October 2015 Cover Story: Leadership

The formula for lasting success

Kevin Richardson, president of North Country Farms, stands beside pallets of flour ready for shipment to Mannhatten. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business

Kevin Richardson, president of North Country Farms, stands beside pallets of flour ready for shipment to Mannhatten. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Leadership delivers results for three north country businesses where owners say Perseverance, patience and a willingness to take risks are keys

By Lorna Oppedisano, NNY Business

Success has no set recipe. There are some basic requirements; strong leadership, the ability to learn from mistakes and the willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone are just a few. But there’s no instruction sheet to direct the proportions of these qualities or the order in which they are to be combined.

Every success story is different. The north country has many to tell, and they all share one common thread: the leader or leaders understand the necessity of drive and hard work.

North Country Farms

Kevin K. Richardson wanted to make an impact on the north country. He earned a master’s degree in teaching from SUNY Potsdam, and took a job in the Watertown City School District at the age of 22. Things were on track and life was normal. Little did he know that soon he’d be approached with a new business venture that would eventually place him at the top of north country agribusiness.

When he was 27 years old, the founding members of North Country Farms presented Mr. Richardson with an opportunity to be president of the company. They aimed to make the fledgling organization into a primary food grower and supplier for the area.

“If I was going to take a risk, I was going to do it now,” Mr. Richardson said, thinking back to that moment in his life.

So with little knowledge of small business or agriculture, he jumped headfirst into the new North Country Farms, armed with an “old school” mill, as he calls it, and general manager F. Marshall Weir.

“The investor group thought that I would be a good fit with Kevin,” Mr. Weir, now marketing director at Jefferson County Economic Development, said. “All he had was his work ethic and a willingness to learn. I had more small business experience.”

The first few years were challenging, the duo explained. The milling process is automated now, thanks to a grant the business received in late 2009, but starting out, Mr. Richardson and Mr. Weir were limited to a manual machine. Both types of machines are stone mills, which, unlike metal mills, use a low-temperature process to turn the locally-sourced wheat from Ronald C. Robbins’ farm into flour. The end result is a high-nutrient, high-end product.

“So it’s kind of like an art,” Mr. Richardson explained.

Along with long hours and manual labor, North Country Farms was faced with the issue of finding a market. With the region’s limited number of bakeries, and the realization that breaking into local grocery chains would take some time, Mr. Richardson turned his attention to higher end markets.

One day, he packed some samples in his car and hit the road for New York City.

“I mapped out all the bakeries that I thought would use our stuff,” he said. “I made my way around Manhattan and handed out business cards.”

Taking that initiative paid off. Soon after he returned home, Mr. Richardson received an order for a pallet of flour — by far the largest order North Country Farms had ever seen — from Jim at Sullivan Street Bakery. He worked for 24 hours straight to meet the demand.

That was the tipping point for North Country Farms. The brand was out there and within a span of about a year, the number of accounts grew from about three or four in the north country to 35 to 40 within the state.
When the company received the funding that allowed for automated equipment, Mr. Richardson could in turn hire a third full-time worker, and he was freed to focus more on sales, which by Mr. Weir’s estimation is Mr. Richardson’s calling.

“Kevin is one of the finest sales people I’ve ever known,” Mr. Weir explained. “At that level of sales, they’re born and not made.”

It’s not just Mr. Richardson’s inborn skills that have driven North Country Farms to such success; it’s the passion for local food that he’s brought to the leadership role.

Once he saw the impact a company like North Country Farms could have on the local economy, he knew he was the right fit for the president position. During those first three or four years of establishing the brand and setting the groundwork for a successful startup, his passion and employees kept him going. Mr. Richardson stressed that he wouldn’t have made it this far if not for his coworkers.

“You need trust in your employees to get you to that point,” he said.
About 90 percent of North Country Farm’s sales are in done New York City, and in the future the brand might expand to other metropolitan markets, like Boston, Mr. Richardson said. Other possible growth includes adding more automated equipment to the mill itself, and aggregating more local products into the label.

Now, with about seven years of experience under his belt, Mr. Richardson’s advice to any aspiring business leaders is simple: be passionate, hold true to your values and don’t be afraid to take risks.

“You have to go for it,” he said. “You have to prove that your integrity’s there.”

Owners of Gram's Diner in Adams, from left, Chad L. Burdick, Andrew J. Beckstead, and Kyle R. Hayes. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Owners of Gram’s Diner in Adams, from left, Chad L. Burdick, Andrew J. Beckstead, and Kyle R. Hayes. Photo by Amanda Morrison, NNY Business.

Gram’s Diner

Success in business isn’t always built from the ground up. For Gram’s Diner owners Chad L. Burdick, Kyle R. Hayes and Andrew J. Beckstead, the foundation was already there. When the trio bought the establishment in 2013, they stripped it down to the bare bones to construct their vision.

Mr. Burdick and Mr. Hayes had worked at Gram’s Diner for 14 and 10 years, respectively, when the team bought the business from Mr. Burdick’s stepfather, Derek J. Butler. The two had pondered the idea of buying the restaurant, and Mr. Beckstead approached them about investing his money, time and 20 years of corporate business experience in his hometown of Adams, they knew it was time.

“I inquired what path they thought [Gram’s Diner] was on,” Mr. Beckstead said. “I see if something could be done with the business above and beyond what was currently being done.”

The three decided on a plan to purchase the establishment in November 2011, and spent the next year or so waiting for funding to be finalized and constructing a business plan. Sarah O’Connell, certified business advisor at SUNY Jefferson’s New York State Small Business Development Center, helped them through a lot of the finances; the trio secured a loan through M&T Bank, as well as gap funding through the North Country Alliance.

Meanwhile, they examined the existing business plan and discussed improvements. Mr. Burdick and Mr. Hayes were familiar with the day-to-day operations. They knew the customers, many of them by name, and could pinpoint what was and wasn’t working.

“We did write it all ourselves and it was all our own ideas and our own words,” Mr. Hayes explained. “It was easier to look at what’s currently going on and what gaps you can fill.”

The men agree that rebooting an existing business is in many ways easier than creating a startup. Buying Gram’s Diner gave them a platform off of which they could build, as well as money coming in from day one. The brand, as well as the new owners, was already known in Adams, too.

“Being in such a small community, a lot of times success in business is who you know,” Mr. Hayes said, adding that they joke that Mr. Burdick is known throughout the town as “Chad from Gram’s.”

Once the finances were settled and paperwork complete the men began putting their planned improvements into place. While they did have a long list in mind, they knew that pacing the changes was key.

Practically speaking, they knew that all their dreams couldn’t come true in one fell swoop. Not only was it not financially feasible, but they didn’t want to shock their clientele. With changes happening piece by piece, the customers’ interest was piqued with every noticeable difference, and in a sense, the community was more a part of the evolution.

“We had to keep our momentum,” Mr. Beckstead explained. “Rolling new things out, whether it’s a menu item or new piece of equipment, keeps us current and keeps our guests talking and spreading the word.”
He added that coming from a corporate background, he knows that no good decision is made overnight.

The first issues that the new owners addressed were those dealing with productivity and safety in the kitchen. Then they tackled problems that directly affected the clientele. By Mr. Hayes’ estimation, the team spent about $40,000 on new equipment in the first year. Since the transition, they’ve updated the facade to make the establishment stand out more, revamped the inside and made the menu more current.

One new customer favorite is Sunday brunch. The trio waited about 10 months before opening on Sundays, Mr. Beckstead said.

“It gave us an opportunity to learn and accomplishment a lot of things,” he explained, “as well as listening to our customers, what they wanted and what they expected to see, so we could please everybody.”

While the new owners have put in hours of hard work that’s paid off, the journey hasn’t been without its problems. Mr. Beckstead and Mr. Hayes agree that building a skilled kitchen staff who work well together toward the restaurant’s mission has, at times, been a struggle.

For Mr. Burdick, having spent more than a decade working at Gram’s Diner before purchasing the business put him in the position of transitioning from fellow employee to boss.

“It’s hard to be a boss to these people,” he said. “Once you work with people so long, you become a family.”

Perhaps the owners’ largest asset is their strength in numbers. With a team leading the effort, rather than just one boss, the perspective widens. Mrs. O’Connell from the SBDC said this was a key to their success she noticed while working with them.

“If they recognize where their strengths are and where their weaknesses are, and not meddle in each other’s areas, then that can really work better,” she said.

Mrs. O’Connell also said that the trio fit her idea of good business leaders: they’re not afraid of putting in the work.

Looking to the future, the team plans to continue to strategically make improvements step by step.

They’d like to tackle more renovations and possibly find a way to use the space they own on the second floor of the building.

“I really just want to keep the momentum of what we’re doing,” Mr. Beckstead said, “and stay on top of our game so we can explore doing more things down the road.”

Lisa Weber talks to an employee on the production floor Thursday. Photo by Justin Sorenson, NNY Business.

Lisa Weber talks to an employee on the production floor Thursday. Photo by Justin Sorenson, NNY Business.

Timeless Frames

Lisa A. Weber was born with manufacturing in her blood. Raised by parents who owned a manufacturing company, Mrs. Weber knew her destiny from a young age. At 7 years old, she spent time at her parents’ factory, proudly lending a hand to the finished products. After earning a Bachelor of Science in interpersonal communications from Hiram College, Hiram, Ohio, she worked a year of retail, but never lost the love for manufacturing.

Now she serves as CEO for three companies: Timeless Frames, Timeless Décor and Timeless Expressions.

“Although I’m a very focused person, I need new challenges all the time,” she said. “It really gives me the opportunity to stay challenged and stay on my toes.”

Mrs. Weber started her journey with the Timeless family when her company LCO Destiny — meaning “let’s create our destiny” — bought the inventory, equipment and customer lists of Timeless Frames from David H. Barclay in 1999. At the time, the business had been struggling; it had eight employees, limited production and annual sales of between $600,000 and $700,000.

The new CEO quickly turned things around. By May 2001, Timeless Frames had grown to employ 44 people and had annual sales of more than $2 million.

“I didn’t know anything about frames, but I knew about the marketing space,” she said, explaining that she had customers on board before finalizing the sale and knew with relative certainty that her venture would be successful.

Being a 34-year-old woman new to the game of business ownership, Mrs. Weber knew that some people might have doubts about her ability to succeed. But she had a concrete idea of her path and destination, and used those potential disadvantages to her benefit.

“You can be aggressive and know where you’re going when someone else is underestimating you,” she explained. “You can clear your path a lot faster.”

In 2005, the business expanded again with the creation of Timeless Décor, adding custom framing to the company’s repertoire. A Timeless Frames client wanted to provide custom framing to their customers, and asked Mrs. Weber if she had any ideas.

“I said, ‘Send all the art to a centralized place,’” she reminisced, “and they said, ‘Great. Do you want to do that for us?’”

And thus, Timeless Décor, which Mrs. Weber jokingly refers to as her baby, was born. Looking back at her career, she said that it was the most difficult challenge she’s overcome. Because the business model was completely different in concept from what Timeless Frames was already producing, Mrs. Weber had to build the business model from the ground up. She described the new process of custom framing as both an art and a science.

“The start up of the Timeless Décor custom framing facility was a lesson in perseverance,” director of marketing and Mrs. Weber’s right-hand woman during the project Angela M. Owen wrote in an email. She added that Mrs. Weber’s confidence in the team and business helped turn the vision for Timeless Décor into a reality. The company now produces about a quarter million pieces of custom framed art each year.

Mrs. Weber’s pride in her team wasn’t unique to this endeavor; the CEO’s relationship with hr employees is a driving force in the success of the Timeless family. She tries to know every employee’s story.

“It is still a small company,” she explained, “and in a sense, a part of the family.”

Between the three Timeless companies, Mrs. Weber employs 190 people, and is looking for another 20 as the holiday season approaches. The average turnover rate is 4.5 percent, lower than at local institution Samaritan Medical Center, she said. The average tenure of an employee is seven years.

Mrs. Owen, a Watertown native, considered moving out of the area to start her career after college. She chose to investigate options closer to home first, and found an opportunity at Timeless Frames.

“Eleven years later, the Timeless family of companies continues to offer me a rewarding and challenging career,” she wrote, “in an environment that is constantly evolving and growing.”

In 2009, Timeless Expression was incorporated into the business, adding custom digital services to Mrs. Weber’s companies’ offerings. The website is a platform through which customers can order photo albums, canvas art and photos on mugs, calendars and more, as well as share photos online.

Mrs. Weber’s companies are also active on social media, she said, explaining that it’s important to push the brand into that sphere.

“Especially when you look at the millennial generation,” she said. “They want to be able to connect with the brand.”

The company has some “smart, young people” leading the social media efforts, Mrs. Weber said, adding that it’s a part of the business the company learns more about every day.

Also new to appear on the horizon is work with the hospitality industry. The company is doing framing for hotels and restaurants such as Holiday Inn Express and Hilton Garden Inn. It’s added $1.5 million to this year’s sales, Mrs. Weber said. While she didn’t share this year’s projected revenue, she said she expects it to be higher than last year’s $25 million.

When Mrs. Weber isn’t working, she’s involved with the community, especially in those sectors that impact her team, like health care and education. Along with striving for the best overall well-being of her employees, she considers it a privilege to serve in such a tight-knit community, she said.

Her years as a local leader in business and community involvement have given Mrs. Weber insight. She said knowing when to take well-calculated, mitigated risks is important, and of course, getting to know employees and listening to their input is critical.

“Be honest, respectful and open,” she said. “You don’t have all the answers, so you do need to be open to other people’s ideas. And I think you can’t be afraid.”