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Still standing

Small business has always been the backbone of a healthy economy. Between 60 and 80 percent of all new jobs in the United States can be attributed to businesses with fewer than 100 employees. These businesses are responsible for half of the private sector work force and half of GDP. In Florida, 31.5 percent of total payroll is from small business. Yet it was global financial institutions that received $1.2 trillion in federal loans by December 2008. Since then the economy has strained small businesses to the breaking point. Most in the area we talked to are fighting to keep their doors open. But their entrepreneurial spirit, and a love of their business, shines through the doom and gloom.

Building and rebuilding

Anderson Lumber has seen four generations, four booms and four busts.

Theo Anderson, whose name is still on the company's water bill, started in 1905 with a commercial construction business that thrived until the Great Depression.

In the late '30s, his son "Happy" Anderson built it back to a thriving residential construction business until a heart attack slowed him and the business slipped back to the brink.

In the late '50s, Happy's son Ted, whose voice is still on the company answering machine, took it over and brought it back to life as a home center and lumberyard. Then big-box stores underpriced him. Once again, the business found itself on the edge.

Nine years ago Ted's son Fred took over. The first month had $5 in sales. The buildings were in disarray, he had almost no inventory and drug dealers had infested the neighborhood. His one advantage was low overhead. The land, bricks and mortar were bought and paid for long before he was born.

They made repairs, put up videocameras, fenced the property and worked with the police to crack down on the drug trade until it moved elsewhere. Fred Anderson listened to the needs of every customer who came in. He needed a new niche.

"We didn't want to compete against the box stores. We wanted to have what they don't have and do what they don't do. We started noticing people needed things cut and milled. They came in looking for things they couldn't find anywhere and we said, 'You know what? We can make that.' "

Today they specialize in exotic wood, hardwood lumber, boating lumber and specialty millwork.

"The first three years were really tough, but now we're on our way back up. The point is every generation started with nothing, made it into something, and eventually went back down to nothing," Anderson says.

"A lot of people will always believe it's time to quit, it'll never amount to anything. But you have to have a vision and a dream and go forth. That's what we're doing."

Again.

Discipline, sacrifice and unyielding passion

Twenty-six-year-old Sandy DiMarco waited alone for two hours in front of the big boat on display at the train station in Milano, Italy. Surely they could find a big boat in the middle of a train station. Had they gone to Greece without her? Maybe something changed? Now she was looking at the next train back.

But they did come, three wild dancers running down the train platform waving hats, puffing excuses about a flat tire, rushing her into a car full of costumes, speeding to Brindisi to catch their boat to Greece, but arriving just in time to see it 20 feet offshore, chugging away without them.

And so began 42 years of never working a day in her life with Bob Karl, leader of the wild child dance troupe. They fell in love on tour and went their separate ways when it was over. He to New York. She to London.

One day she received a telegram. "If you love me, marry me now. Stop."

"It's been a lifetime of fun and games. I don't say I'm going to work. I say I'm going to the studio. Dance gets in your blood. Once you get the passion for it you can't stop."

Over 39 years, their Tampa dance studio has taught three generations of kids. Today she is teaching class for the first time since her husband passed away. After a year away to be at his side, she is exhilarated. She knows he is proud.

"He was no-nonsense. 'One, two, three, come to class, get rid of your gum and let's go,' " she says. " 'Let's get this show on the road.' That's what he'd say."

Business is tough, but it has been tough before. People are still signing their kids up, but for fewer classes.

"People are scared, but you find money for your kids. You'll do for your kids before you'll do for yourself."

And it has never been about the money. For her, life is a dance, and any serious dancer will tell you that means discipline, sacrifice and unyielding passion before your reward comes.

"Will I teach a fourth generation? I'd like to live that long. But who knows? Life is so precious and life is a lot of fun if you live it to the fullest every day. That's what my husband used to say," she says. Her voice trails off, then finds its footing.

"I'll never retire. I'll be one of those old ladies banging her cane on the floor telling the kids, 'Point your toes! Point your toes!' "

Living frugally, in the business of death

Even in the worst economy people keep dying.

"But the ones who die are not the ones who pay for the funeral," Laurent Thuriere says with a laugh, his French accent lingering since he came to America in 1988.

He keeps the overhead lights off when there are no customers, so his storefront windows are all that light the grave markers, urns and caskets that line his walls. The thermostat is set a few degrees above comfortable.

Since the recession started, more people chose cremation for their loved ones and began buying urns online to save on funeral costs. So Thuriere sells fewer caskets. People increasingly said they needed to hold off on buying a grave marker. So Thuriere sells them on layaway.

To keep overhead low he does all the work himself. On a recent hot afternoon, he came in from working on a grave. Sweat glistened on his lean forearms, and a few drops of water slid down his forehead from where he had just splashed himself to cool off.

He doesn't waste anything electric, edible, potable or financial. He cuts his own grass, stays up late balancing the books alone. He never puts more on a plate than he should eat, never leaves the water running when he brushes his teeth. Whenever he starts to leave a room without turning off the light, or considers hiring someone to do a job he is able to do, the 49-year-old still hears his mother's chastising voice.

"In France after World War II it was a time when you didn't waste things. My parents learned how to make do with what they have. I never starved, but we don't throw anything away either. When you had a piece of bread left on your plate, we don't throw away the piece of bread," he says. "When you grow up with this type of orientation, it sticks in your head the rest of your life."

During most of his life here, America's economy thrived and his spartan ways didn't make sense to his family or his employees. They tease him for being cheap.

"Well, I say, 'That's how it is.' To this society I'm not sure I'm successful. A businessman who is successful is somebody who doesn't have to work. They have people working for them and they can spend their money how they want and enjoy their free time. That's somebody who is successful.

"Okay, well, I'm sorry, but I don't have the formula for that one, because it's not going to ever happen in this type of business. But I have been in business since 1994, and I know my doors will be open when things get better. I think if you work hard and have a little bit of common sense that is 80 percent of success. Of course you need luck, too."

She has faith in 'my little extra'

Three things keep the doors open at Lorene's Fish & Crab House in Midtown. Since June 2007, not one of them has been money.

"When I was young my mother used to tell me to come into the kitchen and show me how to do the chicken. 'So you can get you a husband,' she said. But that don't get them, or keep them," Lorene Office says with a laugh. "It don't."

But don't think mother doesn't know best. Home cooking has been the key to so much more.

"I'd throw my little extra in it. I'd throw a whole cube of that good butter and that was the best fried chicken. Awesome. A little extra really made a difference."

The recession has been hard. She cut back employees' hours but still couldn't break even. So in 2007 she closed the dining side of her restaurant, laying off two servers who had become like family. Now she just does takeout from the kitchen. But her doors will not close. She believes things will get better and that she will be standing when they do. Her reasons:

One. Customers keep coming in with the little extra money they have. So she doesn't raise her prices.

Two. She has family members who will always be there — paid if business is good, unwilling to take a cent when it's bad. The only guarantee at the end of any hot day in the kitchen is that nobody goes home hungry.

Three. The good Lord provides everyday miracles.

Office believes that God personally loves her chicken. Try a bite. It's not a leap of faith. Could be God likes lots of butter. Could be he just loves people who think to put in a little extra.

"I have favor with God and men. I truly believe that. If we have a bad day, God puts it on their heart to say, 'I'll work for free.' God blessed me with them," she says. "He has his hands on me. He has his hands on this business. I've been faithful and he likes that."

She feels his hands when business seems to pick up at the eleventh hour to get a bill paid, and cherishes how kindness seems to surround her when she needs it most.

"I love this business. I love this area. I love the children. I love serving people. When I started here I was in my 40s. Now I'm 61 and I still love it.

"I grew old here."

'Not a bad thing . . . just a hard thing'

Thirty years ago right-brain-dominant Wil Simoneau, 68, and left-brain-dominant Joe Slick, 53, started their dream, a flower shop that would support them, help them do some traveling and provide a nest egg for retirement. The first two came through. But for now retirement is off the table.

"We're still investing in this business," Simoneau starts.

"And we have to believe it will come back," Slick says. "Nobody can believe anything else. That's just all there is to it. You have to believe. Otherwise why would we do it?"

"To keep it going we've dipped into savings, our IRAs, credit cards, you name it. It kills me to do it, but I think things are going to get better, and we have to be sure we are here when they do."

When they started in July 1981, their dream took off like a rocket. By September they had hired a driver, and by Christmas a full-time designer and some part-time help.

Soon they had 14 employees and three stores. It was easy to take six weeks a year to travel to Europe and enjoy a few meals out a week.

"When everything fell, so to say, it was like we tried to keep on going, but then you realize after a while people have just stopped buying. They're afraid or can't afford it, and we understand that. There's things we don't do that we used to do. What you once didn't think was very extravagant today would be very extravagant," Simoneau says.

"We can eat lunch out for $25 or we can eat lunch in all week for $25," says Slick.

"We're working harder than we've ever worked. There's not too many hours away from here."

They keep the air turned up and water the outside plants with water recycled from flowerpots; they've cut back on employees' hours and shoulder the extra work themselves.

"What I look forward to is, somewhere down the line things will pick up a little. I'd love to work three days and be off the rest of the week. For me, that's retirement. I don't mind working. I would just like a little more personal time," Simoneau says.

"We had a good thing going there for a long time. It's not a bad thing now. It's just a hard thing."

Cut the fat to save an unhealthy economy

For the first two weeks of the month, like clockwork, government money fills the registers at Quality Meat Market in Tampa. About half of the total sales are in food stamps. Even so, owner David Frese, meat cleaver in hand, would trim the program to the bone.

"Sure, we'd lose business if there were fewer food stamps, but it would mean less taxes for all business owners. Those people can then afford to either hire more help or pay their help more. Those people are going to shop somewhere for food. Hopefully they're going to come to our shop and business would pick up. It'll take a while, but it'll trickle back down. That's my take on it," he says.

From his spot behind the counter, his eyes see an unhealthy economy in motion. While the food stamp program has spared his business the worst effects of the recession, he thinks government handouts will ruin the country.

"People drive up in Cadillacs, come in and pay with food stamps and have $1,000 left on the account when . . . through shopping. People approach our customers in line and offer to sell food stamps for 50 cents on the dollar. It's all over the place. Just today a guy came to the counter and asked me if I wanted to buy food stamps. No telling how much of that goes on nationwide," he says, shaking his head.

"I think that food stamps are not a bad idea for people who need it healthwise, the elderly, a spouse dies and the wife is stuck all of a sudden. There's places for it. If you're out of work, sure, some help to get back on your feet, but to live on food stamps for the rest of your life? I have a problem with that.

"To me it's disgusting for a person to live off the government when they could work. They just decide it's easier for Uncle Sam to take care of me."

The worst storm is behind them

The fisherman's son was conceived in Vietnam in 1979 and born in a Hong Kong refugee camp in 1980. In 2002, after growing up poor in the United States, he earned a degree in electrical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

By then Ryan Nguyen's four older sisters had earned advance degrees in math, finance, medicine and business. But back in West Tampa the humble fisherman and wife who made it all possible were struggling.

"When Dad was just too old for fishing he bought a fish market. He can't live without fresh fish and rice," Nguyen explains with a smile, "but the first year was bad. The freezers broke, we had roof leaks, all the equipment had to be changed out. It was a mess. We went through a lot of family arguments. It was really bad. We weren't making anything and it was really stressing our family."

So Nguyen put his engineering degree on a shelf and rolled up his sleeves.

They made the repairs, renovated the customer service area, ordered new products, built a kitchen and started doing takeout.

"We were poor all our lives, so this is a great accomplishment for my parents," he says. "They value money differently than other people. They don't splurge. They keep everything minimal. Everything's just enough. They grow their own vegetables in their own gardens. Everything they save they save for their kids and the next generation. That's how we were brought up."

A few years back he told his parents to retire completely. Just as he was taking over the business, the economy began to falter. Nguyen was ready to handle the downturn.

"I hear stories of my parents being on a boat for a month with next to nothing to eat, and they made it, you know? If they can make that, you could live on nothing if you really wanted to. That's what it comes down to. There's nothing you can't do if you're willing to work for it. You just might have to work for less.

"You've got to be frugal. You have to know how to save. With a mentality like that, people like us are able to withstand the economic storm."

Swimming in scary economic waters

Self-described water baby Ben Harris was once a 6-year-old boy floating underwater on the jetty behind his grandmother's home on a dirt road in Pensacola. On that jetty, if you stayed still and waited, one of the dolphins jumping nearby might swim close to you. Maybe even bump you.

"I remember we were playing with this one dark spot that we thought was a dolphin. Well, it wasn't a dolphin. Someone yelled 'shark.' We didn't know any better, we were just kids playing, but it didn't do anything to us. I remember thinking, 'Okay, it's a shark.' But it wasn't really scary. I've never felt weird or scared in the water," he says.

"People say it's because it's warm and wet and takes you back to the womb, but whether it's that or whatever, its just in you. There's an allure to just being out there and being one with the ocean."

But it's fair to say today's economy lacks that warm, womby feeling. In 2006 Harris scaled back Adventures Under the Sea from a 5,000-square-foot store with a pool in the back and a staff of certified instructors to a shop less than half the size that he staffs himself. He still loves coming to work.

"But it's a labor of love that's breaking my back. I'm here six days a week and on the seventh day I'm usually out doing a class or a trip somewhere. I have to miss time with my daughter and my family since I have to do most of the work myself, but that's what it takes.

"Hopefully you're the last man standing."

About this
feature

This photo essay was inspired by Irving Penn's Small Trades. Working in Paris, London and New York in the early 1950s, the legendary photographer brought skilled tradespeople dressed in work clothes into his studio. The results appeared in Vogue magazine, were made into a book and have been exhibited for decades.

John Pendygraft can be reached at jpendygraft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8247.

Still standing 09/03/11 [Last modified: Sunday, September 4, 2011 1:18pm]

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