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.
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.”