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Young entrepreneurs: 25 years later

In the past 25 years, the economy has tossed around Caliber Yacht Corp. like a buoy in choppy waters. There have been good times, especially in the mid 1990s when jobs were plentiful, the stock market was strong and 40-foot sailboats were an affordable luxury. And there have been bad times, especially now. • Yet through it all, company founders Michael and George McCreary have built and sold 400 boats — 398 more than they had when the St. Petersburg Times tapped them a quarter-century ago as two of the area's "young entrepreneurs" to watch. • "I didn't realize how difficult the yacht-building business would be," says Michael McCreary, who's seen many of Caliber's competitors disappear. "But we had a dream, and when things get really difficult — which they do ­— dreams can carry you through." • It's a common theme among our now middle-aged but still hard-working entrepreneurs. • In 1984, as the nation was emerging from another deep recession, the Times sought out successful small businesses in the Tampa Bay area that were owned and operated by people under 30. From dozens of suggestions submitted by readers we found Caliber Yacht and nine other thriving companies whose youthful owners fit the classic definition of entrepreneur — "a person who organizes and manages a business undertaking, assuming the risk for the sake of profit." • Now, as the nation struggles through the worst recession since the 1930s, we wanted to see how many of our entrepreneurs were still in business and what advice they had for those just starting out.

Of the people we profiled in 1984, the owner of a building maintenance company has apparently left the area and could not be located. Three other businesses were sold or closed, though their founders quickly embarked on new ventures.

And defying the statistic that 70 percent of small businesses fail within 10 years, six of 10 companies are still alive 25 years later and in some cases have significantly expanded.

TarHeel Roofing, started by two St. Petersburg brothers with $35 between them, is now a $20-million-a-year corporation with representatives in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Pyramid Aluminum, which had seven employees in '84, now has around 30 and a customer list that includes Disney and Safety Harbor Spa.

Other companies have changed with market conditions. Faced with competition from giants like Office Depot and Staples, brothers Bruce and Joe James sold their office supply business and have concentrated on new and used office furniture.

Having already survived three recessions, the entrepreneurs are cautiously optimistic about the future under a new presidential administration. But they agree this may be the toughest time ever.

"We're making payroll and paying rent, that's about all we can do," says Bruce James, whose Office Products Warehouse has five employees, compared with 24 a decade ago.

"It's definitely a down year," says John Looney of TarHeel Roofing.

"The yacht-building business is in survival mode," McCreary says.

Yet the fact that they and others are still around a quarter of a century later suggests they've been doing something right. Their advice to future entrepreneurs:

Be good to your customers: "I live by the old adage that the customer is always right," says Suda Yantiss-Colon of Suda Graphics. "Not many businesses live by that anymore."

Be good to your employees: "We pay our employees very well, and we've got guys who've been with us 15, 18 years," says Wayne Popiolek of Pyramid Aluminum.

Be excited about your product/service, but know your market. "In today's economy, you have to have a plan and identify what your niche is," says Alan Wozniak of Pure Air Control Services. "Who are your clients? What are their needs? How can you best support those needs? If you don't have a plan and there's no passion, the ability to succeed is going to be minimized substantially."

One of the biggest challenges facing entrepreneurs today is raising startup capital.

During the recession of the early '80s, most of those we profiled tapped relatives and savings, then established strong banking relationships as business grew. But one company has managed without any outside help.

"We've always had a conservative attitude and never borrowed money, so we can ride out any storm," says McCreary of Caliber Yacht. "And we've had a lot of storms."

Suda Yantiss-Colon Suda Graphics, Oldsmar

Yantiss-Colon was just 18 when she started her printing business and 21 when she landed her first major account — the fabled Kapok Tree Restaurant in Clearwater. Dozens of other clients followed, with Suda Graphics designing and printing everything from matchbooks to menus to business cards.

"Those first 10 or 12 years were the best," says Yantiss-Colon, now 46. "To be honest, these last couple of years we've been dealing with the problems everyone is dealing with in this economy. But if you've got the right attitude, it doesn't matter what you're up against."

Yantiss-Colon, who married two years ago and had long helped other brides with their receptions, recently started a wedding planning business. Weddings by Suda books caterers and other services, and has boosted Suda Graphics' business "because brides want custom invitations," she says.

For years, Yantiss-Colon has been recreational dance director for the city of Oldsmar, teaching jazz, tap and ballet to kids and organizing recitals. "The entrepreneurial spirit I had when I was 18 I just kept with me."

Michael and George McCreary, Caliber Yacht Corp., Clearwater

Through the many ups and downs of the yacht-building business, the McCreary brothers say they have never lost sight of their market — hard-working people nearing retirement who love to sail.

"We don't have rock stars or movie stars," Michael says. "Most of the people who buy our boats have to finance them, so it's been difficult."

Caliber, whose boats have won praise from Sailing and other publications, produces models ranging from a 35-footer that costs about $250,000 to a 47-footer for around $500,000. At its peak in the '90s, the company had as many as 30 employees, $4-million in annual sales and seven boats at a time under construction.

Now, with credit so tight and orders drying up, it's down to a skeletal crew and one boat.

While George, 52, tends to day-day business, Michael, 51, spends part of his time in Moscow where he invested in apartments just as Russia's economy began to boom after the fall of the Soviet Union. A naval architect, he has used his skill in designing small spaces to renovate Moscow flats.

The McCrearys still have the 1984 story about young entrepreneurs posted in their lobby. "It always brings a smile to my face," Michael says. "I remember how I thought back then and how things turned out. We reached our goal, we're very happy and we're still in business."

Janet Lee Valente, Cross-Valente Construction, Largo

While still in their 20s, Janet and Frank Valente ran a successful construction company that once employed 50 people on a weekly basis. Then the marriage broke up and the company closed.

"I wanted to stay in construction and he was interested in doing other things, like racing motorcycles," says Janet Valente, who adds that she and her ex still get along well. "We were very young."

Valente, 54, went on to get her general contractor's license and do projects for the Sembler Co. and others. After slowing down for a time to raise a son from a new relationship, she is now with a Madeira Beach-based company, Southeast Commercial Contractors, that helps homeowners, contractors and tradespeople estimate the cost of construction projects.

"A lot of people don't know what they're getting into," she says. Fees vary from $50 to as much as $3,000 for on-site measurements, detailed specifications and cost analyses.

Women are still relatively rare in the construction industry, and "people take advantage of them a little more than they might of a man," Valente says. Thus she considers it especially important for women to stay on top of new trends and techniques and to "apply yourself 100 percent."

"You can't attempt do business and have so many other interests and activities."

Alan and Mark Wozniak, Pure Air Control Services (successor to U.S. Energy Services and Insulation), Clearwater

As Americans became more environmentally conscious in the mid '80s, the Wozniak brothers realized there was profit to be made from clean air as well as cold air.

"Upon checking with groups like the World Health Organization, we saw that indoor air quality was a big issue and was going to be an ever bigger one in years coming," says Alan, 49. Thus their air-conditioning and insulation company evolved into one that now offers indoor-air testing, mold remediation and testing kits. It also has one of two environmental diagnostic laboratories in Florida.

Though sales have slowed from the 2005 hurricane season, when Pure Air Control did $1 million in work for Allstate Insurance alone, "we've found that diversification has helped us out a lot," Alan says. "We have things people can buy from $50 to half-million-dollar projects in large buildings," including the Orange County Convention Center, Walt Disney World and many local, state and federal agencies.

Mark Wozniak, 51 recently left to become division controller for Sunbelt Office Products in Atlanta, but Pure Air Control remains a family affair. Sister Karen, 53, is the accounting manager, and her husband is director of building sciences.

The Obama administration's push for heavy spending on infrastructure improvements should be good for companies like Pure Air Control. Or at least that's what Alan hopes. As for the economy in general, "it can't get a whole lot worse," he says, quickly adding, "I guess it can."

Michael Siewruk and Warren White, Hotlines Inc., Clearwater

Several years after they were featured in the young entrepreneur series, Michael Siewruk and Warren White sold their Hotlines direct marketing company to employees. Then they started Landmark Research International, which developed a popular diagnostic software for PCs, but sold that in 1995 to Quarterdeck, a Silicon Valley company.

While his partner retired to the Virginia countryside, Siewruk spent two years as Quarterdeck's president before retiring himself "at the ripe age of 40" and moving his family to a Bahamian island for three years.

Now 51, Siewruk has since pursued a variety of ventures, racking up a personal bankruptcy along the way. During a brief period in Michigan, he bought the Detroit franchise of Online Trading Academy, a California-based company that teaches people how to trade stocks and commodities.

Siewruk has since returned to the bay area and is in the process of buying the Tampa franchise. The stock market slump is good for the online trading business, he says.

"We do a whole lot better when the market goes down. Nobody wants to pay attention when they're getting 10 or 15 percent a year."

David and John Looney, TarHeel Roofing, St. Petersburg

David Looney was a 19-year-old roofer when he was laid off and couldn't find another job. So he took out a $50 classified ad and opened his own company. Today, TarHeel is among the region's biggest roofing contractors, with 160 employees and offices in St. Petersburg and South Florida, and representatives in Jacksonville, Atlanta and Greenville, S.C. Named "National Contractor of the Year" by a trade publication, its clients have included the Don CeSar Beach Resort, hotels, stores, colleges, hospitals and military bases.

While David, 46, has a new business, representing Bayer, GE and other roofing system makers, brother John, 50, continues running TarHeel. Sales are flat, because of the economy and all the work the company did during the busy 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.

"With hurricanes you don't have the normal attrition of roofing. You do a lot at once and there's typically a lull," John says.

But having survived nearly 30 years, TarHeel will weather this downturn, he predicts. "Even in lean times, we've made sure we had a quality product and good value, and people recognized that. And that's allowed us to grow."

Bethany Ann Foley, Bethany's Bridal Salon, Clearwater

Bored with college and preferring "clothes and pretty things" to jeans, Foley, formerly Sorensen, opened a bridal gown shop at age 19 with a $10,000 loan from her parents. By the time she sold the salon 14 years later, it was so successful it had five employees and two seamstresses.

"Unfortunately, the new owners lasted only a year or so," she says. "That was very, very disappointing after all our years working and building the business."

Today, Foley, 51, and husband John are manufacturers' reps for bridal gown companies, traveling three months at a time as they call on independent retailers throughout the Southeast. The biggest design change in recent years is that "everything's strapless, whether bridal gowns or bridesmaid gowns," Foley says.

The couple don't represent ultra pricey designers like Vera Wang, though the dresses they handle retail for as much as $1,200. "One thing girls usually don't skimp on is their gown," says Foley, who wore a Marisa creation encrusted with 1,500 Swarovsky crystals for her own 2001 wedding.

Though business is typically slow in winter, Foley expects it to pick up now that the prime wedding season is just a few months away. But her advice for today's young entrepreneurs is timeless: "Once you get an idea you want to do, you just have to put everything you have into it. Work hard and think positive."

Wayne Popiolek, Pyramid Aluminium, Clearwater

Popiolek, whose company makes pool enclosures, railings, gutters and hurricane shutters, once had a "no-money-down" policy to help drum up business. No more. "There are too many unscrupulous contractors" and others who don't pay their bills, he says, including some would-be house flippers in Clearwater who burned him for nearly $25,000 because they were unable to sell when prices collapsed.

Still, Pyramid has many loyal customers, which Popiolek, 54, attributes to good service and quality work. "I'm probably more a pain in the neck about scrutinizing stuff than some customers. My wife and I take a lot of pride in what we're doing and try to go the extra mile."

Among Pyramid's best years was 2004, when it got 170 to 180 calls a day after four major hurricanes ripped through Florida. Business has slowed of late, though Popiolek predicts "a major turnaround" by June.

"I think one of the biggest things is if everybody would quit being so negative. From the time you get up to the time you go to bed, all you hear is negative, negative, negative."

Bruce and Joe James, Office Products Warehouse, Clearwater

Though the current recession wasn't confirmed until last month, Bruce James noticed an impact on his office furniture company as far back as mid 2007.

"That year started out pretty strong but after three or four months it continued to slow down. And last year it was just a struggle."

But bad times are nothing new. When the brothers opened in 1982 — using $50,000 Joe got as an insurance settlement from a childhood railroad accident that cost him his legs — people said they were crazy to start out in what was then the worst period since the Depression. But as they predicted, that recession weeded out competitors and enabled them to build a strong enough business to weather other slowdowns.

In search of a more rural atmosphere, Joe, 49, moved to Ocala several years ago and opened stores there and in Leesburg. Bill, 53, is semiretired but still spends considerable time at the Clearwater showroom. He expects the economy to revive, if only because it always has.

And if he were starting all over again? "I would do a lot of homework and try to find a business that's somewhat recession-proof, that doesn't depend on retail sales. I'd say something with the medical industry, rehab, anything health-related. People are going to continue to get sick."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com.

Young entrepreneurs: 25 years later 01/31/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 3, 2009 1:05pm]
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