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In 2007, the housing market imploded. The real estate industry went into a tailspin. And Radha Herring – the 2012 South Carolina Small Business Person of the Year – started Watermark Real Estate Group in Myrtle Beach.
Radha had wanted to be an entrepreneur ever since she was a child growing up in Myrtle Beach. “I always wanted to have a successful business,” she says. “I think the concept of building something from scratch is exciting.”
And Radha had wanted to run a real estate company ever since she bought her first house in 1999. “Real estate is the only investment you can enjoy with your family while waiting for it to appreciate,” she explains.
After a ten-year corporate career in telecommunications, Radha was ready to make her small business goal a reality in her hometown of Myrtle Beach, part of South Carolina’s famous Grand Strand. One of the first steps she took was reaching out to SCORE. SCORE–an SBA resource partner that provides free, confidential business counseling–connected her to a counselor in Greenville who was a retired real estate broker. Radha’s SCORE counselor advised her on agent commission rates and told her to keep her overhead very low. He also reminded her not to sell herself short when she was growing her business.
“It’s always nice to have someone coach you,” Radha says.
Radha planned her business to be totally web-based with no physical office. Its virtual structure would not only keep overhead costs low, but would also give the business the flexibility to help clients from across the country buy residential and vacation properties throughout the 60-mile Grand Strand.
When Radha opened Watermark Real Estate Group, the housing bubble had just burst and the real estate industry was struggling. Undeterred, she decided to approach the industry’s struggles as business opportunities.
“Once the bubble burst, the writing was on the wall. Foreclosures and distressed sales were going to be a big part of the market,” she says.
Many realtors tried to avoid any involvement with distress properties, like foreclosures. But where they saw only the stigma, Radha saw a unique opportunity for people to buy coastal properties at much lower prices. Watermark quickly began offering potential buyers free access to lists of bank-owned properties. The company’s marketing message centered on the new affordability of vacation properties and second homes in the area.
“I do what all other realtors could do,” Radha says. “I just market it differently.”
Radha and the Watermark agents also worked on strengthening relationships with area lenders in order to match clients with the banks best equipped to handle their mortgages.
Radha’s optimistic approach to the housing crisis obstacles paid off. In 2009, Watermark’s sales were 15 times higher than the previous year, and sales have continued to grow every year since. Watermark has also grown from two agents in 2008 to nine agents today.
“I think people think I’m making it up when they ask, ‘How’s the market?’ and I tell them it’s great,” Radha says. “But I really do think it’s great.”
Another secret to Watermark’s success has been its focus on customer service.
Discussing what sets her business apart, Radha says, “It’s good old fashioned business 101. We answer the phone when it rings. If we’re in the office, our goal is to answer a question within an hour. When we’re out, it’s four hours.”
“Lots of times, callers say Watermark is the first agency to answer the phone.”
And Watermark agents are always reachable during evenings and weekends to better serve clients who work during the day.
Radha and her company have shared their success by getting involved in the community. Watermark is a member of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, where Radha serves on the Legislative Policy Council. A Clemson University graduate, she also serves on the Clemson Extension advisory board and is a member of the university’s Alumni National Council. In addition, Radha is active in her local Association of Realtors, where she serves on the board of directors and as vice-chair of the Real Estate Leadership Program.
In 2012, SBA named Radha the South Carolina Small Business Person of the Year based on her growth in sales, financial performance, response to adversity and community involvement.
Last October, Rhonda Jordan’s husband asked her what she wanted to do with her life. “Run a fabric store,” she answered. “Write a business plan,” he told her. So she did.
In March 2012, Rhonda’s plan became a reality when she opened Tabby Fabric and Studio in downtown Beaufort.
Fast forward to the summer, and bolts of fabrics line the shop’s left wall and sit in stacks on a cutting table. In an adjoining room that serves as the studio, a large table sits across from a row of sewing machines. Just months after starting, the business is already breaking even.
Rhonda credits three factors with Tabby Fabric’s successful start: the business plan, SBA financing and her own ingenuity.
Five years ago, instead of returning to her nursing career, Rhonda decided to enroll in the Savannah College of Art and Design. She had intended to study painting but soon found herself drawn to textiles instead and changed her focus to fabric design.
“I’m not really a plan kind of person,” Rhonda admits.
But when it came to starting and running a business, she knew the plan was essential.
When creating the plan, Rhonda considered how the fabric industry had been changing over the past decade. Quilting fabric had undergone a renaissance – a “soft revolution” in industry-speak. The 21st century designs and new materials were attracting both younger generations of quilters and, despite the historical barrier between quilting and garment fabrics, clothing makers.
With this knowledge, Rhonda wondered why quilting shops weren’t marketing to garment makers or even carrying modern fabrics.
“I looked at what other places were doing wrong instead of what they were doing right,” she says.
Rhonda also knew she wanted to get the community involved in her business. Sewing had become more and more popular over the past decade, and Rhonda wanted to give local sewists a place to not only buy fabric, but also to work on their creations and meet like-minded people. And, she wanted to teach more people how to sew.
“Sewing is very social and that’s the idea behind the sewing room,” Rhonda explains. “I had this, ‘If you build it, they will come’ philosophy.”
Through Rhonda’s plan, her business vision took shape: a shop serving the fabric, space and educational needs of both quilters and garment makers of all generations and all skill levels.
Rhonda’s husband, who had recently gotten his MBA, also got involved, helping out with the business’s financial projections.
When she finished her business plan draft, Rhonda made an appointment with Martin Goodman, area manager of the Beaufort Area Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to see if she was on the right track. The SBDC is part of the SBA’s team of resource partners, which provide free and confidential small business counseling. Martin reviewed the plan and was impressed.
Now that she had a strong business plan, Rhonda’s next step was securing the financing she needed to make the plan a reality.
Martin worked with Rhonda on the presentation aspect of the business plan, helping her streamline her own plan to successfully submit to lenders.
“I don’t know if I would have actually put my plan into a banker’s hands if it weren’t for Martin,” Rhonda says.
Despite the strong business plan and her own strong credit, Rhonda was turned down by three banks. To borrow cash, you have to have cash, the lenders told her. But with two young sons, Rhonda didn’t have thousands of dollars of her own to invest in the business.
Once again, she turned to the SBDC. Martin recommended that she apply for an SBA-backed loan from Borrego Springs Bank, a participant in SBA’s Preferred Lender Program. Rhonda was hesitant—Borrego Springs Bank was an out-of-state bank and she would have to submit an online application. But she took Martin’s advice and applied.
“The process was tedious and a little scary, but all in all it was a good process,” she says.
The process paid off – literally. On February 15, 2012, Borrego Springs approved Rhonda for the business loan.
Rhonda secured a location in downtown Beaufort, where her shop would share the block with two businesses in similarly creative industries: a knitting and yarn store and an art supply store. Not only would her shop appeal to existing customers of the two other businesses, but its downtown location would also appeal to tourists.
Rhonda budgeted the loan proceeds “down to the dollar,” she says.
To save money, Rhonda and her husband took on any task they felt they could do themselves. They did all their own painting and even performed some of their own construction. With her artistic flair, Rhonda was also able to design her business’s website, spending only a few hundred dollars for coding assistance instead of a few thousand to hire a web designer.
Today, Tabby Fabric and Studio counts clients from throughout the community and even from as far away as Atlanta and Kansas City. Customers come to shop, to sew, to chat and to learn.
“You can do this when the economy is the way it is,” Rhonda says. “This is a niche store in a small town, and we’re keeping our head above water. If you have a plan and keep a budget, anything’s possible.”
In 2002, Ramona Fantini traveled to Italy and got her first taste of real gelato – Italy’s own smoother, more flavorful version of ice cream. Hooked, Ramona developed a three-a-day gelato habit during her trip. She also found a calling: Bringing the authentic gelato experience to the U.S. In 2004, she started Pino Gelato, a retail gelato store in Hilton Head that served its own made-from-scratch flavors.
Eight years later, Pino Gelato is thriving thanks to its unique business model that allows it to be both a community-focused small business in Hilton Head and a rapidly expanding brand throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
In its first few years, Pino Gelato was establishing itself as a vacation tradition for summer visitors to Hilton Head, a popular resort area. Around five years ago, Ramona considered expanding and running a Pino Gelato store in another part of South Carolina. Unsure of how she would market Pino Gelato to a new area, especially an area without a significant tourist season, Ramona reached out to her local SCORE chapter for marketing assistance. SCORE is an SBA resource partner that provides free and confidential small business counseling.
“SCORE is really tremendous,” Ramona says. “They’re great people.”
Ramona worked with SCORE Lowcountry counselor Gene Sherman for over a year. Using Aiken as the test market site, Gene helped Ramona conduct extensive market research. In Aiken, Ramona met with local businesses, restaurant owners and media. She asked what they thought of gelato. She asked about the benefits and drawbacks of downtown versus suburban locations. She asked about the value of advertising in the local media.
The experience taught her the value of reaching out to others. “I learned that throwing an ad in a newspaper or trade journal doesn’t necessarily make a difference to business,” Ramona says. Instead, “networking and connections really make a difference.”
Instead of opening and operating a Pino Gelato store in a new South Carolina market, Ramona decided to use what she’d learned to grow Pino Gelato’s presence in the Hilton Head community – not just among tourists, but among the people who, like Ramona, called the island home.
“You support the community, the community will support you,” Ramona says.
From offering local teacher discounts and frequent buyer cards to sponsoring a Little League team, Pino Gelato is now intrinsic to the Hilton Head area community. The business is also active in the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce and is a committed participant in local holiday celebrations.
In 2010, the Chamber named Pino Gelato the 2010 Small Business of the Year. And in 2012, Pino Gelato was voted best ice cream on the island by readers of the Island Packet, the local daily newspaper.
“We’re finally the place people go for ice cream,” Ramona says.
Business and Brand Expansion
Yet not only is Pino Gelato part of its local community, it’s also part of communities stretching from Florida to Pennsylvania thanks to the licensing agreement Ramona created.
By Pino Gelato’s second summer in business, customers kept asking if it was a franchise. Ramona wondered if they might be on to something – a new way to expand her business’s brand and bring the gelato experience to a wider audience. But after some research, Ramona found the responsibilities of franchising overwhelming. Then, an attorney suggested a simpler alternative – a licensing agreement, which would allow licensees to sell Pino Gelato products and adopt the Pino Gelato name while retaining control over their own business operations.
The first licensed Pino Gelato location was opened in Ohio by two of Ramona’s customers – a husband and wife who vacationed in Hilton Head.
Today, you can find licensed Pino Gelato locations in South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and – starting in 2013 – New Jersey. You can also find Pino Gelato products at select restaurants in Connecticut.
Pino Gelato is also now a presence in airports around the Southeast.
In November 2007, Ramona approached the nearby Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport to discuss becoming a vendor. The Savannah airport referred her to the much larger Charlotte-Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, N.C. Officials at Charlotte’s airport were immediately taken with the idea of having a Pino Gelato location inside one of its terminals. That November, a licensed Pino Gelato location opened inside the Charlotte airport, with a second location opening in June 2008. In September 2011, the Savannah airport opened a Pino Gelato location of its own, giving Hilton Head tourists a chance for a final gelato fix before flying home. Most recently, in July 2012, a licensed Pino Gelato location opened in the Tampa International Airport, with plans for a second location in the near future.
And Pino Gelato’s airport presence is growing: Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport will open its first Pino Gelato in late 2012.
Small Business Accolades
In 2012, Ramona’s small business success garnered statewide and national attention. First, the SBA named Ramona the runner-up South Carolina Small Business Person of the Year in recognition of her business’s staying power, job market impact and innovation. Then, Pino Gelato won the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Blue Ribbon Award – an annual award honoring 75 small businesses nationwide for excellence in business strategy, employee development, community involvement and customer service.