Best Cities Entrepreneurs

Meet entrepreneurs from the best cities for small business.
7 min read

This story appears in the October 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

We've heard plenty about the coffee brew-ha-ha in Seattle, but in Portland, less than 200 miles away, microbrewed teas are making a splash.

"It follows on the heels of all the microbrewed beers coming out of this area," says Steven Smith, founder of Tazo, a tea-based beverage company with 20 employees.

Smith, 47, sold his stock in the successful Stash Tea Co. several years before founding Tazo in 1994. "I wanted to do something different," he says. "I thought the whole [tea] category was really stale."

Tazo's image is anything but stale. Hip packaging gives the products an upscale look. Ancient-style lettering touts Tazo's wares as "the reincarnation of tea" and hints at the origins of the word "tazo," a toast to life popularized by Greek mystics in 3 B.C. and an elixir made from teas and herbs thought to have magical properties among the shamans of ancient Babylonia.

From Babylonia to Portland? No big stretch, according to Smith: "Portland is the epicenter for the new wave in beverages," he says. "It's a place where people will try new things."

Tazo's CEO Tal Johnson, 34, joined Tazo in 1995 to manage the business side of the company. With his help, Tazo's extensive line of specialty tea products is now carried in 45 states, tempting tea-totallers with everything from bottled Brambleberry tea and tins of loose tea to Tazo's newest product, Tazo Tea Ice Bars.

Annual sales of herbal and specialty tea products are expected to grow to more than $530 million by 1997, and Tazo is poised to drink in its share of the increased revenues. With 1996 sales projected at more than $4 mil-lion, Portland is clearly Smith's cup of tea.

Temp Time

It was a client's call for help that inspired Kerry Townsend to start his own temporary help service in Minneapolis in 1994.

Townsend had spent 10 years in the temporary help industry, but when a former client appealed to him for assistance in staffing his company, Townsend realized he had what it took to make it on his own. Today, his company, Timely Temporaries, specializes in light industrial and secretarial job placement and has 16 employees of its own. It'll bring in a cool $1.1 million in sales this year, and next year, Townsend expects revenues to soar to $3.2 million.

Townsend credits his location for much of that success. "The low unemployment [in Minneapolis] means there's a lot of [temp] business going on here," says the 31-year-old entrepreneur. And the city's solid manufacturing base, strong financial services industries and large number of Fortune 1000 companies provide plenty of placement opportunities for Townsend's temporary workers.

Even the cold Minnesota winters are a bonus, Townsend claims. "In the winters, people want to go to work," he explains.

Financial factors aren't the only reason the native Minnesotan is glad to do business here; Townsend says "friendly people and a safe environment" also make the city a great place to have a business.

Still, Townsend believes his expertise will transfer well to any American city. That's why he recently completed a national franchise package, which should bring in sales that are anything but temporary.

Food For Thought

City fresh Caterers in Roxbury, Massachusetts, is nourishing the Boston area in more ways than one. The ethnic- food catering business grew out of a career devel-opment class that co-founder Glynn Lloyd, 28, taught at a local community center. While teaching the class, Lloyd recognized a need to create jobs and businesses in the community.

"When we were catering," says Lloyd, "we saw [ethnic food] as a niche to grow into." Lloyd founded the business with Jonathan Ruelas, 24, whom he met through com-munity service work. A third part-ner, Earl West, 23, contributed capital and handles delivery and accounts management. The part-ners now manage 17 employees.

"We've had a lot of support from the community," says Lloyd. The Empowerment Center in Boston, which assists small businesses in myriad ways, provided the start-up with technical advice and loans soon after the company was founded in 1994. In fact, the center led them to a finance company that lent them the capital to sign their first big deal: senior meal service Meals on Wheels.

Today, Meals on Wheels accounts for 75 percent of the company's business. The other 25 percent includes special-events catering, but Lloyd says they're beginning to pursue more corporate accounts to secure a more steady revenue stream. Cooking up 300 African-American, Spanish and Caribbean meals daily, City Fresh estimates sales of $500,000 for 1996.

"But we're not just about making money," says Lloyd. "We want to set an example that small businesses can lead the way."

With plenty more mouths to feed in Beantown, these three young entrepreneurs may have found their meal ticket.

Putting Down Roots

When tony and Michelle Avent started their mail order plant company, Plant Delights Nursery, in 1989, they didn't have to look any further than their own backyard.

"We've been here [in Raleigh] all our lives," says Michelle, 39. But things in Raleigh have changed since the Avents met in high school.

"The influx of people from up north has changed the face of the whole Triangle area," says Tony, 38.

But the transformation has been good for the Avents' business. "People up North are much more sophisticated horticulturally than people in the South," says Tony.

The Avents' move into a mail order nursery was a natural: Tony was formerly director of landscaping for the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in Raleigh, while Michelle's job as an order processing supervisor taught her plenty about order fulfillment and shipping. Since 1994, they have been devoted full time to their growing business, publishing two catalogs a year and shipping plants to collectors, landscapers and consumers around the world to the tune of $500,000 in 1996.

Raleigh has been fertile ground for the North Carolina couple-and not just for business reasons.

"It's a perfect-sized community," says Tony. "It has all the attributes of a larger city without all the hassles."

"We have lots of different things in Raleigh," agrees Michelle. "There are better restaurants, professional theater and a lot of entertainment here." Apparently, Raleigh is one place where the grass isn't greener somewhere else.

Hear, Hear

You could say Jo Waldron and Shirley Crouch had a sound idea when they founded Phoenix Management Inc. in Fountain, Colorado, just south of Colorado Springs. Their company develops low-cost technology products for the deaf and hearing-impaired.

It's no wonder the two entrepreneurs heard their calling. Waldron, 45, was born with a 97 percent hearing loss; Crouch, 53, is deaf in one ear and has a 40 percent to 50 percent hearing loss in her other ear. "Between the two of us, we have one good ear," jokes Crouch.

The pair developed their Hearing Aid Telephone Interconnect System (HATIS) in 1990 after less than a year of research and with no background in technology-just a knowledge of what they needed. Once they hired an engineer to create the prototype and a manufacturer on the East Coast to produce it, they were on their way. HATIS plugs into the headphone jack in TV sets, computers, cellular telephones and, with the aid of adapters, regular telephones to enhance the sound.

Most similar products on the market are designed for people with slight to moderate hearing loss, Crouch says, while HATIS caters to the rest of the more than 30 million hearing-impaired people in the United States with moderate to off-the-chart hearing impairments.

"We started out three steps before rags, and we'd like to be four steps above riches," says Waldron, who adds 1996 sales should top $250,000.

Meanwhile, Crouch and Waldron wouldn't hear of moving their company. "Colorado Springs is large enough to accommodate everybody's needs," says Crouch, who believes the area offers the best of both worlds. "It's a big-city-type existence, but we also have the four seasons, we have the mountains and we have wonderful people. I wouldn't run our business anywhere else."

Sounds good to us.


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