All in the—Social and Serial Entrepreneurial—Family: Alicia and Travis Pence

Our last guest speakerS of the semester were the extremely busy and driven entrepreneurial family of Alicia and Travis Pence.

Alicia is a December 2010—but officially a 2011—graduate of Monmouth College with a Major in Psychology. She is the founder and former executive director of the Family Outreach Community Center in nearby Stronghurst, IL. See her company’s webpage at: She was our only social entrepreneur of the semester; meaning that her firm’s goals are stated not in terms of sales and profits but in terms of somehow helping others (e.g., decreasing food insecurity and helping the disadvantaged learn life skills that they can use to better themselves and their families and communities).

Travis has recently become somewhat of a serial entrepreneur; having evolved over the last couple of years from running his graphic design company–Lightning Designs in Biggsville, IL—to now focusing more intently on the business he has always wanted to run; Stronghurst Collison & Refinish. Both of Travis’ businesses can be found on Facebook.

Two entrepreneurs warrant two bloggers… So I now turn things over to Tia Robertson—blogging on Alicia’s entrepreneurial story—and Octavio Rodriguez (who focuses on Travis’ expanding array of entrepreneurial activities).

Prof. Gabel


Alicia Pence

Alicia Pence, a former student here at Monmouth College, spoke to the class last Tuesday about her work in “social entrepreneurship.” “Social entrepreneurship” was something I had never heard of but soon learned that it involves making life better for other people. Right away, it was easy to see that Alicia loved her job as well as genuinely cares about the well-being of the people in her community. It all made sense once she mentioned her background in psychology as well as her core Christian values.

Alicia is the owner of Family Outreach Community Center (FOCC) in Stronghurst, Illinois which she started while she was still a senior here at MC. During school she worked various jobs and internships that have made a huge impact on her work now. The most notable being her work with a local church and the Jamison Center Community Center ( While working for a youth group at her church, Alicia noticed that the basic needs of many of the children coming through the doors were not being met. She mentioned that kids would come with tattered clothes and empty stomachs many times. This jumpstarted her passion and led her to take three steps that led her to being a “social entrepreneur” focused on helping those in need. She described the three-step process as follows.

  1. Write it down on paper: She mentioned that she and her friend weren’t sure how they would go about fixing the problems they saw around them but the first step in making something happen was to write out their ideas for a center, the services they would offer, and funding.
  2. Research: Any great idea needs research to back it up. This is exactly what Alicia and her partner did. They dug deeper into problem and researched ways to solve it; as well as whether or not there was truly a need for this type of service in their community. After her research she learned that Henderson County was not funded by a lot of the local grants or United Way making it hard to support the community and keep up with basic needs. After looking into what she would need to open up her own community center she realized that this truly was an achievable goal which led her into her next step.
  3. Paperwork: In order to open the center there were a variety of forms that needed to be filled out first. Many of them were available on the internet and after some time—and lots and lots of paperwork—she was ready to go!

The FOCC is a not-for-profit organization that offers a variety of services to the public. The FOCC is also not government-funded, which makes it a lot more flexible and easy to run. It offers a food pantry, clothing closet, mock interviews, and resume assistance to the public. Because they are not government funded there is a board of directors who oversee the operations of the Center. Local churches and members of the community also donate as well.

Alicia has an obvious passion for people and specifically the small community she is an integral part of. She believes in not only helping people once but continuing to “walk along side” them and making life better for them now and forever. She truly is a diamond in the rough who I was very excited to hear about because I am also passionate about this topic and can see myself being a part of an organization like this when I graduate. This class has made a huge impact on me specifically because of entrepreneurs like Alicia and many more that we have seen who truly care about the people they work with.

Tia Robertson

Travis Pence

The Pences run two completely different businesses which, as we learned, sometimes makes it difficult for them to see much of each other. As a result of this hectic dual entrepreneurial lifestyle, Travis’s wife, Alicia, has to ask him to come home every night for dinner or Travis would stay at his business. This just shows the passion this man has and the drive he has in order to be successful.

Travis is from a small town in Illinois named Biggsville. He has lived here for most of his life and values the small community lifestyle. He went to a community college for two years and started working at local auto repair shops in Galesburg. This allowed him to gather the hands-on experience that eventually gave him the opportunity to recently start realizing his dream of owning his own repair shop.

In 2012, Travis started a graphic design company named “Lighting Designs” in Biggsville, IL. At first they only had a small 24-inch printer and did jobs for local businesses. With the company receiving more and more demand they increased to a bigger printer in order to become more efficient. Travis did not only create the designs, but was involved in every step of the business operation. He installed the signs, answered any questions the consumers had about the projects, and created strong bonds with each and every customer. By running his business this way he was able to create brand loyalty with his consumers and stand out from any competitors. He was also located in a small town which helped with the brand image as well. Travis went on another entrepreneurial journey during this time as well.

Travis Pence is an entrepreneur who was able to capitalize on buying an existing business with an established customer base. He was able to buy his own repair shop in Biggsville, IL. This location is only a couple blocks away from his house, so it was a perfect buy convenience wise. However, this deal did not take place immediately. He asked the owners if they were willing to sell the building and the owners could not decide at the moment. They told Travis that they would let him know. This process took over a year. Instead of waiting around for the decision Travis—the hard worker he is—worked at a steel factory for the whole year. This was an experience that gave him extra assurance that he did not want to work for someone else. It allowed him to see that owning his own business was the only way for him.

After about a year the owners and Travis finally came to an agreement on August 1, 2016. He bought out not only the building but all of the equipment they had as well. He relied upon a local bank at which he had personal connections in order to fund this purchase. He was also able to keep the same phone number, which was crucial in keeping existing customers. Travis changed the name of the repair shop to “Stronghurst Collison & Refinish.” Their main job is to fix cars that have been in an incident and need repair. They work with the insurance company of the consumer in order to be paid. They send out an estimate to the insurance company and essentially the insurance company pays him the amount.

I know this may sound like an easy process but that is the complete opposite of what it is. Travis says he had this whole plan in his mind for about ten years. He knew his plan straight out of college was to buy the existing repair shop in his town. In less than a year and half he was able to do this and that is why I respect him heavily as an entrepreneur.

At the moment he is doing well with his family and his business. He is even doing a job right now that he estimates at $11,000. This just shows that he is seen as trustworthy in his community and is more on the expensive side, however you know the job will be done right at Stronghurst Collison & Refinish. Travis Pence was able to grow his brand name in the community and stick to a target market that will allow him to excel. He was able to handle his life situations in an intelligent way by planning years ahead.

Octavio Rodriguez

The Improbable Entrepreneurial Success Story of Rod Smith

Our “guest speaker” in class last Thursday told an entrepreneurial story that probably seems “highly improbable” at best to most hearing it for the first time.

Half a million dollars in sales of used racing car parts on E-Bay each year? Shipped from here in Monmouth to buyers all over the world? Nearly 7,000 items for sale at any time? Feedback of over 25,000 with 100% satisfaction? Thirty-to-fifty percent profit margins on sales? NO WAY!

YES… I assure you it is all very true…

It is the amazing entrepreneurial story of former Monmouth College “Green Army”—building and grounds crew—supervisor Rod Smith (E-Bay username: a-1performancewarehouse) whose success, it can be said, led him to not be able to be physically present in the class this year. You see, Rod’s extraordinary success has enabled him to live out a dream and buy a home near Daytona Beach, FL where he spends roughly four months of the year; playing lots of golf, going to races, etc. We were, however, able to both share his story second-hand and to have him answer questions via speaker phone. This amazing, improbable entrepreneurial story is told below by class blogger Madeline Poole. Enjoy (and be inspired)!

Prof. Gabel


Guest Speaker Rod Smith was unfortunately unable to make it to class this year for his annual talk about his business. Students were informed of Mr. Smith’s business by Professors Gabel and Connell; followed up by a speaker-phone call to Mr. Smith to ask further questions.

Mr. Smith is the owner and operator of a-1 Performance Warehouse, which he has grown with the help of his wife, other family members, and interns the last several years. He buys and sells high quality used NASCAR racing car parts. He travels to North Carolina to buy those auto parts every 4 months directly from NASCAR drivers and crew chiefs and then he sells the parts through eBay to people from all over the world. He even hires people to sometimes pick up the auto parts for him.

Before Mr. Smith was a successful entrepreneur, he had to build his way up to live the life he wanted as an entrepreneur. He worked at Monmouth College, starting off as a janitor, then moved his way up as he became a maintenance mechanic, which is a part of the tradesmen. Then after a while he had an opportunity to be the custodial and grounds manager. After work almost every day as a hobby he would build and race cars on a small scale. He became very good at racing and he would win money for it. Shortly after, he started selling auto parts and found that he was good at it. So he continued to do that for a short time while still working at the college, then later as full time. He met the right people while buying and selling the parts and got connected to the NASCAR racer and racing teams. From there he started buying and now just recently selling to the NASCAR drivers.

Mr. Smith shared with us that the company grew so much, he was able to employ his wife and sister. When he buys his auto parts, he cleans them up, takes a picture, then lists the item on eBay, then boxes the item and ships it when it is sold. Mr. Smith has a return policy that returns the buyers’ money if they receive the item and find that they cannot really use it. But he guarantees 100% that his customers will like what they buy from him. He also used to have eBay set to auctions, but Mr. Smith found that to require too much attention, so now buyers have the options to buy the items now. Sometimes he is told by NASCAR that he cannot sell some of the auto parts right away because it is a “trade secret.” In these cases he may have to wait several years to sell the items. In other words, the parts that he buys from NASCAR are used once, then tossed aside. Sometimes those parts are still experimental. It also helps to let the parts sit for a couple years before listing and trying to sell the items because most people (buyers) won’t recognize those experimental parts.

The main problem he comes into with using eBay, is that customers don’t always read the full description of the items he sells. But he answers all questions from customers personally. His buyers buy for any range of cars. He has had “feedback” over 25,000 times on eBay with 100% positive feedback.

Currently, Rod has 3 buildings full of items waiting to be listed and sold. The main business operation is located in Monmouth IL. but most recently Mr. Smith has opened a second location close to where he lives for four months out of the year in Florida, while also still having a house in Monmouth.

Mr. Smith’s company is not slowing down any time soon, and neither is he with the continuous growth of his company. He plans on doing this business for the rest of his life, with hopes that a family member will take the business over. Mr. Smith expresses “first mover advantage” by being one of very first sellers of high-end racing car parts on eBay who saw a market that he enjoys and grew it to continuously be successful. He found his niche in the market and took hold of that talent by progressing that market. Mr. Smith has a long successful entrepreneurial life ahead of him.

Madeline Poole

Environmental Dynamism and the Imperative of—Perhaps Counter-Intuitive—Adaptation: Prof. Mike Connell and “Keeping the Doors Open” at the Monmouth Country Club

Last Thursday marked the annual guest-speaker appearance of my co-teacher of the class; Professor Mike Connell. His focus was on how environmental change can cause entrepreneurs and other managers to have to take drastic measures to merely survive. The context of his lively interactive discussion with students was his entrepreneurial-like co-management of the Monmouth Country Club; specifically, as he put it, to “keep the doors open” at the once thriving establishment that has fallen on hard times in recent years.

Probably most enlightening and unique in this presentation was the focus on how, in hard times, one must creatively find ways to significantly cut costs but still provide at least the most desired of services to enough customers to keep the business running (at times when “the logical thing to do” to many would seem to be put more money into getting more clients). This is something that any entrepreneur can potentially be faced with due to environmental change.

I now turn things over to class blogger Collin Glas for more on Prof. Connell and “keeping the doors open” at the Monmouth Country Club.

Prof. Gabel


Our speaker in class on Thursday was Professor Mike Connell and talked about the Monmouth Country Club. Professor Connell has been with the County Club of Monmouth for around twenty years. In twelve of those years he served on the board and for ten years he was the president of the country club.

During Thursday’s class period, Connell explained to the class about traditional and untraditional Country Clubs. Also, he talked about the operations of the country club despite the dying industry.

The first thing that was talked about in class was the culture of a country club. Country Clubs in the 1950’s and 60’s were a big deal for society and people who could afford being a member of the country club. These country clubs were a thriving industry because people would build their lives around the country club. Country Clubs, at the time, where social centers for people including golf, tennis, restaurants, or even a gathering area for people.

The country club experience may differ depending on where the country club is at and what kind of club that it is. Country clubs may range anywhere from a very low entry fee to anywhere in the six figures just to join the club. However, some clubs may require a recommendation to just be considered to get into the country club. Also, at these country clubs there are minimums that a member must pay and do at the country clubs. For example, Prof. Connell explained that at some clubs, the member must spend a minimum amount on food and will be charged that amount regardless of whether or not they actually ordered or ate the food.

Also, we talked about the differences behind a traditional and an untraditional country club. Traditional country clubs require an entry fee, monthly and annual dues, and sometimes may have assessments if the country club needs updates or renovations. Monmouth’s Country Club used to be this way, however, with the struggling nature of this industry, the club had to make an important decision and become an untraditional country club. Due to the falling of hard times, the country club has reduced their entry fees and eliminated the assessment fees for the end of the year. Also, the country club has no golf pro or employees due to the struggling times of the new era of country clubs (brought about by economic conditions and changing lifestyles that often leave many people with no time for golf or other country club activities).

Professor Connell expressed the importance of creative cost-cutting and other surprising approaches to management in this type of business situation. With the responsibility of a struggling business, every decision needs to be completely thought through. Every decision for this business could potentially shut down the business or help the business to just maintain where it is at. Management for this business can be difficult because people come to the country club to participate in all of the activities that are at a country club. Due to the struggling times, the country club eliminated the restaurant and cut labor for the club.

Another discussion that we had in class was people now just do not have time for the country club. Back in the 50’s and 60’s people built their life around the country club. Now many people build their lives around their children. This industry deals with a lot of competition as well. Restaurants are very assessable to get to as well as other activities that anyone would want to do.

The Monmouth Country Club was founded in 1902, making it one of the oldest in Illinois. This untraditional country club has been changing and adapting to the new times. Due to the adaptations that have been made, Monmouth’s Country Club has been able to stay in business and continues keep the traditions going.

Collin Glas

An Eye-Opening Field Trip to Observe a Grand Entrepreneurial Investment: Al McGuire and Trevor Davies of the McGuire and Davies Funeral Home and Crematory

Last Tuesday we endeavored upon what has become a much-anticipated field trip each Spring semester to the McGuire and Davies Funeral Home and Crematory located here in Monmouth, IL.

As always, co-owners Al McGuire and Trevor Davies led us through their beautiful, full-service facility on what is for students an eye-opening experience shattering stereotypes of “funeral homes” as being little but dreary places of great sadness. This is because the McGuire and Davies Funeral Home and Crematory has been designed to allow family members, friends, and other mourners to “say goodbye” to their departed loved ones in whatever manner they wish; with a focus, more and more, on celebrations of the life of the deceased.

It was also an eye-opening experience due to the very calculated nature in which key investments have been made by the two entrepreneurs. This is particularly the case with the facility’s crematory; which has long-since paid for itself despite carrying a major price-tag.

I leave it to class blogger Mackenzie Whiteside to tell you more about our eye-opening visit to the McGuire and Davies Funeral Home and Crematory.

Prof. Gabel


Our class recently had the opportunity to visit McGuire and Davies Funeral Home located here in Monmouth. The trip allowed us the opportunity to explore the funeral home, the industry, and the entrepreneurial venture of partners Aloysius “Al” McGuire and Trevor Davies.

Al McGuire was first introduced to the funeral industry while attending school at Loras College. Originally, Al was pursuing a secondary education degree, planning to eventually become a high school teacher.  With college being a very expensive endeavor, Al decided to move into the upstairs apartment of a funeral home near campus to avoid campus living fees.  While living there, he assisted the funeral directors with normal funeral home operations where he soon became very interested in the field of work.  It was then he decided he wanted to pursue a degree in Mortuary Science.

After receiving his degree, Al went on to complete his apprenticeship at a funeral home in Chicago, IL. After some time, he decided to move his family to Monmouth where he became involved in a local funeral home.  He worked diligently for this home for nearly twenty-one years before deciding to part ways.  From there, Al decided that he wanted to start his own funeral home here in Monmouth.  He, along with Trevor Davies, began to plan for this very large financial endeavor.  The pair put everything they had on the line in order to fund this business: home mortgages, 401k’s, and even the local memorial park that Al owned.

During the first year of business, Al and Trevor did not have their own facility to work out of. Most of the office work was performed at the office for Al’s memorial park, and services were held at local churches.  The lack of facility did not hinder their business at all.  The pair were able to provide services for many families before the completion of their facility.

With the completion of their facility, Al and Trevor became the owners of the third local funeral home. The facility itself was uniquely designed to cater to the needs of their customers.  The home includes a large room to be used for services, a kitchen, an office, the crematory, a showroom, and a meeting room for family consultations.

One of the main differences between this funeral home and those of local competitors is the crematory. This $90,000 investment is what gives their business its major competitive edge; as no competitor has one across several local counties. The two entrepreneurs are able to complete on site cremations, providing services for a family “from start to finish”.  Although it seems like a large and potentially uncertain investment, Al informed us that it has already been well worth the money. Being the only crematory in the area not only gives their business an edge, but it also provides a useful option for other funeral homes in the area (that pay to use the McGuire and Davies Crematory for their clients).

In the 2016 election, Al McGuire was named the Coroner for Warren County. For the next four years, Al will serve his community not only through his own business, but also through his new line of work. McGuire and Davies have invested their lives into this industry and have been successful thus far. They believe in their business whole-heartedly and will continue to strive for success throughout the coming years.

Mackenzie Whiteside

The Liberal Arts-Based Journey of Lobie Stone: From Barges, to Oil Trading, to Enron, to A Successful Entrepreneur, and, Finally, to First Lady of Monmouth College

Our guest speaker last Thursday was unique in at least two big ways.

First, Lobie Stone–wife of Monmouth College President Clarence Wyatt–is the first First Lady of the College we have had as a guest speaker. Second, her journey to this point in her life–which included running a successful interior design business along the way–was not only different than any other we have heard about but also demonstrative of the value of a liberal arts education; specifically the diversity of things in life such an educational background prepares one to successfully do.

With that brief introduction to what was a fascinating glimpse into ongoing the liberal arts-based journey of Lobie Stone, I turn things over to class blogger Farida Mohammed for far more detail.

Thank you Lobie for being our guest!

Prof. Gabel


When we think of a woman who has done and seen it all in different Business fields we can think of no other person than the First Lady of Monmouth College, Lobie Stone.  It was an honor to have her speak to the Midwest entrepreneur class this week. Being in a Liberal Arts College is a great opportunity to explore several fields.  After listening to her story I can say Stone is an example of how the importance of acquiring such a degree can benefit a student.

Stone’s mother was an artist and her father was the president of a barge line.  It was no surprise that Stone followed her mother’s path and acquired her degree in studio art and art history from the University of Minnesota after having studied for two years at Centre College, a liberal arts college much like Monmouth.  After graduating from college, Stone lived in Paris for a year.  This trip shaped her life and left her thinking that she was returning to the United States to be an artist.

Upon her return, her father requested she take a trip down the Mississippi River on one of his company’s towboats in order to take photographs for the company’s annual report.  She ended up in New Orleans and realized that she wanted to stay in the city and work in the river industry.  Through networking and referrals she got a job with a large river transportation company moving petroleum products.  This executive who hired her told her he did not know what to pay her as she would be the first woman in the country to dispatch towboats.  He decided to pay her the same as the switchboard operator, rather than the same salary as the man who previously held the job.  She reminded us that such a thing was legal at the time.

As her career progressed, she was hired by an oil company to operate its trading division and barge line.  As part of her job, she travelled between New Orleans, Chicago, and Houston.  At some point, she had to make a tough decision to choose between the two businesses.  Her heart was in New Orleans with the river business, but she knew her future was in Houston as an oil trader.  The class learned that a trader is one who takes title to the product while a broker is a middleman who takes a commission.

For Lobie this was a very exciting time in her life.  She was learning something new every day, and she was a pioneer in what had been considered a man’s world.  For example, she was a denied a seat in the main dining room of the Petroleum Club of Houston, even though she was a member of the Petroleum Club of New Orleans, with reciprocal rights.  What guided her in this business were the words of her father, who was her personal role model, “Your word is your bond” and “Never be tempted to tell someone what you think they want to hear.”  With everything that happened with her oil trading business, it did not discourage her; instead it made her much stronger.  She decided it was time to do something different.

At this point she was married to her former husband who happened to be the head of operations for a major oil company in Houston.  There was a conflict of interest between their job, so she began a career as a stockbroker.  Her pay was strictly commissions, no salary.  As they said in the industry, “you eat what you kill.”  This was much like being an entrepreneur, as there was no paid vacation, no personal or maternity leave.  After several years, she gave birth to a daughter with special needs.  She then took almost ten years off and gave her total time and attention to her daughter.  “They said that she would never walk, but she went on to win gold medals for running in the Special Olympics,” she said with so much pride.  After making sure her daughter was in good care, Stone decided that it was time to return to work.

Due to her previous background in working in the both the oil industry and as a stockbroker, she was able to acquire a job at Enron in Houston.  For the first time in her life, she did not find satisfaction with her job.  In a matter of months Enron declared bankruptcy. The head of the crude oil division climbed on a desk and, using a bullhorn, told everyone that they had twenty minutes to clear the building.  This was the defining moment for her, which completely changed her career path.

Stone had been an interior designer for her family and friends “for fun and for free” for almost 25 years.  She moved to San Antonio for family reasons.  For a woman who had no credentials in interior design but a studio art degree, she did not know where to start to help her to explore her career dreams.  However, due to referrals and determination, she took a retail job for a short period, where she learned where to find the best antique stores, iron craftsmen, limestone cutters, and other artisans.  It also helped her get to know potential customers to whom she could offer her design services in the future.

She advised the class that sometimes we have to learn to set our egos aside.  Also, her travel experiences and an eye for great color, composition, and style enabled her to succeed in this industry.  Stone also told us about a cautionary tale to use the Internet very wisely.  This is because anything that goes on the Internet is going to be there forever.  She said that you need to closely monitor that what is on the Internet about you and your business is correct.  As an entrepreneur it will be an important thing to look out for since that is your name and your reputation.

As much as interior decoration seems very easy, one must be equipped with skills to help them do a great job.  Stone mentioned that the previous businesses that she had been involved in prepared her to be an entrepreneur.  She stated that as an entrepreneur whatever you do reflects you, but in a big company you are less visible. This is one reason why being an entrepreneur was one of the memorable things that she has enjoyed doing.

To conclude the story of her journey as a young oil trader and stockbroker into First Lady of Monmouth College, she left us with some tips on how to manage our lives to become successful students and eventually entrepreneurs.  According to her, you have to take the time to do your job right the first time.  You also have to learn to gravitate towards meeting new people, and the only way to do this effectively is to get off your phone so you can build a personal connection with others.  Stone is indeed an example of what a liberal arts education can do for an individual.

Farida Mohammed

Monmouth College ’18

Economics and Business Double Major

Of Entrepreneurial Passion and the Extreme Ups and Downs of “Burning the Candle at Both Ends”: The Story of Joni Bucher and the Bucher Cattle Company

Yesterday in Midwest Entrepreneurs we returned to the ag-related theme of the first several weeks of the semester. But I knew going in that this entrepreneurial story—that of Joni Bucher and the Bucher Cattle Company (based in Good Hope, IL)—would be different in important ways from the stories of our other ag-related guest speakers. In particular, I knew that tending to animals on the farm would make this entrepreneurial venture far different than that of Paul Rickey; our “traditional row-crop farmer-as-entrepreneur” from earlier in the semester. Simply put: Animals require far more and more frequent attention than do crops.

But, as we learned from Joni Bucher, there were far more striking differences than this.

One assumption I made in error was that cattle farming—as an industry and business activity—is relatively homogeneous. We learned from Joni that cattle farming, like most other industries, has a variety of niches within it that can be pursued as business opportunities by entrepreneurs. We also learned that doing whatever it takes to successfully pursue one’s passion—“burning the candle at both ends” as Joni put it—can have both highly positive and highly negative consequences for the entrepreneur.

This and more is discussed in today’s student-authored blog story below. The class blogger is James McGrew; nephew of Joni Bucher and proud birthday boy (which led to cookies for the class from the guest speaker).

Prof. Gabel


Tuesday April 4 was my birthday and the class and I were grateful to learn the “ins and outs” of running a small, highly specialized cattle farm located in central Illinois from my aunt Joni Bucher. Joni always had a great interest in farming growing up. But she was instructed by her father to “get an education before returning to the farm.” Because of this Joni spent about 20 years first in the nursing industry and then the pharmaceutical industry. After being the top sales rep for the pharmaceutical firm for 12 years in a row her employer decided to downsize her division and she lost her job. While this event can be said to be sort of epiphany that led her back to her love of farming, in 2004 she had decided to take up cattle farming as a hobby while still employed. In fact, it was the money earned from her work as a sales rep. that allowed her to buy the farm (and supplement the losses sustained by running it for its first several years of operation). Things began to progress past the point of being a hobby when she bought 10 cows to start her own herd. She admits that one of her biggest mistakes early on was ignoring how expensive it was to raise and tend to the cattle. She simply spent what needed to be spent because she had the money to pay for it without realizing how much she was in fact spending.

In 2007 the farm became a more serious business venture Joni when purchased 80 acres and built a barn. Around this same time she agreed to raise 12 completely organic grass-fed calves for a consumer group. Because they were organic, they could not be vaccinated or receive  hormone implants. These calves could also only eat grass; no grain. This greatly increases the time it takes for the animals to reach harvesting weight. These three factors contribute to a longer growing time, which also increases the amount of time it takes to see a return on investment (ROI). This was another of Joni’s biggest mistakes; she didn’t realize it took so long to raise these animals and see the ROI. Once she raised them she also chose to act as the distributor, the intermediary, and the salesperson; doing all distribution-related activities herself. All of these “lessons learned” added up to her consistently losing money in the early years of the business.

After these mistakes, Joni realized that raising grass-fed cattle was not her plan. She then started to win very large and important cattle shows all across the country. Using her success at these shows, she decided to shift her focus to a niche market. This market was creating breeding stock to sell to other cattle farmers in order for them to improve the desirable traits found in their herds. Once she shifted her market focus her hobby started to take the form of a profession; and a profitable entrepreneurial business.

In 2011 Joni volunteered for a position on the Illinois Beef Association; the leading trade association for beef producers in the state. In this position she acted as a promoter to help increase consumer confidence and boost sales of beef products. Since then she was elected to Vice President of the organization. She now spends a lot of time reviewing legislative acts that have to do with the beef industry. In the last year she has traveled to Japan and Cuba in order to promote the sales and exportation of US beef to these countries.

She slowly grew her herd until 2012. When she was laid off her sales job in 2012 she decided that she should be able to sustain herself on the cash flow from the farm and she began farming full time. Ever since then, she has slowly been growing her herd and selling cows all across the country; while at the same time perfecting her brand image of being a high quality cattle producer.

In an effort to improve the quality of her product and the environment in which she works Joni practices intensive rotational grazing. This means that a group of cows never stay in a pasture for more than a few days. This allows for a higher number of cows to be raised on fewer acres than a conventional farm. Joni has been using this practice since she started her operation and it is beginning to catch on with more and more farmers all across the country.

Joni talked a lot about how focusing on your business can be detrimental to family life but she also told about the great benefits of being able to do what you love every day. She told the class to make a plan and follow it; but to always have a “plan B” which takes into account worst case scenarios. She emphasized importance of being able to adjust to ever changing markets. She also told the class to network with smart and successful people in order to facilitate the sharing of valuable knowledge between different types of farm operations and industries.

Listening to Joni’s presentation about how she built her farm from the ground up was extremely interesting and eye opening. I enjoyed how she was upfront about some things and did not try to sugar-coat the perils and hardships of being an entrepreneur. She provided knowledge about an industry that no other entrepreneur has this year in an interesting and engaging way. She is the embodiment of being your own boss and waking up and having the privilege to do what she loves every single day.

James McGrew

Serial Entrepreneur Jason Robbins: “Buying Freedom” with Hard Entrepreneurial Work


Thursday we had our first serial entrepreneur as a guest speaker. By “serial entrepreneur” I mean someone who has pursued numerous entrepreneurial ventures; one after another and even several at the same time. That is just what Jason Robbins—of Monmouth-based Robbins Resource Management—has been doing for nearly the last 25 years (dating back to when he was in high school).  Check out the company webpage at the link below.

Jason’s ongoing highly successful entrepreneurial journey encompasses many different ventures and types of business activity; including buying and reselling both cars and homes and brokering B2B sales of pallets. Maybe above all else, Jason—a first-time speaker in the class that we hope to add to the “regular roster”—exemplifies an entrepreneur who not only sees and takes advantage of opportunities most others might not even recognize, but someone who goes out and aggressively creates such opportunities for himself (so that he can, as he put it, “buy freedom” for he and his family).

Below, class blogger Aubrey Cook provides far greater insight into the fascinating entrepreneurial tale of serial entrepreneur Jason Robbins.

Prof. Gabel


Yesterday, our Midwest Entrepreneurs class had the opportunity to gain knowledge from a Monmouth local, Jason Robbins.   Mr. Robbins has a background in a several different areas of entrepreneurial activity (dating all the way back to when he was in high school).  Jason spoke to our class about his journey that got him to where he is today, the CEO of Robbins Resource Management.

Jason began his entrepreneurial endeavors twenty or so years ago when he was sixteen years old. He traveled to a local bank to obtain a loan, on which he had no cosigner, in order to purchase cars in United States General Services Administration (GSA) auctions.  The idea of “flipping” these vehicles gave him the cash that he needed at the time.

After leaving the idea of car flipping in the dust, Jason got married right out of high school and purchased two real estate properties at a very low cost. He fixed them up entirely by himself, teaching himself carpentry from rented videos from the public library and using some knowledge he obtained from his father.  Robbins continued purchasing and fixing up houses with different sources of funding.  Little did he know that this would be the beginning of something that is still a very prominent aspect in his present life.

Mr. Robbins then went into business with his father and brother; a business dealing with the removal of pallets in the local area. The three were very excited about this endeavor because as Jason commented “the pallet industry is real big”.  Presently, this business is not Jason’s main focus, though he still cares about the wellbeing of the company; he has many other things to focus on.

About nine years ago, Jason started conducting a business-to-business type of entrepreneurial activity that is his biggest focus today (in Robbins Resource Management).  Mr. Robbins purchased a specific sort of pallet from someone down south just to resell to a man in Iowa.  This was a completely legal exchange that made Jason money.  He knew that he was on to something here.  Robbins began “working the phones and emails” trying to find people with a surplus of pallets or those who needed them. He was basically acting as a broker; bringing buyers and sellers together and only taking title to the goods while in transit from seller to buyer.

This led to the opening of Robbins Resource Management, an S corporation located near the heart of downtown Monmouth. This company partners with “thousands of companies nationwide to facilitate their pallet and lumber needs”, per the company website.  This has been another big success for Jason, providing him with a good steady income to support himself and his family.

Going back to the real estate, Jason presently owns 57 properties around the area. Jason still continues to purchase fixer-uppers that he can sell when cleaned up. Many of these properties are on contract, where buyers are virtually renting to own.  In my eyes, I believe this helps property values of many different houses in various towns.  This gives a reasonably priced, well-constructed home that lower-income buyers potentially could not arrange to live in otherwise.

Mr. Robbins said a few things during his lecture that really stood out to me, the first being that he hasn’t worked for anyone since he was sixteen. I found that astonishing.  How can one be this successful of an entrepreneur and not have worked for anyone since his youth?  That is very impressive and something to be proud of.  Another quote of Jason I found important is that he “was looking to build wealth, not cash flow”.  He spoke on how his goal was to create wealth for himself and his family.  He did this through his many entrepreneurial endeavors.  This leads to a quote he said towards the end of the lecture. “By working hard and creating wealth, I am buying freedom”. Jason and his family travel a lot, leaving his company in the hands of his brother from time to time.  I had never even thought of wealth in the form of freedom, and Jason provided myself and the class with this important insight.

Having Jason Robbins speak in front of our class was extremely beneficial as well as enjoyable. Mr. Robbins displayed for us that it is possible to successfully be your own boss.  He is the perfect example of what a small-town boy with a dream for his family can turn into.  Thank you Mr. Robbins for speaking to our class!

Aubrey Cook

Kappa Kappa Gamma

Business Administration ’17

“The Ground is Always Moving”: The Incessantly Dynamic—if Not Frantic—and Successful Ongoing Entrepreneurial Journey of Mike Acerra and Lux Blox

There is no other guest entrepreneur speaker in the class that I strive to “keep up with” more than Mike Acerra; inventor and presently Chief of Product Development of Galesburg-based Lux Blox LLC (a maker of highly innovative construction toy products).

This desire to “keep up with” Mike and what he is doing and planning is based on (1) having interacted with him since the product was but a concept (printed out one block at a time on his personal 3D printer), (2) my son being a very early-stage “product tester,” and (3) the joy in seeing good people—Mike and company President Heather Acerra—with good, highly innovative ideas succeed (on an increasingly grand scale).

However, while there is no one I strive to “keep up with” more than Mike, there is also no class guest speaker I have a harder time keeping up with. This is because he plans and innovates and travels constantly; often at a frenetic pace. After class, he summed this aspect of his entrepreneurial venture by telling my son and I that “the ground is always moving.”

I take this to mean that he must keep moving—and the product must keep evolving—in response to ever-changing marketplace circumstances and consumer needs and wants. Not just that; he cannot merely react but must strategically move in proactive fashion ahead of the changes (necessitating a keen focus on the market and consumers and the retailers who sell to them). I have seen great ideas from—and great success for—Mike Acerra but it is clear that “nothing is ever good enough” for him.

I turn things over to class blogger Cole Downey for more on Mike’s scintillating visit to the class this past Tuesday.

Prof. Gabel


Mike Acerra began his presentation by outlining his activities directly after his graduation from Knox College: Two years living isolated among the trees in a yurt. After joking that he fully embodied the stereotypical Knox College graduate, he explained how he used this time to study nature, geometry, and whatever text he could manage to lay his hands on.

Constantly throughout the class Acerra would break from information regarding his entrepreneurship in an effort to teach the class about whatever his stream of conscience had led him to. It became obvious from the start that Acerra wasn’t just enthusiastic about his explaining his product, he was enthusiastic about explaining anything.

Mike Acerra is an inventor, whose inspirations range from the ratios mathematicians found in nature to great architectural and scientific minds such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. From these minds he drew inspiration for Lux: The Principled Block. The blocks (or “blox” as they are referred to on his website) fall somewhat but not squarely into the same category as toys such as LEGO, but attempt to present more advanced building opportunities. The single square shape cannot only be created into rigid and single planned structures, but can also be put together into more complex structures such as gears.

He and his wife were inspired to create the blocks in an effort to open the minds of children to genuine learning, as opposed to the well-worn path of teaching that suppressed natural inspiration. Their mission extended towards production, where he had ensured the manufacturing for his product occurred in the USA.

Acerra moved back to Chicago in 1990. After working with his wife to develop the idea of what they hoped to create, he carefully patented his idea; specifically the hinged connectivity that allows structures made from Lux to move. Acerra expressed the importance of being careful with the patent system, as being ignorant to the rules could mean publicizing or killing an idea without the ability to protect it. Instead, he promotes the idea of continuance, allowing patentees to hold onto multiple ideas by taking legal action against those who attempt to make a similar product with the case that they were “going to patent it eventually.” This led into his presentation on funding, which came down to a clear and succinct motif: “Don’t show them a mission statement. Show them a profit and loss statement.”

Despite his vast knowledge of the many national and regional trade shows that he has attended, Acerra admitted that he didn’t attend under the principle that he was an enthusiast of his product. His love for explaining often overpowered his need to sell, which prompted him to send the “closers” instead. Nobody could argue that Acerra loved to talk. With the brief exception of the questions that occurred during his presentation, several of the students were left to wonder whether or not he had taken a breath in the last hour.

Similar to years past, Acerra was already outlining the steps he wanted his product to take for the future. His social media presence was littered with futuristic and abstract art that was meant to mirror the same utopian learning values that his product embodied. He emphasized the importance of moving towards the Amazon market place, as he believes the “Ma and Pa” retail store model he has relied heavily on in the past may see difficult times ahead. However, this did not dampen his support of these family owned businesses (as he is still at heart a home grown Midwesterner still mourning the loss of several factories that had once made his home town of Galesburg a powerhouse city).

Finally, he was in the early stages of unrolling a new box/packaging. While the previous one was aesthetically pleasing, the lack of detail and information made for a product that appeared more intimidating than it did welcoming. One past challenge that he discussed was his decision to begin including instructions in the box. While this conflicted with his idea of genuine, free-form learning, it allowed for less inspired customers to more easily participate in the building culture which once again is found all throughout his social media.

Mike Acerra seemed completely content with his lack of an off-button. His presentation was lively, sporadic, and energized. I imagine that in the toy industry, this is a trait desired by many who are looking for an individual who is both inspired by their product and their mission. I have no doubt that this same energy will carry him towards many future victories with his product.

Thank you Mr. Acerra for coming to speak to our class!

Cole Downey

The Knox Country Area Partnership for Economic Development: An “Entrepreneurial Facilitator” That Can Help You Succeed (for Free)

Each semester I try to have as a guest speaker at least one “entrepreneurial facilitator”; an organization existing to provide assistance to entrepreneurs (and often other types of businesses).

We had our first such guest yesterday in class; The Knox Country Area Partnership for Economic Development. Visiting were three employees of the firm: Ken Springer, Kyle Kelley, and 2016 Monmouth College graduate Kate Rees.

Class blogger Jazmin Barajas tells us all about The Partnership and what it does for entrepreneurs below.

Prof. Gabel


Many of the people who have come to visit our classroom have been entrepreneurs that have started their own local business near Monmouth, IL. However, Thursday evening the Midwest Entrepreneurs Class got the pleasure to meet some people who are “behind” the entrepreneur’s startup and success. Ken Springer, Kyle Kelley and Kate Rees, who are part of “The Knox Country Area Partnership for Economic Development,” spoke to our class about how they help entrepreneurs start their dream business in Galesburg and the Knox County region.

Below is some information from The Partnership’s webpage ( about each of our guests and about how the Partnership operates.

The Staff

  • Springer is the President of the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development. He was born in West Michigan and earned a bachelor of science degree in International Relations from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in Applied Community and Economic Development from the Stevenson Center at Illinois State University. He was the Vice President of the Bloomington-Normal Area Economic Development Council which gave him the knowledge he needed to become the President of the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development. He was the first choice for the Board of Directors.
  • Kelley is the Client Manager for the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development. He was born in Galesburg however, worked in Peoria, IL in the banking industry for four years which he has brought a sales skillset to the Partnership and not only that but he works with small business.
  • Rees is the Communications Associate for the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development. She was born in Chicago, IL suburbs and graduated from Monmouth College with a degree in Public Relations, Communications, and Art, which her skills in marketing and graphic design bring creativity to the Partnership’s digital and social presence.
  • Which all the knowledge and job experience that they have they have been able to manage and run the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development since the hiring of Mr. Springer in December 2014.

About the Knox County Area Partnership

  • It is a private non-profit organization that helps with economic development to Galesburg and the Knox County region. they are a professional, non-partisan, non-political organization whose goal is the promotion of job growth, new investment and a better quality of life for the communities of Galesburg and the Knox County region.


The Partnership is a private non-profit organization; therefore, they get a lot of help from many private and public-sector investors which in total are 50 investors (5-6 are private and the rest are public). Some of those include: Ameren, Bullis and Sundberg Insurance Services, Carl Sandburg College, City of Galesburg, First Mid-Illinois Bank and Trust, Galesburg Cottage Hospital, Hy-Vee, Knox College, Knox County, Midwest Bank (of Western Illinois), Mustain Law Office, and OSF St. Mary Medical Center.

In class… Thursday evening our guests talked to the Midwest Entrepreneurs Class about how they help entrepreneurs start their own business, or how to save an existent business from closing in Galesburg and the Knox County region. To begin with, the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development has four Priorities:

  1. Existing Business Expansion and Support Funds
  2. New Business Recruitment (bring in new companies to the area)
  3. Entrepreneurship
  4. Community Importance

However, they focused their discussion on number 3; Entrepreneurship. Here they have four ways to assist projects, which are in order from easies to hardest:

  1. Advisement (sitting down and talking to the entrepreneurs: Basic Information, market demographics).
  2. Site choice (help the company find the right location for their business).
  3. Successful Referral (help connect business to SCORE, a small business of mentors that help clients start their business: handles cash flow, local economy).
  4. Incentives (help borrow money from the bank than talks to city council who makes the decision to whether it happens or not).

They also provided us three examples of projects that show use how they work and what they do.

Judy’s Tumbling: Helped them find a better location than the mall in Galesburg giving them the chance to stay operation which created capital space. They also helped them partner with another business making them help each other grow. We were told the company chose the sixth location that the Partnership helped them look at.

New Restaurant (not able to disclose name yet): The Partnership helped them get a loan, find a location, referred business and marketing plan assistance to SBDS, and target to open no later than early June 2017).

Integrated Precision Agriculture: Help them obtain the forgivable loan of $10,000 from the city to start their business of using drones to spay fields. Also, helped them obtain all the licenses and permits that they need it to operate.

The Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development is a free service for whoever wants to start or save their business in Galesburg and the Knox County region. They are the people who have the answers to questions you have about becoming an entrepreneur.

The Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development is an organization that is 100% confidential, which means any information shared with them cannot be shared with anybody but with you. They can also choose who they can work with if they don’t see any future.

If you want to become an entrepreneur or change your business visit the Knox County Area Partnership for Economic Development; they have a book—and minds—full of ideas that they are sure will help you become a successful business in the area.

Thank you Mr. Springer, Mr. Keeley and Ms. Rees!

Jazmin Barajas

Of Grand Failures, Great Successes, and Ultimate Failure: The Turbulent Entrepreneurial Saga of Paul Schuytema (in his Former Life as a Video Game Developer)

Did you know that Monmouth was once home-base for a very successful video game development company? Its name was Magic Lantern Playware and it was co-founded and run by our guest speaker this past Tuesday; current City of Monmouth Economic Development Director Paul Schuytema.

This firm successfully completed and commercialized 20 video game projects and sold over one million units. It pumped roughly $2.5 million into the local economy. Its members published over a dozen books; many on how to best succeed at various video games of the day. Lastly, the firm represented an opportunity for what Paul referred to as “eight nerds to live their dream.”

Sounds like a great success; right?

Well yes; certainly… But then—and ultimately—no.

Paul’s firm no longer exists. It experienced the fate of many entrepreneurial firms; it ultimately failed. But it did so only after a very wild, up and down ride full of what Paul referred to as “grand failures” and “great successes”–and many “landmines” and “best of times” and “worst of times”–along the way.

I now yield to today’s student blogger–Victoria Bance–to tell in more detail the tale of reluctant (former) high-tech entrepreneur Paul Schuytema.

Lastly, THANK YOU Paul for sharing your story and experience with us!! It is understandable that many former entrepreneurs whose companies ultimately failed are reluctant to talk about what happened; it can be very painful. Paul seems to have learned from his experience and to have learned to have fun with it.

Prof. Gabel


Paul Schuytema was not the regular entrepreneur that planned everything out, the business ended up finding him unintentionally. Mr. Schuytema spoke to our class about his crazy journey on March 21, 2017.

It all began when Paul was a kid in the 70’s. He was very entertained by playing board games. He and family would bond over family game night.

As a child, he was also interested in formalizing rule sets. An example he gave in class was being able to make a playground set into a ship and the ground lava and having there be certain restrictions that made games more fun. There were many games he enjoyed playing such as “Cosmic Impounder”, “Cosmic Blitz”, “Squad Leader” and much more. The one game that he did not like to play was “Monopoly”. In 4th grade, Paul enjoyed ancient Greek and Roman figurine themed games; also he was interested in painting the figurines. Soon he began to formulate his own rules.

At the age of 13 his dad passed away and as a way to distract Paul from this, his mother bought him an HP41C calculator; that kind of looks like a scientific calculator. The HP41C had roughly enough memory space to store one icon that we see on computers today. Not long after that the Atari 800 came out. The Atari 800 had much more memory than the HP41C, more colors and a joystick. It was around this time that Paul started writing letters to Chris Crawford, father of modern computer games on the Atari. Crawford was able to teach Paul some of the secret keys of coding.

In the early 80’s Paul attended Knox College as a Computer Science major but soon found out that it was not what he expected. So he changed his major to something else he enjoyed; storytelling and writing. After graduating, he got a job at Monmouth College. Not long after that he starting creating video games. The first gig he was offered by Atari in early 90’s, they wanted him to help with the game “Mind Drive”. It was a game that you would literally use your thoughts to drive depending on what side of the brain you were using to move the character. This project didn’t turn out as well as they wanted. He said it was too easy to get sidetracked and you would just crash.

Later Paul got a second gig working for 3D Realms in Texas to be a designer for the game called “Prey”. At the same time, within the same company, there was another group of designer’s creating the MechWarrior game which was supposed to compete with “Prey”. The goal for “Prey” was to be the most violent game on the market. Paul had come to work one day to find out that the president terminated the game immediately. After that Paul did what anyone would do and left the company. From this experience, he learned the right and wrong way to run a business.

Paul then moved back to Monmouth, at the time he had a wife and two kids. The only internet they had in Monmouth around 1999 was dial up. He decided he wanted to make a game himself but needed to pay the bills at the same time. He started writing video game strategy guides during the day for money and at night he worked on his games. He made a couple games during this time. One was called “Second Genesis” and the other was “Gen Fusion.” Both were what he called “grand failures” because they didn’t have that popular name that people know such as “Star Trek” or “Rugrats”. The next game took him a little farther. The game was called “Forts-A Magic Lantern Game”. Paul went to a trade show to show off his work and got to meet Ed Fries, which at the time was head of all Microsoft games. Fries turned down his game disrespectfully.

After that, he did a pitch to Red Storm Entertainment. He made a demo to try to capture their interest in his work. He had to create all the technology on his own because he didn’t have much to work with. A while later they called and told him they wanted to send a team to Monmouth to make sure that he had a real company. At the time it was only him and a few other people; not really much of a company in any way. He had to make it look like the company existed, so he borrowed a few things from his mom bought some tables and chairs and made his space look like a business. A few months later the company sent him an okay a big advance check in the mail to get started on the project.

“Rainbow Six Covert Ops Essential Game” was a success. At the same time, Magic Lantern Playware wrote the largest existing encyclopedia on counter-terrorism. An interviewee predicted 9/11 exactly as it would happen. Because of the details and the accuracy of this, their show tech engine was used to provide tactical police training programs. Paul’s next game “Combat” was a success. He received $40,000 from Rainbow Six Game.

The next game he was offered to create was “Survivor” which he knew was not going to be good because they were rushing him and his team to make a deadline. But before the game came out they offered him the next game “Survivor Ultimate”, which was a little bit better in picture quality. But when it came out it was popular to a target market they didn’t expect to hit; younger to middle age women. The games sold a lot but were, according to Paul, not all that good.

After that one of his own employees stole the equipment used to make the games and then crashed a car that Paul co-singed leave Paul with the bill. He learned never to co-sign and not to trust everyone. After that Paul continued to make games but more along the lines of “Foosball”, “Mahjong”, “Front Runner” and “Video Game Tycoon”. Some were better than others. Not long after the company went bankrupt.

Why?… Industry change that was not taken seriously and failure to adapt.

The video game industry started to take a new route. When the console Xbox came out it pretty much put wiped PC gaming off the competitive map. It was impossible to compete with console games because there would have been a bigger need for employees to work on a game than what he had and the technology was much different. Paul at first thought console gaming was a joke and would never succeed. He was wrong. It all happened—and ended—very fast.

Today Paul is the Director of Economic Development for the city of Monmouth. His wife Susan is the owner of Market Alley Wines in town and he helps with web development. He continues to use what he learned from his experiences—from the grand failures and the great successes–to better the company that the two own.

Victoria Bance