SBA Award Uncorks Decades of Hard Work
Ken Starr Named Western Pa Veteran-Owned Small Business Person of the Year
Just like the fine wines he bottles, Ken Starr is improving with age. At 82 , Starr was selected as the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) Western Pennsylvania Veteran-Owned Small Business Person of the Year. This May, Starr will receive his award during a special ceremony at his winery celebrating the 60th annual celebration of National Small Business Week.
“I learned to make wine with my dad, and when I moved here, I didn’t want to spend my days cutting grass. Instead, I planted 12 grape vines just to see if they would grow,” he explained. “A few years later, I had more than 3,000 vines.”
Those grapes led Starr to, once again, start making homemade wines. “Everyone liked them, so I constructed a building,” he said. “In 2005, when I was 65, we became the 100th winery licensed by the state. It was easy to name…my last name was Starr and we were located on a hill.”
Since opening Starr Hill Vineyard & Winery as a business, Starr found himself working with the Clarion University Small Business Development Center (SBDC) receiving free help on everything from writing a business plan to search engine optimization and marketing analytics to grow his business. SBDCs are SBA and state-funded entities helping entrepreneurs with no-cost counseling and low-cost training classes for every phase of small business development. Since January, more than 520 entrepreneurs in the 10-county area around Clarion received assistance from the SBDC, creating 24 new business starts while supporting over 2,000 jobs.
Starr, whose life experience spans a tour in the Air Force, working in the contact lens industry and owning local craft stores, learned that to be successful he needed to know his customer. “Our target audience is primarily females over age 25,” he explained. “Our bottled and canned selections are created, named and labeled to appeal to women. For instance, our Guilty Pleasure wine has red-stiletto high-heeled shoes on the label,” which won Pennsylvania’s highest honor, the Governor’s Cup
He's even made purchasing easier too, becoming an innovative leader in state wine sales. “I was in my local Walmart and in the front noticed a beauty shop and eye care center and spaces available for lease,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘why not a wine store?’”
Using his son’s connections, Starr Hill Vineyard & Winery sent samples to a Walmart liaison. “They loved it and wanted us in every Walmart in Pennsylvania,” he proudly stated. “Because of state regulations, we could only be in five, but we were the first winery in the nation to have a tasting room and sales inside Walmart stores.”
SBA Western Pennsylvania District Director Dr Kelly Hunt is amazed at Starr’s accomplishments, growing from hobby to business supplying to the nation’s largest retail chain. “It’s a win-win situation for everyone when large corporations pair with small business owners…especially consumers,” she said. “Ken’s forward thinking and ingenuity is paving the way for many other partnerships, which in turn, grow small businesses.”
Today, the vineyard and winery has grown so much that Starr’s locally grown fruits are complemented with Pennsylvania farm-sourced grapes and juices producing 40 varieties of wine on an automated production system corking 2,500 bottles an hour and filling 35 cans each minute. His wines also are carried by major grocery and convenience stores across the state. “We do everything onsite,” he added. “From designing the labels to creating the sweet and dry wines.”
Throughout his nearly two-decade journey, Starr always finds time to support local charities. “We teach nonprofit organizations, from Grove City to Tyrone, how to successfully coordinate a wine walk or tasting event and take no percent of the receipts,” he explained. “We also organize our own fundraising efforts benefitting the Pennsylvania Wilds and state National Guard Foundation families.”
Starr relishes his foray into small business ownership at an age when his peers were retired. “If you want to do it, take the risk,” he said. “There’s no secret, just follow your passion.“