Robin Hildebrand, president of Blue Smoke Inc. in Ansted, is in many ways a typical West Virginia small business entrepreneur but in other ways quite unique.
Born in rural West Virginia, the 12th of 14 children, Robin’s family supplemented their food supply by processing fresh fruits and vegetables grown in their garden out of necessity, not as a hobby.
“Being from a large family, we sometimes didn’t have enough food to go around,” said Robin. “Raising a vegetable garden was just a way of life with each and every family member spending time working the garden and canning.”
Robin took the qualities and skills that she learned from gardening; hard work, perseverance, creativity, and enthusiasm to create Blue Smoke, Inc., a woman-owned small business that has grown by leaps and bounds, receiving state and national recognition.
Robin started the company in 1993 as a sole proprietorship out of a need to find a job where she could work at home and still care for her family. Drawing on the gardening and canning experience she obtained while growing up, she began making salsa for friends and co-workers from the basement of her home.
“Everyone liked the salsa and said I should be selling it, not giving it away as gifts,” said Robin.
“I really didn’t know much about starting and running a business, but I was willing to learn,” she continued. She made a few calls and found out about Jim Epling at the Small Business Development Center located just down the road in Oak Hill.
“Jim stressed every successful business began with a business plan,” stated Robin. “I spent several hours at my kitchen table writing and perfecting that plan.”
Once the business plan was set, the next step was to transform the dirt-floored basement of her home into a FDA-approved kitchen. This challenge demonstrated Robin’s tenacity and business savvy. After a preliminary inspection of the basement, which in addition to the dirt floor had no running water or ventilation, she was told that there was no feasible way it could meet the standards and be approved. That wasn’t about to stop Robin.
“In less than a year, my basement was approved as the first FDA commercial kitchen in a residence in West Virginia,” Robin proudly stated. This is a real example of Robin’s philosophy, ‘Women think differently than men when it comes to business. If you want something done right and quickly, let a woman do it’.”
Through mostly “word-of-mouth” advertising, Robin quickly outgrew her basement kitchen. Her husband Jeff was making deliveries of Blue Smoke products to ten local stores. That number soon increased to 25 and today her products are sold in over 460 locations across 15 states.
Blue Smoke incorporated in 1995 and moved into a leased building in the city of Ansted. A retail shop was opened to capture some of the local business and attract some of the tourists on their way to Hawk’s Nest State Park and other attractions.
As demand increased, so did the need for the automation of the manufacturing process. In 2002, Robin purchased a vacant 12,000 sq. ft. building in downtown Ansted and renovated it as a manufacturing facility and retail outlet.
“No matter how many people stop in the store or wherever I go, I’m always asked ‘How did you come up with the name Blue Smoke Salsa?’ said Robin.
It all started with a hot pepper and a childhood game. Being one of the youngest siblings, Robin had to work hard at defeating her 13 brothers and sisters when they played. One family favorite was an unusual game of tag that involved chasing each other around the garden with hot peppers.
“I knew that the hottest part of a fire was the blue flame, so armed with a pepper, I would chase my brothers around yelling ‘This one’s blue smoke!’” said Robin. “What I meant to say was ‘blue fire,’ but the phrase stuck. That’s how Blue Smoke got its name.”
Locating the business in downtown Ansted was not only a good business decision, it was good for the community as a whole. Before Blue Smoke located to Ansted, there was little to no business activity and a majority of the buildings were vacant. Now other businesses are renovating and moving into buildings that were once vacant. As Blue Smoke grows, so does the business community of Ansted.
As production and revenues increased, so did the recognition. She has received numerous honors, being named as Tamarack’s (a state artisan facility) vendor of the year in 1999, Ernst & Young’s emerging entrepreneur for 2000, and most recently named as Best Salsa in the Americas by the Americas Food and Beverage Show, beating out entries from even Mexico. Most recently, Blue Smoke Inc. was named West Virginia’s 2004 Small Business of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
And she’s not stopping there. Robin has plans for national distribution of her products, an organic product line, and a specialty food line for kids, “Jus Kiddin” which will debut this month.
“You know, it just goes to show that hard work, determination and perseverance really does pay off,” concluded Robin.
For additional information about the programs and services offered by the SBA and their resource partners, contact the West Virginia District Office at 1-800-767-8052 ext. 8 or by email at email@example.com, or visit our web site at www.sba.gov/wv.
For a little over a decade, Craig Hartzell has been looked to as a leader in the West Virginia technology movement. He’s extremely proud of his company’s accomplishments and successes, which he attributes to their involvement in the federal contracting arena.
Hartzell is Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Azimuth Incorporated, an electronics engineering, software engineering and logistics company with offices in Morgantown, Fairmont and Frederick Maryland.
Hartzell and partner Adam Macias, who met while serving together in the U.S. Army Special Forces, founded Azimuth in 1989. What began with one employee and annual sales of $15,000 has grown to nearly 80 employees and annual sales exceeding $7 million.
“Through our military background, we knew there were not many West Virginia-based engineering firms whose focus was the Department of Defense,” said Hartzell. “We knew that with a little experience, and a lot of hard work, we could make it work.”
It was about that time a few fortunate factors came into play. The first was the teaming with Electronic Warfare Associates (EWA), a large electronics and software engineering company based in Virginia and who had recently relocated to Fairmont. EWA “adopted” Azimuth and entered the pilot “mentor-protégé” program sponsored by the Department of Defense.
“The assistance we received from EWA was invaluable,” said Hartzell. “In fact, we probably wouldn’t be the company we are today without their influence and support. There’s a lot to be learned from companies that have been down the road before.”
Another factor that helped in the growth of Azimuth was the financial assistance they received from the U.S. Small Business Administration. “We’re a ‘hands-on’ company and knew that in order for us to be successful and able to compete for large-scale government contracts, plant and equipment was crucial,” added Hartzell.
Two SBA 7(a) guaranteed loans later, the company had the facility and equipment they needed. “In fact, most of the equipment that we purchased back in the early-90s with the SBA loans is still in use today,” said Hartzell.
Azimuth found that getting a government-backed loan wasn’t difficult. “The loan process was fairly quick and easy,” said Hartzell. “The lender we used was very knowledgeable about the SBA loan process and quickly dealt with any questions and concerns we had. We also found the people at SBA very helpful and supportive as well.”
Another reason that contributed to Azimuth’s growth was their participation in SBA’s 8(a) business development program. The 8(a) program was created to help disadvantaged businesses compete in the American economy and gain a foothold in obtaining federal contracts.
“I believe that we are an example of exactly what the 8(a) program was designed to do,” said Hartzell. “We didn’t rely on the program for our survival. The knowledge and tools we obtained while participating in the program provided us with the capability of becoming a very solid firm at the end of the 9-year program. The program assisted us with access to the right customers and enabled us to build our technical capabilities.”
Hartzell is also quick to realize that without the vision and support of West Virginia’s Congressional and Senate delegation, Azimuth wouldn’t be a player in what is now called the I-79 high technology corridor.
“The West Virginia business community is fortunate to have the support of visionaries like Senator Byrd, Senator Rockefeller and Congressman Mollohan. They’ve provided the groundwork for the development of the I-79 high technology corridor and we at Azimuth are proud to be part of the movement,” said Hartzell.
Hartzell has lots of stories and experiences he’s gathered over the years, but due to the nature of their work, most of them are classified. “In fact, some of our best work will never be shown or known,” added Hartzell.
Advocating for the rights of veterans is also one of Hartzell’s passions. In fact, he was nominated by Senator Rockefeller and appointed by the President of the United States to serve on the board of directors of the National Veterans Business Development Corporation, a position he still proudly holds. He’s also been involved in the development of numerous veterans’ conferences and offers support for West Virginia veteran-owned businesses.
Azimuth is known as a “little company” that isn’t afraid to stick out its neck to provide assistance to other companies that are looking to gain an insight into the world of government contracting.
“We’ve always been a strong advocate of the teaming concept,” said Hartzell. “It’s teaming that has gotten Azimuth to the point we are today and hopefully by continuing to utilize teaming, we can contribute to the development and success of other West Virginia firms.”
You know, he just might have something there.
For additional information on the SBA and its programs, visit the West Virginia District Office web site at www.sba.gov/wv or contact them at (304) 623-5631.
When a fire on Sept. 12, 2003, destroyed the three saw mills that constituted the heart and soul of Mill Creek Builders Supply, it was a big blow, not only to the company, but also to the town of Mill Creek, W.Va. This small business, with approximately 80 employees, situated in the timber-laden hills of West Virginia is undoubtedly the single largest employer in this small Randolph County community of 650.
Even before the fire was extinguished, Charlie Bell, president and CEO of this small family-owned sawmill founded by his father, Clyde in 1961, was thinking about ways to rebuild. “We actually started the rebuilding process once it was safe enough to bring in equipment to start clearing away what was left of the mills,” said Bell, a veteran of the timber industry with nearly 30 years of experience.
Of course, a project of this magnitude required a lot of capital to accomplish. That’s when the local lending community stepped up to the plate. “The fire happened on a Friday afternoon and the next morning, Jim Schoonover from Davis Trust Company in Elkins was here offering any assistance he could to help rebuild the mill,” added Bell.
“Charlie was going to need a lot more capital than our local community bank could provide in order to rebuild,” said Schoonover, senior vice president of loans at Davis Trust. “We were familiar with the SBA’s 504-Certified Development Company Loan Program through dealing with Tony Benedetto from the West Virginia CDC in Charleston, W.Va. It was a perfect fit for Mill Creek Builders.”
The 504-CDC program is a long-term financing tool for economic development within a community. The program provides businesses with long-term, fixed-rate financing for major fixed assets, such as land and buildings. A CDC is a nonprofit corporation working with the SBA and private-sector lenders to provide small business financing.
A complete 504 project includes a loan secured with a senior lien from a private-sector lender covering up to 50 percent of a project, a loan secured with a junior lien from the CDC (backed by a 100 percent SBA-guaranteed debenture) covering up to 40 percent of the cost, and a contribution of at least 10 percent equity from the small business concern.
“We wouldn’t be in business today if it wasn’t for the 504 loan program,” said Bell. “Jim was a tremendous help coordinating the required paperwork and Tony made it work. He and Rob Neal from the West Virginia Capital Corporation made several trips from Charleston to help prepare the 504 application and that really made the process much easier.”
One of the main features of the 504 program is its association to the economic development of the community, the key word is ‘community’. It takes more than one individual or organization within the community to make a 504 project work.
“There must be a good economic support network for any business to succeed; a network that understands the importance of what small business mean to the community,” said Bell. “We have a tremendous economic development network within Randolph County. People like Jennifer Giovanniti at the Randolph County Development Authority, Jim Schoonover at Davis Trust, Citizens National Bank who provided the interim financing, and, of course, the small business owners all work together to help improve the economic environment in the community.”
Finding the funding along with designing and building a new saw mill are not easy tasks, but Bell was up to the challenge. “Charlie, who immediately began working on plans for the new saw mill, had design ready in about two weeks,” said Schoonover.
Once the design was on paper, Bell enlisted the services of a local small business, Reckart Equipment Company in Beverly, W.Va., to begin immediately working on the new mill equipment and structures.
Bell was in danger of losing many of his key employees who were crucial to the successful operation the mill without an operational saw mill. That is when Bell came up with an idea which not only kept the employees on the payroll, but actually sped up the construction process. “I didn’t want to let anyone go, so we actually turned people with years of saw mill experience into metal fabricators,” said Bell. “We used our own labor force to construct the building and install the new equipment and didn’t have to rely on contractors during the months of construction.”
His mother, Ella, also helped during the construction. “My mother lives just next door and serves as the company treasurer,” said Bell. “She was here every day during the construction keeping the hot food and coffee going.”
In a little over a year after the devastating fire, a new state of the art saw mill was back in operation and just about every employee back on the job. “It took a tremendous team effort to make finish the project,” Bell said. “The 504 program helped a great deal. We wouldn’t have been able to rebuild without it.”
For more information on the 504 loan program, the SBA and the resources available to assist small businesses, contact the West Virginia District Office at 800-767-8052 extension 8 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their website at www.sba.gov/wv.