Tuesday, December 23, 2008

EagleBay Auction Results

The online auction that I wrote about November 19th ended up raising $8,257 which will be used for Make-A-Wish and the local United Way. Great results from a tremendous local company (Paterson) helping some great charities.

Merry Christmas

I hope that all of my readers have a wonderful Christmas and great New Year.

I'm going to take some time off from blogging and be back next year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Duck Stamps

One of my favorite movies is “Fargo”, the 1996 film about a car salesman who hires two men to kidnap his wife for an $80,000 ransom. The star of the show is the pregnant small-town police chief Marge Gunderson, played by Frances McDormand, a role that won her an Academy Award.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Marge is lying in bed with her husband, Norm. Norm is a wildlife painter, who lacks a bit of confidence. Here is the dialog from that scene:

Norm Gunderson: They announced it.

Marge Gunderson: They announced it?

Norm Gunderson: Three-cent stamp.

Marge Gunderson: Your mallard?

Marge Gunderson: Oh, that's terrific.

Norm Gunderson: It's just a three-cent stamp.

Marge Gunderson: It's terrific.

Norm Gunderson: Hautman's blue-winged teal got the 29-cent. People don't much use the three-cent.

Marge Gunderson: Oh, for Pete's sake. Of course they do. Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.

Never in a million years, would I have believed that there actually is a Hautman painter, something that Norm mentioned several times in the film with his awe-shucks, “Oh the Hautmans will probably win.”

Turns out there really are the Hautman brothers. Bob, Jim and Joe have won the Federal Duck Stamp Contest, the most prestigious event in wildlife art, eight times since 1990. Brother Joe won the competition in 2007 and Jim placed second this year.

I’m learning all sorts of things out on the road. I’m just not certain that some of them are going to ever do me any good.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Small Town...Big High Tech Cluster

Warsaw, IN (population 12,415) has always amazed me. This town in NE IN is 45 miles west of Ft. Wayne. It is a stand-alone town that is the county seat of Kosciusko County, a county that has 42% of its jobs in manufacturing (35th highest percentage in the USA), paying an average of $55,974. And, what has brought on this prosperity?

Warsaw bills itself as the “Orthopedic Capital of the World” and with three of the top five international orthopedic firms headquartered here, it’s easy to understand why no one disputes its claim. These three (Zimmer, DePuy and Biomet) collectively produce over $10 billion in sales, hold 65% of the worldwide knee replacement market and 60% of the worldwide hip replacement market, and employ over 7,000 people in Kosciusko County.

This unique cluster started when Revra DePuy married the local sheriff’s daughter, taking her back to MI. When she grew homesick for Warsaw, he moved his young family to the town. There he invented the fiber splint to set a fracture, quickly replacing the wooden barrel staves that had been used up to then.

Later, the national sales manager for DePuy’s company suggested to Revra’s widow that the company add aluminum splints to the product line. When she refused, J. O. Zimmer left the company and started Zimmer Holdings, now the largest employer in the county with 2,800 employees.

Later a Zimmer employee, Dane Miller, left that company to set up Biomet along with local investors.

Recently, when Zimmer announced plans to invest another $19 million to expand its foundry operations, adding another 100 local jobs, Richard Stair, VP of Global Operations and Logistics told Inside Indiana Business, “Warsaw really is a jewel in the state of Indiana. It’s impressive that in the city of Warsaw several of the largest orthopedic companies in the world are selling devices globally to help people live a better quality of life.”

It started in Warsaw. It continues to grow in Warsaw. Do you have any potential clusters that you could exploit to create a cluster like Warsaw has done?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tom Sawyer of Cattle Drives

For six generations the Kerns Family has been driving their cattle each spring up into the Big Horn Mountains in north central WY. About 15 years ago making a living raising cattle became much more difficult. So they decided to begin offering to let “wannabes cowboys” tag along on the ride.

This year’s ride back down occurred from September 6th to 13th, a 4000+ foot descent down to their Double Rafter Ranch in Ranchester, WY. The cowboys spend at least eight hours/day in the saddle, sleep on the ground and get roused out at 4 am for biscuits and gravy. And, for that privilege they each spend $2,000.

The Kerns refer to their drives each year as, “City Slickers (the movie) is just a pony ride!” You can see a video of one of their drives here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

That Famous Brain Bank

Many towns that I visit bemoan the fact that, “there aren’t any jobs here. Everyone moves away as soon as they can. We are down on our luck.”

If you are one of those towns, pay attention to my blog of yesterday and this one today. Bill Cook was born and raised in Canton, IL, and went onto great fame and fortune, starting his own medical equipment company. But, he did all of that in Bloomington, IN, where he went to college.

Mark Rothert, head of the Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development in Canton, wrote to Cook a year ago. Here is what the letter said:

Dear Mr. Cook:

My name is Mark Rothert and although we have never met we share a common bond of growing up in Canton, Illinois. I read an article about you in the Dec./Jan. 2007 issue of "Bloom Magazine" and thought I would write.

Canton has probably changed since you grew up here, but it was a great community then and still is today with much potential. However, Canton does face some major challenges. They include the former International Harvester Brownfield site, deteriorating housing, fewer employment opportunities, and a declining downtown.

I am the director of the Spoon River Partnership for Economic Development, a local 501(c)(3) charitable non-profit economic development organization for the Canton area, tasked with bringing new development, jobs, investment and business to the area, including revitalizing the downtown and the former IH site. I understand you played an integral role in the revitalization of Bloomington's downtown. I would be interested to come to Bloomington and meet with you to learn more about your past projects, talk about what we hope to achieve in Canton, and gauge your interest to help.

Basketball and music aside, I know you also deeply care about community, preservation, and producing results out of ideas. Your philanthropy in the Bloomington area to provide for the community, preserve historical sites and create results is truly admirable. It reminds me of what the Orendorffs and Ingersolls did in Canton so many years ago. Canton was once a booming town but has taken many hits over the past 30 years as I am sure you are aware. However with the support of successful Canton natives, we can become as proud of our city's future as we are of its past.

Thank you for your time and consideration of my request.

Cordially yours,Mark A. RothertExecutive DirectorSpoon River Partnership for Economic Development

Two weeks later, Mark Rothert received the following letter back:

Dear Mark:

Thank you for your letter. As you know, Canton has always been a special place for me.You are more than welcome to visit Bloomington and discuss the problems I see in Canton. We can tour Bloomington and have a look at what has happened in the last 25 years to this city. Mrs. Aimee Hawkins-Mungle has my itinerary and she can set up a day we can be together.

Best regards,

William A. CookChief Executive OfficerCook Group Incorporated

From that letter and subsequent visits Cook has begun a major reinvestment into his hometown. Do you have any Bill Cooks that used to live in your hometown?

Write to them today!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I Gotta Meet this Guy!

I’ve written several times this year about Bill & Gayle Cook’s efforts to resurrect and restore two early 1900s resorts to their past glory in French Lick, IN. You can see those blogs in our archives (May 3, May 29 and October 16, 2008).

Now, he’s back home in Canton, IL, where he was born and raised (graduated Canton Senior High School, 1949), doing something similar. But, first let me tell you a bit about the Cooks.

They started their business, Cook Group, in 1963, in a spare bedroom of their apartment in Bloomington, IN. The company quickly became a leader in medical technologies and is still headquartered there. The Cook’s have done very well, landing on numerous lists of the wealthiest Americans.

Here is what Forbes said about Bill Cook in October in their Forbes 400 List:
Used blowtorch, soldering iron and plastic tubing to develop cardiovascular catheter. Now the world’s largest privately held medical device manufacturer. Products include stents, embolization coils, needles, vena cava filters. Sales now $1.5 billion. At work by 5 a.m.; eats in company cafeteria.

In June, Cook returned to Canton to purchase two historic downtown buildings that date from the 1880s. Already they have taken off the exterior fa├žade, stabilized the buildings, and are beginning the meticulous restoration of buildings that Cook shopped in as a youth. When completed, the buildings will consist of retail space on the first floor and well-appointed apartments on the second.

And, then last week he was back again to announce plans to rehab an old International Harvester industrial site that has been unoccupied since the early 80s into a new manufacturing plant that will hire 100 jobs and help to bring added vitality to the adjacent downtown. The plant will produce high tech “vascular introducers” or tubes that go into blood vessels so that stents can be inserted.

Cook compared what he is doing to planting a seed, “Once it blossoms, we anticipate the roots will spread throughout the community and nourish further growth.”

And, he returned home with these projects, because, as he added, “My personality came from here.”

We need more Bill Cooks in this world!

Tomorrow: How Canton enticed Bill Cook back home.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tool Crib of the North

“It was the most incredible operation that I’ve seen in my 30 plus years in the business,” was how Bill Brennan explained to Jeff Smith and me at a recent holiday bank party in Chesterfield, MO.

He was telling us about Acme Electric in Grand Forks, ND, a company that he had just visited that is part of his own tool buying cooperative that supplies his Brennan Tools. His enthusiasm was so great that I decided to research. Here is what I found.

George Kuhlman, who passed away in 1995, started the company in 1948 out of a garage in downtown Grand Forks. His son, Don, who runs the company, said of his dad, “He ran the business out of his wallet. At the end of the month, he’d empty the wallet and see who’d paid and who still owed him money. He had a very good sense of right and wrong that he passed on to me.”

From very humble beginnings (that is their second location on the right), the company has grown to nine retail stores in ND, MN and IA and a 177,000 sf distribution center. Two hundred families make their living at the company’s operations.

In 1999, Amazon came calling, looking to expand into internet tool sales. Acme sold them their Tool Crib of the North catalog division which Amazon renamed Amazon Home Improvement. It is still headquartered in Grand Forks.

In my travels, I’ve found some great examples of very innovative North Dakotans. I’m glad that Bill Brennan filled me in on another one.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Catch 'em Quick....Save 'em!

In 1969, a juvenile judge in Fort Lauderdale looked at a kid standing in front of him in court and knew that a sentence in standard juvenile justice would be the end of any bright future the young man might have. On a hunch, he called a friend who was the director of a marine research agency asking for a favor. He asked the friend to take this young man, put him on a boat, work with him as a marine biologist, give him responsibility and keep him away from his neighborhood. A month later, the friend called back asking for eight more kids.

From that first delinquent, Associated Marine Institutes (AMI) has grown into 57 programs in eight states. The programs have expanded beyond just marine to include environmental programs, farming, dog training for the handicapped, horse training and even programs for girls with babies.

To date, over 80,000 students have gone through the AMI Program, with 70% of them never having any more problems with the law.

Do you have an AMI type program in your town?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Will our Kids be Ready?

“Within the next six years, 89 percent of jobs in Illinois’ fastest-growing sectors will require some education or training beyond high school. Yet, we have 41,000 dropouts per year from our high schools. One out of every four students who start freshman year drop out; two of the four will graduate but not go on for much higher education; and only one of those four will get out of high school with the skills to really excel,” stated Robin Steans, Executive Director of Advance Illinois, who was in Effingham to explore ideas of what could be done in rural Illinois to help turn these alarming statistics around.

Advance Illinois is a non-partisan, non-profit that is focused upon improving the educational and resulting work experience of all Illinoisans. It is chaired by former Governor Jim Edgar, the best governor we’ve had in our state in my lifetime, and Bill Daley, former Secretary of Commerce and brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. Joe Fatheree, last year’s IL Teacher of the Year and Effingham educator who I’ve written about in the past, is one of the fourteen directors of the organization.

The consensus of our group discussion was that most of the current problems begin at the lower grade levels when parental problems often lead to long term problems.

Mike McCollum, principal of Effingham High School said it best, “They might drop out when they are 17, but they give up in the third grade.”

Debbie Owens, Assistant Superintendent added, “We’ve seen a dramatic change at home. Today less than 25% of the students live in a two-parent home with their biological parents.”

As I’ve studied the educational system over the years, I’ve become more convinced that we’ve got to reach the very youngest students, making certain that we don’t have ANY that fall through the cracks. And, with falling enrollments and the resulting squeezing of budgets, we’ve got to do more with fewer resources. I’m convinced that using more volunteers and concentrating recourses in critical education-only programs is needed.

One such program started several years ago at two of our local schools, is a mentoring program that places a volunteer with at-risk students one-on-one each week. The program has grown to over 130 mentors-mentees. I participated until my travel schedule didn’t allow me to be certain that I would be with my mentee each week, something that is critical to the success in the program. During my short tenure, I had one student whose parent committed suicide during the school year and another whose mother was in jail for prostitution and drug dealing. Talk about at-risk!

The program costs the school district about $30,000 with over $150,000 donated in time, material and cash from the community. Yet, the school district is looking at cancelling the program in 2009/2010 because of funding problems. It seems like a very short sighted savings but a very long term cost.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rainiest Town in LOwer 48....Twilight Mania!

Who would have thought that being known as the rainiest town in the lower 48 states, would lead to fame and fortune?

Forks, WA (population 3,120) has that distinction, although I didn’t know it at the time that I visited it in July 2005 on our way up the western slopes of the Olympic Peninsula on Route 101. I just knew that it seemed to rain all of the time on our visit. I only learned in researching this blog that they get over 120 inches per year.

The town was built upon logging and they still call themselves the Logging Capital of World. But, logging is for the most part, long gone. Like many other rural towns in the mountains of the west, Fork’s logging was killed off in the early 90s when the spotted owl became more important to some people than rural jobs. But, I digress!

In 2005, Stephenie Meyer decided to write a series of books about a young girl, Bella Swan, who moves to a small town and falls in love with a pretty boy, Edward Cullen, who turns out to be a vampire. Meyer chose Forks after doing an internet search of the rainiest spot in the USA.

The Twilight Saga, a series of four books and a new movie released last month, have grown into a mini-Harry Potter cult. The local Chamber has cultivated “Twilighters” who are beginning to flock to the town to see. They’ve put together maps, tours and even redone a 1953 Chevy pickup truck that Bella drove in the book. They’ve started an annual look-alike festival to commemorate Bella’s birthday on September 13th, the first one this year drew over 1,000 people.

Those efforts have resulted in more than 7,000 Twilighters visiting the town in 2008 with many more expected with the release of the first movie in the series.

I’m not sure what part of “fiction” these Twilighters don’t understand, but Forks is leveraging a very unique resource. I hope that they can leverage it for a long time.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Tween Craze Entrepreneur

Maddie Bradshaw, who is now 12, first got the idea for Snap Caps when she was 10. She started making necklaces out of bottlecaps that she decorated around the kitchen island in her home with her mom and six year old sister, Margot.

When her innovation started to become a craze, they set up M3 Girl Designs LLC. The M3 is for Maddie, Margot and Mom. The new company quickly outgrew their home and today has 15 employees, four sales reps and sells 30,000 bottlecaps per month in over 500 stores nationwide.

Maddie is now writing a book about her experience, “Beyond the Lemonade Stand,” which will focus on how to start a business from a kids’ perspective.

I keep preaching about these incredible Millennials who are going to be the most entrepreneurial generation in the history of the USA. Any Maddie’s in your town?

Monday, December 08, 2008

City Winery

I’m always looking for new ideas that might work in small towns, and today’s blog takes us to a big city, the very BIG city of New York City, where I found an interesting new business called City Winery.

The idea for City Winery is that it is a place that you can go to get assistance in making your own wine. The restaurant/winery ships in grapes from all over the country and then assists you in producing your own special vintage.

The operation started in September when a refrigerated truck delivered 10 tons of wine grapes from Napa Valley. About 200 New Yorkers are now making their own wine from those grapes, each producing their own barrel of wine (about 250 bottles) at a cost of around $7,000. While a bit pricey for most, it is an idea that could possibly work in certain agurbs®.

But, even if you have no interest in doing anything, get onto their website and sign up for their updates. The City Winery does an excellent job of promoting their offerings with frequent emails, something that every business in our towns should be doing.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Mr. Agracel 2008

Each year at Agracel we try to raise money in different ways to help support the very needy charities of our local United Way. This year Lynn Higgs, our own fundraising dynamo, decided to hold a competition with myself, Agracel’s president Dean Bingham and CFO Mike Mumm competing for the very prestigious title of being known as Mr. Agracel for the rest of this year.

Votes were collected in donations for the favorite candidate throughout the month of November with a total of over $3,000 raised in the effort.

I am very pleased to report that Dean Bingham is the new Mr. Agracel. He was honored on Thursday with an outfit chosen by Lynn and her “dress the guy” committee. Dean is shown in the photo receiving congratulations from Linda Hemmen, head of United Way, and Tina Schwinke, the campaign chair for 2008.

A complimentary lunch was given by Chuck Keller at his elegant Hilton Garden Inn to Dean and our team, along with a complimentary manicure, pedicure and hair cut given by Desiree Wasser of The Beauty Shop and also a pair of the famous Sarah Palin glasses donated by Eric Zeller of Visionary Eyewear.

I can’t wait to see Dean’s manicure on Monday!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Your Own Dollars

In today’s economy, I’ve heard of more people putting their money under the mattress. Well, if they are going to do that, why not have it be your community’s currency?

Several towns have developed their own currency, something that was common in the Wild West of yesteryear and made a comeback during the Great Depression, as a way to encourage local purchases. It is perfectly legal to do, as long as you don’t make it look like the real thing and you do the project as a not for profit organization.

Communities can print up their own currency, with serial numbers, anti-counterfeiting details and even pictures of local landmarks or famous (or not so famous) local citizens. The local residents benefit through an advantageous exchange system, say for example a hundred traditional dollars that can be converted into 150 or 200 local dollars.

Ithaca, NY has been doing it since 1991. That’s their currency on the right. Berkshire County, MA started theirs in 2006 and has had about $2 million exchanged for BerkShares.

Looking for something new to do in your community? You might want to research this idea.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Cure for High Prices? Why, It's High Prices!

An old commodity adage is, “The cure for high prices, is high prices.” And, we’ve seen that in the oil market in 2008.

In my travels around the USA this year, I’ve been amazed at the number of times that I’ve spotted oil rigs along the road drilling for oil and gas, something that I’ve not seen as much of in past years. Was it a coincidence, or were there more rigs operating in the country? Here’s what I found out.

Baker Hughes does a weekly count of the number of oil rigs operating in the USA. It hit an all-time low in 1999 when oil dipped below $20/barrel (Do you remember those days of $1 gasoline?). In July, when oil peaked at $146/barrel, the rig count had quadrupled to over 2,000, the first time that it had shot across that threshold since 1985. Now that oil is falling in price, so is the rig count, which was down to 1,941 in the latest report.

The peak for rigs was in 1981 when they very briefly topped 4,500 rigs operating. The fall-off in drilling in the 80s was caused by falling oil prices and the high cost of credit. The joke in oil towns back then was, “Open a bank account and get a free oil rig.”

The other side of the supply-demand equation is that we are driving much less this year than in 2007. The U. S. Department of Transportation reports that we drove 78 billion fewer miles in the first 10 months of this year when compared to the previous one, about 5% less.

It’s supply-demand at work! And, the cure for high prices, is just that, high prices.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Shop the Region

One of the key drivers of attitude in a community or region is the local newspaper. Some take an approach of “if it bleeds, it leads” and try to sensationalize controversy. Others still report those negative and sensational stories, but do so further back in the paper. A few others go the step further to take a very proactive role in helping to positively shape their community and region for the better. I’ve run into many in my travels around the country.

I was with one such newspaper publisher in Carbondale, IL, where I was taking part in their innovative quarterly Southern Illinois Community Leader’s Breakfast, which brings together communities from throughout the broad expanse of southern Illinois. Dennis DeRossett set the breakfasts up four years ago and they’ve grown into a Who’s Who of Southern IL.

I’ve known Dennis for about ten years, dating back to a short period of time when he was publisher of our local newspaper. He’s stayed in touch and follows where I’m speaking. I’ve been amazed at the number of times that he has been a publisher in one of the towns that I’m going to visit, calling me with tips on what and whom to see when I’m there touring and speaking.

A particular passion of Dennis’ this year is his “Shop Southern Illinois” this Christmas season. The Southern Illinoisan Newspaper has taken it on as a cause and Dennis spoke of it at the Community Leader’s Breakfast, “We need to help promote the unique things that each of us has in our communities and shop where we live rather than just automatically driving to the big city to do our shopping. We’ve got some very unique and wonderful shops scattered throughout southern Illinois.”

And, Dennis is putting his money where his mouth is, giving away $5,000 in shopping money to be spent in the region.

We need more Dennis DeRossetts in this world.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

$25/Hour to Walk Dogs?

I was talking with one of my “city slicker” CA cousins recently about life out west. This cousin related that her 24 year old daughter was making $25/hour as a professional dog walker and babysitter in San Francisco. And, that was her take-home pay! The company she worked for obviously had to charge some type of premium over her wage.

HUH!!! Is this world crazy or what?

The theme song for the classic TV Show “Green Acres” started bouncing around in my head as she was talking….

Green acres is the place to be
Farm Livin’ is the life for me
Land spreadin’ out so far and wide
Keep Manhattan…just give me that countryside

I hope that your dog doesn’t mind finding its own way around the neighborhood, out here in the agurbs®!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Small Bank Says NO!

I first reported on Evergreen Federal Bank in Grants Pass, OR on September 13, 2005 after a tour and talk there (you can see the pictures and article in our archive) after a visit. The bank was making a huge difference in the community with its reinvestment into the town’s art programs and downtown redevelopment.

Brady Adams, president of the $300 million bank, has spoken out against the bailout of banks saying, “We don’t have people coming to us and saying we got them into trouble. We kept them out of trouble.”

Evergreen made loans to people that it thought would pay them back, the typical risk/return calculation that bankers have been making for centuries. It didn’t get involved in the euphoria of Wall Street securitization of loans like many other banks in OR and other places, not making exotic negative amortization mortgages with no money down that today can’t be repaid. Instead, Brady made loans that, “required people to put real equity into a home purchase and to have the amount of income to pay it off”.

Today, Evergreen, which owns no foreclosed properties, has only foreclosed on one home in the past 10 years and has only four delinquent loans out of 2,000 on its books. Its capital continues to grow, it is making money and its liquidity is good because its borrowers are making their loan payments like clockwork.

Brady and Evergreen are not an anomaly. I see it in virtually every small town I visit in America today. Rural American banks are,5 for the most part, doing just fine today just like they’ve been doing for the past decades.