Small businesses, great rewards

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What does it take to be successful in business?

Charles and JoAnna Montoya are the proud owners of AC Disposal. They are standing next to one of the roll off containers Charles made himself when the company began expanding. The company was named the Small Business Development Center Star Client for Valencia County in 2011.

It takes a willingness to take a chance, serve with a smile, be versatile and never say die.

All across Valencia County are businesses that range from small family-owned enterprises to international manufacturers that have one thing in common — they are here and have no plans to leave.

AC Disposal Services was started in Belen in 1992 by Asiano Montoya. His son, Charles, and his wife, JoAnna, now run the company Charles says his dad started by accident.

His uncle was doing construction clean up, and when the Albuquerque lumber company Asiano was working for closed down, his brother asked him to come work with him. Before they could start working together, Charles said his uncle was injured.

“The company called and asked my dad if he could come do it, since my uncle was hurt,” Charles said.

Asiano started with a truck with a high sided bed. Tired of having to throw the debris out by hand, he eventually converted into a “dump” bed. That “do-it-yourself” willingness was something Charles picked up and ran with when he and JoAnna officially took over AC Disposal in 2006.

Charles took over the business with the one modified truck and 15 roll-off containers. With construction booming, he and JoAnna knew they were going to have to expand to keep up with demand.

So they decided to put $10,000 on a credit card and buy enough metal to make more containers. As a certified welder, Charles was able to replicate the units so closely to the professionally made ones that it was hard to tell the different, JoAnna said.

“That was kind of scarey — the debt,” Charles said.

The young couple had a plan, but it was a risky one. When JoAnna finished nursing school, Charles was going to quit his job in construction and go full throttle on the disposal business. The day she graduated was indeed the day he quit.

The construction business continued to bring in plenty of business, but they knew the company needed to diversify. So, two years ago, they decided to add residential trash pick up.

“It was something we really had to think about. The carts are $65 each and you can be sitting on $80,000 to $90,000 in carts pretty quick,” Charles said. “They knew us in construction, but residential … nobody knew us.”

Knowing they had to get the name of AC Disposal out there among residents, Charles and JoAnna engaged in a little guerrilla marketing. They had some cheap door hangers printed up and began walking neighborhoods.

“Then when we got some customers, we asked them if they would go door-to-door with the hangers,” Charles said. “We would give them $100 or free service.”

It worked. The company now serves 300 households in the county, thanks to the willingness of loyal customers to spread the word.

“One guy did enough of the hangers to get a year free,” Charles said with a laugh.

The Montoyas say they listen to customers and try to provide the services they want, such as large item pick ups and recycling. The pick up service has been more successful than the recycling, Charles says frankly.

“We tried recycling for a year. You have to do it for at least that long to know if it’s really going to work or not,” he said. “We didn’t have that great of a response.”

Out of their 300 customers, Charles estimated less than a dozen participated regularly. And there was the issue of whether customers know what materials can be recycled and which have to go in the trash anyway.

“We did cardboard and people think cardboard is cardboard. But things like cereal boxes, with the waxy coating, can’t be recycled,” he said. “For us, it just didn’t work.”

Last year, the company upgraded to 5,000 professionally printed mass mailers to try to grow their business.

Charles says they are on the verge of another big expansion, but are waiting to see which way the wind blows on the county’s attempt to contract with one solid waste hauler for the entire county.

“We know, if that happens, there will be a month or two where we will take a hit,” he said. “But after that, we have a plan to come back up and go forward.”

Charles and JoAnna attribute a big part of their success to providing excellent customer service.

“My sister is the one who answers the phones and she knows almost everybody by name,” Charles said. “If you don’t have good customer service, you are not going to make it.”

As the business expanded, the couple found they could no longer operate out of their spare bedroom. The office is now located in a house in Jarales belonging to Charles’ grandmother.

When 3:30 p.m. rolls around and the kids get off the school bus, they start winding down their day.

“It really is a family-owned business,” JoAnna says, as her daughter, Emma, fusses in the next room.

Three-year-old Nathan walks into the office, sporting tiny leather work gloves and a pint-sized AC Disposal shirt, the spitting image of his father.

“He is my Mini Me,” Charles says. “He wants to do this.”

In an ideal location on Main Street in Los Lunas, Bruce Prater says one of the biggest factors of his success as the owner and operator of the Graphic Arts Station is having a varied line of products and by not specializing in one area.

“But it’s a two-edged sword. We don’t specialize in one thing so we try to specialize in everything,” Prater says.

The business opened originally in Belen in 2007, as an expansion of the Belen Print Shop, in what was a former gas station on West Reinken.

From there, Prater moved to a large warehouse on Don Felipe Road, but found the location lacking for walk-in clients since it was a bit off the beaten path.

Now his Los Lunas location, which opened in mid-February, offers a good mix of walk-in customers and orders from his fellow local business owners.

“The location has really been the edge I was looking for,” Prater said.

Instead of relying strictly on businesses, he was able to even out his cash flow since walk-in customers pay upon receipt, where as a business might take up to 30 days to pay a bill.

Even with the prime Main Street location, Prater says he still relies a lot on word-of-mouth to draw in customers.

“That’s been working well because we have some new products that no one else has down here,” he said.

One is a sublimation process that turns a solid into a gas that adheres to polyester.

“It allows us to do full color on anything from poker chips to apparel.”

Mostly known for signs and banners, as well as full color, high-impact vehicle wraps, Prater says the company has expanded the line into full color booklets and menus, upping the product line across the board.

And with increased product offerings, came a need for an increased staff. When the business started, it was Prater and one other employee. Now it’s him and five others, “and we still can’t keep up,” he said. “We are going fast and furious to meet the demand.”

And most of that demand is coming from inside Valencia County, something Prater appreciates. He is all about shopping and selling local.

“I do some jobs through an ad agency in Albuquerque for Rich Ford’s banners, but that’s mostly from the business relationships I’ve built,” he said. “That’s been my real concentration — more about local shopping. And I can say, we offer better pricing than Albuquerque. We are able to have an uptown product at a small town price so people don’t need to go shopping in Albuquerque.

“We try to provide services that allow that. I get all my supplies locally if I can. I only go to Albuquerque if I have to.”

When Abenicio Sisneros started his company in 1993, the world was a different place. Major manufacturers were located in major cities such as Chicago and Detroit. But things have changed, says his son, Martin, now the owner of Sisneros Brothers Manufacturing.

“It’s a world economy now,” Martin Sisneros said. “Now you are finding manufacturing in places where land is cheap and the people are trainable.”

Places like Belen.

“The driving force for most manufacturers’ locations is where are the people who are, if not already trained, able to get trained,” Sisneros said. “They are looking for places that have the best apprenticeship programs or training schools. There are real opportunities for communities like Belen. We have plenty of land, our rail spur, I-25 and plenty of young people. The only thing missing is the ability to train them.”

After meeting with other local manufacturers — companies such as Sud Chemie, United Acrylic, Cemco and New Mexico Travertine, Sisneros said the owners came to a conclusion.

There were plenty of opportunities for work and businesses capable of spanning the globe right here in Valencia County. Someone just had to reach out and grab hold.

“We wanted to figure out how to excite the community about the opportunities out there,” Sisneros said.

One opportunity Sisneros sees sounds very simplistic at first, but is an integral part of local manufacturers’ operations — crates.

“When you say crates, people think big wooden boxes. It’s rather simple, but it’s not,” he said. “We need crates built to international specs, so we are buying them out of Albuquerque. It’s a bit more than nailing some wood together, but I bet a contractor that can make custom cabinets or build a house can make these. And Sisneros Brothers isn’t the only company that needs them.”

In order for entrepreneurs to take advantage of the business and job opportunities Sisneros and the other manufacturers see, first people need to be trained.

“The biggest challenge is getting trained employees, not a lack of work or lack of capital,” he said. “One local company said they have 25 open positions. But no one has the skills to fill them.”

So instead of waiting on someone to “save” them, Sisneros and the other businessmen have decided to embark on their own training program. By partnering with local schools, current employees and opening the training up to the community at large, they hope to start building the skilled labor force they need for their businesses to survive.

“We started something like this four or five years ago; we had the curriculum approved, classes four nights a week. But we were better manufacturers than trainers,” he said.

While the program ended, Sisneros says it’s time to start it up again. Not only will this collaboration of local manufacturers offer training, Sisneros said, but connections to customers, vendors and possibly even investors.

While the national narrative has been that manufacturing is dieing and business in America is in decline, Sisneros believes there’s nothing further from the truth.

“We have to stop saying ‘I can’t,’ and start saying ‘I can.’ We learned that in grammar school,” he said.

The opportunities are endless, if people are willing to think outside the box and view the glass as half full.

Sisneros Brothers has its blueprints and technical drawings reproduced in Albuquerque. While the company could send an employee on a run north to get copies of plans, Sisneros says a local enterprising young man has filled the need.

“He started a one-man courier business. So we use him to drop off plans and parts,” he said. “He could have said, ‘Oh poor me, I lost my job.’ But he didn’t. As we keep meeting to talk about what businesses need, someone out there will say, ‘Why can’t I provide that?’”

And that’s the kind of passion and innovation that will enable established and new small businesses to stay alive in the future, according to Small Business Development Center Director Wayne Abraham and Business Advisor David Carlberg.

“Most success goes back to a drive and passion to succeed,” Abraham said. “These businesses open because of a need for either the product line or service. They stay in business by listening to their customers.

“And sometimes you need to change if that’s what your customers want. And being able to change quickly, that is the small business advantage.”

Carlberg says as the country deals with the lingering, hard economic times, some of the most likely beneficiaries of down times are small businesses.

“And that is because of their ability to register immediate changes in the market place,” Carlberg said. “If they understand what is happening in their industry, small business owners have a lot easier time making changes than large corporations.

“SBDC is the biggest supporter of small businesses,” he said. “They are going to carry the (United States) and Valencia County in 2013 and 2014. The just have to stay aware.”


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.