleep medicine, joined Western Sleep Medicine as medical director.
Branched out to sell equipment
Seeing the need for high-quality follow up services for sleep apnea treatment, the partners formed Western CPAP Supply to purchase and sell equipment for sleep disorder treatment. Both companies secured licensing from the Centers for Medicare/Medicaid Services in 2007; two years later, both were accredited by the Accreditation Commission for Healthcare.
In 2011, after playing an important role in business growth but suffering from declining health, Kearns sold his share of the business to Schultz and Amundsen. NBDC again proved to be an excellent resource by providing cash flow projections and a business valuation to aid the sale to his partners. Before he passed away, Kearns continued to provide exceptional patient care by mentoring sleep technologists, scoring sleep studies and managing the company staff.
With a desire to help their friends and neighbors in the three-state region, Western Sleep Medicine offers presentations on sleep health to the general public, corporate and government employers and students. Programs include information on sleep disorders, safety, productivity and good sleep habits.