Entrepreneurial Superstars

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This story appears in the April 1997 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Company: Microware Computers Inc.

Location: Anchorage

Began: 1990

Start-Up Cost: $1,200

1996 Sales: $3 million

1997 Projections: $3.9 million

Ron Perry didn't have a lot of when he started Microware Computers. Indeed, due largely to a difficult divorce battle, the strapped-for-cash Perry was initially forced to move back in with his parents. "They were building a house at the time," recalls the 34-year-old entrepreneur. "I said, 'Let me make you a deal: If the business works, I'll finish [paying off] the house for you.' And everything worked out wonderfully."

It certainly did. Last year, Perry's full-service computer company tallied sales of $3 million-and boasted a roster of clients numbering in the hundreds. Whether it's for the local post office, newspaper or hotel, Perry's crack team of 12 employees helps businesses install computer equipment, then trains users in applications.

"It was pretty terrifying," says Perry, reflecting on his decision to transform a background in computer sales into a full-fledged business. But terror faced is terror conquered: The longtime resident has parlayed a $1,200 credit card advance into a thriving company that's expected to register a sales increase of 30 percent this year. Now that's a success ratio anyone can compute.


Company: Snake River Brewing Co. Inc.

Location: Jackson Hole

Began: 1992

Start-Up Cost: $1.8 million

1996 Sales: $1.6 million

1997 Projections: $2.3 million

When former Anheuser-Busch wholesaler Albert Upsher, 57, had the chance to sell his distributorship a few years ago, he grabbed it. Having watched other microbrewers succeed through the years, he and his wife, Joni, 45, decided to move from Oregon to Jackson Hole and start their own microbrewery in the small community of about 5,000.

Today, Snake River Brewing is riding a wave of success in the tourist hot spot, brewing 3,500 barrels a year with a recent expansion that should double that capacity. But popularity with the locals and tourists hasn't inspired Upsher to take his beer nationwide, or even beyond the Rocky Mountain states, where it's distributed to grocery stores and bars.

"Our strategy is to create a brand unique to this region so when people come here, they'll be interested in trying our beer," explains Upsher. "It becomes part of the experience of [visiting] Jackson Hole."

Thirty percent of Snake River's award-winning lagers and ales are sold in the adjacent restaurant, which also serves wine, wood-fired pizzas and pastas, and features local bands playing jazz two nights a week. Upsher's only expansion plans will culminate with the construction of another microbrewery and pub in Sun Valley, Idaho, which he expects to open early next year. "We like to use the brewpubs to present our product to the consumer," he says. "It allows us to control the presentation."

New York

Company: Roc-a-Fella Records

Location: New York City

Began: 1995

Start-Up Cost: $250,000

1996 Sales: $8 million

1997 Projections: $35 million

It didn't take long for Roc-a-Fella Records' Damon Dash, Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and Kareem "Biggs" Burke (left to right) to score a hit in the music business. The three young partners (aged 25, 26 and 22, respectively) struck gold with their first release-a rap album by Carter. And, adding the Bugs Bunny rap for the recent movie "Space Jam" to their record of accomplishments, they show no signs of cooling their hot streak any time soon.

"We want to make a big conglomerate out of Roc-a-Fella," enthuses Dash. "We're coming out with a magazine, we're doing a movie, and we're also [planning] a clothing line."

Sound overly ambitious? Don't bet against the Roc-a-Fella trio, who initially launched a multigenre record label to showcase Carter's talent. The label now boasts two additional rhythm-and-blues artists. "The bottom line is that the major labels are putting out music that is made from the street," says Dash. "And we're the closest to the street, so we know how to do it better."

Set to release four albums this year, Roc-a-Fella Records looks to make 1997 particularly noteworthy. "The more success we get," asserts Dash, "the more things we want to do."


Company: NewsLetters Plus

Location: Tucker

Began: 1985

Start-Up Cost: None

1996 Sales: $10 million

1997 Projections: $15 million

Can a company make $10 million a year just from publishing newsletters? Yes-if, like Moira Shanahan's firm, it mails out more than 50 million of them a year for clients including hospitals, doctors and American Express.

Shanahan's success is no surprise, given her ability to survive setbacks such as the recession that threatened her business in 1991. "[Clients] didn't have to market with," explains Shanahan, 41. "We were on the chopping block."

So she put a twist on the newsletter concept by creating a product neither her clients nor her company had to pay for. For example, she designed a newsletter that was customized for specific hospitals. Then she got all the production and distribution costs paid for by a large pharmaceutical company.

As the name implies, NewsLetters Plus goes above and beyond: The 45-employee firm handles all newsletter mailing, fulfillment and response for its clients. Now, that's something to write home about!

District Of Columbia

Company: Trifax Corp.

Location: Washington, DC

Began: 1978

Start-Up Cost: $3,000

1996 Sales: $4.5 million

1997 Projections: $8 million

Ralph turner knows how to roll with the punches. And it's a good thing, because his registered nurses health-care company has weathered some hard hits since its inception.

"Our original concept was to do health screenings for the insurance industry. Then in 1983, the [Washington, DC,] city council prohibited insurance companies from collecting certain medical data," explains Turner (above, with executive vice president Ruth Ledbetter). He responded by expanding his firm's professional nurse staffing division.

Not one to rest on his laurels, the 56-year-old has since diversified Trifax even further, branching out to include medical research data collection and analysis and health-care education programs. Clients include an Army hospital and Washington, DC's public health centers and schools.

Turner is betting the future of health care will see more emphasis on preventive rather than reactive care, and when that happens, he plans to be the service provider offering just what the doctor ordered.


Company: Big Ball Sports Inc.

Location: Houston

Began: 1993

Start-Up Cost: $100,000

1996 Sales: $21 million

1997 Projections: $28 million

Sports is such a big part of our lives here in America," says Jimmy Metyko (above, right), co-founder of sports apparel company Big Ball Sports. "We represent the passion the sports fanatic feels." Do they ever. Big Ball Sports' signature T-shirt line says it all: "Sports Is Life . . . The Rest Is Just Details."

"You totally have to believe in what you're doing," says partner Lee Ellis, 38, who teamed up with his former high school pal after Metyko began looking for a new contract printer for his T-shirt business.

"Everything came together," says Metyko, 37, of the partnership that was struck four years ago. "It just kicked in."

And keeps on kicking. With fans and professional players as esteemed as last year's world champion New York Yankees sporting its shirts, Big Ball Sports looks to have many more winning seasons ahead. For this duo, that's certainly something to cheer about.


Company: Chiasso Inc.

Location: Chicago

Began: 1984

Start-Up Cost: $500,000

1996 Sales: $2 million

1997 Projections: $2.5 million plus

When is a stapler not a stapler? When it's also a work of art, like the home and office accessories sold in Keven and Nicholas Wilder's six Chiasso stores in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City and Boston.

Just because an item is functional doesn't mean it has to be a visual bore, believe Keven (below) and husband Nicholas, both 48. She's a frustrated artist and former lawyer; he's a frustrated designer and real estate developer and consultant. Inspired by New York City's Museum of Modern Art gift store, they came up with the idea for a specialty store selling aesthetically appealing home and office accessories. Chiasso (which means uproar or sensation in Italian) was the result.

Offering sleek, contemporary designs ranging from the stark (brushed aluminum wall clocks and CD holders) to the whimsical (Alexander Calder-inspired serving tongs and a string-bean-shaped letter opener), Chiasso is living up to its name. "Sometimes customers go on and on about how much they love the store, and they don't necessarily know you're the owner," Keven says. "[Hearing that is] tremendously rewarding."


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