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When Karen Wheeler-Lockwood wanted to grow some lavender for her wedding bouquet in 2003, she never knew it would turn into a business idea. Her long-time dreams of owning her own business found the perfect match in lavandula and the fertile fields along Skaneateles Lake.
Karen’s husband Gary Lockwood is a fifth-generation farmer, with crops of wheat, rye, corn and soy beans as well as wool from Corriedale sheep on 120-acres of bucolic pastureland. In 2004, the Lockwoods went to Sequim, Washington to attend the city’s world famous lavender festival and returned to the farm inspired by the versatility of lavender and the idea of agri-tourism. More than just a pretty plant to pick, lavender buds are filled with essential oils that can be extracted for soaps, lotions, candles and cosmetic uses or dried for everlasting sachets, garlands and wreaths.
“We thought “Why couldn’t we do this?” and the next year, we ordered the first 200 plants, a variety called grosso. After planting more and more, in 2005 we started to add u-picking to help harvest all the lavender,” explained Karen.
Each year, the Lockwoods added more lavender plants and today there are over 2,000 plants of 20 varieties of white, purple and blue lavender. Besides u-picking, weekend visitors can purchase items from the farm stand stocked with over 30 different lavender products. Karen’s creative side and attention to detail show in every product that she packages and labels by hand. Lockwood Farm products can also be purchased online at Etsy.com and at Skaneateles small businesses including bookstores, hotels and spas.
In 2008, Lockwood Farm hosted its first weekend festival where artists came to paint pictures of the lavender fields and sell their work on location. In 2011, over 3,000 people attended the Lockwood Lavender Festival. This year, the fifth annual celebration will be held on July 14 and 15 with 30 vendors, artists, presentations, and lavender-themed foods. For the adventurous palates, there will even be lavender ice-cream made with Lockwood lavender buds.
Customers can find more than just lavender products at the Lockwood Farm. When a local beekeeper was ready to retire in 2010, the Lockwood lavender fields became home to seven hives of honeybees and a honey product line was quickly added to the business. Karen has also started growing rosemary and created a rosemary product line of candles and soaps. Positioning the farm as a destination along the popular winery trails in the Finger Lakes region allows the Lockwoods to attract tourists looking for an aromatic and educational experience.
Karen found invaluable support after connecting with WISE Women’s Business Center director Joanne Lenweaver in 2009. As a regular member of the Creative Business Roundtable hosted by the WISE Center, Karen views the meetings as “business therapy”.
“It can be a challenge to leave the farm, especially during the growing season, but it’s so worthwhile. Being able to network with other women entrepreneurs, listen to their successes and failures, and find a lot of common ground between us is so great,” said Karen.
The latest addition to Lockwood Farm is an 864-square-foot barn. Planned for drying bunches of lavender, the barn is only part of the farm’s expansion plans, which include dedicating additional pasture for 2,000 more lavender plants. Besides her busy schedule on the farm, Karen will complete her Apprentice Beekeeper course at Cornell University this fall and take a well-deserved vacation after another long season of 18 hour days.
Karen’s work ethic and passion for what she does show as the business reaches full bloom: “I always wanted to own my own business, but I never knew it would be this. When you’re sitting in an office working for someone else, you always think you could do better, do different. To be able to develop a product from something you’ve grown in the ground, that is so rewarding to me.”
The story of Chobani is as simple as the idea for a better tasting and healthier yogurt, and yet so much more. Sitting in the yogurt section of nearly every grocery chain in the nation today is their flagship product, Chobani Greek Yogurt. Chobani is the brainchild of Hamdi Ulukaya, a Turkish immigrant who recognized the promise held in the yogurt market and risked everything in its pursuit. In 2005, Ulukaya was in the fourth year of running Euphrates Inc., his feta cheese manufacturing startup in Johnstown, N.Y., when he noticed a mailed advertisement for the sale of a Kraft Foods plant. Rebuilt in 1920 after a fire destroyed the original building, the New Berlin, N.Y. facility had aging yogurt production equipment and once employed 55. When Ulukaya toured the 80,000-square-foot building, he decided to buy the plant the very next day.
“When I started Euphrates, I always thought yogurt quality could be better. As an entrepreneur, in whatever you do, you need to be aware of your category-what’s good, what’s bad, where the potential is-and I saw that early on. I knew how to sell cheese to the food service industry but the retail yogurt world was a whole different ballgame,” explained Ulukaya.
With an SBA 504 loan through Empire State Certified Development Corporation and KeyBank, Ulukaya was able to purchase the plant in August 2005. Ulukaya hired five seasoned Kraft employees and spent the rest of the summer covering the outside of the facility with a fresh coat of white paint. Chobani started out making private label regular yogurts for other large companies but Ulukaya believed he could make a better yogurt than the competition: “We aimed at people who never liked yogurt. We couldn’t blame them because what was available was not what the rest of the world was eating.”
The recipe for Chobani is thicker and creamier than regular yogurt, with twice the protein and none of the preservatives and artificial flavors. What’s in the yogurt- five live and active cultures, including three probiotics- is as important as what’s not, and Chobani turned this competitive advantage into the yogurt’s slogan, “Nothing But Good.” Ulukaya described the philosophy behind the product: “We look at our yogurt as pure, healthy, simple and something that you enjoy tasting. That is very, very important for us.”
Existing Greek yogurt lines were most often sold in expensive specialty stores, so Ulukaya marketed his yogurt brand to a wider customer base through mass distribution channels of grocery store chains. After more than a year developing Chobani’s trademark taste, in October 2007 Chobani’s first shipment included five different flavors- blueberry, peach, strawberry, vanilla and plain- sold to a single Long Island grocery store.
The yogurt became a sensation, with customers spreading the word about Chobani to friends and family; customer demand led more and more Northeast grocery stores to place orders for the 6-ounce single-serving Chobani containers. Chobani has had to adapt quickly to the meteoric rise in demand, adding employees, equipment and square footage at breathtaking speed.
“We broke all the records along the way. We became the number one selling Greek yogurt, passing brands that had started six or seven years before us. We became the number one yogurt in the Northeast, and then we became the number one brand in the country,” said Ulukaya. “Even though we make a lot of it, every batch has attention from us, meeting certain criteria to make sure it’s good. We want to make good yogurt.”
With less than 50 employees when Chobani first hit the shelves, Chobani has grown to employ over 1,200 today, providing valuable employment opportunities in Chenango County. The plant is a hive of activity, with workers in white lab coats and safety glasses working busily while construction crews expand the facility in seemingly every direction. Chobani now has two full-time shifts, with multiple production lines running 20 hours before stopping for cleaning and maintenance for four hours.
Chobani has invested the bulk of their profits into increasing production capabilities, adding two milk delivery bays, new production lines for kid-size 3.5 ounce Chobani Champions and three flavor Chobani Club Packs, and most notably, constructing a brand new distribution facility across the street in only three months. The distribution warehouse is the largest of its kind in the Northeast, with capacity to store 2.4 million cases of Chobani yogurt in 150,000-square-foot refrigerated space and 14 tractor-trailer bays for faster distribution. According to Dairy Management Services, Chobani’s weekly order for 25 million gallons of milk from local farms provides an annual economic impact of $300 million for the New York State farming community. And Chobani’s impact is moving beyond New York State.
The company recently broke ground on a second U.S. production site in Twin Falls, I.D. The high-efficiency facility will span 900,000-square-feet, making it the largest yogurt plant in the country, and will allow Chobani to produce even more of its #1 selling yogurt as well as bring new innovations to market. Twin Falls production is slated to start later this year and will create 400 new jobs in the area.
Chobani also recently began importing its beloved Greek Yogurt to Australia and Canada after countless fan requests. The move marks the beginning of a global expansion initiative for the company, which will eventually bring Chobani into new markets across the globe. Five years after launching, the success of Chobani is inspirational, with 1.7 million cases of Chobani made weekly. And in spite of working seven days a week, Ulukaya and his team are enjoying the dynamic journey: “A lot of exciting things are happening for the company. If you put your mind to something, put good people around you, and believe, anything is possible. Chobani’s story is, for me, if you really try hard, you can do anything,” he said.
It is this philosophy that led Chobani to become the official yogurt of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team. Chobani will be naturally powering Team USA at U.S. Olympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs, Colo., Chula Vista, Calif., and Lake Placid, N.Y. Additionally, Chobani will follow Team USA to London where it will be served at the USA House and High Performance Training Center during the London Olympic Games.
Chobani is also committed to supporting local farmers and strengthening economic growth in the communities where it is located. Chobani gives 10% of its annual post-tax profits to passionate individuals working towards positive long lasting change through its Shepherd’s Gift Foundation, the company’s charitable arm.
Chobani has been selected as the 2012 national winner of the Entrepreneurial Success of the Year Award by the SBA. The award recognizes the firm for its dramatic growth in employees, sales and business size as well as charitable contributions. Chobani’s Ulukaya will be recognized at the SBA’s National Small Business Week celebration in Washington, D.C. on May 22.
“In 2005, I was working as a civilian for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and spent six months on a construction project in Afghanistan. While I was over there, on my down time I would sit and think how I was going to start my own business,” recounted Mary Warren, a licensed professional engineer. “Starting a construction business is difficult especially if you don’t have any money, credit to rent equipment, references or bonding. All those things were piled up against me.”
The Long Island native had educational background in the industry, with a degree in mechanical engineering from the New York Institute of Technology. Warren spent four years serving in the U.S. Air Force as an environmental engineer at Mountain Home Air Force Base near Boise, Idaho. After her military service, Warren worked as a civil servant for the U.S. Army Public Works Engineering and Construction Division, OSHA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Warren returned home from Afghanistan and then visited the Watertown Small Business Development Center, funded in part by the U.S. Small Business Administration, for free startup counseling sessions.
“They taught me the ABCs of starting a business, including business formation, how to write a business plan and different tax structures. They also gave me important contacts such as the regional PTAC (Procurement Technical Assistance Center). I found the PTAC was the best place for subcontracting opportunities and for networking with other companies,” said Warren.
With a solid business plan, Warren found crucial support to launch her business from the Department of Defense’s Mentor-Protégé Program (MPP). After many attempts, Warren successfully pitched her startup to an existing construction company that participated in the MPP. As the mentor, Structural Associates helped Ms. Warren with obtaining a line of credit, help establish bonding, provided non-competitive subcontract awards, and provided rented space in its Watertown office. Warren’s time as a protégé allowed her startup company, Black Horse Group, to grow quickly from its sole-proprietor status to employ 35 people in just 18 months.
Today Ms. Warren employs eight managers and 30 to 50 field employees depending on the project. Black Horse Group has become a full-service design-build general contracting firm that excels at federal and state construction projects, successfully completing project worth over $4 million as a subcontractor and $24 million as a prime contractor. Projects range from $400,000 building maintenance contracts for corporate clients to larger projects such as an $11.8 million infrastructure upgrade contract, a $6.5 million contract to build a 25,000-square-foot fire station, and a $6.3 million contract for a 15,000-square-foot Child Development Center. Black Horse Group was also a joint-venture partner to build a 25,000-square-foot Child Development Center on Fort Drum.
Black Horse Group is currently working on the $397,000 historical renovation of the Rock Island lighthouse in the St. Lawrence Seaway for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. As part of a five year Multiple Task Order Award Contract (MATOC) for the Northeast region through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Black Horse Group is currently building a 75,000-square-foot Training Support Center and a 4,000-square-foot storage building at Fort Drum. The design includes adding a ground source heat pump geothermal system and upon completion, both buildings will earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED silver rating.
“My military experience really taught me how to manage resources, assets and people. I wanted to start my own company because I liked to build teams and I liked to build things. To anyone considering starting a business, I would say if you have the passion for something, go for it,” said Ms. Warren.