Sidestepping the recession

Durango entrepreneurs find ways to cut costs, make cash

Eric Sirois, co-founder of Rent-a-Man, sands a piece of wood for a bathroom he is remodeling. When the housing boom went bust, Sirois adopted his business strategy from developing a sustainable homebuilding business to a handyman business. Enlarge photo

ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald

Eric Sirois, co-founder of Rent-a-Man, sands a piece of wood for a bathroom he is remodeling. When the housing boom went bust, Sirois adopted his business strategy from developing a sustainable homebuilding business to a handyman business.

Eric Sirois was an independent contractor with a steady stream of business before the recession hit. Suddenly, demand tanked for new construction and Sirois saw his goal of becoming a sustainable homebuilder slide further out of reach.

Instead of sticking it out in a struggling industry, Sirois looked for other ways he could market his skills. He struck success with Rent-a-Man, a professional handyman service that tackles anything from landscaping to repair work to remodel jobs.

The business was “definitely recession-driven,” Sirois said.

People may not be building new, but they always need to fix their homes, he said. And while budgets are tighter, people still are making and spending money, “you just have to find different avenues” to attract those dollars, he said.

In the four years since the economy began its downward slide, the recession has taken a heavy toll on Colorado’s businesses. The state lost 151,600 jobs in the recession and has recovered about only half of them so far, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

But for every business that went under, dozens of others have continued to survive through tough economic times. Many local business owners said one key to keeping their doors open through the recession has been to adapt their business practices or, in Sirois’ case, change their business all together.

Holly Zink, owner of Sunnyside Farms Market, says her business grow 20 percent during the last three years. One of her keys to success has been a constant focus on introducing new products to keep people interested, Zink said. Keeping cash-strapped customers in mind, the market also expanded its selection of more affordable meats. It has made a point to avoid downsizing staff or installing automated service options – something many other companies have been forced to do to cut costs, Zink said.

Amy Long, owner of April’s Garden, said she has found success in veering away from another cost-cutting measure many businesses adopted during the recession: eliminating advertising.

“I figured out what advertising was working and kept plugging forward with it,” Long said.

She also makes sure to keep expenses flexible, expanding or reducing orders almost daily to make sure costs always stay in line with sales. Her business has increased so much that she has hired six employees over the last six months.

As a finance coach and co-owner of an Internet marketing firm, Matt Kelly found that he could lighten his monthly expenses by cutting rent costs. Kelly ditched his downtown office and started renting shared space at the co-working facility DurangoSpace. It “cut costs dramatically,” he said.

Kelly was able to trim his monthly rental payments even more by moving his personal-finance classes from in-person to online classes. The new medium allowed Kelly to expand his reach and avoid the expense of renting classroom space, he said.

The Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center has seen a clear spike in people looking to tweak their business or start a new one, said Joe Keck, the center’s director. In 2009 and 2010, the number of clients the center counseled rose from 300 to 430. The demand for classes focusing on procuring government contracts has had the most dramatic increase in recent years as businesses look for a stable source of revenue, Keck said.

A steady revenue stream was on Amie Johnson’s mind when she rented a building on North Main Avenue to start Red Lantern Catering. The building’s proximity to Durango High School and hungry students at lunchtime was a big plus, said Johnson, who plans to open the catering business in August.

The business itself also was a response to the recession, Johnson said.

“I would have done a bed and breakfast if the economy had made me feel I could hire employees,” she said.

ecowan@durangoherald.com

Eric Sirois, co-founder of Rent-a-Man, measures a bathroom for a remodeling job. Sirois said Rent-a-Man is “definitely recession-driven.” In tough economic times, “you just have to find different avenues,” he said. Enlarge photo

ISAIAH BRANCH-BOYLE/Durango Herald

Eric Sirois, co-founder of Rent-a-Man, measures a bathroom for a remodeling job. Sirois said Rent-a-Man is “definitely recession-driven.” In tough economic times, “you just have to find different avenues,” he said.