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New Generation Part 2
by Pamela Rust
Northeastern Minnesota isn’t perceived as a prime location for start-up companies. And it’s often said that young people leave for the Twin Cities and other areas where they can pull higher wages.
Here's part two of our stories on young, savvy entrepreneurs who have made their own jobs, are creating jobs and contributing to their communities.
They’re dreaming big and working hard — and we wish them luck!
Bill Forsberg - Timbertrail Outfitters LLC
Ely— When Bill Forsberg and his family purchased the TimberTrail Lodge and campground nine years ago, he was inspired to start his own business to help others enjoy recreation in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Forsberg, 30, launched a natural companion to the lodge, Timbertrail Outfitters. The company arranges canoe and motorboat trips, comprehensive packages for the novice navigator and customized packages for experienced canoeists. The full-service firm supplies or leases equipment and services, including flying customers in and out.
“The typical number of customers between June and August is about 500,” says Forsberg. And in spite of competition with 25 other outfitting companies for customers, business is steady and growing, he says.
Combined annual revenues for all the Timbertrail holdings run around $100,000. Forsberg owns 50 percent of the Timbertail Lodge, and the lodge and Outfitters have a website at www.timbertrail.com.
Two employees work mainly for Outfitters, but several workers are shared with the lodge. Forsberg’s parents and brother also work at the resort, originally built in 1939.
Forsberg spends 70 percent of his time running Outfitters, and 30 percent overseeing the resort. But he still finds time to be involved in his community. He’s chairman of the board for Ely’s Chamber of Commerce, is an Ely Tourism Board member and works with the Ely Jaycees.
Carmen Zezulka - Carmen’s Restaurant
Cloquet— Fulfilling a lifelong career goal, five years ago Carmen Zezulka bought a bar/restaurant and started her own place, Carmen’s Restaurant.
It serves a full menu of American and Mexican cuisine, offering a family atmosphere for lunch and dinner, catering to smoking and non-smoking customers.
“The first year was hell,” says Zezulka, now 34. Finding good help was difficult, and at times she did the cooking herself. She now bartends and manages weekdays, doing cleaning and payroll on weekends. A single parent of two sons, Zezulka is glad to finally have some time at home.
The restaurant employs around 18 workers, and her brother manages the bar.
Working in bars and restaurants since age 18, Zezulka eventually became a manager at Duluth’s Dry Dock restaurant. When a Cloquet restaurant went up for sale, Dry Dock owner Mike Van provided the financing for her to pursue her dream.
“We’re holding our own,” Zezulka says. The bar/restaurant was affected by the recently enacted no smoking ordinance in Cloquet, which has reduced lunchtime clientele. Many regulars no longer lunch there because they can’t smoke until 1:30 p.m., when they can smoke at the bar but can’t eat.
Zezulka likens herself to her mom, who retired from her job at the age of 80. “That’s me,” she says, “I love my job, I have the best job in the world.”
Derek Vekich - Colonial Castings, Peterson Tackle
Bovey— For six years, Derek Vekich worked as a teacher, dean and coach at Greenway High School in Coleraine.
“I liked working with kids,” he says, “but I decided I’d rather work for myself.”
Vekich, 32, still coaches Grenway bantam youth hockey. But with a family starting, he and his wife decided it was “now or never.” Teaming with his younger brother, Vekich founded Colonial Castings in the fall of 1999. The wholesale firm sells paddling accessories such as seats, motors, anchors and motor mounts.
“We took a big gamble— the first two years were not pleasant,” he says. He struggled for funding and backing. It took nearly eight months for his first sale. During that period the office space he had leased burned to the ground, and he lost $60,000 worth of goods. Insurance covered the losses, but it took Vekich two months to reorganize, setting up shop in his own garage in Bovey. He’s still operating out of the garage, which he has since expanded.
After a year and a half in business, Colonial Castings’ customer base included R.E.I. and L.L. Bean. Looking to expand and finally able to get financial backing, Vekich purchased Peterson Tackle, a 16-year old company with an established list of customers.
He merged the two companies for a “nice mix of products.”
The Peterson Tackle line is sold through distributors such as Gander Mountain, Galyans, Mills Fleet Farm and L.L. Bean, but Vekich says items can also be purchased by the general public through its website at www.petersontackle.com.
Vekich recently set up a deal to distribute tackle items at Wal-Mart. He’s also sponsoring “Simply Fishing,” a Fox Sports TV show for some national exposure.
Vekich says sales were $50,000 in 2000 and will pass the $200,000 mark this year. “We consider ourselves extremely small but growing. I’ve got huge plans for expansion.”
John Tonce - Tonce Contracting
Cloquet— Contracting is in John Tonce’s blood. He says he inherited it from his father, a general contractor in Colorado.
Tonce, 29, and wife Stacy, 30, operate Tonce Contracting out of their Cloquet home. They both enjoy hands-on hard work.
The two started the company in April of this year after John tired of spreading his wings at a number of jobs and locations. They specialize in masonry work including driveways, sidewalks, fireplaces, rebuilding chimneys, as well as landscaping and general contracting.
Tonce started the business with $2,000 of his own money, purchasing hand tools and setting up shop. He got his first customer after leasing a booth at a home show in Cloquet, thanks to Stacy’s involvement in the Cloquet Chamber of Commerce.
She works closely with Tonce, even helped him with a recent roofing job. Tonce prefers to advertise through personal referrals. His confidence has panned out, as he’s had seven jobs since the business began.
Next year’s plan includes securing a loan to buy more tools. “The company likely also will move to an office — providing storage space for all that new equipment.”
“As I get more business, I’ll keep buying more tools,” Tonce says. “Business has been good.”
Zak Wehr - Eclipse Paint and Supply
Cloquet— At the age of 18, already tired of working for his dad, Zak Wehr began his first business. With a partner, he started Unlimited Finishes, Inc., a pre-finishing shop that stains and paints wood windows, doors and trim.
Building on this first company, Wehr, 29, has expanded into three successful, intertwined businesses, all in Cloquet.
In 1992 he bought a building for the business. Wehr started Apollo Properties, Inc. in 1998 as a leasing business to oversee his building tenants (one in the paint store building and two in the pre-finish shop).
At the start of this year, Wehr and his partner agreed to dissolve Unlimited Finishes, Inc. In April Wehr started a new pre-finishing company, UF, Inc., at the same location. UF, Inc. specializes in interior and exterior finishing of sheet rock, drywall and trim. At the UF shop, three or four workers finish windows, doors and trim. Several others work out in the field.
Wehr is pleased with how business is going so far, and says “We’ve earned $250,000 in revenue this year.” A major contract includes finishing 1,400 windows for Fond Du Lac Construction Co.
Currently, he’s adding a showroom for sales. “The showroom eliminates headaches for the contractor, so he doesn’t need to carry around samples,” he says.
He and partner Michele Filipczak, 23, each still spend 15 to 20 hours per week doing interior and exterior painting.
He’s knows being a small business owner doesn’t mean sitting behind a desk.
“Planned growth is really important,” says Wehr. After Unlimited Finishes grew too fast, he had to scale back. “But once you have a set base and guideline, that’s how to keep things consistent,” he says.
Eric Fransen - NewMoon Media
Two Harbors — Eric Fransen’s home-based website development business, NewMoon Media, is prospering. After starting out four years ago, he says revenue has increased 50 to 100 percent each year. Fransen, 28, has just moved into office space in the North Shore Business Enterprise Center.
Cashing in on the need for small, local businesses to advertise on the Internet, NewMoon designs graphics and layouts for websites, offering options such as animation, e-commerce and interactive user forms. The firm also provides website hosting at rates Fransen says are competitive with larger companies.
NewMoon is a one-man operation, but a steady stream of customers allows Fransen to use other area businesses and students as subcontractors. He foresees hiring another fulltime employee.
Fransen originally intended to become a social studies teacher. After a term at student teaching he decided to change professions. Self-taught, he studied the market and technology and ventured forward.
NewMoon’s website is newmoonmedia.net, and customers include the Two Harbors Chamber of Commerce, Charleston (NC) B&B Association, Breezy Point Resort, Halcyon Harbor Cabins, and others.
After suffering a slump related to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Fransen says business is back to normal. “I see very few competitors that are willing to focus on the smaller businesses I tend to serve,” he says.
Kyle Allen - Norex Photo
Ely— After working in photography for seven years, Kyle Allen, at age 22, was ready to call it quits. He had moved to Ely after working in Colorado Springs, CO as a photo lab manager for three years and was tired of the business.
Originally from Minnesota, Allen says he returned because he missed the lakes. But then he noticed there were no one-hour photo development labs in Ely.
After he spent a year researching how to start his business, two financier friends helped Allen open Norex Photo in downtown Ely in June 1995.
The firm has a one-hour photo lab and a portrait studio. Norex also offers film developing and equipment sales and rental.
Allen, now 30, leases a 2,800 square-foot two-story building for his business. “I’m exploring options to buy it,” he says.
Most of Allen’s business occurs in the summer, when the population and customer volume doubles. “But we have a good local base,” he says. “They’re the bread, and the visitors are the butter.”
Allen cites steady annual sales growth averaging 7 to 10 per cent, with current sales at about $204,000.
The closest competition for the one-hour photo and studio is an hour away in Virginia. Local competition for slower, drop-off photo development is Pamida and local drug stores.
Norex employs about four full-time equivalent employees. All are cross-trained in photo processing as well as sales and photo-taking.
Through its website, www.norexphoto.com, Norex provides mail order film development using prepaid mailers. It’s been offering this service for four years, and processes an average of four to five orders each week from customers across the country.
The shop is also a dealer for Cellular One, offering cell phone sales and service.
While Norex provides some in-store printing of digital photos, Allen’s thinking about adding digital workstations for customer use in Internet downloading, printing digital pictures or scanning negatives. “I try to offer something new each year,” he says.
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