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    Small companies, big impression

    Though often overshadowed by larger competitors, small companies fuel Pinellas' economy.

    By EDIE GROSS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


    Bill Strachan is pushing the frozen custard soft serve and the Yummy, Yummy Sauce.

    The ice cream curlicues out of the spigot and into a shot-sized cup, followed by a dribble of homemade chocolate sauce. Strachan thrusts the sinful combination at a couple visiting his Palm Harbor ice cream shop for the first time.

    "We have a custom here. We always start you out with free samples," he says to them. "Only if you're willing, of course."

    Fred and Fran Anselmo boldly accept the challenge, smacking their lips in support of the custom at Strachan's Homemade Ice Cream.

    "Gee, I'm glad I saw this place last night as I was driving by," said Fran Anselmo, a Massachusetts resident who was visiting family in the area with her husband when she spotted the large, wooden cow in front of the shop at Tampa Road and Alt. U.S. 19.

    Eighteen months ago, a fruit stand occupied this spot, and the Anselmos likely would have satisfied their cravings at their old favorite, Carvel, the world's largest branded ice cream cake retailer.

    But Bill and Susan Strachan took a chance, one that has paid off with visits from people like the Anselmos. In May 1999, after years of dreaming, they opened the mom 'n' pop shop, which features 63 flavors of ice cream, 12 kinds of fudge, pies and a carrot cake that is not for the faint of heart -- all homemade.

    They join an estimated 25,000 small businesses in Pinellas County with 10 or fewer employees. Though individually small, those companies collectively produce much of the county's economic steam, accounting for between 75 percent and 80 percent of all the businesses here, according to recent surveys by the county's Economic Development Department.

    "You tend to think, "Big company, big wages, big deal.' Big businesses get all the attention and the press," said Laura Berkowitz, senior research manager for Pinellas County Economic Development. "But small business is really the backbone of this county. In the last 10 years, most job growth is with small businesses across the state."

    The Florida Chamber of Commerce estimates that 74 percent of all jobs created in the state each year for the past 10 years have been created by small businesses.

    The chamber defines small businesses as those with 25 or fewer employees. Under that description, 84 percent of Florida's companies qualify as small, said Steve Liner, the chamber's vice president of communications.

    "Most of the innovation that's happening in Florida with new products coming online, new services, upgrades to services, are rising out of small businesses. They're closer to the edge, closer to the market, more intimate with their customers. They just take their dream expertise and invest money into it," Liner said. "They are hugely important for the economy. Small business is the economic engine that fuels our prosperity."

    Small in size, big on service

    The Strachans spent their careers in big business before becoming entrepreneurs. Bill Strachan handled ground work like ticketing and air freight for TWA for 33 years. Susan Strachan was a financial consultant who sold mortgages and insurance, but her friends always told her she made a wicked dessert.

    So a few years back, Susan studied ice cream making at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maryland. She and Bill sold their small grain farm in Illinois, moved to Florida and pursued the sweet life.

    "We took every penny we've ever saved in our entire life and invested in this business. It was scary because it was just a dream and we really didn't know what we were doing," Susan Strachan said. "It's very scary when everything you have in the world is tied up in your store."

    Susan Strachan said they do not think about the competition posed by the larger chain ice cream stores.

    "Here's how we compete: We do things other people aren't willing to do," she said. "We actually do the work of old-fashioned, homemade recipes. We make Christmas cookies like your grandmother made at Christmas."

    Without exception, small-business owners who were interviewed cited customer service as their No. 1 asset.

    "We're so unique and different. I know 80 percent of my customers by name," said Doug Habjan, manager and part owner of Charlie and Millie's Pizza House in Seminole. "You walk in here, and it's like going into Cheers."

    The pizza joint has operated since 1954 in a tiny storefront with a stone facade on Seminole Boulevard just south of 110th Avenue. Habjan's parents, Nancy and Lee, bought the restaurant from the original owners in 1977 after four years as faithful customers.

    Habjan operates the place now, but it hasn't changed much in nearly 50 years. The same wood paneling still lines the walls. Most of the furniture is original to the place. The pizza is still cooked in a brick oven and then cut into squares for customers who have been coming in for decades.

    "I've never had to promote the business," Habjan said. "We've got such a local clientele."

    The bulletin boards inside Murray Motive's Oldsmar office are plastered with thank-you cards from customers whose cars have been cured of various mechanical maladies at the auto shop on Tampa Road. Women who bring their cars in have been known to bake cookies for the mechanics.

    The company, which opened 10 1/2 years ago, has 4,000 intensely loyal customers in its computer database. The only advertising Pat Murray does is include his name in the Yellow Pages.

    "We really know the vast majority of our customers beyond their car. When they walk through that door, that fear and trepidation is not there," Murray said. "We're not driven by the bottom line at all. What drives us is our hearts. You've got to turn a profit, but do it honestly and fairly."

    Murray, who has 10 full-time employees, said he does not worry about the chain automotive shops.

    "I don't really concern myself at all with what they do. I don't think of being in competition at all," he said. "I concern myself with how we do things. The customer will vote every single day."

    At the Garden Room in Palm Harbor, employees say they spend a little extra time with each customer. If a customer takes a shine to a particular plant or type of merchandise, the employees jot that person's name down and call them when a similar shipment comes in later, said owner Barri Van Coulter.

    Customers are offered hot coffee. Employees always carry the plants to the customer's car, she said.

    "Yes, you can get things a lot cheaper in (bigger stores), but it's not going to be the same quality or customer service. You get a hurried kind of experience at a Home Depot or Wal-Mart," she said. "Here, you can take a walk through the gardens, bring your lunch. We end up with a loyal, loyal customer."

    Benefits outweigh the hardships

    Van Coulter and her husband, Mike, opened the Garden Room on Alt. U.S. 19 3 1/2 years ago. Mike has owned a landscaping business for 10 years. Five people work in the shop while about 15 handle the landscaping.

    Business in the shop has tripled in the past three years, and the store could use some more help, Barri said. But it is difficult to offer salaries and benefit packages that compete with larger companies, she said.

    "The biggest challenge for me is paying people what I feel they're worth," she said. "We are a small company. We're growing, but we're not there yet."

    The Strachans, both of whom have significant health problems, work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. But the most stressful part of running a small business is hiring employees, they say.

    The couple employ eight others part-time, mostly teenagers who enjoy the free samples. They post the kids' names on an Employee of the Month plaque, but the employees do not necessarily share in the Strachans' dream.

    "The biggest challenge opening your own business is finding help that will love it like we do and take care of it like we do," Susan Strachan said.

    John Homer, owner of the Saltwater Fly Fisherman in Clearwater, said he worries most about pleasing his customers. Fly-fishing is a niche sport, and a store serving that population has to create happy customers to keep repeat customers.

    "The biggest challenge is maintaining excellence in customer service," Homer said. "The customer is king, absolutely, positively adored. Service, that's all I have to offer. As a small business, I can do that. Each and every customer is cherished."

    Fly-fishing was a hobby for Homer before he opened his shop on Cleveland Street 41/2 years ago. In addition to loving his job, he loves his co-workers like family. His wife, Michele, and sons Christopher and Mike work with him -- not to mention the family's three yellow Labradors and official shop greeters, Sage, Ariel and Birkenstock.

    "As a small business, you get to do things like that," Homer said.

    Barri Van Coulter touts the family perks as well. She and her husband can bring 3-year-old son Michael to work any time they like. He carries his own shovel.

    "The biggest benefit is the family aspect. We don't have to drop our child off at a day care at 7:30 and pick him up at 5:30," said Barri, who is expecting a second child in April. "We get prime time with him."

    Running a small business requires a tremendous investment of time and money. But their prevalence in Pinellas County and the rest of the state seems to indicate what owners repeatedly told the Times: The positives outweigh the negatives.

    "There really is no hard thing. It's all fun. My work is my social life. All my customers are my friends," said Habjan of Charlie and Millie's Pizza. "It's mine. I don't have to answer to anyone. It's just fantastic."

    Small business support

    Pinellas County surveys indicate that between 75 percent and 80 percent of the 33,000 businesses here are small businesses with 10 or fewer employees. The county's Economic Development Department as well as several other agencies offer assistance to those companies.

    Here are a few of the programs available:

    Business Assistance Partnership: The county buddies up with cities and chambers of commerce to fund a business assistance specialist, who is charged with helping small businesses through rough spots and keeping track of the biggest concerns among employers. Currently, the cities of Clearwater, Largo, Oldsmar, St. Petersburg, Tarpon Springs and Safety Harbor participate in this program. For more information, call Pinellas County Economic Development at 464-7332 or visit the department's Web site at http://www.pced.org.

    Small Business Information Association Inc.: Members of this Largo-based organization receive a how-to manual that includes a host of helpful hints about topics like worker's compensation insurance, licensing, business taxes, government contracts and employee hiring regulations. The organization, founded by two former business owners, also provides regular free advice to members. The membership fee is $180 a year. For more information, call (800) 609-2418 or 531-5975. You can also visit the organization's Web site at http://www.sbiaonline.org.

    Florida Chamber of Commerce: In addition to providing the networking opportunities that all of its members benefit from, the chamber offers a special service for small businesses. Through the chamber, those businesses can pool their buying power and receive price breaks like the big companies get when they buy in bulk. Membership fees are charged based on the size of the business. For more information, call the chamber at (850) 521-1200 or (800) 425-3001. You can also look at the Web site at http:// www.flchamber.com.

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