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Business owners evolve to adapt to changing markets

JOHN SEELMEYER
Northern Nevada Business Weekly
Rob Sabo/Northern Nevada Business WeeklyJerry and Judy Brooks of Nevada Blue who run an office in Carson City.
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Even when construction was roaring in western Nevada, Judy and Jerry Brooks could see that printed blueprints weren’t likely to continue driving growth of Nevada Blue, the reprographics company they launched in 1992.

The recession, which drove the company’s sales back to levels they hadn’t seen since 2003, threw a spotlight on the couple’s need to reinvent Nevada Blue, which has a location in Carson City.

Judy and Jerry Brooks aren’t alone in their push to reinvent longstanding businesses, setting a new direction, adding new product lines, maybe even giving up entirely and starting anew.

Rod Jorgensen, director of counseling at the Nevada Small Business Development Center, says reinvention is a common subject among business owners who seek counsel at the center.

But it’s unknown, he says, how many follow through with reinvention, whether it’s a little tweak in business direction or a decision to shut down a business entirely in hopes of starting up in a more promising field.

The owners of Nevada Blue, to cite one example, began moving much more quickly into the digital document management systems that, they feel, represent the future of their industry.

Judy Brooks says the company aligned itself with ReproMAX, a network of independent reprographers and blueprint firms that provide online access to construction-planning documents.

Nevada Blue turns a profit renting cyberspace to architects and developers for storage of digital documents – some of them huge computer files – and sells copies to builders.

The digital-documents business remains just as slow as the construction industry, but Brooks is convinced Nevada Blue is well-positioned to take advantage of an economic recovery.

“Everyone is looking for efficiencies,” she says. “Everyone is looking to do this with as few people as possible.”

Another professional who’d made a good living in the construction business took an even more dramatic step to reinvent himself.

Custom homebuilder Jim Hamlin left the construction business behind and opened an Extreme Pizza franchise in Reno.

Hamlin had been thinking about a pizza restaurant for about four years – he was convinced the real estate and construction boom would end someday.

When the boom collapsed, he sent out hundreds of resumes in search of a construction-related job, but ultimately decided he needed to create his own job.

“I thought I was too old to make the transition,” the 47-year-old Hamlin says.

But he found a shopping center location at 4782 Caughlin Parkway, signed a franchise agreement with San Francisco-based Extreme Pizza to tap into its management and marketing support, and raised money from family and friends when bank loans weren’t available.

The 3,600-square-foot restaurant opened Oct. 1, and Hamlin says it’s exceeding financial projections so far. He markets heavily to the surrounding neighborhood, and struck fundraising deals with nearby schools to build traffic.

But he plays it cautiously in his reinvented business life.

“I’m wiser, more frugal these days,” he says.

Marty Smith, meanwhile, shoved a big stack of chips onto the table before he rolled the dice with a reinvention of his Flag Store, Sign & Banner in Sparks.

The retailer has developed 40 varieties of gift baskets, all featuring products made in Nevada. The baskets themselves are Nevada-shaped. The store also has added shelves of made-in-Nevada merchandise, everything from salsa to wine.

It’s a natural outgrowth, Smith says, of the Nevada-themed flags, clothing and coffee mugs the store has sold for years. A couple of years ago, Smith also created the Nevada Trivia Game.

Still, he says the dollars invested in the new made-in-Nevada products represent all of the retailer’s profits for the past year. But a 40 percent decline in sales volumes during the past three years demand a new direction.

“We got serious about what we could do to expand the business and what we were overlooking,” Smith says.

Sometimes that hard look at a business comes to the conclusion it is simply not working in its current business model.

Steve Conine launched Talent Framework, a Reno firm that provided human resources counseling to employers, in 2007.

“The Reno market, even in good times, didn’t support a lot of that,” says Conine.

This autumn, he decided to wrap up the consulting practice and convert Talent Framework into a medical-staffing business. He hired medical staffing veteran Lisa Kirkham to lead the new initiative.

“We see medical staffing as a huge opportunity,” Conine says, noting that expanded health coverage and increased numbers of aging baby boomers will boost the demand for medical professionals.

But the opportunity carries some risk – especially because Conine is walking away from three years of work with the previous incarnation of Talent Framework.

“We invested a tremendous amount of time, effort and money in the branding,” he says. “To leap out again is definitely gut-wrenching.”