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Published: Sunday, 3/18/2007

Local business owners credit mentors with helping them succeed

Stacey Turner, left, says that for the first year and a half in her florist business, she leaned on mentor Jean Emery, right. Stacey Turner, left, says that for the first year and a half in her florist business, she leaned on mentor Jean Emery, right.
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DO YOU REMEMBER your first-grade teacher? How about an early boss who inspired you to do your best? Or an associate who taught you a valuable business lesson years ago that still comes in handy?

Perhaps they were mentors.

Many small-business owners rely on mentors when they start their enterprises. They can be other business owners, retired executives, a favorite university professor, trusted advisers like accountants or lawyers, close family members, or even total strangers.

Before Stacey Turner opened Blessed Blossoms, a flower and gift shop on Lagrange Street in Toledo, seven years ago, she sought advice from a florist she had never met, Jean Emery, who operated Emery's Flowers & Company in Maumee.

Laurie Melchior Huskisson and her father and mentor, Jerry Melchior, pause during a check-in at one of their firm's projects. Laurie Melchior Huskisson and her father and mentor, Jerry Melchior, pause during a check-in at one of their firm's projects.
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"She allowed me to come into her shop, look at the operation, her delivery system, how she ordered items, everything," recalled Ms. Turner. "For the first year and a half I leaned on her. She told me if I was bold enough to [start a business] she would be willing to help."

She was introduced to Ms. Emery through Assets Toledo, a local group that holds classes for would-be entrepreneurs. Ms. Emery, who ran the florist business more than 20 years with her late husband, Ronald, said she readily agreed, "trying to give back to the community as much as I could."

She told the newcomer about the long hours and dedication required. "Sometimes family and friends are neglected, sometimes your homemaker duties are neglected. Business does come first."

On the practical side, she advised not buying in quantity until the business grew and to be prompt in paying suppliers.

Olivia Holden, executive director of Assets Toledo, said she always tries to steer the students to mentors. Sometimes more than one mentor is needed, said Linda Fayerweather, who owns a business coaching firm, Changing Lanes LLC, in Maumee and who is co-executive director of the Women's Entrepreneurial Network.

She advises entrepreneurs not to be afraid to ask. "Very seldom will a mentor say no," she said.

Some mentors persevere.

Jack Chezek, one of about 40 advisers in the local chapter of SCORE, which counsels small businesses, re-membered one woman who started a retail shop.

"She called me 20 to 25 times the week I was on vacation in Florida," he said, adding that's just part of the job of volunteers. "You're always there for them."

Advisers consult with hundreds of area entrepreneurs annually, and often bring in as many as five counselors at a time, he said.

"We don't pretend to have all the answers, but we have all kinds of experience - engineering, marketing, accounting, finance, banking," he said.

A number of area business owners and executives recalled learning not so much the nuts and bolts of the business but rather values, philosophy, and style from their mentors.

Bill Bostleman was 31 when he became president of Bostleman Corp., a large contracting firm in Springfield Township, after the 1998 death of his father, Dick, in a boating accident at the age of 53.

"My father and I worked together for six or seven years before he passed on, and I try to emulate him," he said.

His mentors are his father and his grandfather Fred, who founded the firm decades ago.

"From both I learned an entrepreneurial spirit," he said. "Don't be afraid to try things. And the values: Do the job right, and more will follow, and always look to the bright side, the silver lining."

Mr. Bostleman said he always remembers the greeting his grandfather, now 85, leaves on his telephone recorder: "Keep smiling and one foot in front of the other."

After years of working in other fields, Laurie Melchior Huskisson joined her father's business, Melchior Building Co., a Perrysburg builder of custom homes, 19 years ago.

She had some construction-estimating experience but not in the home-building industry, and said she felt "this is a man's business."

But Ms. Huskisson, now president of the firm, learned the inner workings of the business from her father, Jerry Melchior, who himself had learned the business from several mentors after a career running an insurance agency.

"I learned tenacity from him," she said. "And I admired his entrepreneurial spirit. What struck me about my dad was that whatever he did, he was self-employed, and his output dictated his income."

Her father said she inherited a good work ethic and is not afraid to complete a project. If she made a mistake, he said, he told her to learn from it so as not to repeat it.

Sometimes, a mentor will inadvertently create a competitor.

Rick Brunner, president of Toledo's Signature Bank, and five other former officers of Sylvania's Capital Bank started their own institution five years ago after Capital was acquired by Fifth Third Bank (Northwestern Ohio).

He said his mentors were John Szuch, now chairman of the local Fifth Third operation; Robert Sullivan, co-founder of Capital along with Mr. Szuch and now a Fifth Third executive; and Bruce Lee, another top Capital officer who also went with Fifth Third.

"All three of them had different styles, but all were effective in their own way in mentoring and counseling.

"They were great role models for us and certainly had an effect on me [in such ways as] building relationships with people and thinking strategically. John was always available, always open to talk to you."

For his part, Mr. Szuch said his proteges picked up a strong work ethic and a high level of attention to detail and to personal service.

"I don't believe you teach in class," he said. "I believe in leadership over management. You set the tone as a leader."

Sometimes mentors never know the full value of their teaching.

Fifty years ago, Sidney Robbins, left the University of Toledo after nine years as a finance professor to return to Columbia University in New York City.

But today, he is praised by many of former students, including John Neff, who ran Vanguard Group's huge Windsor Fund for three decades.

Mr. Neff, now retired, said in a telephone interview from his home in Berwyn, Pa., "He convinced me that to be a successful investor it's not necessary to be an Ivy League graduate or from the upper class."

His mentor opened his eyes to the fascination of the investment world, an industry in which he did very well. Two years ago, Mr. Neff donated $1 million to UT to create the Neff Trading Floor in the College of Business Administration. He also wrote a book in 1999, John Neff on Investing.

Contact Homer Brickey at: homerbrickey@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.

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