Twenty-five years ago, a Safeway grocery store manager named Greg Gorman quit his day job and decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.
The Solvang resident hunted around and found a California-based franchisor named Screenmobile that seemed promising. The Screenmobile concept offered market exclusivity, a trailer equipped with tools, and access to framing supplies that could provide a needed service to homeowners and property managers.
Working side-by-side with his sons, daughter and son-in-law, Gorman built a successful operation servicing Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and more recently Ventura County. But, like most of us who run small businesses, Gorman has had a few stumbles along the way.
He bought a second home at the market peak and after turning it into a rental, he will likely sell the Shell Beach property at a loss. He’s looking to slow down someday and would like to sell his SLO and Ventura territories. That’s partly to bolster his 401(k) plans, which took some big hits in the 2008 stock market meltdown.
As a fellow small-business owner, I was intrigued by Gorman’s story, so I visited with him on the phone shortly before Thanksgiving.
What I learned is that many baby boomer entrepreneurs have the same personal narrative. Starting and running a business looks easy from the outside, but it takes more patience and persistence than you might think. Business plans seldom work out exactly the way they’re put down on paper.
Gorman, who turned 60 this year, said that when he started the business there was a lot more hands-on effort than he imagined. “When we started, I had trouble even reading a tape measure,” said Gorman, who quickly learned the trade and learned to apply the customer service skills that Safeway drilled into his brain. “I made all the mistakes at first but the business has been really, really good for us and the family,” he said.
Gorman said some of the biggest challenges have been dealing with local government, regulation and rising costs. Fees for his contractor’s license, soaring worker’s comp and health care costs, and coping with the cost of diesel fuel for his four truck-trailer combination units have been constant issues. Gorman thinks that California would really flourish if it was just a little bit easier place to do business. “Worker’s comp insurance costs me $8,000 a year, and I’ve never had a claim,” he said.
But Gorman is no whiner. He’s learned to adapt his company to the seasonality of the window business, using the winter months for truck maintenance and repair and cutting back on overhead. After watching sales decline in the post-recession years, he’s seeing revenue growth again and expects his business to recover its 2007 peak. He’s learned that investing in heavier duty diesel trucks saves money in the long run because the vehicles last longer with proper repairs.
Here are some of Greg Gorman’s rules for running a successful small business:
• Attitude matters. Starting a small company means putting up with a lot of adversity, but if you have a plan and adapt it to changing circumstances you will be successful. “It was a little scary at times, but in my mind I kept saying ‘this thing’s going to work,’ ” he said.
• Marketing counts for a lot. The brightly painted trailer, plus persistent Internet marketing and referrals from happy clients, have kept the business rolling in, said Gorman. The biggest change is that the Internet has largely replaced the phone book as a referral source, but he still gets a call or two every time he makes one of his two-day a week trips to Ventura County and a potential customer spots his trailer and writes down the number. One reason for looking for a buyer for the Ventura County franchise is that a full-time effort would generate more revenue, he said.
• The Great Recession is changing a lot about the economy. Out the window is Gorman’s plan to retire in his early 60’s, he’s now planning to operate the Santa Barbara core franchise for another five to seven years — it turns out that Isla Vista is a place where screens on certain rental properties get replaced just about every year.
• Uncertainty is the new reality. Gorman said the hardest thing for him is the complexity for forecasting revenue. Nothing going on in Washington or on Wall Street is “telling me things are going to get better,” he said. His response has been to reduce personal and business debt — including stretching the life of his trucks and trailers and paying off the mortgage on his Solvang home.
• Family comes first. Gorman relies heavily on his wife Dodie for advice and a reality check. They’ve been married for 39 years and “I never make a decision unless we sit down and talk it over,” he said, a process that can take two or three days until all the various aspects of a decision have been talked through. “We never make quick decisions,” he said.
Finally, Gorman has a message for policy makers in city halls across the Golden State and in Sacramento. “I love California. I get to work by driving along the Pacific Ocean. But it’s important to let businesses operate and don’t penalize people for earning a profit. There’s an attitude that if any business is profitable we can pick their pockets. It’s all in the attitude.”
Gorman is not a pessimist, however. He thinks that if his customers feel just a little bit more positive about the future, things will turn around. “People will spend if they sense things are going to be good for the next few years,” he said.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]