Noticing an unmet need, identifying a personal passion, following a family tradition—many different paths can lead to starting a business. Each new business is unique, and three business owners were invited to share their individual stories as part of MARKETPLACE 2016, the Governor’s Conference on Minority Business Development.
The stories were shared during the Governor’s Awards Luncheon, just one of many sessions in a two-day event that offers business owners opportunities for education, networking and meetings with potential buyers for their products and services. This year’s MARKETPLACE event drew sold-out crowds and record attendance.
PHYSICAL THERAPY OF MILWAUKEE
For Sylvestra Ramirez, a rollerblading accident during her teenage years planted the seed for the business she would own one day.
Physical therapy played a pivotal role in her recovery, and when the time came to choose a career track, she remembered this.
Having noticed a need for Spanish-English bilingual physical therapy services in Milwaukee, Ramirez set out to fill that need. She earned a doctor of physical therapy degree, and founded her company in 2013.
The following year, Physical Therapy of Milwaukee was named Business of the Year by the Wisconsin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The company now has five employees, and Ramirez graduated from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Emerging Leaders Program in November.
The company is distinguished by its focus on not just helping employees injured on the job heal faster, but helping them to understand their injury and how to prevent reinjury. Its clients include FedEx, UPS and Allen Edmonds.
“In entrepreneurship, learning never stops,” Ramirez told the audience at the MARKETPLACE awards luncheon.
She advised business owners to surround themselves with mentors from the same type of business but also from other sectors and fields.
And, she told listeners, “From the moment you open your doors, make the decision that you can’t fail—it’s just not an option.”
William Beckett’s decision to start a contract manufacturing company in Milwaukee stemmed from a desire to create entry-level jobs in the city.
“Most manufacturing jobs are located in the suburbs,” he said. But CHRYSPAC’s employees, by and large, live within five minutes of the factory, which is located just west of General Mitchell Airport.
Beckett founded the company in 2000, knowing that jobs were needed in the neighborhood. CHRYSPAC provides contract manufacturing services in packaging, light assembly, quality inspection, and sorting, distribution and fulfillment to regional and national manufacturing companies.
“The processes we handle are not well suited to highly automated factory environments,” Beckett told listeners at the luncheon. “There’s little or no special equipment involved in what we do. …We focus on hiring people who are excellent communicators,” and train them in the other job skills that are needed.
The company had to get creative with strategies to weather the recession, but survived and is doing well again: CHRYSPAC has grown 20 percent per year for the last four years, and expects to log 30 percent growth for 2016.
“CHRYSPAC is growing, and the best part is, it doesn’t feel like a startup anymore,” Beckett said.
Persistence was a common theme in the speakers’ advice to their audience. “Anyone can start a business,” Beckett said. “The hard part is staying in business.”
Jean Marie Thiel founded Belonger Corporation in 2000, after her husband lost his job. She had left her job a few months earlier intending to change careers, but their daughter, then four, suffered an injury and required constant care. “In a matter of four months, we went from being a two-income household to a no-income household,” she said. The family also lost their health insurance.
Now the task of starting a business became more urgent. Like Ramirez, Thiel knew that she couldn’t afford to fail.
Thiel’s confidence in her own abilities and capacity to learn quickly gave her the confidence to start a mechanical contracting company. Her grandfather had been a boilermaker, her father a service mechanic. She had worked in the family business, and had done well in sheet metal and welding classes in high school.
She started the business with $1,000 and no line of credit, using her home’s garage as her shop—but with a surplus of determination and drive to succeed. “You’ve always done what you said you were going to do,” she recalled her husband telling her when she ran her business idea past him. “I bet on you again.”
Thiel personally attended courses on all facets of the business, from the financial and regulatory side to contracts, negotiation, marketing and website development. She utilized resources from numerous agencies—the SBA, the Wisconsin Procurement Institute, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation and others.
It was because she personally attended trainings on so many aspects of the business and made it her mission to implement what she learned that the business was able to grow so quickly, Thiel said.
Within 18 months, the company was taking on military contracts in the millions of dollars. Today, the company has over 30 employees. Its projects have included the stadium at Lambeau Field, the Harley-Davidson Museum, and Potawatomi Hotel and Casino (the location of the MARKETPLACE conference).
Thiel’s chief piece of advice was to focus on partnerships to help a young company learn and grow into market segments where it doesn’t have experience yet—another factor in how Belonger grew so fast, she said.
Her final words for business owners: “Hang in there and don’t give up. The long haul and hard work are worth it as long as you continue to move forward.”