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Aaron and Michelle Dykstra - Six-Eleven Bicycle Co.
Aaron and Michelle Dykstra have translated Aaron's love of bicycles into Roanoke-based Six-Eleven Bicycle Co, which has gathered national attention to the point that its waiting list for a new bike is about one year.
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Six-Eleven Bicycle Co.
Aaron Dykstra brazes a bottom bracket to a new frame.
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Six-Eleven Bicycle Co.
Well-worn files are part of the tools of the trade at Six-Eleven.
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Six-Eleven Bicycle Co.
The Dykstras' workspace is located at 601 Campbell Ave. in Downtown Roanoke
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Paula and Russ Amrhein (he oversees the vineyard), their son Chad Amrhein (he oversees the retail business) and his wife Beckie Spaid, director of marketing.
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Jimmy Oyler and Carroll Hale
Jimmy Oyler and Carroll Hale of Green Earth Naturally: The business has carried on after the death of founder Deborah Oyler.
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Johnathan Hagmaier - Interactive Achievement
Johnathan Hagmaier is president of Interactive Achievement.
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The interior of IA's Campbell Avenue offices has undergone remodeling.
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Shannon Thompson, history content specialist, uses headphones to block out noises at the IA open concept offices.
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Wilderness Adventure - Gene Nervo
Gene Nervo is the founder of Wilderness Adventure.
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Wilderness Adventure I
Good equipment is key at Wilderness Adventure.
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Wilderness Adventure Dining Hall
The dining hall at Wilderness Adventure has a rustic feel.
These five Roanoke-area businesses are blossoming even in the midst of a downturned economy. And while they vary greatly in size and scope, they share a common drive toward success.
Six-Eleven Bicycle Co.
Type of Business: handmade bicycles
Number of Employees: 2
Why It’s On the List: So popular their waiting list for a custom bicycle is more than a year; recent inclusion on Wired.com as one of 12 handmade bicycle owners singled out from the North American Handmade Bicycle Show; full-page image of a bike in June/July issue of Garden & Gun magazine
When Aaron Dykstra decided to go into business making handmade bicycles, he didn’t mess around.
Dykstra flew to Colorado and spent a month learning from the storied bicycle frame builder Koichi Yamaguchi.
“He teaches people for a month at a time out of a shed in his backyard,” Dykstra says of Yamaguchi. “His English isn’t great. It’s very ‘Karate Kid.’”
Dykstra developed an obsession with road and mountain bike racing in his early teens. He got a job at a now defunct Roanoke bike shop. Dykstra left the Star City at 17 to join the Air Force where he worked as a mechanic.
Dykstra later worked at a New York City bike shop and as a cycling advocate. He ended up in Chicago where he worked organizing Bike the Drive, an annual ride of over 20,000 participants. It may sound like a dream job for a cyclist, but the job left Dykstra burnt out. “When you have one event that you work the whole year then after that’s over it’s hard to start thinking about the following year,” he says.
As far back as his days in the Air Force, Dykstra had fantasized about designing his own bicycle frames. And so, in 2009 Dykstra and his wife Michelle returned to Roanoke’s better cost-of-living and bought a house in the Grandin Village – a house the Dykstras picked because its basement made a perfect bicycle shop. A week after closing on the house, Dykstra left to study framebuilding in Colorado.
“He would just kind of hole himself up there for 10 hours at a time,” Michelle recalls of her husband’s early days of toiling on bikes in the basement. “I’d come home from work and he’d be covered in dust and that’s how the business started.”
The Dykstras named their business after the 611 J Class steam locomotive, built by the Norfolk and Western Railway’s East End Shops in Roanoke.
“The story has done a lot for our brand,” says Michelle Dykstra. “We get people from all over who are not only cycling fans but rail fans.”
The Dykstras were lucky. Unlike a lot of small business owners, they didn’t have exorbitant startup costs.
“We had some money saved up and we bought just the bare minimum,” Aaron Dykstra says of his modest beginnings. “That’s one of the benefits to handbuilding, it’s all hand tools.”
Dykstra did a lot with those tools. In 2010, he took a chance and attended the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond. “I was kind of terrified showing alongside some of my bicycle heroes.”
The trip paid off. Dykstra won the Rookie of the Year prize. “That helped me get my name out there a little bit,” he says.
The next year, Dykstra won Best Track Frame at the Handmade Bicycle Show and this year he took home the award for Best Cyclocross Bike.
“We hadn’t done any advertising in the four years we’ve been in business,” Dykstra says. “It’s all word of mouth and having people out on the bikes.”
The company ships bicycles out all over the world. In addition to serious cyclers and handmade bicycle enthusiasts, Six-Eleven Bicycle caters to people too tall or too short to get an ordinary bike to fit.
Six-Eleven bicycles start at about $2,000.
Business has been so good Michelle Dykstra quit her marketing job in September to work for Six-Eleven full time. They took out a business loan to order some machinery to speed production.
“As I grow the business, tools become more and more important in that they speed up a lot of the processes and make it a lot more viable to make a living doing it,” Dykstra says.
Dykstra struggles with every artist’s dilemma: How do you balance creativity with commerce?
“I can find myself spending way too much time on one little detail wanting to make it perfect,” he says.
Michelle Dkystra doesn’t hesitate to remind her spouse he can’t agonize quite so much if they’re ever going to see a profit.
That’s not the only way the couple helps each other. Aaron lives in fear that Six-Eleven will never get another order. Michelle tends to worry that they won’t be able to fill orders fast enough to make enough money to live.
“She can reassure me we’re going to sell enough bikes,” he says. “I can reassure her we’re going to make enough bikes.”
Type of business: Student Assessment Software for Standardized Tests
Number of employees: 42
Why it’s on the list: Named Virginia’s 2012 Small Business of the Year
If you ask area economic development gurus to name an exciting Roanoke Valley small business, they’ll automatically gush about Interactive Achievement before you’ve even finished with the question.
“They had an idea that caught fire,” raves Beth Doughty, head of the Roanoke Regional Partnership.
That idea is educational software that helps teachers track what their students need to focus on in order to ace the Standards of Learning tests. Jonathan Hagmaier, a former teacher and principal, Mary Hagmaier, a real estate agent, and Matthew Muller, a software programmer, founded the company in 2006.
Jonathan Hagmaier feels certain his product could help students all across the country, but he’s careful about his expansion plans.
“We’ve got so many great ideas, but you have to remind yourself, ‘Here are our resources and here is where we can go.’”
Over four years, Interactive Achievement went from having four employees to 42. Hagmaier will tell you that kind of growth takes meticulous planning. The company leadership sat down and figured out what the business would look like with 60 employees, organized in teams and supervised by managers, at a time when they had 20 or so workers.
“We put it into place,” Hagamier says. “Then we fixed all the stupid things we did and built upon the successes.”
Currently, Interactive Achievement software is used by students in 85 school districts, mostly in Virginia with one district in South Carolina. Interactive Achievement also has pilot programs in other South Carolina districts and in Tennessee. Hagamier doesn’t want to expand so quickly that content suffers.
“Algebra is not the same in South Carolina and Virginia,” he explains. “They have different focuses.”
Like a lot of technology companies, Interactive Achievement has a young workforce. Hagamier figures the average age is 35. About half of the employees have an education background.
Those workers have a cool place to spend their 9 to 5 hours. Interactive Achievement is housed in a former Harley Davidson dealership near the Jefferson Center. It’s a space that’s industrial, edgy and cool.
Interactive Achievement comes off as a fairly egalitarian work place. “Even as CEO of this company, I take the trash out,” Hagamier says.
That philosophy, he’ll tell you, is a big part of his success story.
“My father has taught me two things,” Hagamier says. “Show up to work 15 minutes early every day and never say, ‘It’s not my job.’”
Type of business: Retail: jewelry, wine, bridal gowns and formal wear
Number of employees: 15 full time with a scattering of part-time workers.
Why It’s on the List: Won the Legacy Award at the 2011 Small Business Awards and the company has been around for nearly a century
Last year AmRhein’s celebrated its 90th birthday – complete with punch and cake and a contest where customers excitedly waited for 90 ice cubes to melt, each hoping he or she had the one with a diamond inside.
The family-owned small business got quite the birthday present in 2011 too: While much of the country continued to slog out of the recessionary pit, AmRhein’s raked in profits in 2011 that were double digits over the year before, according to marketing director Rebecca Spaid.
AmRhein’s, which sells fine jewelry, bridal gowns and formal wear and a line of locally made wines, suffered its worst year in 2008. But even then, according to Spaid, profits remained flat from the year before – and that sure beats falling profits.
Spaid has several theories on why AmRhein’s didn’t face the same level of setbacks as some small businesses.
For one thing: when you find the person you want to spend forever with, you don’t want to put forever off for a more economically fruitful time. “Little girls who grow up with a dream wedding in mind aren’t going to sacrifice that,” Spaid says.
Then there’s a matter of experience. The Amrhein family has had a chance to study what works and what doesn’t in the years since Fred Amrhein opened his jewelry store in Downtown Roanoke in 1921.
Then there’s the fact that the family never became so hung up on tradition that they felt paralyzed to change. The jewelry store has moved locations several times, eventually ending up with a store in Salem and another near Tanglewood Mall in Roanoke County. The Amrhein family began selling bridal and formal gowns as well as tuxes in addition to jewelry in the early 1990s. By the end of the decade, the business began bottling wines from locally grown grapes.
Venturing into agriculture sounds like a big change.
As far as Spaid is concerned, though, the new business made a perfect fit for a brand associated with celebratory occasions. Roanokers can go to AmRhein’s for an engagement ring, a sparkly prom gown or a bottle of Late Harvest Vidal Blanc to use to, say, toast a new job. “You’re coming to AmRhein’s for a happy time,” Spaid says.
Today, the family also uses their Bent Mountain winery as a venue for weddings and other big events.
AmRhein’s often makes recommendations to the brides and grooms it serves about other area wedding professionals like florists and bakers. The hope, Spaid explains, is that these businesses return the favor.
“Brides don’t necessarily follow the same order of what they do when,” Spaid says. “They might see a florist before they come to a store for a dress.”
That florist then could advise the bride to get down to AmRhein’s to shop.
This might be AmRhein’s biggest lesson to other small business owners that want their company to still be trucking 90 years from now. Success, Spaid maintains, is all about building relationships, whether that means her connecting with area wedding photographers or one of their salespeople taking time to wait on the high school senior who wants to buy his girlfriend a silver charm. AmRhein’s may not make a big profit on the boy that day, but if he’s impressed by the customer service he might come back in a decade as a man when it’s time to purchase an engagement ring.
“You build loyalty,” Spaid says. “They come to you as that trusted person to help them.”
Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing
Type of Business: Adventure Tourism
Number of Employees: Between 23 and 28, depending on the season
Why It’s On the List: Named one of Outside magazine’s Top Places to Work in 2010 and 2011
Gene Nervo is slowly turning Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing (WAEL) over to the next generation.
“I’m the executive director, which means I don’t have to do anything,” says Nervo, age 72.
Nervo – who spent 33 years in the marines and is affectionately called Colonel by much of his staff – bought the nearly 500-acre property in Craig County in 1990 as a place to host backpacking camps for children. Kids still come to WAEL every summer.
“A child doesn’t have to bring one item of camping equipment,” Nervo says, while providing a tour of one of his vast equipment storage areas that are as meticulously organized as one would expect from a former Marine. “We provide back packs, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping bag liners, water bottles and a scrumptious collection of dehydrated food.”
About five years ago, Nervo found the number of kids signing up for outdoors camps – both at WAEL and at similar facilities across the country – to be way down. Nervo matter-of-factly credits the Internet, video games and television for the fact that fewer children want to spend their summers where the wild things are.
The staff at WAEL knew they couldn’t keep the facility open if they didn’t change their business plan quick.
They began pitching the facility to groups like churches and schools. They now allow locals to come in for the afternoon to go zip-lining or tubing. They rent the place out to Canadian bicycle enthusiasts once a year. They host weddings and put on wine tastings. “Anything you want to do, we’ll set it up,” says Julia Boas, group programming director.
WAEL usually has two groups staying at the retreat center at any one time. Boas frequently turns groups away. “Our biggest problem is we don’t have the space,” says Nervo.
WAEL plans to break ground on a new conference center this summer. Nervo eagerly takes guests out to the site of the new building and explains that he’s picked the spot he has because he didn’t want to cut down a nearby scraggly bush – one of many, many bushes on the Colonel’s picturesque acres.
Nervo credits the number of guests who return year after year to WAEL with the popularity of the staff. Each group who visits the facility gets assigned a staff member as a host. “That host takes cares of them the whole time they’re here,” Nervo explains.
Each staff member goes through a 14-day orientation – where customer service is a big part of the training. If a visitor complains that the toilet paper is too rough, that staff member better not roll her eyes.
“Go down to IGA and buy softer toilet paper,” Nervo tells them.
Take those Canadian bikers. Recently, the staff learned that many of them harbored a hatred of mayonnaise. So, the kitchen workers came up with a recipe for potato salad that didn’t use the loathed ingredient.
During the early years of WAEL, Nervo says he picked staffers who had impressive outdoors resumes. Not anymore.
“Now we hire our staff based on their personalities," Nervo says.
Green Earth Naturally
Type of Business: Research and development of scientific solutions to problems involving waste remediation, petroleum fuel combustion and agriculture.
Number of Employees: 9
Why It’s On the List: Big ideas
It’s hard to describe Green Earth Naturally in a couple of sentences.
Located in Northeast Roanoke, Green Earth Naturally serves as the parent company to three smaller divisions: EarthNet, EarthCleanz, and Clean Air Technologies.
Homeowners with leaking heating oil tanks call EarthNet and the company’s workers remove the tanks, clean up the oil and install a new one at no cost, thanks to a Virginia cleanup fund. That company also has a branch in Fredricksburg.
“The homeowner doesn’t pay us directly, we get paid by the Commonwealth of Virginia from taxes collected each time somebody purchases fuel,” says E. Carroll Hale III, vice president and director of research and development for Green Earth Naturally.
EarthCleanz creates products involving animal health, controlling bad smells on animal farms, waste composting, and bioremediation, a process that uses bacteria to clean up environmental contamination. Clean Air Technologies has a single product called OptiDiesel, a fuel additive designed to improve engine efficiency and reduce emissions.
“A fuel additive isn’t a terribly green product,” Hale admits. “But the net effect is very green because it drops the amount of energy to get the fuel to burn. It’s essentially improving fuel efficiency, while it’s reducing emissions.”
Hale feels confident OptiDiesel and other products will be successful.
When asked where he sees the company five years in the future, Hale says he believes the company will continue to grow and that the employees will share in that growth. “We’re just going to ride this thing and see what happens,” he says.
Although Hale believes Green Earth Naturally is about to hit the big time, he figures most Roanokers have never heard of it. “Unless you’ve got a leaking fuel tank.”
Hale hasn’t always been this optimistic about the company.
The company’s president and founder microbiologist Deborah Oyler died suddenly while on business in England over a year ago and her nephew Jimmy Oyler and his sister Tracie inherited the company.
“It was nine kinds of hell basically,” says Hale. “The death of our founder put a lot of things in limbo, and we had to reorganize quickly to keep moving forward.”
It helped, according to Hale, that Jimmy Oyler had already been working at the company and had a lot of experience with remediation. “The reorganization was nowhere near as traumatic as it could have been,” Hale says.
Since Oyler’s death, the company renewed its focus on a core group of products that the Green Earth Naturally executives felt had the greatest immediate potential. The company’s leaders also cut back on personnel and very carefully monitor cash flow.
“We’re a lot stronger company now than we were before,” Hale says.