Canton native Nicole Samolis didn’t set out to become a successful small businesswoman, but her firm The Events Company is tangible evidence of her passion and persistence on the path of entrepreneurship. Samolis earned her degree in fashion design and business and spent her early career years at national retailers in Rhode Island and New York. When Samolis hit the management ceiling at Lord & Taylor in the mid 1990’s, she researched which small business industries were rapidly growing and found the event planning field a good match for her design skills and creativity.
Before Google was a household name, researching information required a significant amount of time. Samolis spent many hours in libraries reading about the event planning industry and developing a business plan. The Samolis family had moved to Syracuse only 18 months before and she found the local Chamber of Commerce a tremendous networking tool to help launch her startup business. With a listing in the Yellow Pages and two successful events quickly under her belt, Samolis made the leap of faith by quitting her corporate career and taking her business full-time into her home. “I’m a highly optimistic person, and I figured if I could get two clients, I could probably get more,” recounts Samolis. More clients did hire Samolis and Samolis was able to achieve profitability in just three months’ time.
Samolis joined International Special Events Society, the worldwide event planning trade group, and set her company apart from the local competition by bringing fresh new trends to the Syracuse market. “Bringing those elements that aren’t here locally means shipping things in, shipping things out. It’s my job as an event professional to know what’s out there and what we can provide to our clients,” says Samolis. “We really raise the bar for what people expect from events by bringing that “wow” factor. We help clients achieve their objectives as the architect and general contractor of the event.”
Samolis describes how her startup reached critical mass in 1999: “I never wanted to jeopardize the integrity of the product for the client, so when I became overwhelmed and started to have two events on the same day, I knew I needed help. I couldn’t stay just a one-person shop.” After connecting with another small business to share rented office space in downtown Syracuse, Samolis had both the workspace and workload needed to hire her first employee.
The Events Company outmatches competitors by offering complete event management services, from table settings and custom lighting to branded corporate events and red-carpet product launches. Atypical event themes cemented The Events Company’s reputation as a creative force-instead of traditional, overused luau and Mardi Gras events, Samolis creates unique experiences such as a Superhero concept or Markets of Marrakesh theme. Steady growth in both event planning and event production divisions have resulted in three more full-time employees joining the payroll, including her husband Kevin.
Fast forward to 2011 and you’ll find The Events Company still in downtown Syracuse, just a few blocks away from their first rented space. Staying downtown remains a priority for the business since many clients and popular event venues are located within its confines. Samolis now partners with a Rochester-based rental equipment company to share expenses in the 2,000 square foot suite, double the size of the previous space. Exhibiting a sampling of their rental wares is a win-win situation for Somalis, who doesn’t have pay to maintain expensive inventory, and her clients, who can see what the event style will look like. As the company’s wedding market share grew, Samolis teamed up with other popular wedding vendors to create The Wedding Studio, a chic environment next door where every wedding resource is at the bridal couple’s disposal.
This year has been pivotal for Samolis. In November, she graduated from SBA’s newest executive management training program, e200. By the numbers, the free MBA-level program was a demanding commitment: 100 hours of training, nine months of classes, and one Strategic Growth Action Plan. To Samolis, the time was well worth the effort: “When I first started the business 15 years ago, I saw myself as a business owner. Now I see myself as an entrepreneur, which I really like. Based on the strategic plan I developed in e200, we’ve made the decision to invest in a fifth full-time person. This will allow me to back away from the day-to-day operations to focus on business development and new opportunities for our company.”
Milfoil and Asian clams are two invasive aquatic species that are creating havoc in lakes across the country as they overwhelm native species, damage ecosystems and reduce fishing, boating and other lake tourism activities. Left untreated, invasive aquatic species can turn beautiful lakes into stagnant bogs, with low oxygen levels, turbid water and fish kills. While pursuing their degrees in Natural Resource Management at Paul Smith’s College, Andrew Lewis and Tommy Thomson were lead divers for the college on an experimental invasive plant management project on Upper Saranac Lake and were able to see the problem firsthand. They also saw an opportunity that would allow them to combine their diving skills and degrees in Natural Resource Management into a profitable business.
After college, they started Aquatic Invasive Management, LLC in 2007 to provide a new and environmentally-friendly way to control nuisance and invasive aquatic plants. Based in AuSable Forks, AIM won its first contract in the fall of 2007 to reduce milfoil presence in Minerva Lake. With little business experience, the business partners relied on their research skills, adaptability and energy to learn as the company grew. When they needed to buy equipment, Lewis and Thomson turned to Nikki Wright at the Adirondack Economic Development Corporation, an SBA Microlender. The SBA Microloan financed the purchase of a new boat, trailer and gear needed for the increase in business the following year.
“We were able to grow from one contract in 2007 to three in 2008. We had six contracts in 2009 and 10 the year after. We’ve seen exponential growth and we’ve learned that 10-12 lakes a season are our capacity at the current stage of our business,” explained co-owner Tommy Thomson.
Inclement weather determines the day-to-day schedule for AIM diving crews as well as the company’s operating season, which usually lasts six months of the year for diver comfort and safety. Thomas credits the company’s success to the natural methods used to manage invasive species. Divers harvest acres of milfoil in a day by hand; the process is chemical-free, uses 30 lb. mesh bags that can be cleaned and reused, and yields a compostable product. Today, AIM has passed the $1 million sales mark, with 13 full-time employees and contracts with lakes across the Adirondack Park, from south of Lake George to the Canadian border. With the potential to expand operations beyond New York State, Lewis and Thomson have a successful small business with a bright future.
Thomson has found the schedule of running a business- often 14 or 16 hours a day- completely rewarding: “With your business, it’s a love. The more you put into your own business, the more you get out of it and the happier you’ll feel at the end of the day.”
Founded by Henry Sturges, Sturges Manufacturing, Inc. began producing suspenders in Utica, NY in 1909. Today, Sturges is an ISO-9001 certified manufacturer of custom-designed engineered straps and webbing for the safety, firefighting, military and mountain climbing industries. Sturges is renowned for its outstanding performance in quality, value and customer service, and recognition from customers across the world is evident from the foyer full of awards and plaques.
Leading the company into the 21st century is President Rick Griffith. Over 38 years ago, Rick joined Sturges and in 2000, he transitioned from one of the owners to the majority owner. Within a year, Rick’s son Tyler came on board for new market development. The father and son leadership team has been good for both the family and the business.
“I think working with my son is the greatest thing going,” said Rick Griffith. “He has come in here and taken a whole different look at things with a completely different perspective.”
Sturges has been able to achieve an advantage over competitors by designing innovative solutions for its customers, with two patents on file and two more pending. The company just received a patent this month on a energy-absorbing webbing that is designed to reduce the shock for workers falling from heights, such as construction workers or window-washers.
In 2004, the company invested over $100,000 to build a testing lab inside one of its three buildings. Since the lab acts as an independent facility within the company, Sturges has applied for it to be certified as an ISO 17025 test lab. The ability to conduct internal quality control testing has made Sturges’s webbing and straps even more marketable. With a continued increase in foreign demand for its engineered products, particularly in Canada and Mexico, exporting activity has increased significantly over the past several years.
Selling to the federal government was once a strong source of revenue for Sturges; during World War II, the company sold over two million rifle slings to the military for U.S. soldiers. The number of government contracts received by Sturges had slowed over recent years, and in 2009 Tyler Griffith sought assistance to improve sales from the NYS Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Procurement Assistance Center located at SUNY Institute of Technology in Utica.
The SBDC Procurement Assistance Center’s Government Contracting Coordinator, Roxanne Mutchler, provided training in accessing technical data packages, qualified product and manufacturer lists and federal bidding opportunities.
Sturges hired Patrick Fiegl as a government sales representative the same year and attended the Rochester Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) matchmaker in 2010. With a renewed emphasis on procurement, government sales have once again increased. Sturges recently was awarded a contract from the U.S. Army Pine Bluff Arsenal to manufacture over 40,000 straps for mortar shells.
“We contacted the SBDC to learn what we needed to do to obtain government contracts and how to expand our presence,” said Tyler Griffith, vice president. “We continue to turn to the SBDC when we run into a roadblock.”