Answering the Hard Questions of Running a Small Business in a Small Town

September 27, 2016 In the News

Standing inside the Bradley Building in Wabash, Indiana, I was stunned by the ticket price to refurbish this nearly 100-year-old building. It would cost millions – and I couldn’t grasp how this small town would afford to bring this anchor building back to life.

In the opening episode of the Small Business Revolution – Main Street web series I recently launched with Deluxe Corporation, I received a tour of Wabash. We looked at local small businesses, checked out the downtown infrastructure and evaluated what still needed to be done. On the top of the local business community’s wish list is the need to rebuild the Bradley Building, which sits on the corner of the town’s busiest intersection.

“Oh, this is not a business plan that you would appreciate at all,” explained Steve Downs, executive director of Wabash Marketplace. “Really, we are looking for someone with more money than sense [to invest in this project].” Downs has lived in Wabash more than 50 years and has seen the town’s ups and downs, and he recognized the delicate position the town is in when it comes to older buildings.

I spent 10 days in Wabash in two separate trips. It is a beautiful, caring community with extraordinary people. As I said in the first drive through town, it is quintessential small town America. The old-fashioned movie theatre. The picturesque courthouse. The idyllic downtown. It’s a place where everyone waves or nods as you drive by. Yet its charm does not make its entrepreneurs and small business owners immune from the realities of running a business.

While my friend, Amanda Brinkman, and her exceptional team at Deluxe brought small business marketing expertise and tools to the businesses in Wabash, my role was to ask the tough questions, to probe into their numbers and talk about growth strategy. I wasn’t here to make an investment. But I was tasked to support the process as Deluxe showcased the potential of what Main Street in Wabash could truly become.

Operating in a small town does not mean you get a pass on answering the hard questions. You have to know your numbers and you need to know where your customers are going to come from. In the second episode of the series, we worked with Harry Kilmer of Harry’s Old Kettle Pub & Grill. For four years, Harry struggled to turn this shot and beer joint into a restaurant. His sales were healthy, but flat over time. He was unsure of his profit margins. He needed help.

Harry was doing great, but he needed a local accountant to come in and meet with him, to help him better understand his cash flow. He needed to look closely at his business and decide when he could pay himself and when he could invest. As I told Harry and his wife, Judy, today, they are working to exist. They needed to start working to live.

Being in Wabash taught me a lot about how small businesses operate. After losing its automotive manufacturing base, the future for Wabash revolves around their small businesses. From Schlemmer Brothers to the Eclectic Shoppe to Ellen’s Bridal and more, small businesses in this community will create jobs, create value and build an economy that people from the surrounding area will flock to.  

All investors look for a return on their investment. Wabash is different. This town has intangibles you can’t measure in dollars and cents. They have people who rally around a cause and a community that believes in one another. Like all good small business owners, they put their hearts and souls into their businesses and they desperately want to succeed. I learned so much from working with these people and hearing their stories. The Small Business Revolution – Main Street web series is a remarkable project that explores the struggles and triumphs of small town America.

Take a few minutes over the next few weeks and invest in Wabash. The first two episodes are online now at www.smallbusinessrevolution.org and each Tuesday for the next three weeks, two new web episodes will be released.

To your success,

robertsignature