Movin’ on up
Entrepreneurs find the American Dream is alive and well in Chico
Even economics professors may not hear when opportunity comes knocking. Chico State University Professor Frederica Shockley remembers sitting in LaSalles many years ago, when it was still a restaurant as well as a bar, and being asked if she wanted to invest in an upstart business. Not intrigued, Shockley passed. The business? Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
But Shockley does know a lot about the Chico economy, and she has seen a handful of examples of rags-to-riches businesses here. Today, however, stories like those written by Horatio Alger in the 1800s, about poor boys who, by dint of hard work and exemplary character, turn a pocketful of pennies into millions of dollars, are few and far between.
“I think that has always been the exception,” Shockley says. Rarely do people start in the mailroom and work their way up to corporate CEO. “Bill Clinton, for example, started out poor and made it to the very top. He was able to take advantage of all the opportunities he had.”
The costs of doing business—rents, employee costs and taxes, for example—are a lot different than they were 50 or even 20 years ago. It takes a fair amount of capital, often in the form of funding from a benevolent relative or a heavily leveraged loan, to get many types of businesses off the ground.
“A lot of people starting a small business start out in retail,” Shockley says. It’s a field that may not require as much capital, but it’s also very competitive. If everyone had who had a good idea for a restaurant actually made a go of it, Chicoans would get very paunchy eating out. But, in a form of economic natural selection, it seems that businesses are cyclical.
“We have a much more dynamic economy today,” she says. “We have this philosophy of creative destructionism,” whereby existing businesses must change or be driven out by more innovative competitors. Shockley recommends slow growth as a new business figures out its market. “If the demand is not there, it’s not going to succeed.”
In recent weeks, several Chico businesses planned to shutter their doors: Troutman’s, the Wherehouse, Papa John’s pizza, The Rainforest shop downtown, the Goodwill thrift store and The Creamery that was open on East 20th Street for barely three months. Whether for economic or personal reasons, businesses come and go.
Shockley and her husband, Professor Jon S. Ebeling, run an economic-consulting firm that works with governments and the private sector.
Each year, when they fill out their taxes, they notice the box business owners must check if they’ve gone out of business. “It’s a chilling reminder,” Shockley says, of the perilous nature of small business.
Their firm was started with little physical capital, but rather what’s called “human capital”—knowledge gained through education and experience that can be used in furthering oneself professionally.
Ebeling came from a family without a high educational background and “was a total screw-up in high school.” But after working and then starting community college classes, he eventually got his doctorate.
Ebeling predicts Chico will suffer as the state covers its budget holes by raiding local-government revenues. That, Ebeling says, will translate to a lessening of services—the types of things that appeal to businesses looking to settle or stay in a particular city.
He also anticipates increasing monopolization as corporations swallow up smaller firms and compete with local businesses for customers, even as buyers contend in local surveys that they prefer the little guy.
“It’s going to be tough,” he says. “It’s going to be much more competitive.”
In this group of business profiles, we’re looking at the exceptions. These are people who started or nurtured very small businesses and saw them grow into Chico success stories. They all had one thing in common: ambition, hope and a strong work ethic. We wish them well.
Toolbox kept a-rollin’
Former mechanic went from fixing cars to selling them
Mark Abouzeid has been a gearhead since he was 8 years old, so it couldn’t have surprised anyone when he dropped out of Butte College at 20 and went to work as a mechanic. But when it came time for him to get a raise and his boss offered a measly 50 cents an hour, Abouzeid had an epiphany.
He gathered up his wrenches, told his boss to cram it, and rolled his toolbox out the door and all the way home. Five days later he was his own boss. Six months after that, he hired his first employee. Now, 20 years later, his business is worth upward of $2 million.
Abouzeid, owner of Chico Volkswagen, takes as much pride in his past as he does in his present success.
“The difference between me and every other car dealer in town is that they all walked in with a suitcase full of money and said, ‘I want to be a dealer.'” Abouzeid said. “I pushed a toolbox. I was a wrench. Nobody in this business starts as a technician.”
When Abouzeid moved to Chico from Millbrae, he had no idea what his future would hold. He had worked in a San Francisco machine shop for a couple of years and had gotten to know engines by helping his stepfather tinker with racing cars. When school didn’t work out and his boss wouldn’t appreciate him, the only thing he could think to do was to strike out on his own.
So he printed up a bunch of flyers and began building a client base. His idea of raising capital at the time was to sell his four-wheel-drive Chevy truck to a friend for $4,000. With that, he opened Mark’s Automotive on Gilman Street.
Mark’s Auto never made much money, but it was successful enough to give Abouzeid a taste of what it was like to run a business. After two years, he closed the shop and moved back to the Bay Area, where he worked for about a year as a high-end mechanic. But once again Abouzeid felt as if he could do better on his own, and Chico seemed like a better place to do it.
In 1985, he moved back to Chico and soon after started Automotive Elite on Mangrove Avenue, right next to Madam Ruby’s palmistry parlor. “I used to joke that you could get your palm read while I changed your oil,” he said.
His new shop catered specifically to Volkswagens and other European cars, and Abouzeid vowed to expand slowly, using loans from the Small Business Administration. Eventually, his business was chosen to be the first factory-authorized non-dealer service center for Volkswagen in the United States (Chico had no VW dealership at the time), and later it became the first such center to become an actual VW dealer.
Never one to slow down, Abouzeid and Chico VW, which is located on the site of the old Volpato Chrysler-Plymouth dealership at Ninth Street and Park Avenue, are now in the midst of a $2 million expansion, which will finally allow him to have an indoor office all his own. He currently works out of a trailer behind the service center.
“The last three years has been really, really hard. It’s just been full throttle,” he said. “Hopefully when this is done we’ll be able to just hang for a while.”
The secret behind Abouzeid’s success has a lot to do with his work ethic. Even now, he routinely puts in 16-hour days, six days a week. He has worked aggressively to grow his business, never letting an opportunity slip by, and he isn’t afraid to learn new skills. Being able to work on cars, for instance, doesn’t help one sell cars. So he’s presently taking classes on the subject in an effort to catch up with all those “suitcase full of money” types.
What is most striking about Abouzeid’s entrepreneurial philosophy is that he seems to care about his employees just as much—maybe even more—than he cares about making money. One of his main boasts is that the people he hires tend to stay with him for years and years. He pays his mechanics more than anyone else in town, offers 401k plans, medical benefits and a workspace that allows each mechanic to get not one, but two of his own car risers.
One of Abouzied’s greatest satisfactions is to see his employees start families and prosper in their own lives, he said. Maybe that’s because he knows what it’s like to start at the bottom, and he doesn’t want the people who work for him to feel like they have to roll their toolboxes out the door to get a little respect.
The $12 startup
When Karen Goodwin couldn’t find vegetarian food she started making her own
Thirty years ago, Karen Goodwin couldn’t find the kind of meals she was looking for anywhere. A vegetarian since the age of 15, when she was growing up in South Carolina, where meat practically hangs from trees, Goodwin noticed the lack of vegetarian products in Chico grocery stores back in 1982. She decided something had to be done.
The then 20-something Goodwin had also been inspired by other things, such as a trip through Mexico, when she watched women preparing tamales in the predawn hours, and her experience working as a bread delivery driver for Chico’s onetime Grateful Bread, where she watched how food distribution to stores worked from the inside.
With meager funds and a simple lifestyle, Goodwin decided to simply go for it and sell her food around Chico.
“I just spent $12 on the ingredients, learned to make the tamales and delivered them to people using my bike,” says Goodwin from inside her modest office at Today’s Traditions, now located at 2560 Dominic Drive off the Skyway. “Then I just kept reinvesting and reinvesting.”
In doing so, Goodwin became one of the first locals to see potential in the health food market about to explode in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. People began to help out—lending her a truck and helping her understand food regulations. (She later graduated from Chico State University with her master’s degree in nutritional sciences.)
Moving up soon meant she needed more kitchen space, so Goodwin opened Cafà Sandino in 1988, which became a popular vegetarian restaurant on Main Street. After receiving a Small Business Administration loan in 1992, Goodwin could lease larger quarters, expand her staff and better manufacture her veggie tamales, which featured such ingredients as artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, spicy tofu and more interesting tastes wrapped in parchment paper. She began attending “expensive” trade shows where she made valuable contacts, and her tamales started seeing regional distribution all over the West Coast and as far away as New York.
“I got into the natural-food business before it expanded to the level it is today,” says Goodwin. “That was a niche I saw early. … Now there are thousands of companies, and it takes a lot more money to get your products on the shelf.”
Today, the 46-year-old Goodwin looks in good health as she scurries around her office quarters, showing me the huge freezers, various packaging and cooking equipment that her small staff uses to make her new product, “no bones wheat meat"—chicken-style chunks that taste like meat and are used in various products such as Tofurky. Goodwill’s primary business comes in the form of co-packing (selling her meatless recipes for use in other products that she also helps package). Now she sells her beloved tamales only locally (you can get them at S&S or Chico Natural Foods, and Moxie’s and Shadetree restaurants).
“All along, I’ve always had strong community feedback in Chico. … People tell me their kids have lived off my food. It’s really heartening,” she notes.
She has paid off all debts and loans that kept her business afloat all these years, and Goodwin will keep on copacking as the business comes, though she would like to get back to marketing her first love, her name-brand tamales—which you can buy directly from her office in various-sized packs that run cheaper than the grocery store prices.
“I actually feel like I’ve come full circle because we’re redeveloping some different styles of tamales now,” she explains. “But the great thing with this business has been our ability to adapt and help create different products over the years and remain providing a product that I love.”
Future plans include the possibility of a local bagel project, she adds, indicating that she has been approached by a local bread company.
“I’m in search of a good bagel,” Goodwin laughs.
Weaver of dreams
AVL Looms’ shuttle to the top
When Peter Straus told his family in 1984 he’d be traveling to North Carolina to pitch weavers on a wooden loom with a computer in it, they were skeptical. “My uncle said, ‘You’ll embarrass the family. Don’t do it.'”
Straus, president of AVL Looms, had the last laugh. Since then, he said, “I’ve flown all over the world doing this.”
The company was started in 1977 by cabinetmaker Jon Violette and Jim Ahrens, a mechanical engineer who began designing looms in the 1930s. They took a craft, loom weaving, that has been in existence so long it’s referred to as the “second-oldest profession” and, by adding small computers, brought it into the 21st century—a quarter-century early.
Today, celebrating its 25th anniversary, AVL Looms is a big name in its niche, with its computerized and standard weaving looms selling at an average price of $10,000 apiece. The company also sells software to outfits like Levi Strauss and Gymboree.
Last week, Straus closed a sale with a buyer in South America with whom he dealt exclusively via e-mail. United Nations projects in developing countries such as Ethiopia are among AVL’s customers, and AVL representatives were selling in Russia right after the fall of the Soviet Union.
An advertising salesperson by trade, Straus joined AVL Looms 20 years ago and ended up buying into it. When Violette retired, that left Straus. A couple of years ago, he brought in a new partner, Matt Taylor, an MBA with an eye for the latest in equipment. “He had to drag me kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” Straus said. The two now co-own the business, which employs about 15 people.
Straus said AVL Looms couldn’t have stayed in business had it not grown and changed with the times. “Our biggest problem over the years has been that we became our own worst competition—our looms never wear out.”
In 1982, AVL was an industry-shaking innovator when its engineer came up with computer software that used a cassette tape and 32K of memory to design weaving patterns in black and white on an Apple II computer. The newest generation of “Compu-Dobby” allows users to program a pattern and direct the loom to execute it, like an electronic player piano. A jacquard loom is also in development.
In 2000, AVL packed up from several buildings sprawled along Orange Street ("We were wearing ruts down the sidewalk,” Straus said) and moved to a somewhat smaller space on Morrow Lane, where it could fit more modern machinery to hone the complex pieces of metal and wood. Whereas AVL had to import some elements of the loom mechanisms, it can now make them itself. Instead of 31 pieces of equipment, the more efficient setup requires only five.
There’s even a weaving school where craftspeople from all over the world come to be trained on AVL Looms—or the teachers will travel to them. In April, a weaver from Nigeria is coming to Chico to learn to run the looms first-hand.
Straus said that, while AVL has secured two Small Business Administration loans over the past 25 years, it used existing funds to finance the latest move.
Straus, who also teaches business classes at Chico State University, counts among his assets a lack of fear of speaking in public. AVL’s smartest business decision, he said, was “having the willingness to export and take this all over the world.”
“Every country in the world weaves on one scale or another,” he said.
In the early 1990s, AVL owners considered moving the business from Chico to Ashville, N.C., the center of the textile trade. “We decided not to leave because a number of our key people weren’t going to go.”
When it comes to doing business, he said, “California’s tough but Chico’s great. … We have fun here.”
Marshall Thompson hooked up early with a booming industry
Marshall Thompson has something in common with a couple of guys named Hewlett and Packard. Like them, he started his business in a garage.
Of course, his company, AdWorks, is miniscule compared to the world-bestriding H-P. But by local standards it’s an unqualified success, now employing 10 people full-time and still growing. Working out of a small complex of offices and a studio in north Chico, AdWorks sells and produces all of the local advertising seen on all of the cable networks available in the Butte County area.
Thompson, a genial man in his 50s with a wispy gray goatee, started the business in 1987. He’d come to Chico in 1969 to go to college and later took a job selling radio spots for KNVR, where he worked for eight years. One of his clients was State TV Cable, the first cable operator in the area.
The cable networks such as ESPN and CNN had recently begun charging the cable companies for their product—in the early years it was free—but in doing so had agreed to free up time slots for local ads. When Thompson learned about this, and that State TV Cable had no interest in going into the ad sales and production business, he got an idea: Why not sell ads for cable? “It looked better than radio to me,” he says, and “it reached more people and had pictures.”
Seizing the opportunity, he “hammered out a deal” with the cable company and “started in my garage working alone inserting local ads on two networks in one cable company.” Using a few thousand dollars he’d saved up, he bought equipment not only for himself, but also for the cable company. He was onto something, and he knew it.
Since then cable TV has exploded (cumulatively, it now has more viewers than the seven broadcast networks). His own business has kept pace, and he’s bought new equipment as needed, almost all of it high-tech stuff, computers and servers and software programs. He’s also expanded his contracts to include the cable services covering Oroville, Paradise and Susanville. The contracts are exclusive—no market can handle more than one cable ad sales company, he explains—and cover all cable subscribers from Willows and Colusa to Magalia and Susanville.
His staff includes six outside salespeople, two office people and two full-time and one part-time production people. “People seem to like working here and tend to stay a relatively long time,” he says. “Some have been here almost as long as I have.”
Thompson is married to Chico State University English professor Andrea Lerner. They have two children, 7 and 9 years old.
The right stuff
Woof and Poof goes from basement to warehouse
Jacki Headley rushes through a maze of artistic, multi-colored stuffed animals, baby blankets and pillows in various stages of construction. Most of Woof and Poof’s 43 employees are stitching and stuffing the whimsical creations. The company currently makes 300 products, all designed by Headley, whose top-floor Orange Street warehouse office overlooks Depot Park.
“Right now we’re working on spring for next year,” Headley says. Cute white-and-yellow chicks wait to be poofed out, frog-shaped tooth fairy pillows await shipping, and baby caps that look like puppy dogs stare up from a cardboard box.
Woof and Poof, at 28 years of age, is now a corporation, with Headley serving as president. It sells to 2,500 accounts, including Nordstrom, Eddie Bauer and occasionally L. L. Bean. Locally, the products are available at Made in Chico downtown.
It’s a long way from Headley’s start in a friend’s basement, making six pillows to present at a trade show.
“I actually never planned to have this business,” Headley says. “I thought that I would just try to find something to do to make some money so I could stay in Chico.” She had a fine-arts degree and a teaching credential at the time.
In 1975, she came up with a set of pillows patterned after a family theme, and a friend (Nancy Lindahl, who owns Zucchini & Vine) offered to take the items to a San Francisco event where they would be seen by gift trade professionals. One representative’s wife loved the pillows, and soon they were in five permanent showrooms across the country. Orders were rolling in. “It just snowballed,” Headley says.
Headley isn’t sure how things got so successful, but one of her traits is thinking long-term when it comes to business.
“I’m a pretty conservative manager,” she adds. She’s always been a believer in putting a lot of money back into the business as opposed to accumulating personal wealth or overleveraging the company. “You learn to not spend everything that you’re earning but to balance that out with long-range planning. Do things that actually pay off over the long term.” Each year, she sets a couple of goals, such as working harder on an employee issue or focusing on a certain aspect of production.
The one year she got a little complacent—1981 or ‘82—Woof and Poof didn’t turn a profit. “I realized that I needed to put more focus on designing. I thought I may have been sitting back a little.”
One of her best decisions was putting up the buildings in which Woof and Poof operates. “You should be able to finance your own growth,” Headley says. Woof and Poof will soon construct another building on its Orange Street property.
Headley says she’s always enjoyed working with her employees, which helps a business run smoothly. The latest headache of small-business owners has been the increasing cost of health care benefits and workers’ compensation insurance. Woof and Poof went from paying $28,000 for workers’ comp two years ago to $107,000 this year. “It’s frustrating,” she says.
While Headley does research her market, the bottom line is that she won’t produce products just to make a buck. “A lot of what I make I like, and I’m lucky that other people like it as well. I want to be proud of the kinds of things that we make.”
In the dough
Booming bagels begat businesses
To customers of Brooklyn Bridge Bagel Works, co-owner Scott Schulman doesn’t come across as a business big shot who turned a tiny wholesale bagel operation into a nationwide success. But, while he lies low these days, Schulman was once the big man on the bagel block.
“I was getting my master’s in psychology and said to a friend, ‘I really don’t like doing that, and the only other thing I know is the food business.'” His friend suggested bagels, and Schulman happened to know a bagel-maker. So Schulman flew out to New York for four or five days and they learned how to make bagels.
“I said, ‘OK, I know how to make bagels. Now we need a bagel shop.” But neither Schulman nor his business partner had much money. With what was left of his student loan and a $2,000 loan using his car as collateral, Oy Vey Bagels moved into a space above Clifford’s Jewelry on Broadway, where the rent was $71 a month. It was 1979, and bagels had not yet hit the West Coast snack world with full force.
The partners had only a used mixer, a sink, an oven and a card table. But the handmade bagels were tasty, and as word spread buyers would come upstairs to get them. Also, Schulman talked a good game. He got Shop & Save, then owned by Chico business legend Steve Nettleton, to buy Oy Vey’s bagels wholesale. “Then I talked my way into every other market in town.”
Six months into the business, the crew was working up to 20 hours a day and still not making much money. “I think we figured out we were working for a dollar an hour,” remembered Schulman, who had kept his night job tending bar at Madison Square Garden.
Then he scored a meeting with Lucky’s corporate office. “I told them I had a big bakery that could handle all their stores, and they had 238 stores,” Schulman said. They bought it. He went looking for a bank loan and “got turned down numerous times” until customer Pat Lawing, who owns Stash Distributing, heard him “whining” about it. “He took me down to Wells Fargo and said, ‘He’s with me,’ and he cosigned my loan with me.”
It took four months to build the plant on West Fifth Street—Lucky’s waited—but with its first order Oy Vey churned out 140,000 bagels. “It was actually physically impossible,” Schulman marvels of the feat. The company went from two employees to 60 overnight.
But Schulman wasn’t satisfied with just selling bagels wholesale. “We wanted retail. Retail’s more fun.” He opened up Oy Vey Bagel Cafà, first in the basement spot where Chada Thai is now located, then at Second and Broadway. A popular breakfast spot at first, the restaurant was eventually sold and went out of business in 1997.
In the meantime—1990—Schulman had sold the wholesale bagel business, which reached to 35 states. He made “lots” of money in the sale, quantified by the fact that he now owns 20 rental properties.
On the downside, Schulman embarked on some business ventures that had the opposite result. Schulman, who owned LaSalles bar in the early 1990s, had been successful with the Hatchcover restaurant in Chico and figured he could open another Hatchcover in Rocklin. “It was an immediate failure.” A bad location and the flat Sacramento economy of 1992 spelled doom. “At the same time, we managed it poorly,” Schulman said. “I didn’t learn anything in business until that. That was the great educator: having a business that failed.”
He lost “more money than many people will ever see in their lives” but managed to pay all the business’ debts.
Now, Schulman is happy to work at Brooklyn Bridge two days a week and manage his properties the rest of the time. “We’re not rich—the Hatchcover took care of that,” he said, but his family is comfortable.
The trick to doing business successfully, he said, is “an incredible work ethic and an ability to sort through the crap to find what the reality of the situation is. Also, paying attention to customers and a bit of luck and a lack of arrogance.”
Adventures in dentistry
Craig Lares has turned a family machine shop into a global player
Craig Lares is not an entrepreneur in the popular sense of the word. He did not start his business from scratch with a quarter found under a gumball machine. However, if you take the basic meaning of the French word entreprendre (to undertake), Lares fits the bill.
The 46-year-old Lares took over the machine shop his father Joe and Uncle Al had started in 1956—the same year Lares was born—in the Bay Area town of San Carlos. In 1989 he moved it to Chico and grew it into a manufacturing business with a world-wide market. He doubled the number of employees, to 80, and increased sales by two-thirds.
Horatio Alger would give Lares the thumbs-up.
The waiting room in Lares Research, a sprawling, single-story stucco building on Lockheed Avenue near the Chico Municipal Airport, includes two plastic-dome-topped display stands featuring Lares’ line of equipment: dental tools, including a standard pneumatic drill that makes your teeth hurt just looking at it, and lasers that have been used for gum surgery since the early 1990s and now make up 15 percent of the company’s worldwide sales.
Craig Lares is an energetic, fast-walking and -talking businessman. You get the feeling he’s pushed for time. The day we visited he gave us a company tour—efficient and complete—that led us through a maze of halls, storage and shipping rooms, small labs and a machine shop that housed both old-style traditional mills and lathes, which sat idle this day, and space age computer-operated machines that do the work of 10 machinists in a fraction of the time. At one point, Lares said, the company employed as many as 140 people. But modern technology has eliminated many positions.
As we tried to keep up with Lares, he gave us a running account of how things work as well as a history of his company.
It began as a two-person outfit that specialized in small, precision-made products made subcontractually for other, larger businesses.
In the early 1970s the company was asked to design and manufacture components for dentist drills. From then on Lares Manufacturing began working exclusively with dental equipment. A few years later, when the federal government mandated dentists to sterilize their equipment after every use because of the growing threat of AIDS, demand jumped.
“My father was always interested in having a product,” Lares said, “and not just being a subcontractor. To make a long story short, he ended up designing our own dental drill, getting patents granted for it and introducing it in ‘79 under the Lares brand.”
They changed the name to Lares Research to make it sound more like a health-care/high-tech industry.
Lares took over operations in 1985 when his father, now 76, retired and moved to Paradise. Lares had worked in the business since he was a teen, laboring in the machine shop during the summers. He made his decision to take the reins of the company after his freshman year at UC Davis.
“It hit me like a bolt of lightening,” he recalled. “I had started out studying bio-chemistry and at the end of the year decided, ‘Nah, I’m not going to be a scientist. The business looks pretty good after all.'”
Lares changed his major to mechanical engineering, graduated four years later and then earned an MBA at Santa Clara in business. Lares brought the business to Chico in 1989.
“I used to come up here and visit my dad [before the move], and I wouldn’t want to go home. We both like hunting and fishing and outdoor stuff. I finally decided it was my dream to live outside the Bay Area.”
Today, the experience he carries from working in the machine shop as a teen all those years ago serves him well. “When you consider the size of this company, I can’t be hands-on and be successful managing the company, but I understand it, I comprehend it, and so that understanding helps me make decisions.”
Lares has a 19-year-old son, Joe, attending UC Davis, “on the same dorm floor that I was.
“He’s undecided about what he wants to do,” Lares said, noting the obvious comparison. “I think he wants to keep his options open. If he was serious about taking over, I would cooperate with him and help him try to do it. On the other hand, I think it’s important not to try to convince him.”
He also has a daughter who is a senior at Pleasant Valley. “She is really into art, so she is probably headed for a career in art.”
When asked for his theory of success, Lares stopped and thought before answering.
“I think you define success as satisfying all your stakeholders. You’ve got to keep your employees happy and give them good working conditions, a good living and good benefits so they support your success and stay with you and help advance the company.
“I make important, crucial decisions, but it is the 80 employees, the 80 people, who do the work day to day. So you have to satisfy them and still make a profit so you can reinvest to keep moving forward.”
Older and greener
S & S Produce’s Rich Stewart and Joyce Rogers consider the success of their family-run business
The sibling proprietors of Chico’s S & S Produce, Joyce Rogers (who manages) and Rich Stewart (who owns the business), can’t attribute their market’s longevity to any particular facet. However, one angle keeps coming forward—family.
Founded back in 1967 by Rich and Joyce’s parents and Joyce’s then-husband Don Sheffield (the other “S” in the name), the first S & S Produce wasn’t a store as much as a stand, situated along Highway 99 in Gridley.
“Where the McDonald’s is now [in Gridley], that was the first S & S,” says Joyce.
“Our father was produce supervisor for Miller’s Market,” Joyce states. Miller’s Markets once formed a grocery empire across the North Valley, and Miller’s Mansion can still be found on the Esplanade near Cohasset. “He was their produce supervisor for years,” Joyce continues. “And when Mr. Miller decided to start downsizing and selling off his stores, that’s when my dad decided to open up his own.”
“There was a fruit stand in Gridley that a guy wanted to sell,” Rich remembers. That fruit stand became the first S & S Produce.
“And my husband at the time worked with my dad at Miller’s,” says Joyce. “And Don and Rich were also very close friends, so it was just perfect timing.”
Chico natives, they relocated to the Gridley area while that store was in operation.
“When we opened that one,” Joyce explains, “we lived there.”
“We lived in East Biggs,” Rich reminds her.
“Yes,” she laughs.
“We sold that one and came up here and bought this one,” Rich says, “because we were originally from Chico. And even though Gridley is close, we still preferred living in Chico.”
There were missteps along the way. Joyce remembers when she tried to get a mail-order business going. They put a lot of time and money into creating brochures and mailing them out. The result?
“Nothing,” she admits. “We thought, ‘Oh, this will work.’ But nope!” Still, she says, she is constantly mailing packages every week to people who have visited the store from out of the area or to those who once lived here and want particular S & S items—10 to 12 packages a week. “People who live close enough to get here would rather come in and do their shopping,” she explains.
The successes far outnumber the failures. Rich is quick with examples.
“The barbecue has turned out great,” he states. The barbecue began as a once-a-week operation, quickly expanding into a full week. “And we’ve just opened up our crab stand, the Crab Shack.” Rich hopes to find a way to make the Crab Shack a year-round concern rather than only seasonal. “And we also deliver wholesale produce,” he continues. “We’re delivering all over in the Chico area. We go to Sacramento every day to pick up loads of produce, the freshest possible, direct from the farmers. That’s worked out really good.”
But in the end, both Rich and Joyce agree that it is the element of family that contributes to S & S Produce’s continuing success. “Our mom still works here,” Rich points out, “in the promotional office.” And sons, daughters, step-children and close associates also currently work at the market.
“Dick, the manager of the Butcher Shop, has been here for 27 years,” Rich says, “He’s like a brother. And then Don, in our vitamins, has been here for 22. Sharon in groceries has been here for 22. So, we are a family, absolutely.”
When asked if either of them foresees the business going on indefinitely, Joyce replies, “Rich has grandchildren and I have grandchildren, so I’m sure it will stay in the family and keep going.”
To which Rich adds, “Well, I’m going to live to be 110, so…”
—John W. Young
Reeling in the years
Douglas Boyd started in a shack and now does business worldwide
The art of hand-blown glass is a tricky thing to master.
Many different aspects must come together, from hand-and-eye coordination to the applied use of experience and knowledge about glass chemistry itself. This confluence of skills can produce uniquely beautiful art, and the process itself stands as a metaphor for how longtime Chicoan Douglas Boyd came about running one the oldest and most successful small glass shops in the country.
“Basically a lot of it was fate,” says Boyd from inside his 2209 Park Ave. office above a handsome retail studio filled with unique glass vases and other art of various colors and styles. “When I started, glass blowing was just not being done anywhere—there were only a handful of studios. The timing as well as several other factors all came together for us.”
The son of an art teacher from Shasta College, Boyd happened upon his trade almost by chance. After graduating from college in 1969, he had enrolled for his master’s degree in ceramics at San Jose State, a school known for its huge art department. Boyd did not realize the school was about to start a glass blowing program that very year, but once he experienced the visual magic and splendor of glass art, he was hooked.
After earning his master’s in glass and a brief stint teaching, Boyd used a loan from his parents to help set up his own business in 1971 with partner David Hopper, blowing glass in a backyard shack off Third Street in Chico, between Orient and Flume streets. The two men and a group of artist friends later decided on the name Orient & Flume after Boyd’s then wife Carol suggested it—"it just had an established ring to it,” Boyd recalls.
During that first year, Boyd and Hopper made numerous trips to trade fairs to sell and exhibit their art (around 250 days that year were spent traveling). It was at one such trade show where the wife of well-connected Los Angeles art collector Jay Gustin noticed the one-of-a-kind glass pieces, and soon her husband—the foremost collector of paperweights in the country—had placed his own request for iridescent paper weights (containing silver luster). Boyd was able to fill the order, developing his own unique style—and the business was off and running. Soon, he moved into larger quarters off Park Avenue and bought more furnaces.
Simultaneously, glass blown art began to take off in the ‘70s. Gustin provided invaluable distribution means for Orient & Flume, while Boyd and his workers—maxed at around 20 in the ‘70s (currently at eight artists)—remained busy creating hand-blown art all day and night: beautiful glass with colorful flowers, insects and other organic patterns and designs. Boyd eventually bought out Hopper and began distributing Orient & Flume art glass (which retails for between $100 and $1,000) nationwide, as well as throughout Europe and in such places as Hong Kong.
Being one of the first to help establish the market means that today, after his 30th anniversary last September, Orient & Flume is a respected name in the business. It is represented in 15 major museums throughout the United States ("all but the Getty,” says Boyd). Throughout the years, support from the Chico community has been a critical component of the business’ success, he adds.
“It’s become a generational thing. … We’ve had families pass down this artwork to their children and then they come back and purchase more,” Boyd says as a majestic grandfather clock gongs in his office. “Now, with the Internet the way it is, anyone can buy our art in any part of the world today. I think the next 10 years will be some of our best.”
From sailboats to stainless steel
When Jim Caldwell gave up racing he had to make a living somehow
Jim Caldwell, the majority owner of Sierra Manufacturing, in Chico, came to his career in an unlikely way—from sailboat racing.
In his 20s, he was a young, hotshot amateur sailboat and yacht racer in the Bay Area who competed, often victoriously, in numerous competitions. It’s what he lived for. He was, he says, the sailboat version of a ski bum.
One day the owner of a racing boat he crewed asked him what he did for money. Caldwell didn’t have a good answer, so the man offered him a job in his fabrication plant, where he made stainless-steel counters and sinks for restaurants.
A few years later, Caldwell and his wife, Gail, came to visit his sister in Magalia and fell in love with the mountains, so he gave up racing and they moved to Paradise. He’d learned enough about fabrication to get a job in a Chico plant that made equipment for canneries and other ag-related businesses.
At night he did sideline work at home, often staying up until midnight making equipment for his customers.
After about eight years, he and a partner went out on their own, setting up shop in Durham. In 1992, Caldwell decided he wanted and was ready to diversify, adding food processing equipment to his repertory, so he sold his interest to his partner and opened his own plant in a big barn in the village of Nelson, south of Durham. He started with just four employees, and he himself did all the design work.
His goal, he says, was just “to make a living. I liked working in stainless steel. … I just went with the flow.” He kept expenses low, buying new tools only when he needed them.
At its most basic level, fabrication is a low-overhead business. All that’s needed is welding equipment, raw materials (sheet metal, etc.) and the knowledge of how to put pieces together.
It gets complicated after that. Big food-processing systems require sophisticated design work. So he offered two young engineers, Steve Smallwood and Kyle Kee, interests in the company if they’d come to work with him.
With them on board, and now working out of a 30,000-square-foot complex at the Chico Municipal Airport with upgraded design software, he’s been able to expand into numerous areas, making complex custom production equipment—pic-n-place units, pocket conveyors, sorting tables, crate/tote washers—for bakeries, wineries, meat processors, you name it.
These days, in one of the two cavernous metal buildings on his campus, a complex system for Svenhard’s Swedish Bakery, in Oakland, is coming together. At its center is a Swiss-made robot machine for packing bags of pastries in shipping crates. Looping around the robot is a system of conveyor belts designed by Sierra Manufacturing to move the pastries and crates through the robot.
The system is similar, explains Caldwell, a youthful-looking man in his 50s with combed-back silver hair, to the machine he designed for picking muffins and other pastries out of their baking pans for wrapping. Whatever the job—pulling stems from raisins, fast-freezing pastries—Sierra Manufacturing can make the equipment to do it, as a quick look at its Web site, www.sierramfg.com, suggests.
The company now has from 18-24 employees, depending on the number of jobs contracted, as well as five outside salespeople. It keeps Caldwell busy, and his racing days are long gone, but they’re not forgotten—his office is decorated with photographs of sailboats and yachts. He is content, however, with kicking back on the family houseboat at Lake Oroville.
All in the execution
To Craig Alger it’s not what you’re selling, it’s how you sell it
If you ask Craig Alger what the secret is to entrepreneurial success, he’ll tell you straight up—there isn’t one. You can have the greatest product in the world and still be a flop in the marketplace, he said. Or you can make millions, as he has, selling things people don’t actually need.
Alger owns V-Tech, a manufacturing company on Otterson Drive that sells after-market car customizing kits. After several tries in other businesses, he took over V-Tech in exchange for a debt the former owners owed him. Once a tiny, hand-run operation based out of the old Chico-San facility on Humboldt Avenue, V-Tech now churns out hundreds of kits a day using computers, robots and high-tech plastic molders. About 20 employees work at the company, which distributes nationwide.
“It’s the execution that counts,” Alger said, reflecting on his success. “Am I some brilliant prognosticator to know that plastic taillight covers are going to take off? No. Did I maximize the opportunities available to me? Yes.”
Like just about every successful entrepreneur, Alger relied on blind faith, a little bit of luck and a heavy dose of persistence in growing his business. It took several years, thousands of cold calls and a steep learning curve to make the company profitable.
“We were so little when we started,” Alger said. “There were times we had to shut the [machines] down because rain was leaking on them. I had cashed in my 401ks, had $23,000 in credit card debt. I was 42 years old and had less than zero. At one point I looked at myself and said, ‘Craig, this has got to work.'”
Alger, who was a biology teacher before going into business, tried his hand at different types of companies before taking over V-Tech. He helped start a successful staffing service and ran a Chico restaurant for a while.
“I lost my shirt in that deal,” he confides.
Nothing really fit until he got into manufacturing. While trying to build his reputation in the industry, he discovered that there was something almost magical about making a product and bringing it to market. His early experiences trying to sell an unknown product at trade shows both intimidated and inspired him, but in the end, he said, they put him in awe of the power of American capitalism.
“Capitalism is the greatest social program that has ever happened. Here were all these guys out there, just like me, who had an idea,” he said. “It let me know that I had a shot.”
Alger also takes pride in being able to provide well-paying jobs for his employees. But the real kick is in being creative and solving problems. Money is nice, he said, but it isn’t what keeps him in the game.
“Every time I’ve ever chased after money it’s eluded me,” he said. “The beauty of entrepreneurship is to create something and to just be independent.”