Rural King Sells (and Does) A Lot of Things (Right)

Our guest speaker in Midwest Entrepreneurs class Thursday 28 March 2013 was Mr. Alex Melvin ‘05, President of Rural King (a family-owned, Mattoon, IL-based chain of nearly 70 retail “farm stores” doing business mainly in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio). The company’s webpage can be found at:

Key themes that emerge from Mr. Melvin’s presentation include (1) You Can Do This Too, and (2) Business As it Can and Should Be.

You Can Do This Too

Alex Melvin graduated from Monmouth College in 2005 with a degree in Business Administration. He informed Midwest Entrepreneurs class students and guests that when he came here, he came in with a very low ACT score (relative to other incoming freshman). Further, he also told us that, during his time here as a student, he was not one of the “best and brightest” students in his classes.

Today, Mr. Melvin is the President of a rapidly growing chain of highly successful retail stores poised for even further growth in the future (e.g., seven new stores were added in 2012; eight new stores will be added in 2013; by 2016, plans are for the chain to consist of 100 stores with sales in excess of $1 billion).

Not bad for what many might be tempted to refer to as a “less than average student.”

Mr. Melvin’s message to the students in attendance was clear: You too can achieve what I have achieved. Alternatively: Being the best student in class does not necessarily translate into post-college success.

The extraordinary entrepreneurial success of Alex Melvin can be attributed to (1) learning the family business inside and out, (2) uncanny business sense (in terms, for example, of cost control and profit-and-loss issues), (3) an extraordinarily strong work ethic, and (4) unrelenting determination. It is my sincere hope to see as many as possible of our current students take a similar approach to their careers—entrepreneurial or not—and experience similar success after their graduations.

Business As it Can and Should Be

Earlier in the semester, the title—and primary theme—of my class blog entry for local entrepreneur John Twomey was “What Entrepreneurism Can and Should Be.” There are many parallels between the presentations and businesses of Mr. Twomey and Alex Melvin; although Melvin’s Rural King is more like what most people think of when they think of “business” in general due to Melvin’s current focus on short-term and long-term company growth.

The greatest similarity between the two entrepreneurs and their entrepreneurial ventures is that they do things right; both in a standard business sense and ethically. This realization came to me as Alex Melvin discussed the growth of Rural King under his father’s direction. Starting in 1978, Alex’s father grew the business from 3 to 40 stores. The primary reason cited for this growth was twofold: (1) the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s, and (2) the fact that the tax savings experienced by Rural King were invested back into the family business. This is nearly word-for-word what John Twomey cited as the driving factor behind his family business’ most significant period of growth when he spoke to the class!   

My point here is this… Bear with me; this will be long-winded…

When these two family businesses had significantly enhanced profitability—resulting from the tax savings coming their ways via the Reagan tax cuts—what did they do with it? Did, they, for example, keep the profits for themselves? Did they say “we have made our money, now let’s lay some people off”? Did they take the profits and hire lobbyists to structure laws and regulations in their favor (and, perhaps, to the detriment of their customers)?

NO!!! They invested the money—all of it—back into the family businesses.

The Melvin and Twomey family businesses are not the businesses we hear about in media reports of “corporate greed” and varied other sordid scandal. These entrepreneurial businesses and the entrepreneurs behind them are truly what business can be should be (and that is what Midwest Entrepreneurs class is all about).

With Alex Melvin and Rural King, we have a keen focus on growth but not growth with the negative externalities too often associated with it. Yes, Rural King is focused on growth but Alex Melvin knows that long-term growth is predicated significantly on doing things right; both in a standard business sense (e.g., controlling costs and increasing both sales and the profitability of sales) and ethically (e.g., satisfying customers and being a good community citizen).

With regard to the ethical side of doing things right, consider this… While Alex Melvin is fiercely competitive and his company is expanding rapidly, he noted in class that Rural King chooses not to compete head-to-head with rival Farm King (a chain of similar retail stores based in and around Macomb in West Central Illinois). In fact, when one looks at a map of the locations of Rural King stores, West Central Illinois is the one part of the state where there are essentially no stores (see: This avoidance of competition is not fear-based; I get the impression that Alex Melvin fears no competitor. Instead, it is based on the fact that the Melvin family respects the family that runs Farm King and realizes that there is no need for anything akin to “complete market dominance.”

I would like to write more about Alex Melvin and Rural King but I am off for Easter vacation (and family is waiting for me to join them).

Back next week… Until then…

Prof. Gabel

The Extreme Opportunities for Entrepreneurs Abroad

Our guest speaker in Midwest Entrepreneurs class yesterday was Dr. Thomas S. Davis. After earning a degree in Chemistry from Monmouth College in 1962, Davis went on to complete a Ph.D. from Case Western University (Cleveland, OH); making him our second consecutive guest speaker to have earned both an undergraduate degree here at Monmouth College and a doctoral degree from Case Western.

What are the odds of that?

Dr. Davis spoke to the class about his extensive knowledge of doing business on a truly global scale; knowledge gained as a result of 45 years of research and development, engineering management, and global supply chain management and logistics experience with three large transnational corporations (General Electric, Philips Lighting, and Becton Dickinson). His presentation featured “lessons learned” in countries including Brazil, Japan, China, and the Netherlands; although his international business odyssey took him to 18 different nations.

Central to Dr. Davis’ presentation was a wealth of advice for entrepreneurs related to opportunities to be found abroad (i.e., outside of the United States).

As I listened to this insightful advice, I could not help but think of a research paper I published back in 2001 with Dr. David Ackerman, my then-colleague at California State University-Northridge. The paper was entitled “The Extreme Ups and Downs of Teaching Abroad” and was based on my experience as a visiting professor in Mexico as well as Dr. Ackerman’s experience teaching in China. The gist of the paper was that teaching abroad—at least in the two lesser affluent, developing nations that our experiences were based in—was a proverbial double-edged sword.

On one edge was the extreme joy of helping students in these nations better their chances for success in life while at the same time having the students help teach us about their home cultures. The other edge was just as extreme, but in the opposite direction. While this matter is very complex, let me just say that political and socioeconomic factors within our host nations and socioeconomic differences between our host nations and the United States, coupled with very different systems of higher education than we were accustomed to, produced some rather unpleasant experiences (and still-lingering memories).

Yesterday in Midwest Entrepreneurs class, Dr. Tom Davis suggested that much the same double-edged sword situation exists for entrepreneurs abroad. This situation is described below within the context of opportunities to both succeed spectacularly and fail miserably.

Opportunities to Succeed Spectacularly

As Dr. Davis informed the class yesterday, there are great opportunities abroad for growth-seeking entrepreneurs based in the United States. Specifically, as he put it, “there is a lot of action outside the United States” with the largest current and future “growth markets” (i.e., nations where rates of individual and organizational purchasing power and consumption are increasing) being located outside of this country.

Indeed, large nations such as Brazil, China, India, and Mexico are growing—economically—at rates far higher than the United States. Thus, for entrepreneurs looking for spectacular growth opportunities, nations such as these are extraordinarily attractive. However, taking advantage of these opportunities does not come without significant risk.

Opportunities to Fail Miserably

The proverbial double-edged sword for U.S. entrepreneurs looking to take advantage of spectacular growth opportunities abroad manifests itself in the fact that if one is not careful, large investments—of time, effort, and money—made in foreign nations can wind up resulting in nothing more than looking ridiculous and/or offending the very persons you are trying to sell to abroad. Doing that, as you know, is very bad business (and a near-sure pathway to ultimate miserable failure for U.S. entrepreneurs venturing abroad).

Dr. Davis informed students and others in attendance yesterday that persons in many foreign nations have a negative perception of Americans. This perception, based on both distant historical events and more recent cross-cultural blunders by U.S. companies and citizens abroad, includes opinions that Americans are, as Dr. Davis put it, “uncultured, loud, and brash,” as well as monolingual, overly blunt, unnecessarily hurried/impatient, and overly concerned about religion in their political views and behavior.

When asked about the biggest cross-cultural blunders that he has personally observed abroad, Dr. Davis stated, without hesitation, that the miserable failures he has seen are rooted most commonly in U.S. businesspeople “thinking they know more than they really do” about their host cultures and the way that things should be done.

I—based on my own experience abroad and as an instructor of international marketing courses for many years—strongly second this notion. It is, for example, inherent in the related notions of self-reference criterion (i.e., the natural yet not necessarily dysfunctional tendency to interpret events from the perspective of your home cultural ways and beliefs), and ethnocentrism (i.e., the necessarily dysfunctional belief that your home culture is superior to other cultures; and that “we” are “better” than “them”).

You may have heard the saying “the ugly American.” This title is often given to Americans abroad who exhibit ethnocentrism as manifest in exhibition of the negative behaviors and character traits discussed above.

More often than not, when U.S. businesspeople act like “ugly Americans” abroad, they are destined for miserable failure (and the squandering of vast opportunities for spectacular success).


I would like to add to—and end—this “extreme opportunities for entrepreneurs abroad” dialogue with something based on an integration of the advice for entrepreneurs shared by Dr. Davis with key lessons learned from my own cross-cultural experiences (e.g., doing business in Australia and Latin America, living in Guadalajara [Mexico] for a year, living with Zimbabweans for several years, and being married to Mexican national for 17 years).

Turning Opportunities to Fail Miserably Into Opportunities to Succeed Spectacularly  

Yes, it is very true that Americans—particularly U.S. businesspeople—are viewed in many other nations in a highly negative light.

They are seen, as Dr. Davis stated yesterday, as being, among other distasteful things, “uncultured, loud, and brash” and overly blunt and impatient, and overly concerned about religion in their political views and behavior. There is also widespread perception of U.S. businesspeople—which would potentially include the entrepreneur—as being greedy and ethnocentric.

This is of course a stereotype and, as with many other stereotypes, it is based on a relatively small bit of truth blown way out of proportion with rumor, innuendo, and, sometimes, absurd assumptions and theoretical extensions; even outright distortions and lies.

In other words: The vast majority of U.S. citizens and businesspeople living or doing business abroad are not truly “evil” or devious” persons. However, highly negative perceptions of U.S. citizens and businesspersons do exist and perceptions do matter.

This, I firmly believe, is one of those occassions where perception matters far more than reality.

Yes, this sounds horrible and it does present a significant obstacle to entrepreneurs and others venturing abroad. Yet, these perceptions are an obstacle that absolutely must  be overcome to realize opportunities to succeed spectacularly abroad.

Luckily, as I teach at-first surprised students in my international business courses, overcoming this tall perceptual obstacle is relatively easy; at least on an individual/personal basis.

It involves a three-step process.

First, as suggested above, you need to understand that these perceptions do indeed exist and that they are very important.

Second, do not view the existence of these perceptions in a negative light; instead, view them as an opportunity to show persons you interact with in foreign nations that you, personally, are NOT like those that exemplify the negative stereotype of  the “ugly American.”

Third, consistently behave in a manner which reinforces unequivocally the notion that you are NOT an “ugly American.” This means seeing the people you interact with abroad—including business partners and customers—and their cultures as simply different; not in terms of being “better” or “worse.” It means being patient and taking the time to listen to these people as well as exhibiting a strong desire to learn about the ways and beliefs of their cultures. Only then can you—as an entrepreneur and more broadly as a human being—take full advantage of the vast opportunities that exist for U.S. citizens—and entrepreneurs—abroad.

Finally, another way to turn opportunities to fail miserably into opportunities to succeed spectacularly, as both stated and exemplified by Dr. Tom Davis, is to get a liberal arts education with extensive study in a language other than English. As Dr. Davis proudly told the class yesterday: “Thank goodness I had a liberal arts education and took two years of German here at Monmouth College.”

You see, Dr. Davis’ first assignment abroad—to his surprise at the time—took him to a German-speaking nation. He also recounted that he would later come to fully realize that his liberal arts background, particularly the writing and speaking skills he honed here at Monmouth College, would be invaluable to him as a “scientist in business.” In short, when abroad-based opportunities came Dr. Davis’ way, he was prepared and his liberal arts background was instrumental in his being spectacularly successful over the course of a 45-year career in international business.

Thank you Dr. Davis for sharing your remarkable cross-cultural and international business insight with us yesterday!


Prof. Gabel


Dr. Hiroyuki Fujita ‘92: An Ongoing Cross-Cultural Entrepreneurial Tale of Perseverance and Purpose

We were very honored to have Dr. Hiroyuki Fujita as our guest speaker in Midwest Entrepreneurs this past Tuesday. Dr. Fujita, a 1992 mathematics and physics graduate of Monmouth College, is the Founder, President, and Chief Executive Office of Ohio-based Quality Electrodynamics (QED), a developer and manufacturer of state-of-the-art radiofrequency antennas used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines (

Two primary themes emerged from Dr. Fujita’s fascinating presentation; perseverance and purpose. These are both themes that we have heard discussed by other entrepreneurs in class this semester. However, Dr. Fujita’s cross-cultural journey and the nature of QED’s business rendered his perspective on these themes unique.

On Extraordinary Entrepreneurial Perseverance…

Hiroyuki Fujita’s perseverance was discussed early on in his presentation (and was exhibited early on—and often—in his entrepreneurial journey). He told the room full of students and honorable guests—including Monmouth College benefactor Ralph Whiteman ‘52 and Dr. Fujita’s wife and two sons—that he was assured a comfortable life in Japan upon his projected graduation from Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University ( However, after only two years at Waseda, Dr. Fujita came to the United States to study briefly at the University of California – San Diego and then here at Monmouth College.

Dr. Fujita brought with him to the United States what he called “a big dream.” This dream was to challenge the protocol-driven, status-quo-based culture of his homeland and to achieve his full potential in the United States as an entrepreneur. But this dream was achieved neither quickly nor easily. Extraordinary perseverance came into play at several key junctures.

Perseverance is demonstrated, first, by the fact that when he arrived in the United States in the late 1980s, Dr. Fujita spoke essentially no English. Have you ever had trouble understanding the spoken English of someone whose first language is not English? Imagine what Dr, Fujita went through. Not only did he not speak the language spoken by his professors but his home-country language is radically different than ours (due mainly to it being based on an entirely different alphabet). This significant language hurdle did not deter Dr. Fujita from achieving his—intermediate and facilitating—goal of college graduation from a school in the United States; with a double-major from Monmouth College.

Dr. Fujita once again showed extraordinary perseverance several years after earning his Ph.D. in physics from Case Western Reserve University in 1998. This time the perseverance involved the actual start-up of his own company; what is today QED.

Toward the end of his doctoral studies, Dr. Fujita began working for Picker International, a leading firm in the MRI industry. While the position provided him valuable experience, he felt he needed greater challenges after about two years. It was at about this time that, as he told the class yesterday, he began to be driven by the belief that “I can do more.” By “doing more,” Dr. Fujita meant not only do more than work for someone else but, more importantly, to personally be the driving force behind positive change as an entrepreneur.

But, yet again, this pathway within his dream was traversed neither quickly nor easily.

He persevered through several more years of working for other firms in the MRI industry; first as the director of research and development for USA Instruments and then as director of engineering for General Electric (GE) Healthcare (after GE bought out USA Instruments). He told the class that while during this time the urge to be an entrepreneur festered within him, he learned lessons that today he understands as invaluable (particularly given the fact that he had taken no business-related classes as a student and had no other formal business training). He patiently learned, for example, how small, innovative companies operated while at USA Instruments. At GE, in spite of a large-corporate environment that he felt somewhat stifled innovation, he learned all about being competitive and “politically tough and savvy.”

Then something unexpected happened…

While at GE, saw an opportunity to innovate the MRI RF coil industry after the State of Ohio presented a significant grant to Case Western Reserve University to create high-tech medical equipment manufacturing businesses in Ohio for job creation. Dr. Fujita resigned from GE and accepted a position as the director of imaging physics at Case Western Reserve University. He then worked with top executives from Siemens and Toshiba, two of the largest MRI machine manufacturers—and top technology firms–in the world. These were executives familiar with Fujita’s expertise and innovative desires and capabilities while at Picker, USA International, and GE. They wanted him—and they wanted to help him—start up his own company to supply them with innovative devices critical to the effective performance of MRI machines. This, as he explained it, was the “once in a lifetime opportunity” that he had been looking—and waiting for years—for. QED was incorporated in March of 2005.

But guess what… Yes, his path to successful dream realization was again obstructed; and perseverance once again was displayed. This time the obstacle to be overcome was a series of “non-competitive” issues that had to be worked out with Fujita’s former employer. Dr. Fujita bided his time acting as a faculty member at Case Western Reserve. Finally, in February of 2006, QED began formal operations in a 3,500 square foot building near Cleveland, OH.

But guess what… Again, there were obstacles, delays, and perseverance. Due to the fact that all medical devices must undergo extensive testing and governmental approval, QED was not able to begin actually selling its products until after having received US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. This critical approval was given in November of 2007.

And FINALLY, with FDA approval, Hiroyuki Fujita’s desire to “do more”—as part of his “big dream” to realize his full potential as an entrepreneur in the United States—could now start to be realized.

So… What we have to this point is (1) an extraordinarily driven man with an entrepreneurial vision to personally be the driver of positive change, (2) faced with obstacle after time-consuming obstacle, who (3) persevered—time after time after time—to finally be able to meaningfully pursue his entrepreneurial dream.

But the story does not end here… There is much more than perseverance to the ongoing cross-cultural entrepreneurial tale of Hiroyuki Fujita. This is where the notion of purpose comes into play.

On Higher Entrepreneurial Purpose…

I have noted repeatedly here that Dr. Fujita’s ultimate goal all along has been to personally be the driving force behind positive innovation and change. More specifically, with QED, his purpose is to continually be on the cutting edge not only of technology but highly sophisticated technology which better diagnoses illness and injury and, ultimately, helps many people lead better and longer lives.

Dr. Fujita shared with the Midwest Entrepreneurs class an interesting story in this regard. He stated that a contact of his while at Case Western Reserve University once came to him with two colleagues—medical doctors—who had expressed an interest in starting their own company. These two persons wanted some advice. Dr. Fujita asked them why they wanted to go into business for themselves. Their reply was “to make money.” The conversation, according to Dr. Fujita, then ended abruptly; after he had advised the two doctors that success as an entrepreneur requires a far higher purpose than simply making money.


As I now draw near the end of the writing this blog entry, I feel that I am doing a horrible disservice to both Dr. Fujita and Midwest Entrepreneurs students. This is mainly because I feel that there is so much more to this fascinating story of entrepreneurial success than what I am here able to at best superficially address. But, alas, there is only so much that I can detail in this format and venue… In the words of Dr. Fujita: “I Can Do More” (and I am painfully aware of how much more).

Let me leave you—particularly the members of the Midwest Entrepreneurs class—with this elongated final thought.

Dr. Hiroyuki Fujita, a 1992 graduate of Monmouth College who came to this country able to speak very little English in the late 1980s, has accomplished truly remarkable things in what is a relatively short period of time (particularly when you consider that QED was not able to actually sell its products until FDA approval in late 2007). He was so respected by top executives of some of the most prestigious technology firms in the world that they worked with him to start his own company. And, lastly, remember that this phenomenal entrepreneurial success story has been driven both by Dr. Fujita’s realization that “I Can Do More” as well a purpose far higher than making money. His success has also has been predicated significantly on repeated exhibition of extraordinary perseverance.

I imagine that Dr. Fujita will never stop thinking that he “can do more.” What do you think he will have accomplished in five or ten more years? Twenty?

Thank you Dr. Fujita for sharing your ongoing entrepreneurial journey with us!

And thanks also to Ralph Whiteman ’52 for helping bring Dr. Fujita and his family to campus for the 2013 Wendell Whiteman Memorial Lecture.


Prof. Gabel

PS: For further information regarding the history and accomplishments of Dr. Hiroyuki Fujita ‘92 and his QED colleagues, please see the following.


“Be the Answer to the Problem” – Healthcare Services Entrepreneur Kathy Gabel

Today is International Women’s Day (see: Fittingly, with this blog entry, I wrap up (unofficial) Women’s Week here in the Midwest Entrepreneurs class at Monmouth College; the first week of the semester wherein all of our guest speakers have been female entrepreneurs.

Yesterday’s guest was—my cousin—Kathy Gabel, who heads two healthcare service firms in southeast Iowa; Iowa Based Home Services ( and Advanced Home Health Care (

Iowa Home Based Services began operations in 2009 with the goal of helping intellectually and developmentally challenged persons, as well as those living with mental illness, live independent and fulfilling lives. Services are provided both in-home and at various locations in the community. Kathy Gabel started the company with one customer and one employee. Today, the company serves approximately 85 customers at any time and has 110 employees (with a payroll of about $2.4 million).

The mission of Advanced Home Health Care is to “enhance the health of our communities by serving as a leader in providing compassionate, comprehensive and cost-effective home health care to individuals of all ages.” It is a home health care firm providing a wide range of in-home nursing services (e.g., skilled care evaluations, pre and post-operative care, diabetic care, patient and care giver education, home tele-monitoring services, medication management and administration, and pain management). It also provides a wide range of rehabilitative, respite, and support services; all customized to the individual needs of clients. The company began operations in 1997. Kathy Gabel acquired it from the original owner in April of 2012 and has nearly doubled the number of clients served since that time.

Kathy’s presentation to the class yesterday was our first journey into the massive, intertwined, complex, heavily regulated, and dynamic world of healthcare and healthcare service provision. The nature of the healthcare landscape and the evolving array of healthcare service options is, in a word, mind-numbing. I can attest to this as someone who has, in the last year or so, tried—with near incessant frustration—to navigate through this landscape in an effort to see that my elderly and ill parents receive proper care (and are not bankrupted in the process of receiving it).

All of this complexity and dynamism made our class presentation yesterday the most difficult to meaningfully understand. It also renders this blog entry the most difficult one of the semester to write; despite knowing the guest speaker well and having experience with one of her two companies.

So, if I had to choose one thing for Midwest Entrepreneurs students to take away from the presentation it would the issue of Where Opportunity Lies and How Best to Take Advantage of It (and the fact that it often lies hidden, waiting to be taken advantage of by courageous entrepreneurs who see opportunity where and when others do not).

Kathy Gabel has found opportunity in several places and in several ways of doing business. First and foremost, as featured in the title to this blog entry, opportunity (a) is to be found in the problems of others, and (b) is to be best taken advantage of by creatively solving those problems better than anyone else. In other words: Be the Answer to the Problem.

As I emphasize in virtually all of my classes, the notion of business success being predicated significantly on one’s ability to be a trusted solver of client problems is true in some way for virtually all businesses. It holds especially true, however, in the healthcare field where those in need of care—and their families—often face a myriad of serious, complex problems. During class yesterday, I asked Kathy how many of her customers would essentially be “completely lost” with regard to their healthcare and payment options without the assistance of her companies. Her answer was “Probably 99%.” In today’s healthcare landscape, problems—let alone the full range of possible answers to them—are fully understood by very few people. The key point of competitive differentiation and advantage for both Iowa Based Home Services and Advanced Home Health Care lies in the fact that Kathy and her dedicated employees strive to understand the unique situations of their clients and to then provide them with the best possible solutions—in terms of type of care and how to pay for it—to their current and possible future problems. The first step here, according to Kathy, is to always listen closely to the client; then know their situation, then present possible solutions, then help them solve their problem. This is how lasting relationships with clients and their families are built. It is also how to generate all-important positive word-of-mouth communication about a service company. Toward this end, Kathy employs a Benefits Coordinator and actually does Medicare, Medicaid, and other paperwork for clients and prospective clients (often at no charge).

Another source of opportunity recognized and exploited by Kathy Gabel involves opportunity hidden within the heavily regulated nature of the healthcare sector. Here, the entrepreneur sees opportunity where others see, in essence, a heavily regulated—and ever-changing—mess. She knows there is great demand for her services yet she knows that healthcare regulations are tedious and burdensome for both service providers and, as suggested above, customers. She sees opportunity, however, in understanding the heavily regulated mess that many today perceive our healthcare system to be. As demonstrated, in heavily regulated and complex fields where there is great consumer demand, there are vast opportunities to be realized by investing the substantial time and effort needed to thoroughly understand the law and its implications for both service providers and customers. I would venture to say that in the healthcare arena today, the ability of the entrepreneur to exist as the go-to source of problem solutions for customers is predicated nearly equally on (a) listening to customers, and (b) knowing and staying current on relevant healthcare law. Neither task is easy but both are absolutely necessary.

Kathy Gabel has also seen and capitalized upon opportunity in an economically depressed area in tough economic times. As a result of originally being from Keokuk, Iowa, one of the two towns southeastern Iowa towns in which Kathy’s companies are based, I can attest to the fact that the area has seen far better times economically. Such a scenario—an economically depressed area in the midst of a persistent regional and national economic downturn—is hardly the ideal scenario for entrepreneurs looking to start and grow businesses. Yet Kathy has done just that; with not one but two companies. She sees opportunity in a community that many would be scared to venture into (and many have fled). Part of the answer lies, no doubt in her love of the community and its people and being driven to help better the lives of area residents. Part of the answer may also lie in her filling of what might be best called a “service void” created by the perceptions of others. I have seen this here and in other small towns manifest in only one or no market entrants in certain service sectors where there is obvious unmet demand. Many potential entrants apparently do not see enough profit potential to merit their investment of time and money. Smart entrepreneurs know that “enough market demand” is not the same for all and that the absence or departure of market entrants means more opportunity for them.

Finally, Kathy Gabel’s ongoing entrepreneurial venture epitomizes the fact that opportunity often lies in wait as one persists and perseveres through less-than-ideal circumstances in pursuit of true passion. As she told the class yesterday, Kathy’s true passion is for nursing and helping people in her community live better lives. This passion led her to earn a nursing degree from Southeastern Community College—in Keokuk, IA—and then to work in a variety of nursing-related jobs for nearly 20 years. These jobs included being a school nurse and, most notably, a nursing home executive administrator. While working these jobs, her entrepreneurial spirit was always lurking; running an antiques business with her husband and looking for an opportunity to herself direct a nursing-related firm. Her opportunity to pursue her passion as an entrepreneur presented itself when she became dissatisfied with the circumstances of position as a nursing home administrator. This dissatisfaction, coupled with both her growing knowledge of healthcare-related law and frequent first-hand exposure to the fact that most nursing home residents would rather be at home with their families, drove Kathy to finally become an entrepreneur in the home health care field.

For the entrepreneur, opportunity is to be found in many forms and in many places and at many times; many of which will not be seen or taken advantage of by others. As exemplified by Kathy Gabel, it is of critical importance to the entrepreneur to know which opportunities are right for you and when to pursue them. Further, in her case, taking full advantage of opportunity ultimately comes down to Being the Answer to the Problem; the serious and otherwise incomprehensible problems faced by many of those in need of healthcare services in the southeast Iowa area.

Thank you Kathy for sharing your fascinating entrepreneurial story with the Midwest Entrepreneurs class yesterday!

No class nor blog posts next week due to Spring Break at Monmouth College. Enjoy the time off but take care not to enjoy it too much.


Prof. Gabel

A “Real People Person” Passionately Pursuing “Destination” Status

Yet another snowstorm did little to stifle either attendance or enthusiasm in yesterday’s Midwest Entrepreneurs class.

Our guest speaker, Susan Kaufman, Proprietor of Market Alley Wines spoke to students with great enthusiasm and pride about her nearly two year-old wine shop and lounge located in downtown Monmouth (

The first topic of Susan’s presentation echoed one of the issues noted on my last blog post regarding common themes emerging from student “Famous Entrepreneur” papers; the notion that successful entrepreneurs often work a variety of seemingly unrelated and trivial jobs before finding success in pursuit of their true passions. Susan, a journalist by training, spent roughly 25 years of her adult life working as, among other things, a corn detasseler, a lifeguard, an usher at Wrigley Field, a landscaper, a freelance writer, and a salesperson for a nursing home.

Eventually, Susan began to think about what she really wanted to do. She stepped back and looked at all that she had done and tried to figure out what it was that she really liked—and did not like—in her previous series of jobs. She realized, above all, that she was, as she put it, “a real people person.” She recounted also being inspired, at the time, by several Galesburg, IL retail businesses—Calico Cat and Mimi’s—that appeared to be run by “people persons” due to the fact that they were conspicuously concerned with getting to know their customers and remembering seemingly trivial details of their lives. As she said of Calico Cat: “They went out of their way to know you.”

So, Thing to Remember #1 With Susan Kaufman, we have “a real people person” who, after working at a string of unrelated and relatively uninspiring jobs, is inspired by other “people persons” running their businesses with a keen focus on customers; so keen as to conspicuously seek to get to know—and connect with—their customers.

Thing to Remember #2 Susan opened a business involving not only a personal passion—wine—but a passion involving a product and a consumption experience that she was convinced there was significant unmet demand for in the Monmouth region.

In this regard, Susan informed the class that she had become a “wine lover” after spending a summer in France. But love of a product—and a certain consumption experience of it—does not indicate that there is sufficient market demand for a business based on it; even if there is nothing like what you have in mind in the trade area. Evidence—hard, data-based evidence—of adequate demand for the business Susan eventually developed came from her reading of a study commissioned several years ago by the City of Monmouth which she referred to as The Buxton Report. This report indicated, among other things, that Monmouth-area residents spend very large sums of money on wine outside of Monmouth itself. This data, coupled with her love of both wine and consumption of it in a classy, fun environment, drove Susan to make the decision to open a wine shop and lounge in Monmouth.

But not just any wine shop and lounge…

Which brings us to Thing to Remember #3…

Susan Kaufman strives to make a Market Alley Wines a “destination.” By “destination,” I believe she means a retail store in a trade area where people from within as well as well beyond the area specifically seek out and go out of their way to experience. Such a store is “the place to go to” in the area to such an extent that it literally pulls people into the area just to go to that particular store. Susan’s stated inspiration to pursue “destination status” for her entrepreneurial venture was yet another successful Galesburg business; Innkeeper’s, an entrepreneurial coffee house and roastery ( As Susan put it, the owners of Innkeeper’s “built a destination” drawing people to the Galesburg Seminary Street business area and she wanted to do the same with her own business here in Monmouth.

Susan Kaufman, a “real people person” with a glowing passion for wine, has been pursuing “destination” status for Market Alley Wines for almost two years now. By all accounts, she is almost there. As she told the class, while she gets a surprising volume of business from local residents (and not just the Monmouth College faculty and students one would think), many customers travel from as far away as Macomb, the Quad Cities, and Burlington, IA to experience the wine and the atmosphere to be found at 59 Public Square in downtown Monmouth, Illinois; the street address for Market Alley Wines.


Prof. Gabel

“Famous Entrepreneurs” Assignment Leads to Meaningful Insights

I just finished grading the second class writing assignment—the Famous Entrepreneur paper—and am highly pleased with the outcome. In fact, I am pleased to the point of writing about it.

Three main reasons exist for my pleasure. First, the students scored high—an average of 91%–and, thus, exhibited significant learning. Second, as I read through the papers, it was obvious to me that the vast majority of students had really “gotten into” the assignment. Third, some extraordinary insights were gained looking at the papers collectively. In the latter regard, conducting what we scholars refer to as a meta-analysis—in small-scale form—led me to compile a list of “common themes” explanatory of the famous entrepreneurs’ successes. The top five emergent themes are listed below.

1.         Good work ethic learned at an early age

2.         Creation of a significant innovation 

3.         Working a variety of usually trivial jobs prior to entrepreneurial success

4. (tie) A focus on quality goods or services offered

4. (tie)  Perseverance/patience

I wish to further comment on the top two “themes of entrepreneurial success” as featured in the papers (on entrepreneurs including Ray Kroc [McDonald’s], Mark Cuban, Howard Shultz [Starbucks], Phil Knight [Nike], Jeff Bezos [], William Wang [Vizio], John Deere, Coco Chanel, Herb Kelleher [Southwest Airlines], Rick Hendrick [Hendrick Motorsports], and others).

Well over half of the class papers discussed strong work ethic learned at an early age as being a key factor in the success of the focal entrepreneur. While the presence of this category may not be that much of a surprise, at least one of the two subcategories that emerged within it may well be. First, and most commonly, the entrepreneur was discussed as having been born into at best modest means and then working extraordinarily hard to both, in a sense, overcome their situation of birth and, eventually, experience extraordinary success as an entrepreneur. In the second, less common subcategory, the entrepreneur was born into at least relative wealth but worked in similarly extraordinarily hard fashion to succeed on their own. My point in bringing this up is that the “relatively wealthy” persons here, while no doubt having some initial advantages over their lesser-privileged counterparts in this category, worked just as hard and developed a similar work ethic (which similarly led to their phenomenal entrepreneurial success).

Bottom line: A strong work ethic and extraordinarily hard work is necessary for entrepreneurial success (no matter the circumstances of one’s birth or background).

Over half of the class papers also discussed creation of a significant innovation as being a key factor in the success of the focal entrepreneur. As with the discussion of work ethic above, it is not all that surprising to see this category emerge from the papers. However, the insight to be gained, again, is found in the emergent subcategories within. Here, while several of the innovations were the more recent high-technology innovations one would expect, several others were (1) older technological innovations that hardly seem high-tech anymore (but were cutting–edge at the time), and (2) innovations that have very little to do with mechanical or computer technology. Exemplary of the latter non-tech innovation was, for instance, Ray Kroc’s success with McDonald’s being founded significantly by pioneering the concept of franchising as a means of growing and managing a retail chain. As one of the two students studying Kroc astutely pointed out, his success was just as much a result of being in the real estate business—via selecting and owning the land on which McDonald’s stores were built—than it was selling hamburgers and other food items. Other non-tech innovations written up in the papers dealt with how the entrepreneur was able to effectively transform the consumption experience in the focal industry. Examples include (1) turning previously mundane coffee consumption into an upscale experience for millions of people (Howard Shultz at Starbucks), and (2) creating the convenience-based fast-food sector of the restaurant industry (Ray Kroc at McDonald’s).

Bottom line: Not all innovation driving entrepreneurial success is high-tech (or even based in technology at all). 

So… Congratulations students on doing a good job on the papers.

And thanks for making the grading experience pleasurable with your many meaningful insights into the success of some of the most successful and famous of all entrepreneurs.

See you Tuesday.


Prof. Gabel

Painting a Clear Portrait of Entrepreneurial Success in a Tightly Interconnected Community

Our guest speaker in Midwest Entrepreneurs class yesterday was Mr. Joe Thompson of Thompson Brothers Painting, Inc., a Roseville, IL-based commercial painting firm specializing in the painting of grain bins and storage buildings. .

Early on in the entrepreneurial tale shared with the class, I was reminded of something I have written previously in this class blog: Business as it can and should be; facilitated, in large part, by a keen focus on providing superior value to the customer. However, Joe Thompson’s success story provided me with further clarity on the issue.

While there are no doubt numerous reasons why we keep hearing about entrepreneurial success attained by focusing on the customer and otherwise conducting business the way it can and should be conducted, one clear answer as to why this theme is so common snapped sharply into focus while Thompson was speaking. This “reason why” is, in short, community interconnectedness. Here in the Monmouth area, everyone essentially knows everyone else; at least indirectly through someone else they are related to or know very well. In Joe Thompson’s case, he is (1) one of nine siblings, most of whom either run their own local businesses or work for one another, (2) the brother of Bill Thompson, the mentor of last week’s class speaker Will Zimmerman, (3) a neighbor and good friend of John “Beefy” Huston (who spoke to the class early in February), and (4) heavily involved with a wide variety of local charities and other community-based organizations (in fact, he had to end the class a bit early to be on time to volunteer-coach a basketball game at a Monmouth school).

Another way of understanding what I am getting here is to realize that in a tightly interconnected community such as this one, a business owner cannot get away with treating customers poorly. This is not to say that they would like to “get away with it” even if they could; they simply both know better and know no other way.

We, as business students and faculty members, frequently hear the refrain “focus on the customer” in a general sense; as something that all businesses must do to be successful. However, we just as nearly often hear about—or personally experience—what can probably best be characterized as “horrible customer service.” You must ask yourself who or what does this horrible service typically come from? Does it come from local entrepreneurs and local family businesses? No…

And the reason why, again, is that entrepreneurs doing business on a local or regional scale  know that the negative word-of-mouth communication that would emanate from treating customers poorly—and spread like wildfire amongst the local social network of closely connected persons—would do significant harm to their businesses and themselves personally. So, what local entrepreneurs like Joe Thompson focus on doing is treating customers right; so as to engender the spread of positive word-of-mouth communication (leading to new customer referrals and, more generally, a stellar reputation for the business and entrepreneur in the community).

Hopefully, Facebook or some other means of—probably as-of-yet-to-be-created entrepreneur-initiated—social networking will one day soon render the too-often not very true “business truth” of “treat the customer right” as applicable on a national or global scale as it is today in “small-town Midwestern USA” (as exemplified here in the Monmouth area).

However, treating customers right was far from the only necessary component of the portrait of entrepreneurial success painted in class yesterday by Joe Thompson. Chief among these “other”  needed keys to success was having clear expectations of the total cost of running a business.

While we have heard about having a realistic feel for the cost of running a business from others this semester, Thompson was adamant about the issue. Looking at his business from a long-term perspective gives one a good idea of the overall cost of growing a business. Back when he bought the business from his brother Frank 38 years ago at the tender age of 18, the company owned one car, one paint sprayer, and one truck. Today, the company owns 12 sprayers, 10 trucks, and three bucket sprayers. From a more short-term view, the entrepreneur must accurately anticipate the cost of running this fleet of vehicles. Further, Thompson explained that his company annually purchases 3,000-4,000 gallons of paint at an average cost of about $25 per gallon (i.e., $75,000 to $100,000). He also must pay wages to the eight or nine persons that he typically employs in the busy summer months. And while gas for business vehicles, the cost of paint, and wages paid to workers might seem to be obvious—and easily anticipatable—costs for a painting business, other just-as-significant costs are often not so clear. Thompson ran through a long list of “other costs” including workers compensation insurance, health insurance for himself and his family, vehicle insurance, material price increases, and the cost of meeting at times dynamic OSHA, EPA, and other governmental regulations.

On top of all of these costs, Thompson warned that taxes can be a particularly significant burden on the entrepreneur. He stated, in this regard, that about 50 percent of his potential profits are instead paid in taxes of various form.

The bottom-line message to the aspiring entrepreneur should be clear: Before you start getting excited about how much money you can possibly make with a particular business idea, you must do all you can to calculate the totality of the costs that will be incurred—in the short and long run—in running the business. If the reality of cost is not adequately considered early on, your dreams of sales and profits are likely to be little more than fantasy (and the business may well join the legions of other entrepreneurial ventures that quickly fail).

Finally, Joe Thompson explicitly shared two pieces of valuable advice with the Midwest Entrepreneurs class. The first was “build as you have money.” Here, Thompson urged the students to be very careful not to take on more debt that can be handled to grow the business. He stated that he had taken out but one loan for his business; a $2,200 loan to buy the business 38 years ago. The rest of the cost of running and building the business—including the vehicles—was paid for in cash. Perhaps another way to state “build as you have money” is to say “avoid spending money you do not have.” Good advice for us all; entrepreneurs or not…

The second piece of advice offered by Thompson was to “use quality products.” In the case of Thompson Brothers Painting, Inc., this means using top-quality brands of paint that are, as Thompson stressed, viewed as being of high quality by customers. Adhering to high quality standards in this dual manner ensures not only that jobs will be done right (and last longer/not have to be redone sooner), but that customers will have confidence that the job will be done right in advance of it being done.

The portrait of entrepreneurial success for Joe Thompson is now clear and complete. Focus on and provide superior value to the customer. Do all you can to initiate the spread of positive word-of-mouth communication. Have and maintain intimate knowledge of the total costs of running your business. Build the business with money that you have (i.e., avoid debt). Use quality products that are “high quality” in terms both of actual performance and customer perception.

Business as it can and should be in a tightly interconnected community.

Sounds easy, right? We know better. Our speakers often make it look easy but it is not.

Thanks to Joe Thompson for sharing with the class his personal story of ongoing entrepreneurial success!

Two more next week…

See you then.

Best regards,

Prof. Gabel