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“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.
The Emmi/Mangano family businesses began in the 1940’s when Antonio Emmi purchased a 30-acre farm in Liverpool. Crops of corn, tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and blueberries were sold to local markets and directly to customers at the family’s roadside stand. The Emmi & Sons, Inc. farm is still active today under the direction of Tony Emmi (third generation). The fourth generation Emmi and Mangano family members spend their summer vacations working at the farm stand in the family tradition, learning entrepreneurial skills on a daily basis. Third generation entrepreneurs Carmen Emmi, Jr., Anthony Mangano and the rest of their cousins spent their childhoods the same way and credit their farm days with creating a strong work ethic.
The Emmi/Mangano family business branched out into the hotel industry with the purchase of a Liverpool-based Ramada hotel in 1982. The hotel industry was a perfect fit for the family, and they continued acquiring and building properties over the next two decades. By 2007, the family members owned five hotels in Syracuse and Watertown, with brands such as Super 8, Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites by Hilton, and employed up to 75 seasonal staff on the farm and 225 permanent staff at the hotels.
In 2010, the Emmi and Mangano family partnership purchased their sixth hotel, an aging Days Inn property in Watertown. With the help of an SBA 504 loan from Empire State Certified Development Corporation and Watertown Savings Bank, the hotel underwent a $2 million renovation. Emmi and Mangano personally helped with the demolition of all 135 guest rooms and all public areas. “The hotel was gutted down to the studs and rebuilt” added Anthony Mangano. Months of hard work has produced a modern Comfort Inn & Suites that competes in the upper tier of the hotel market in the Watertown area.
In January 2011 the revamped hotel earned "Platinum Status" as the #1 hotel in New York State based on "Likelihood to Recommend", online guest surveys, hotel decor, quality assurance scores and overall guest service. Available hotel services and amenities include an indoor heated pool, banquet and meeting room facilities, fitness room and complimentary hot breakfast. The Comfort Inn & Suites’ prime location enables the property to capitalize on growth at nearby Fort Drum and the 1000 Islands Seaway Region.
"Watertown Savings Bank and the SBA definitely made the project possible. It was well worth it in the end, with a 20-year loan and a very favorable interest rate," explained Carmen Emmi, Jr.
Shortly after arriving in the U.S. in 1936, Ludwig Steigerwald teamed with fellow German immigrant Curt Liehs, Sr. to open a butcher shop in downtown Syracuse. The duo launched a successful startup in the midst of the Great Depression by providing quality meats and traditional sausages made from heirloom family recipes. Ever since, generations of Syracuse families have grown up enjoying Liehs & Steigerwald products as part of their everyday and special occasion meals.
Known as “the best of the wurst”, Liehs & Steigerwald has become famous for their 18 types of bratwursts made of the freshest cuts of meat without preservatives, fillers or artificial flavors. In addition to bratwursts, the company makes all types of sausages, including spicy chorizo, smoked Italian sausage, and garlic kielbasa. Liehs & Steigerwald earned nationwide acclaim when their hot dog tied for first place with New York City’s Schaller and Weber in an annual ranking by the Rosengarten Report.
In the 1980s, Ludwig’s nephew Bob Steigerwald and Curt Liehs, Jr. took over operations and worked together until Steigerwald became the sole owner in 1998. Bob Steigerwald continued to deliver the quality meats customers had grown to rely on for another dozen years before selling the company to his son Jeffrey and longtime employee Chuck Madonna in 2003. Both Steigerwald and Madonna worked at the downtown butcher shop in their high school days, though Steigerwald started out on a different career path after graduating from the University of Delaware with a degree in accounting.
After working in computer science positions in Texas and Michigan, Steigerwald returned to his Syracuse roots when his father was ready to retire: “When I worked for other people, I felt like I was a hard worker. I started to think that I could work for myself if I had the opportunity. The timing worked out that my father was at a point in his life where he was ready to retire and I was ready to move back to my hometown with my young family.”
The new partnership cemented Steigerwald and Madonna’s longtime friendship and with twice the management capacity, the duo set out to strike a balance between honoring traditions and modernizing the business model. One gradual but significant change that the business faced was the shift of residential population from inside the city of Syracuse to the suburbs. Since customers often shop for grocery and produce items closer to home, Liehs & Steigerwald followed their lead and during their first year of ownership, Steigerwald and Madonna opened a second location in the suburb of Clay. The Clay store is open Monday through Saturday, while the Syracuse shop is closed on Mondays for production and smoking. Their suburban location also offers a deli area where customers can eat fresh homemade sandwiches and meals while shopping.
“Eating and shopping habits have significantly changed over the past 50 years. We’ve had to adjust to meet customers’ needs with different products and services. The biggest challenge we face is convenience,” says Steigerwald. Families have transitioned from making multiple stops for fresh produce, bakery and meat items to one-stop shopping at large grocery stores. “At Your Door”, the company’s new delivery service, brings individual orders placed by phone or fax to the customer’s workplace or home address. Steigerwald personally delivers the orders to locations such as Camillus, Fayetteville, Cazenovia and Skaneateles. The delivery service has been a hit for customers too busy to visit one of Liehs & Steigerwald’s two locations, increasing sales by 10%.
This year, Steigerwald spent many hours working on his business strategic plan for growth as part of the first Syracuse class of e200. The free MBA-style program for urban entrepreneurs is an SBA initiative that offers participants small class settings, collaborative CEO-mentoring groups and expert guidance for nine months. Important outcomes for Steigerwald are an increased focus on the company’s relatively new catering division and learning when to delegate. “e200 has helped me focus on trying to find a little more balance in my role in the business. It’s an owner-operated company, but there is so much going on that I need to focus more on the management aspects,” comments Steigerwald.
After participating in e200, Steigerwald feels more than ready to handle the busy winter weeks ahead. The current holiday season is second in sales only to the summer months, when family and corporate cookouts are popular. While families have been excitedly planning their holiday feasts, ramping up production to meet the spike in sales meant 80 hour weeks for Steigerwald and Madonna since everything is made fresh. In the days leading up to Christmas, Liehs & Steigerwald sold 40 tenderloin roasts, 250 rib roasts, 150 hams, 300 dozen homemade pierogies and 400 pounds of kielbasa. By offering the best quality meats and finding new ways to bring their products to customers, 75-year-old butcher shop Liehs & Steigerwald can stay relevant for the next generation.