20 Questions: Success from the Start

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY BUSINESS

Doreen Garrett started a gun-cleaning business in Lyons Falls at age 16. That business, Otis Technology, is now Lewis County’s largest private employer. She has since expanded her endeavors into the restaurant, distilling, outdoor recreational sports venue and events businesses. NNY Business recently sat down to sit down to talk with her about the path her career has taken and what the future holds.


NNYB: At the age of 16, you started Otis Technology, a gun-cleaning kit company that grew exponentially into what it is today. How did you come up with the idea to start such a company?

Garrett: Well, I fell in the snow and the mud hunting with my dad. I didn’t really plan on having a business. I wanted to be a patent attorney, actually, when I was younger. So I was intrigued with that. Entrepreneurism is in our blood; my dad and his family are all entrepreneurs. So I fell in the mud, went home; it was very disappointing. I had all sorts of stuff in my gun, had to clean it, there was nothing out in the field, so I went home. My grandfather was 10th Mountain Division in World War II, so they would go in the mountains and they would carry a little string with a weight on the end of it – I’ve done a lot of research; it’s called a plumb and I have a lot of them now, because everyone I meet says, “Oh, I have one of those, I’ll send it to you.” I have a little collection of World War II cleaning kits – so I put that in a shoe polishing tin and started carrying that when I went hunting, and my dad’s hunting buddy said, “Oh, that’s a novel idea.” My dad had a screw-machine business in Utica and he had a woman engineer, so I apprenticed under her that summer. I took drafting in 7th grade or something, and I came up with components that would mimic my grandfather’s idea. My dad made them, and I begged him to take me to a trade show. We went to the trade show and set the booth up; my mom was going to help me and my dad was going to look for work. It’s kind of a funny story now – that was 1985 – and I went to go back in to do the trade show and they were like, “Where do you think you’re going little lady?” “To my booth.” “How old are you?” “16.” And they said you have to be 18 to get into the show. So I turned to my mom and we went up into the hotel room. It was the 80s; the hair went higher and the heels went on and I walked back in and did my first trade show. It was just going to be market research, and two of the nation’s largest distributors at the time – Faber Brothers and Outdoor Sports – placed orders for 500 units each. So I went home, hired two friends from high school and started making gun-cleaning kits on my parents’ kitchen table, and that’s all she wrote. It’s been just a crazy ride.

NNYB: What did Otis Technology originally start as and how did it develop into the premiere brand in the sporting goods, military and law enforcement market, with sales soaring during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Garrett: I vowed on that hunting trip that I would make a product that wouldn’t fail in the field, so it was the highest quality. We listened to our customers – which was huge – went out and just talked to gunsmiths and different sales reps, just developed a very unique niche market. We started doing business with L.L. Bean over 25 years ago; we private-labeled for them. It was great teamwork; we still sell to them today. We’re really good friends, we’ve kind of grown with them. It was really good doing business with that level of company because it makes you get better. So we were ready for the military when they came to us. Some of the Marines were buying their kits from L.L. Bean, but they didn’t want a universal kit, they wanted a kit specific for the caliber. They didn’t want to buy more than they needed to. My dad was the face of the company for a long time, because a young girl trying to teach a general a new way to clean a gun didn’t go over very well. So you’ve kind of got to pick and choose where you go. But we developed kits for those different weapons, and then 2001 came around and we had gotten National Stock Numbers – actually, Congressman (John) McHugh helped me get my first stock number – and then it just rolled. It’s just making a high quality product, and when someone’s life depends on it working, the value proposition is huge.

NNYB: As such a young entrepreneur, who helped you navigate starting the business?

Garrett: I think people get put into your life at certain times and you just need to realize that they’re there, because they’re the next part of that journey to help you. So I’ve always surrounded myself with talent, and people that can do the job better than I can. My family, bar none, has been the biggest blessing. If it wasn’t for my mom and dad or my three siblings running the company… we all did our own little niche in the company: my brother engineering; my other brother manufacturing; I did the CFO/CEO function; and my sister was in sales. We were all in and still are all in. We don’t work there day-to-day, on a daily basis, but we can stay out and think strategically now, which is nice.

NNYB: What resources did you utilize to help understand the business’s development? 

Garrett: The Small Business (Development) Center, the (Lewis County Industrial Development Agency) helped; I got microloans, I got loans from the Lewis County IDA. Jefferson National Bank was my first big loan; that’s a whole other story. I’ve been through a lot of hard lessons I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through. I think that’s why I really like doing a lot of entrepreneurial speaking, or why I won’t turn down an interview. Because I think even if just one person reads it and gets something out of it, it was worth it, because there’s so many things I learned the hard way that I don’t want other people to have to go through if they don’t have to. I really try to share that knowledge.

NNYB: What hurdles did you face as a young woman entering the world of business, specifically the gun-cleaning business?

Garrett: Well, being young in a male-dominated industry. But it is refreshing, over the 30 years growing up in the industry, to see how many women CEO and presidents of companies there are now. Before, when I would do a trade show, they would have like a Playboy centerfold in the booth and it’s hard to be a young woman and go and try to be professional when that’s happening in the booth next door. So, that has all changed. I always said, “Oh, when I turn 30 they’ll take me seriously,” and then when I turned 30, “Oh, when I turn 40…” because I had the type of parents that “can’t” wasn’t in our vocabulary and I think when people said I couldn’t do something, that was just more fuel for the fire to say, “Well, watch me.”

NNYB: In 2014, you decided to step down as CEO of the company. What brought you to that decision?

Garrett: It was a five-year transition. The family knew that we were all going to transition out and we put bench strength in place to do that. My CFO actually stepped up into the CEO seat, and I’m chair of the board now. So it was kind of like a promotion; I don’t call it stepping down, I call it stepping up.

NNYB: What role do you play in the company now?

Garrett: I chair the board. We do our quarterly board meetings, we set strategy. I sit in on a weekly WebEx conference call with all my senior managers just to kind of keep the feel. I still get cc’ed on every customer comment, which is important to me because I can see what’s happening in the company by it, and we can react faster from the top down if I see something, or I see repetition of something happening. I think it’s important because, as owner of the company, it’s good to be a present owner; I think the employees respect you more. I try to go to the company meetings once a month. I didn’t even know if I could (step away), to tell you the truth, because it was like my first child, 33 years of working every day for something. It actually happened faster than I thought it would, because I thought it would be a year transition, but it ended up being three months.

NNYB: Since stepping down as CEO of Otis Technology, you’ve seen success in other entrepreneurial endeavors, such as Lucky Star Ranch. How did Lucky Star Ranch get its start?

Garrett: My siblings and I bought it 12 years ago, in 2006. We bought it because we were concerned that eventually, if we were like Europe and you had to own your own land to hunt, we wanted to secure that for our children’s children. My husband actually grew up on Lucky Star Ranch; his grandfather stocked the lakes for the original owner and was the caretaker. So I wanted to go see it just because I wanted to see where he grew up and we ended up striking a deal with the owner. It’s a beautiful property; it’s hard to leave there to go anywhere. It’s like a little hidden gem in Clayton. We love it.

NNYB: What is offered in terms of sporting activities, recreation and events?

Garrett: We do a lot of – like right now – ice fishing. We do sell hunts. We have regular fishing. We have turned it into a wedding venue, which is nice; it’s intimate, it’s just a unique property tucked away. We have a Promatic sporting clays range there and a firing range. I try to shoot there every Sunday, but you know how that goes. If you don’t set the time aside, you never get to it. But we really enjoy the property. For us, it was: What do we do to try to maintain and sustain it to try to give it to the children? So it was about looking for something and it wasn’t going to be selling hunts. We looked into a winery and actually went to Cornell (University) to their course and on that tour we ran upon someone making gin in the Finger Lakes and we said, “Well, how long does it take to make gin?” And he said, “Three hours. I can’t even keep it up in the retail shop.” And the light bulb went on. So, Jody and I went to Moonshine University and then Jody’s son, Bill, our distiller, he went there, too. We grow our own corn, we pick our own juniper over there for the botanicals, we’re doing the greenhouses, really trying to find something to sustain that property long-term.

NNYB: How does that play a role in your other businesses, such as St. Lawrence Spirits and St. Lawrence Spirits Chateau?

Garrett: They’re all kind of connected, but they’re not really connected. They all have to be separate businesses for the licenses that we have. I would have liked to have done it all under the ranch, but we had to break the companies up. So we know we can grow the things for farm-to-table, we have a still-to-grow concept because we’re feeding the mash to our deer and hopefully to cattle, soon to come. This fall, Jody wants to have a cattle run from one property to the other. So it’s nice to see our spent mash doesn’t become wasted; it becomes part of the cycle and it’s sustainable, just like taking the water from the river to proof down all of our spirits. One of the big draws to this property (the Chateau) is having the river as a water source.

NNYB: St. Lawrence Spirits uses special ingredients, such as locally produced ingredients and water from the St. Lawrence River. Why is it important to you to utilize those local resources?

Garrett: As a New York state farm-based distillery, 75 percent of our product has to come from New York. If we can get it from our county, or grow it ourselves, even better. Our terroir gin is all from the ranch and local; that’s why it’s named Penet Square. It puts a mark on exactly where it’s coming from. The river water is phenomenal because it has so much lime in it from limestone. Even in Louisville, on the different bourbon trails, they’re all on the water source and add lime and just make really good spirits. That’s part of it. We cook down with it, put it through reverse osmosis and proof down all the spirits with it. That’s why our tagline is “Spirit of the River in Every Bottle.”

NNYB: Following St. Lawrence Spirits, you were presented with an opportunity to work with local chef Christian Ives to create a fine-dining experience unlike any other in Northern New York. How did you find yourself in the restaurant business?

Garrett: Well, we were in the restaurant business, and we sold the Tilted Kilt – the building – and got out of that. I just saw this property and said, “How do you do an exceptional experience for the people that are coming to Clayton, and do something unique and different, and incorporate it with the distillery?” It’s all about educating and making it an experience. I had a vision, and then met with Chef (Ives) and talked with him for a couple hours, and we were on the same page with the vision. It’s just been an incredible first year; it’ll be a year at the end of April. It all came together. Like I said, I think people get put in your life at certain times and you have to understand that it’s for a reason.

NNYB: It seems like you’re following your passions and interests and you’ve been able to incorporate those into your career. Is the restaurant business something you’ve always been interested in?

Garrett: I like fine dining. It’s about setting a bar and exceeding it. We are on the craft beverage trail up here and we’re the only one with food, so I think it’s a nice incorporation. We’re looking forward to this season to see what it brings. We’ve extended our wine menu and I’m looking forward to opening up the boutique hotel.

NNYB: What have you learned from being in the restaurant business? It’s different from Otis Technology or the ranch. What have you learned specifically from the restaurant business?

Garrett: They’re all a little bit different, but business is business: balance sheets, income statements and managing your costs. I think it’s different because you get a lot of different personalities working together, which makes it interesting. But I think if you understand that you are customer-focused, and that the customer is the top priority, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in, as long as you’re taking care of your customer.

NNYB: The Chateau is not only a place for a unique fine-dining experience, but it also allows guests to feel as though they are a member, including such exclusive amenities as private liquor lockers. You are also offering guests an opportunity to stay in a historical landmark along the St. Lawrence River. How are you doing this?

Garrett: We wanted to repurpose the property and we have these beautiful six rooms. My vision, though, is for people to step back in time. As you can see, there’s no TVs in here, no phones; it’s why I like going to Africa so much, because you need that break from technology and just to kind of set things aside. I mean, we have the WiFi, so people can get on their iPad or phone. But I think it’s about having a property that, with that kind of view, why would you want to watch TV? Just use it in the way it was built back in 1937.

NNYB: Where do you see all of your endeavors continuing on throughout your legacy?

Garrett: I think I learned through Otis that it can exist without you there on a day-to-day basis if you have good talent, if you put the right people in place. It’s a scary frontier, but I think it’s about growing it and handing it off, even growing and creating jobs in a business. You’re like, “How are we ever going to have that many employees?” And then that one job becomes five jobs, because as the company grows it just expands exponentially; I never thought I would have 200 employees at Otis and here we are today.

NNYB: As you look back on your career, starting so young and seeing such success so early, would you have changed anything?

Garrett: I get asked this question a lot, and I’ve pondered it often. There’s a lot of things I wouldn’t have wanted to go through, but I wouldn’t change a thing. Because I think all those – I call it “fail forward” – all those failures are really successes because it makes you the businessperson you are today. If you didn’t have those hard times, first of all, you wouldn’t know when you’re having a good day, and it just makes you the person you are. Has it not always been fun? Yeah, but to go back, I think you’d make the same decisions; the path would be the same.

NNYB: Do you feel as though you missed any opportunities as a teen jumping right into business?

Garrett: Fortunately, for me, my parents didn’t want me to miss out. I did go away to school, to college, for a year; I drove home every weekend to sign checks and make gun-cleaning kits. I’m going to say, “No.” I think I was just very mature for my age, not because I wanted to be, but because I had to be. I mean, I was always trying to get into senior classes: “You don’t understand, I have a business. I need Finance 411. I know it’s my first year, but…” I think they thought I was a nerd in pre-law, because I was in litigation, and I’m reading the law book and I’m like, “I’ve got the book done and I’ve got questions.”  They’re like, “She’s weird,” and I’m like “You don’t understand. I’m living this right now.” So I think it was a different perspective when I was in those classes, because it wasn’t just reading a book, it was very hands-on. I was just, “I need this right now. Do you have a course on pricing and costing?” They’re like, “No.” I’m like, “Great. What am I here at business school for?” Sales people helped me with that, pricing and margins. So you learn. You learn a lot of stuff the hard way. There’s a lot of people out there that have really helped grow the company. Over the last 33 years, hundreds. They just come in your path.

NNYB: What would be a key piece of advice for a young woman looking to start her career as an entrepreneur?

Garrett: Don’t give up on your dream. I think it’s important for me to do entrepreneurial speaking because I can tell them my story: “If I can do that, you know you can do that.” I never know who I’m impacting when I speak. I remember at Otis – this was maybe five, ten years ago – I got a letter in the mail. I was holding it up and it was a letter from a young girl who heard me speak; I think she was at (Jefferson Community College) at the time. She went out and started a greenhouse or a florist and she wrote, “I did it because of your story, because you gave me that courage that I could do it.” So it’s those little mementoes you get – it could be years down the way – that make it all worth it, just to give someone that ambition. There’s no such thing as “I can’t.” And I always tell kids, “There’s a hundred different ways to get to a goal and it might not be a straight line. It could be a five-year goal, it might take you 20 years, but it’s important to have the goals. Because if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there.” 

~Interview conducted by Holly Boname. Edited for clarity and length to fit this space.