Tucked in the trendy AkSarBen Village, within walking distance of a park, shops and coffee sippers is what Kathy Byrnes hopes is to be one of Omaha’s hottest fashionable merges of gallery, retail and creative exploration.
Village Canvas and Cabernet offers a gallery featuring local artists’ works for sale on consignment, and a small wine, beer and coffee bar off to the side for browsers. While the space also will be available for private parties, the best part, and the linchpin of the business, is an artist who will lead fun and entertaining painting sessions to help guests craft their own unique works.
“I hope we can have the space for people to explore their creative side and potentially discover their inner artist,” she added.
Kathy Byrnes (center, in tan jacket) during the opening of Village Canvas and Cabernet Sept. 14 in Omaha's AkSarBen Village.
About 13 years ago, Byrnes recalled working in the health promotion area of The Nebraska Medical Center, enjoying a coffee break with a co-worker. As both of them daydreamed, lost in conversation, they asked each other: What would you do if you could do anything you wanted?
“I answered, I saw myself in a flower shop or a coffee shop surrounded by unique gifts and things I love,” Byrnes remembered.
That would be a departure from a career she started while still in high school, soliciting volunteers for door-to-door work for the American Cancer Society.
After earning a degree in community health education and a master’s in public administration from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Byrnes eventually found her way to head a non-profit firm, Executive Service Corps Nebraska, which counted as its supporters some of Omaha’s biggest names in business, helping smaller community-focused groups get their start. Finally, after the age of 50, she gave up her full-time career as the CEO for the non-profit Prevent Blindness Nebraska to work on the next project in her life.
And it started on a holiday visit with family in Denver.
“My sister-in-law took me to a place where you paint pictures,” Byrnes said. “I had a glass of wine, we were just following the instruction from the artist, and it was amazing, our talents came out in what we were doing. So she turned to me and said, ‘you should open something like this in Omaha.’”
Byrnes had long since put her idea of a shop surrounded by flowers and coffee aside, but that visit planted a seed. On the seven-hour drive back to Omaha, she discussed the potential venture with her husband; upon returning home, she got to work.
As she put together a business plan with his help, she scouted locations from office buildings to shopping malls, finally settling on a 2,000-square-foot place on a first-floor corner in AkSarBen with enough foot traffic to make it work.
“There are about 300 of these types of businesses across the country,” Byrnes claimed, “and I eventually visited four of them in Colorado, seeing what they do, getting a better idea on what I wanted to do with mine.”
She took her plan to Dundee Bank, a branch of Security State Bank in Omaha, where she was approved April 6 for an SBA Express loan. The process of applying for the SBA-backed commercial loan reminded Byrnes of her non-profit experience completing grant applications—“the process was similar, you just have to know where to find the information they’re asking for.”
What was daunting was the leap of faith she had to take, that everything needed to open her business would happen. With the line of credit in hand, she began working in May and had it in mind to open in June; except considerable work had to be done on the leased space to turn it into her business, pushing to mid-September before she could open her doors.
“That was the scary part,” she admitted.
Ribbon cutting to commemorate the opening of Village Canvas and Cabernet, along with Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and Larry Gomez of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
“I think being over 50, I have the experience to know what I don’t know and to surround myself with people who can help me,” Byrnes said. “I know what I’m best at and what I’m not so good at. I think with that experience, there’s a greater comfort level to admit I need to get the right people for advice and help. For example, I’m not an artist, and if I don’t get the right artist to lead our art classes, it could really negatively affect the business. We’re always learning.”
To help her start-up succeed, she also took a marketing workshop from the Nebraska Business Development Center, “and I plan to do more with them,” she said.
Byrnes will hire up to five part-time employees, not including the artists she’ll bring in as independent contractors as needed. She’s also reaching out to UNO to attract interns who want to learn how to teach art or gain real-world business experience.
Moreover, she’s not done working with the non-profit businesses in the area. “I’ve embraced it as part of our mission,” she said. “We have three ways here to help smaller non-profits, from providing a meeting space, providing donations and hosting fundraisers.”
As Byrnes traded the job as an executive for the blank canvas of starting a small business, “I never in a million years thought I’d be an entrepreneur.
“You know, I can really feel good when I walk in here every day, knowing I established a great place where guests feel inspired to explore their creative side so many of us don’t explore.”
Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, a couple of small businesses in Nebraska received financial support to help market their goods and services internationally – resulting in millions in potential sales contracts.
The SBA provided $310,860 in State Trade and Export Promotion Program (STEP) grants to the Nebraska Department of Economic Development (DED) to help increase exporting by small businesses in 2012. The grants were authorized by the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, which calls for doubling U.S. exports in five years – and in so doing, supporting two million jobs. The program provides federal government funding for 65 to 75 percent of program costs, with the state supplying the remainder.
Thurston Manufacturing connects in South America
In March, representatives from Thurston Manufacturing used a $5,000 grant to help offset costs to attend Expo Agro, a trade show in Junin, Argentina, followed by Exportivia in Mercedes, Uruguay. The trip landed potential distributors for their BLU-JET fertilizer and tillage products. Sales through these contracts, according to John Twyford, the company’s global trade and compliance, global logistics and projects manager, ranges around $1 million per distributor.
The company used another $5,000 grant in May to help cover costs of a trade show in South Africa which connected them with two new distributors, one in Bothaville and another in Capetown.
“In 18 months we’ll be in 15 countries,” Twyford said.
Since incorporating in 1971 from their location just southwest of Sioux City, Iowa, Thurston Manufacturing has become a leader in the manufacturing of farm equipment and side dump semi-trailers. They leveraged an SBA-guaranteed 7(a) loan for $750,000 in 1994 to help weather a downturn in the farm implement business.
Troy Kramer, a welder at Thurston Manufacturing.
As the producer of Circle R side dump trailers and BLU-JET fertilizer and tillage products, Thurston Manufacturing has seen tremendous growth within the last 24 months, from supplying family farms directly to reaching dealers and manufacturers who provide farmers with agricultural equipment.
Over the past year, the small business has hired 14 additional people to help meet new product demand and serve existing customers, and have even taken to local radio stations to advertise their urgent need to fill nearly two dozen more jobs.
“You are not just a number on a card, you are a name and you have a life and they understand that,” said Troy Kramer, a welder at Thurston Manufacturing.
Chilean miners could soon use equipment from Omaha
Another Nebraska company used funds from the STEP grant for an international mining trade show in Santiago, Chile, in April. According to Dave Phillips, international sales manager for Elliott Equipment in Omaha, the grant helped cover the cost of airfare to the South American country.
For 60 years, Elliott Equipment has been a leading manufacturer of customizable truck-mounted hydraulic aerial work platforms and cranes designed for rugged and heavy-duty service work, including underground drilling. The SBA backed a $600,000 loan for the company in 1992; since then, they have been recognized as one of the top 20 fastest-growing companies in Omaha. Today, they employ 120 people
During the Chilean trip, Phillips said, representatives from the company were welcomed into the homes of their potential partners, even dining with their families.
(From left to right) Jim Glazer, President/CEO of Elliott Equipment Company; Jose Miguel Pena, Owner of Pesco S.A.; David Phillips, International Sales Manager of Elliott Equipment Company; Juan Eduardo Spoerer, Owner of Pesco S.A.
“This grant helped make that face-to-face possible,” Phillips said. “It’s how international business works. We’re a small company, and without the grant, we wouldn’t have gone.”
As a result of the trip, Elliott Equipment already sold one Chilean firm a $230,000 aerial work platform to be delivered in November to demonstrate the potential of the company’s capabilities. Phillips said if the demonstration effort goes well, there is a chance to sell as many as 50 to help replace the aging fleet of cranes currently doing work in a country recognized as a world leader in copper mining.
“It’s hard to say what this will mean for us,” Phillips said. “It could end up being half our business.”
Exports driving business success in Cornhusker State
The State Trade and Export Promotion Program, authorized by the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010, is a 3-year pilot trade and export initiative to make matching-fund grants for states to assist small businesses to enter or increase the value of exports in the international marketplace.
Companies in Nebraska exported to more than 170 countries in 2011, selling goods and services in the amount of $7.6 billion, according to Lisa Tedesco, business opportunity specialist with the Nebraska District SBA Office.
“With more small businesses in Nebraska looking to expand their business in markets, as some domestic markets remain flat, STEP funding provides a tremendous opportunity to kick start their plans into gear,” Tedesco added. “Just having a little money to travel and make those initial connections is sometimes all these businesses need to get the ball rolling. The SBA’s Office of International Trade has been diligent in implementing a plan to meet our goal of doubling exports by 2014. Creation of STEP funding, implementing more export outreach programs and bringing together SBA’s resource partners to offer more training and assistance to small businesses on creating exporting strategies will help us get there.”
She has a love for pets, and with the help of funds through the SBA Microloan Program, turned that passion into a small business bringing joy and comfort to grateful dogs and cats across central Nebraska.
Alison Martin owns The Tail Waggin, a mobile store she operates out of a decked-out and gaily painted SUV which takes toys, healthy treats, collars, leashes, beds, holistic food and wellness products to personal shopping appointments for pets. The small business takes to the road to fill the void of quality pet products available in the area, offering customers a chance to shop at home. Among other services, Martin suggests pet shoppers host friends and their families to browse merchandise at pet parties tagged with cutesy names such as a “Yappy Hour” or “Whine & Cheese” party.
“I knew in my heart all along I was destined to work with pets,” said Martin, who, along with her husband, enjoys six dogs in their household.
Loved working with pets so much she made a career change
Martin, a native Nebraskan, gave up a career in broadcasting in Denver and jumped from volunteering at the local Humane Society to a job serving as the agency’s offsite adoptions coordinator. But that wasn’t working for her--she often sat awake at night fretting over the fate of the pooches. So she moved on to a position at a veterinarian clinic, eventually learning of a local pet sitter who the vet would recommend to customers.
“I thought that was a great job,” Martin exclaimed, “without the heartache of working in a vet clinic.”
When she moved with her husband to Grand Island in 1999, and got certified by a national training center in pet first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Martin started her own pet sitting business she continues to this day--Two Paw Prints Pet Care. It took promoting her business through word of mouth and ads in the local newspaper to kick-start her business.
“Pretty soon I had veterinarians recommending me, and within about a year, year and a half, I was doing the pet sitting business full time,” she said.
After years of keeping her clients’ pets company, Martin realized she had gathered a wealth of knowledge on premier pet products and nutrition, and tips on mitigating a pet’s frustrating behavior that she could share with a wider group of potential customers.
Turned to the SBA Microloan program for help
But how could she grow her pet-sitting business into something more? She came up with the idea for a mobile store so she wouldn’t compete with a national pet store chain coming into town, and reached out to Dena Beck with the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP), an SBA microlender.
The largest federal program solely dedicated to supporting the credit needs of very small businesses and self-employed entrepreneurs, the SBA’s Microloan Program works through a network of community-based nonprofit intermediaries such as REAP to provide loans and technical assistance to start-up and growing small businesses unable to get financing from commercial lenders.
Beck helped shepherd a microloan for $10,000 approved in January 2011 for Martin (above, center) to purchase a specially-designed vehicle wrap for the SUV, and the balance for advertising and promotion, and purchasing inventory. As a result, people in Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney often catch a glimpse of the bright paw prints and graphics for The Tail Waggin up and down city streets off to the next pet appointment.
“We’re trying to get word about the business to other pet-related businesses like groomers, attend events like weiner dog races, all to make ourselves visible in community,” said Martin, who offers inspired promotions such as the Buried Bone Club, which offers discounted purchases and a free newsletter to customers.
Martin, who also serves on the board of the Central Nebraska Humane Society, is able to leverage her years of pet care and animal behavior experience to tailor a selection of products perfect for a Fido or a Whiskers.
“It may be a toy that helps to eliminate destructive behavior due to boredom, or a product that can help calm a pet with anxiety during a thunderstorm,” she said, mentioning a piece of apparel tightly worn by a pet to simulate the feeling of being hugged. She also has a supply of homeopathic and herbal tinctures which work to help calm a pet.
Meantime, her first venture, Two Paw Prints Pet Care has seen slow and steady growth since the end of the recent recession, and employs an independent contractor as an employee.
Says she wouldn't have succeeded without REAP
And Martin is quick to share the credit for her success. She said that Beck continues to check with her progress as Martin continues to build her business and offers constant support.
“It’s a very simple fact,” she said. “Without our loan from REAP we wouldn’t have been able to do this business. We wouldn’t have been able to start The Tail Waggin. We provide a valued service for people here to get expertise from someone in the pet industry to show them toys, treats and other products which will improve their pets’ lives. It’s not only our start in this microbusiness but it’s about helping our community and all the pets here.”
Beck was named the SBA's Nebraska 3rd Congressional District Financial Services Champion of the Year for 2012. Over the past six years working for REAP in her 16-county central Nebraska area of responsibility, Beck has helped provide 45 small business microloans for $475,100 through REAP, and contributed consulting and loan packaging assistance for another 14 loans for $1.1 million. Her work was crucial in creating and helping companies keep more than 88 jobs in rural Nebraska.