In late 2012, Reeves Clippard was having a “crisis of confidence” in determining which direction to take his solar panel installation business. The co-founder and CEO of A&R Solar in Seattle had recently laid off several employees following a sharp increase in work – including winning a local contract to be preferred installers for the Solarize Washington program – and then a decline in work.
Clippard started his business after realizing he spent more time researching renewable energy than focusing on his unsatisfying IT job. He started small through bootstrapping efforts but quickly grew his team in three years.
“It was our first taste of growing too fast. We felt blindsided and were surprised why we didn’t see it coming,” Clippard said. “We knew we needed to get tools and metrics in place, and Emerging Leaders helped us make that happen.”
The SBA Emerging Leaders Initiative is a seven-month, executive education course for small business owners and executives whose business is on the brink of growth. The program provides the framework, tools and resources for business owners to work on their business rather than in their business.
Clippard began applying the knowledge he gleaned from the Emerging Leaders program which led to hiring six employees, developing specific roles and titles for other management members, and creating a strategic growth plan to accommodate the industry’s market fluctuation.
“Everything pointed to hiring the right staff,” Clippard said. “The Emerging Leaders class showed me we needed to rethink capacity, needed a consistent marketing effort, and needed more sales staff. We transitioned from focusing on delivering the work to pulling in more work and closing more deals.”
Since completing the Emerging Leaders program, A&R Solar has also paid back a loan and completed renovations on a new headquarters building in the Seattle SODO district. Plus, the company is involved with several green energy renovation projects through the state of Washington.
“Reeves is a classic entrepreneur and started the class identifying a few areas he needed help with. After creating his strategic plan, he realized he needed a whole new approach to his business and his leadership,” said Mary Marshall, SBA Emerging Leaders Seattle instructor. “As a result of his new direction, his company has exceeded projections and is on track for the most successful year yet.”
Clippard stated March 2014 is the most successful month in the company’s history with nearly $600,000 of jobs sold, which is almost as much the company’s annual sales in early years. A&R Solar is also “expecting tremendous growth and expansion in 2014.”
For more information about A&R Solar, visit www.a-rsolar.com.
For more information about the SBA Emerging Leaders Initiative, visit www.sba.gov/EmergingLeaders.
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.