That breed of business person who takes big risks all on his own, works long hours of overtime with no extra pay and measures success as much in personal satisfaction as in dollars and cents, got a couple of rounds of heartfelt applause in Union and Wallowa counties last week.
Award winner: Greg Barreto of Baretto Manufacturing and Lisa Dawson of the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District share a light moment during Thursday’s PubTalk at Foley Station. Baretto was named the NEOEDD’s Union County Entrepreneur of the Year. - The Observer/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
Celebrating National Entrepreneurs Week, the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District tapped Greg Barreto of Union County and Kathy Shoemaker of Wallowa County for the district’s first Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
In a “PubTalk” event Thursday at Foley Station in La Grande, the NEODD singled out Barreto, owner of Barreto Manufacturing, as an innovator who has earned the community’s respect.
Barreto, who makes a world-famous brand of rototiller, started his business in a Salem-area garage in the 1980s.
He initially marketed the machine at trade shows. He built a reputation for quality, and eventually his enterprise took off.
In 1987, he moved to Union County. Today, he employs about 60 people in buildings at the Union County Airport industrial park and at a location near Hot Lake.
Before a crowd of about 40 at Foley Station, Barreto told his entrepreneur’s story. It all began, he said, with a belief in himself.
He had worked as a mechanic in rental yards and knew a thing or two about rototillers. He felt he could build a better one than those he serviced.
“I was looking for other avenues. I felt my potential was greater than that,” he said.
At the trade shows, rental companies including U.S. Rental showed much interest in Barreto’s hydraulic machine.
Barreto borrowed capital to keep the business ball rolling. Orders kept coming in. The garage got too small.
Times were better but still lean when Barreto moved with his family to Union County. For the first few months, they lived above the shop near Hot Lake.
Marketing mostly to rental companies, the business continued to grow and the Barretos finally were able to move into a house.
They added employees and filled their orders on time. Still, there were ups and downs. The year 1988 was a good one, but a recession in 1989-90 forced the layoff of some employees.
Some of those employees were called back and have shared in the company’s successes since then. Last year, Barreto said, was the best on record.
An emphasis on quality is one reason for the firm’s continued success, Barreto said. Another — and perhaps bigger one — is the quality of the people who make the machines.
“I know people who say the worst thing they have to deal with is employees,” Barreto said. “But I don’t feel that way. If you respect your employees, that view is reciprocated.”
Summing up, Barreto had a few words of advice for the people in the audience.
“Get a good accountant, pay your bills on time and live by the Golden Rule,” he said.
In presenting the award, Dawson said Barreto is the kind of businessman who recognizes opportunities, takes calculated risks and builds a success around the opportunities.
He was one of six nominees considered by a committee for the award. Dawson said any one of them would have been deserving.
“The competition was keen. There are many worthy entrepreneurs in Union County,” she said.
The evening at Foley’s featured other speakers as well, including local entrepreneurs Leah Starr and Greg Johnson.
Starr, owner of Kneads Bakery, kept the crowd laughing with her story about building a successful business in downtown La Grande.
“People kept telling me about all the grants you can get, but it’s not grants, it’s mortgages,” she said.
Starr said when she looks back on her entrepreneurial journey, she seems to recall her mistakes and failures more than she does the successes she has enjoyed.
“I’m the kind of person who learns a lot from not getting it yet,” she said.
She once planned a “Brownie of the Month” sales campaign, but somehow it never got off the ground. She told of a series of false starts that came to nothing.
“I thought I’d make money in my sleep, but that was a delusion. It’s funnier now than it was at the time,” she said.
Though Starr has owned her business six years, she is only now beginning to feel confident in its future.
She said things took a big positive turn late last year when several cafes and restaurants in Union and Baker counties started placing wholesale orders for her baked goods.
“It feels warm and fuzzy to shine a light on that,” she said.
“Failure for six years and success for the last six months is the reality.”
Another speaker on hand was Greg Johnson, owner of Benjamin Brown Books and Billiards in downtown La Grande’s Old Towne Mercantile.
Johnson opened his business in September 2002. He described the years since then as a period of “continual growth.”
He has survived, he said, by developing an enterprise with several different profit centers, including used books and compact discs, pool table sales and restoration, and wine and beer sales.
“I have very little confidence that any one of these could grow to a point where it alone would support us,” he said.
On the book side of the business, Johnson has collected about 30,000 volumes and is constantly scouting yard sales, estate sales and auctions for more. He also buys and sells books via the Internet.
“I stay open to new ideas that keep me working toward the future,” he said. “My business is less like a job and more like a career and that’s what keeps me interested.”
Johnson reached a point where he could hire an employee. Before, he did it all by himself. Now, he can devote more time to activities outside the store, like book scouting.
“The transition to having an employee has been difficult, but it gives me more flexibility,” he said.
With four or five other book stores open in the area, Johnson’s business is not an easy one to be in.
Having that much competition is both good and bad; competition for local dollars is tight, but on the other hand, a concentration of booksellers can be a good tourist draw.
“If people driving down Interstate 84 know there’s four or five bookstores, they’re going to get off,” Johnson said.
Shoemaker bought The Cougar’s Den, a struggling movie and pizza business in Wallowa, two years ago. She, was hailed as an innovator who has the ability to adapt her products to the demands of the local market.
“With incredible determination and with a willingness to experiment, she has turned the Cougar’s Den into a successful business and an important gathering place for the community,” Dawson said.
More than 30 people attended Wednesday’s event, enjoying food, drink and stories about the challenges and rewards of entrepreneurship.
Wallowa County entrepreneurs telling their stories included Brian Coughlan of Northeast Oregon Nursery and Landscaping, Sandy Warnock of Simply Sandy’s, and Judy Taylor of Cup of Blessings.