Starting your own business takes passion, dedication and a huge amount of courage. And after years of doing everything yourself, you might find that you’re ready to take your business to the next level.
To find out what it takes to grow your business, we asked several mid-sized Evanston businesses about how they transitioned from start-ups to larger business and tips for how they have been able to stay in business for so long.
1. Patrick Hughes, president and founder of Inclusion Solutions
How they started: Patrick Hughes first became interested in helping those with disabilities when he became friends with a student with Autism in college. After college, he started a non-profit to help college students with disabilities connect with other college students, and in 2000, he founded Inclusion Solutions, which makes products that help retailers and the government serve people with disabilities. Today, Inclusion Solutions has eight full-time employees and several outside sales reps.
How they got bigger: “Two of our most important assets early on were focus and differentiation,” Hughes says. “We stayed focused on solving a specific problem and we were a niche player in the marketplace.”In fact, Inclusion Solutions was one of the first companies to sell products in certain verticals, such as call buttons that allow people who are deaf to place an order at a drive-thru restaurants.
Best piece of advice: To grow your business, Hughes says it’s important to keep innovating to stay ahead of the competition. And, he says, hire good people. “Realize you will need help to take it to the next level and hire to get that experience,” Hughes says. “In our case, we brought on a president with more than 20 years of experience running another company. That hire allowed us to make better decisions for the life of the company.”
2. Jennifer Kalas, president of IRMCO
How they started: In 1914, William O. Jeffrey, Sr., founded International Lubricants, Ltd., in Philadelphia, which produced metal lubricants for manufacturing. Five years later, the company moved to Evanston and changed its name to International Refining and Manufacturing Company. Throughout the years, the company expanded by investing in research and development, constantly developing new products.
How they got bigger: Jennifer Kalas joined the company in 2000 as its Chief Financial Officer and was promoted to president in 2011. As the company enters its second century in business, Kalas says IRMCO has concentrated on developing products for niche markets to continue to grow.
“We hired a marketing company to re-brand ourselves and focus on the niche market where we felt we had the most expertise,” Kalas says. “We focused on getting talented people in the right positions, and we also hired a business coach to work with our management to team to identify our Key Performance Indicators and keep us on track with our goals.”
Best piece of advice: “As you grow, make sure to focus on your ‘WHY’ (why you do what you do), and maintain the culture you have created so you don’t lose who you are as a company,” Kalas says.
3. Geno Benvenuti, president and founder of Benvenuti & Stein
How they started: Geno Benvenuti has been designing new spaces for Chicago homes since 1977. He and his partner started out doing a small project for a friend of a friend, which turned out well and led to more work. “We were young, inspired designer/builders, our creative energy drove us; profitability often took a back seat to the need to do something special and create a happy client,” he says.
How they got bigger: In 1981, Benvenuti bought out his partner and also bought out a cabinet shop that they had been working with so he would have more control over the entire process. From there, the company continued to get referral after referral and their commitment to quality attracted like-minded employees. After first renting a studio space in Evanston, the company moved to its first permanent location in 1983, which Benvenuti expanded three times before moving the company to its current location in 1989.
Best piece of advice: “To build any business, you have to put your heart and soul in the effort and opportunities will and do present themselves,” Benvenuti says. “Profits sometimes take a back seat to the outcome, but a positive outcome will lead to more opportunities.”
4. Tom Klitzkie, co-founder of Nature’s Perspective Landscaping
How they started: Husband and wife Tom Klitzkie and Barbara Schwarz combined their mutual love of plants to go into the
landscaping business together in 1979. Since then, the company has grown to over 55 employees and they offer landscape design and maintenance throughout the North Shore.
How they got bigger: In the beginning, Tom and Barbara ran their business on the side while they were both working full-time. By 1984, Tom asked if he could work half days at his job so he could devote more time to his business, and the following year, he made the leap to working full time at Nature’s Perspective Landscaping.
Over the years, Klitzkie says one of the keys to the company’s growth has been their willingness to hire employees and delegate tasks. “You can’t do everything. Getting to the point where you have enough money to be able to pay someone really helps you be able to focus,” Klitzkie says. “It’s hard, but when you do it, you think, why didn’t I do this sooner?”
Klitzkie also said his strong marriage and partnership with Barbara has been important to the business’ success. “We get immediate feedback from each other when we float ideas and trial balloons that we are thinking of implementing in the business. This sounding board approach helps to refine and clarify those possibilities and concerns,” he says.
Best piece of advice: Get a good lawyer, a good business banker and a good accountant who really understands your business. Klitzkie says having an accountant who was familiar with the landscaping business helped him feel confident that he was charging the right amount.
5. Dick Peach, general manager of Dempster Auto Rebuilders
How they started: Dempster Auto Rebuilders was founded in 1961 by William Warak Sr., who had worked at other auto body shops and had a vision of starting his own shop to provide quality auto body repair in Evanston. In the mid-1990s, Warak turned the reigns over to his son, William Warak Jr., and about a year and a half ago, William Warak III started painting cars at the shop as well.
How they got bigger: The company hasn’t really gotten bigger, per say, since it was founded, but it has gotten more economical. General Manager Dick Peach says they’ve grown from a $300,000-a-year business in the early days to a $1.2 million operation today by reducing the number of employees and spending more effort marketing in the community. Their outreach activities have included everything from sponsoring an Evanston Baseball League team for the past 27 years to sponsoring the Young Evanston Artists Foundation (YEA), donating to local elementary school fundraisers, being part of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce and more.
Best piece of advice: “Get yourself into the community, and I don’t mean just with advertising,” Peach says. “Be proactive in the community. People remember that. They say, ‘These are good people.’ If you work with the community, the community will work with you.”
6. Lou Dickson, executive director of Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse
How they started: After spending 20 years as a local contractor, Lou Dickson was fed up with the amount of usable material she saw going into dumpsters. So she decided to open The Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse, a non-profit that salvages building materials from renovated buildings and resells them. Dickson and a small board of community members received a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation to launch their organization, and they opened to the public in 2011.After just 16 months, Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse had grown so much that they moved from their original location just east of Dodge Avenue to a 14,000 square foot warehouse on Dempster Street in the West End business district. The organization now supports a staff of eight and has more than 50 active volunteers.
How they got bigger: Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse’s growth has come mainly from word of mouth referrals, and she says they’ve been successful because they are one of only four similar organizations in the Chicago area.
Best piece of advice: “One of the things we’ve desperately tried to do is to grow in a sustainable way, which means not taking on anything that we can’t afford,” Dickson says, adding that you should keep good records so you know what your financials look like every month. “Err on the side of being fairly conservative.”