ASHEVILLE – Eva-Michelle Spicer’s life began like something out of a fairy tale.
Fine jewelry of silver and gold filled rooms steps from her nursery, as did glass cases of sapphires, diamonds, rubies and pearls.
Though her future was never set in stone, the daughter of Eva and Michael Greene and the granddaughter of Lucia and Paul Greene, could not deny her place in the business dynasty.
At just 4 years old, Eva-Michelle was already answering phones at the family store, Wick Greene Jewelers. By the time she was 7, she had made her first $25,000 sale.
When she returned to the shop with her husband and fellow jeweler, Elliott Spicer, the store at 121 Patton Ave. was as familiar to her as her childhood home.
“Holidays, summers — anytime I wasn’t in school, I was here,” Eva-Michelle Spicer said as she stood in one of the showrooms at Wick Greene Jewelers.
But last spring, the newlywed couple bought the 89-year-old jewelry store from Eva-Michelle’s parents and started running the business themselves, which is the part where the fairy tale ends and another story begins.
The couple took a chance and decided to bet on themselves in the business world, one of the most high-stakes arenas a 26-year-old and a 25-year-old can find themselves in outside of a Las Vegas casino. But they know this.
The economy makes but one promise to all entrepreneurs: There will be risk.
Asheville today — with its belief that local matters most — was built on risks taken by a generation that fought off the downtown’s demise, people like Eva-Michelle’s family.
Though risk has changed over time and taken on new forms, the courage entrepreneurs showed then is no less of a necessity today.
As much as anyone in Asheville, Frank Smith knows that to be true.
Smith cast his lines in waters around the world, where he will wait for hours just for the chance to reel in something big.
Though the 73-year-old tries to vacation in Argentina and other foreign countries with great fishing when he can, one of his most rewarding adventures happened stateside and on land.
Smith opened Hunter Banks, a fly fishing store, 30 years ago on Montford Avenue. He said he started it on a whim, but the business has been able to stay afloat because of more than that.
“When we opened in 1985, we were a small fly shop just catering to Asheville. That was really our only goal,” Smith said. “Now we’ve grown and we’re three or four times bigger than we were then, and we’re not only serving Asheville but the entire Southeast.”
These rewards, though, have been a byproduct of great risk.
“Fly fishing is a tiny little niche business, and you’ve really got to be good at it, and have the right people and enough capital to make it work,” he said.
When Smith opened the business, he sunk part of his own savings into the operation. Though two other friends also pitched in and helped launch Hunter Banks, Smith would be the one who would take it a step further and buy them out to own the business outright.
When the recession hit in 2008, the fly fishing shop took a dive. After increasing at a rate of almost 25 percent for a number of years, the shop saw its sales decline 40 percent.
“When you’re thinking of doing it, of opening a business, think of the worst possible case — the worst possible business case that can happen. You have to ask yourself whether are you willing to accept that if that happens,” Smith said. “You sleep a whole lot better at night knowing that no matter what happens, you can survive the next day.”
Ken Flynt, the associate dean of the College of Business at Western Carolina University, said Smith is right: You can’t have success without being confident enough to take some chances and make some bold decisions.
“If there were no risk, there would be no reward and everybody could do it and it would be easy,” Flynt said. “If you’re really an entrepreneur, you’re willing to take the risk. Doing nothing will almost always guarantee that you’re going to lose something.”
According to statistics from the Small Business Administration, about half of all new business establishments will survive for more than five years, and about one-third of all new businesses survive for more than a decade.
As time goes on, the percentage of businesses that survive declines.
From products in the store that just won’t sell to an unexpected loss in profit for months at a time, risk takes many forms and changes with the times.
Today, capital can be acquired in new creative ways, from crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter all the way to more traditional sources like a bank loan. But in the mid-80s, Smith’s method of pooling money together with his friends was one of the few ways to start a business.
“Back then, we were going to be focused on things nearby us geographically. And if we were going to raise capital, we had a very simple and limited amount of options here in Western North Carolina,” Flynt said. “That capital was going to come from friends, family, church members, neighbors — people that trusted you and knew you were a smart person.”
When Paula Dawkins needed a studio and retail space to make and sell her fine, handcrafted jewelry in 1983, she chose a storefront on Lexington Avenue that she could rent for $200 a month. However, the goldsmith’s creations did not fit with demand at the time. The focus had to shift right from the beginning.
“When we first started, Asheville could not support our store as it was, so we did a wholesale line of jewelry and we would sell it at handmade craft shows and galleries,” said Carol Schniedewind, the co-owner of Jewels That Dance, who joined the business in 1984. “You have to be flexible and be able to change with the times.”
When the shop relocated to Haywood Street in 1985, risk tagged right along.
“When we moved out here, things were boarded up. It was a huge risk,” Schniedewind said of Haywood Street in the mid-80s. “There was absolutely no guarantee people would walk down the street and walk in your door.”
As revitalization efforts started sweeping across downtown Asheville, people started to trickle into the downtown district. But with fine jewelry, people do not just walk into a store and decide to make a large purchase on a lark.
Schniedewind credits part of the store’s survival to the fact that the shop still offers jewelry services, like restoring necklaces, retail offerings, as well as Hawkins’ ability to create custom jewelry pieces for people.
When the store on Haywood resembled an art gallery more than a traditional jewelry store, it could have dissuaded people from visiting the small business. Instead, Dawkins and Schniedewind trusted themselves.
“We didn’t look like your average jewelry store. We were more of the gallery jewelry store, the studio store; and that was a new concept for people. Now it’s not,” Schniedewind said. “But when we started, the idea of a gallery store was very different. People didn’t quite know what to make of us.”
After Dawkins became a member of the Southern Highlands Craft Guild, it added a dimension of understanding about what Jewels That Dance is all about. That doesn’t mean it’s easy now, though.
Schniedewind said she still thinks of the business as something that’s still somewhat of an upstart operation, even though it’s been around for 32 years.
“If you’re not comfortable not knowing the answer, this is not the game for you,” Dawkins said of running a small business. “I believe it to this day: Everything is a risk. Everything’s a gamble.”
Contemplating next steps
The Spicers felt the weight of three generations of business owners on their shoulders when they bought Wick Greene in May. It wasn’t just a store or a retail space. It was a piece of local history.
“When you look at it, about less than 25 percent of family businesses make it to the second generation. Less than 10 percent of those make it to the third generation, and less than 4 percent of those make it to the fourth,” Eva-Michelle Spicer said.
Before the Greene family entered the business, a man named Ernie Wick left New York for Asheville in 1926 and opened a jewelry repair shop. The store, then called Pick Wick, was located on Wall Street near the spot where Early Girl Eatery now serves its Southern fare.
In 1942, Wick was able to take on an apprentice at his downtown Asheville shop. That apprentice was Paul Greene, who after learning the jewelry business from Wick, became a full partner in the business in 1953. Thus, Wick Greene came to be.
The store has gone through many changes since. The trade shop turned into a full-service jewelry shop in 1971, complete with jewelry manufacturing and a retail store. Four years later, Paul Greene’s son (and Eva-Michelle Spicer’s father), Michael Greene, joined the family business.
In 1986, the store moved into the old Exxon gas station on Patton Avenue, and transformed it into the jewelry store that stands at 121 Patton Ave. today.
The young jewelers aren’t just leaning on name recognition, though. Eva-Michelle Spicer said they need to make jewelry shopping an accessible experience for the next generation of customers. That’s why the store now offers a range of pieces, from as low as $25 all the way up to “the sky’s the limit,” she said.
In retail, it can be especially challenging to stay competitive in an ever-changing and rapidly expanding global marketplace.
When Wick Greene Jewelers opened — and even after it moved to Patton Avenue — Western North Carolina was a very different place for business because, Flynt explained, entrepreneurs could find success in a less crowded marketplace.
“Go back three or four decades. Geographically, Western North Carolina was very isolated. We weren’t worried about what was going on in Western Europe,” said Flynt. “You had to be successful within 5, 10 or 20 miles. You weren’t worried about what someone was doing 100 or 1,000 or even 10,000 miles away. That’s just not the case anymore.”
The hardest thing
Despite the number of gift shops in the Asheville area, Robin Campbell has been making her business, Dolce Vita, succeed despite all odds.
Campbell had only been working at the Wall Street gift store for four months when the owner pulled her aside and asked Campbell if she would like to buy the business.
At first, Campbell laughed it off. In her four months as an employee, she had been reworking the store and helping with product presentation and even suggesting what might sell, but even so, she never saw herself as an entrepreneur.
“It was my mom who said I had to do this. She saw something in me that, at the time, I did not see in myself and she co-signed the lease, got my grandmother to give me part of my inheritance and I bought the business January of 2003,” the 40-year-old said. “I’m on my thirteenth year and it is hands-down the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. I’ve been through so much with this store.”
When she took over at Dolce Vita, Campbell was living with her parents and still learning what it meant to run a business of her own.
“I went without a paycheck for at least the first two to three years. I would pay for my cellphone, because it was the business cellphone, and give myself tiny bits here and there, but I had to put everything I could into the business,” Campbell said. “I always made sure I paid my employees, but I didn’t think it was as important that I got paid, too.”
Listening to her customers, she said, has been crucial to the store’s longevity. Initially, the shop sold wine and beer. Today, she said, the beer is gone and a selection of wines that “you can’t get at the grocery store” can be found on the shelves.
Change, she said, is the only constant.
“Once you think you have it figured out, that’s when you get kicked in the butt. That’s when something will come out of left field that you can’t even imagine happening.” she said
The new wave
Though fear was not the primary driver in Jenna Yarosh’s decision to open a pet supply store in 2011, it certainly loomed over her as she looked for a location. On paper, she knew her experience was not exactly a straightforward recipe for success.
Her first-hand business experience was limited to years working retail jobs, both in the pet industry and outside of it.
She had no formal education in the realms of economics or business. Instead, she had gone to college for animal science and a minor in sociology.
“It was like risking my whole future because it was my whole future in Asheville. If I really wanted to stay here, I knew I had got to make this work,” Yarosh said of opening Patton Avenue Pet Company.
For hours at a time, Yarosh surveyed people at the dog park at French Broad River Park.
“I sat on a bench and asked every person I could about where they buy their food, and why they buy it there and whether they would be open to the idea of what I was trying to do,” she said. “I went to trade shows and I researched things. I was so scared the whole time because I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
In 2011, her business opened in a renovated house in West Asheville. The demand surprised her, but the store outgrew its space quickly. In June, Patton Avenue Pet Company opened a second location in downtown Asheville. Though it was the best option for them at the time, there was still a risk. Success on the West side did not guarantee success in a second location, too.
“The biggest risk was that we would be working so close to our other store. They are only about 3 miles apart from each other. We didn’t want to cannibalize our own business and make people choose,” she said.
The hardest lesson for the new entrepreneur, so far, has been learning to keep feelings out of the business.
“My dad’s number one piece of advice is that you can’t put emotion into business,” she said. “I keep telling myself that I have to keep it objective. Even if I love this new dog toy, but the toy’s not selling, then I can’t have it in the store. No matter how great it is, if people aren’t buying it, I can’t have it.”
Though she called her father, who is a businessman, on a regular basis during the first two years, she said that the rules of operating a small business are being rewritten in real-time.
“They speak about business as if there’s all these rules telling you that you’ve got to hit this number and hit that number to be successful. But you’ve got to have heart; you’ve got to fit into Asheville and there’s no way to enumerate that,” she said. “You have to talk to people and see what people want and what kind of feelings that your business brings to your community. You have to be a little more creative because the rules have changed.”
It’s one of the reasons why she does not advertise in traditional forms of media, and spends her advertising and marketing funds almost exclusively on Google and Facebook ads.
These skills, said Flynt, the WCU associate dean, need to be learned by small business owners, whether their shop has been in operation for 10 months or almost 100 years.
“To me, marketing has changed more than anything else in business,” he said. “These days, you’ve got funeral homes that are using social media to reach people, because you don’t send cards so much anymore, you send emails.”
At the end of the day, though, running a business comes down to courage and knowing when to push and when to be patient.
Asheville’s existing beer culture attracted Jessica Reiser, her husband, Doug Reiser, and their friend Tim Gormley to move out of Seattle and open a brewery on Asheville’s South Slope.
They didn’t get nervous until a slew of other breweries announced they were heading to the area, too. She wondered if their new operation would be special enough to stand out from the pack.
“I remember feeling that way when we were still living in Seattle and decided everything about coming to Asheville,” she said. “The good thing is I think everybody, currently, brings a different personality to the table as far as their brewing, their branding and what they are passionate about.”
To hedge their bets, though, the brewery started small. When the brewery opened in June 2013, it was a one-barrel system with no employees except for the trio of founders. They were only open three days a week.
The brewery is now working toward building a beer garden behind their South Slope location by summer and is looking for a place to set up a farmhouse brewery.
But there’s always the element of surprise in business, no matter how carefully an entrepreneur plans. Reiser said that’s been the number one lesson she has had to learn.
“It’s a lot like having kids,” she said. “It really forces you to figure out how you can handle situations that are challenging and stressful. But if it’s what you’re passionate about it, it outweighs any stress associated with the risks you take.”
Article source: http://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/02/28/asheville-businesses-take-risk-rise/24195175/