Call Center CEO's actions in revolutionizing industry earns her SBA 2013 Washington state Small Business Person of the Year award
EASTSOUND, Wash. -- Jill Blankenship will tell anyone who listens that the days of needing a giant office space to house a call center are long gone. Also heading the way of the dinosaurs are proprietary employees who only handle technical support over-the-phone for one company.
Blankenship’s company Frontline Call Center is in a relatively small building (compared to massive call center office spaces) and her employees provide customer service support for a number of clients. What makes her very different from the competition, though, is where her business is located – in Eastsound, Wash., on Orcas Island, part of the San Juan Islands.
The remote setting means that she can only have a handful of employees physically work at the main business building, so she hired other call center agents across the country to be able to provide 24-hour assistance to the company’s clients. Blankenship’s innovation, dedication to technology, savvy business planning and help from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has established Frontline Call Center as a leader in the call center industry and helped earned her the SBA 2013 Washington state Small Business Person of the Year recipient.
Frontline Call Center is a rural outsourcing call center that provides a full array of telecommunications solutions and has grown to become a multimillion-dollar company employing more than 60 people across 12 states. Started in 2005, Blankenship created the company as a response to meet Orcas Island’s need for steady year round employment in a rural area with severe location challenges. Last year, she opened another call center location in Friday Harbor, Wash., part of San Juan Island.
Frontline has helped evolve the rural telecommunications/call center industry for rural island communities with limited access to the mainland thanks in part to several SBA 7 (a) loans, with the most recent loan totaling $140,000. Nearly 10 percent of her sales are from export clients, allowing Blankenship the opportunity to branch out to new markets and hire more employees, making Frontline Call Center one of the three largest employers on Orcas Island with 14 full-time employees.
“The support I have received from the SBA in loan and resources assistance has been vital to my business being a success,” Blankenship said.
Having the remote workforce that can work on multiple accounts gives Frontline lots of flexibility. Employees can be on flex schedules, work three-hour shifts at a time. Blankenship learned early on that she needed call agents in various time zones to ensure that no matter who was calling, an excited, knowledgeable agent was available, no matter the time. There’s a big difference between having a smile on your face at 6 a.m. versus 3 a.m.,” she said.
While some managers might be reluctant to have employees so many states away, Blankenship said she recognized that employees who worked from home were more productive, happier and interacted with the company’s mission, vision and goals better. Her goal is to continue hire enough agents to take her business to the next level, and she thinks she will need about 200 agents to do that.
“As we continue to grow, our top priority is to have our employees engaged in our culture so that the expansion is smooth,” Blankenship said.
Blankenship devotes many hours each month supporting nonprofits in the San Juan Islands. She is the president of Orcas Angels, a local nonprofit that provides assistance for Islanders in crisis. This crisis relief support has delivered dinner to those in need, provided clothing and shelter to those fallen victim to house fires and built ramps for those who could not get into their own homes.
“These angels are dedicated to the well-being and success of the residents and business owners of Orcas Island,” she said.
When she is not overseeing operations at the call center or working with nonprofits, Blankenship mentors and advocates for startup organizations in the San Juan Islands.
“I try to bring to light the challenges of residing in a rural location and overcoming the lack of access to resources and networking needed for success,” she said.
Being named the SBA 2013 Washington state Small Business Person of the Year comes with a trip to the other Washington. Blankenship flew to Washington, D.C., earlier this year to spend a week with the other state winners and received a reception from Washington state Senator Maria Cantwell. While she did not win the overall Small Business Person of the Year for the nation, she will never forget that special opportunity.
“It’s easy to feel disconnected living on an island and having our business highlighted has been really rewarding, and I feel we are getting our name out there for Orcas Island,” she said.
Blankenship’s advice for other small business owners trying to get ahead in their business is to treat your business plan like it is your Bible.
“It needs to be clean and clear and you should have done at least 10 renditions on it before you can call it good to go,” she said. “I think some people find that (much editing) really overwhelming to do, but the business plan is such an important piece to a successful business; you need to devote the time.”
For more information about Frontline Call Centers, visit www.frontlinecallcenter.com.
For more information about the SBA, visit www.sba.gov/wa.
LYNDEN, Wash. – John and Dorie Belisle plan to retire in several years and like many longtime small business owners, want to ensure they have a nest egg to fall back on when they hand their 30-acre farm over to future owners.
The owners of Bellewood Acres in Lynden, since 1995, have just about everything you could ask for in a person-friendly farm – 25,000 apple trees with several varieties of apples complete with a u-pick section year round; a portion of land devoted to cucumbers and corn, and a giant pumpkin patch for picking at Halloween.
What they did not have, though, was a massive farmhouse that could serve as a store for their produce and market bistro and bakery, a warehouse, office space for staff, dedicated space for local artists to display their work, or even a distillery.
That all changed thanks to a U.S. Small Business Administration Certified Development Company/504 loan that helped them purchase and build a 14,000 square foot building that they feel sets them on the path to financial sustainability as they enter their golden years.
The Belisles made their dream a reality thanks to the help of the Northwest Business Development Association’s Vice President and Senior Loan Officer Elizabeth Rusnak.
Rusnak worked with the Belisles to help them secure nearly $1 million to construct the farmhouse just over two years ago. Having a qualified U.S. Small Business Administration loan officer like Rusnak made the process so much easier to manage, Dorie said.
“Elizabeth saved me through the process,” she said. Rusnak’s dedication to the clients she serves helped earn her the 2012 SBA Seattle District Office Financial Services Champion of the Year award during last year’s SBA Awards Gala in Seattle.
The Belisles’ old farmhouse was just that – a small house. They would bring out cash registers each day and place them on the carport. The house’s location is off a side street and not near the main road of Highway 539 in Lynden. It was an ok solution for them, but it just did not have that “Wow” factor they wanted visitors to their farm to experience, Dorie said.
The answer to their problems came after a trip to Austria, where many u-pick farms have giant multi-purpose farmhouses, including the one that caught their eye – a farmhouse that had a distillery, and the farmers used leftover apples to make apple brandy or other apple liquors.
Once they saw that they could have multiple product lines created out of one business – a distillery, restaurant, gift shop and space for special events – they knew exactly how to proceed.
Construction on the farmhouse took just over a year and the building has been open for a year. Dorie said the farm averaged profit gains every year they were in business, but since opening the store and the distillery, they are expecting to beat even their best profit projection.
“We won’t have to borrow against our credit line, so that is a success for us,” she said.
They have been marketing their apple liquors to large chain grocery stores and boutique small business markets and shops, all the while staying local and sustainable. John and Dorie are active members in several local organizations such as Sustainable Connections, the Tenmile Creek Watershed Project, Whatcom Farm Friends, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association and the Puget Sound Food Network.
“Everything at Bellewood Acres is done with a philosophy of strong community and responsible farming,” according to the Bellewood Acres website.
Rolling out the new product lines has helped increase the number of people they have hired locally. On average, Bellewood has about 45 to 50 employees, but the owners believe that number will go up as the store gains more traction with the community.
Dorie recommends that other small businesses looking to buy property and plan to use financing should shop around and check out different banks. Not all banks participate in the 504 loan, and some offer better interest rates or term lengths than others.
“Don’t be afraid to ask people and get as much information as you can before stepping forward,” Dorie said. “And explore all your options, including the SBA.”
For more information about Bellewood Acres, visit http://www.bellewoodfarms.com.
For more information about the SBA Seattle District Office, visit http://www.sba.gov/wa.
By Grace Robinson-Seim, Washington Women’s Business Center
SEATTLE -- Business is going well for Karyn Gold-Reineke, founder of Pirouette, an artisan perfume and natural spa luxuries company based in Seattle.
You’ll find her exquisite line of handcrafted perfumes, soaps and lotions in a number of stores around the area, including Town and Country Markets and Whole Foods.
However, when Gold-Reineke was laid off from her comfortable, full-time job at an art museum at the height of the financial collapse in early 2009, her future was anything but certain.
Encouraged by friends and family members to expand on her soap making hobby, Gold-Reineke initially decided to make ends meet by selling the artisan soaps she had previously enjoyed giving out as Christmas gifts.
She started out with a simple Etsy shop, which she managed while working out of her 325 square-foot cottage home in the woods. When she introduced her perfume line, however, her orders began to pick up.
Gold-Reineke found herself working 12 hour days, seven days a week. While the progress was exciting, the work load was daunting. Her creative background did little to prepare her for the complexities of running a business on this scale. “I’m so much more of the artist in this,” Gold-Reineke said. “I think of myself as more of a perfumer and a scent creator. I haven’t really ever been a very business-minded person, even though I’m very entrepreneurial.”
A friend introduced her to Community Capital Development, where she got the support she needed to keep up with the demands of her rapidly expanding business.
She benefited from free counseling through the Washington Women’s Business Center on topics ranging from building a business plan to basic accounting.
The Washington Women's Business Center (WBC) offers business counseling, technical assistance, and training on a wide variety of topics. Trainings are offered as individual workshops or multi-session classes. The WBC partly receives funding thanks to a grant by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).
“I wanted to have a long term plan for my business,” Gold-Reineke said. “I have been working a lot with (CCD staff), looking at my sales and profit margins for each item and doing cash flow projections. It was really enlightening for me to be able to project where I would be and plan ahead. You can see so much more clearly, and it was so simple! Even though it was kind of crazy getting all the numbers together, it was so empowering being able to understand. It was like getting a crystal ball!”
Now in her own studio space in a vintage brick building in Pioneer Square, Gold-Reineke is eager to continue on her upward trajectory.
“It has been really good for me to get some of those skills and understand what people do,” she said. “I’ve told so many people about Community Capital Development, too. It’s so great, and it’s free!”
For more information about Pirouette, visit http://www.pirouetteessentials.com.
For more information about the Washington Women’s Business Center, visit http://www.wbc.seattleccd.com.
For more information about the U.S. Small Business Administration, visit http://www.sba.gov/wa or call (206) 553-7310.