A year ago the Ohio unemployment rate was nearly 10 percent, foreclosures were still running high, and bankruptcies were only slightly down from a year earlier -- not the best time for Toledo personal trainer Vince Ceniceros to be thinking about opening his own gym.
"I was rehabbing houses at the time and it was either keep rehabbing houses or try to open a business," Mr. Ceniceros said. "I'm a risk taker, so I decided to take a risk."
Not only did his Extreme Results by Vince fitness gym get launched, but his small business has succeeded enough this year to enable him to expand its space and add classes.
"Surprisingly, I did 10 times better than I thought I was going to do," he said.
His performance is an indication that, with the right formula and effort, some business start-ups in the Toledo area are succeeding in a sluggish economy.
Furthermore, many existing businesses have grown over the last three years during and right after the national recession, defying the times which have sent other firms to their graves or bankruptcy courts.
Van Spears, owner of the Copy Shop, a copying business in Bowling Green, has watched his business grow despite bad timing on his part.
He bought the business from its longtime owner in January, 2008, right at the start of the last recession.
"What a genius I was, huh?" Mr. Spears said.
But Mr. Spears, who spent a career selling office equipment, said his sales experiences opened opportunities to expand his business. The Copy Shop doubled its sales the first year, and has tripled its business the last four years by reaching $900,000 in sales this year, he said. He expects $1.2 million next year. He started with three employees and now has 11.
"I'm a firm believer in the positive attitude and that no matter what your situation is, it can carry you a long way," he said. "The economy didn't really deter me. It's certainly been a challenge for me in the way it would be for any small business owner."
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George Mokrzan, chief economist for Huntington National Bank in Columbus, said that despite the larger picture that shows a weak economy, there have been indicators of strength which may explain why some small businesses are doing well.
"There's a lot of noise in the media and a lot of that is well-founded fears on the Euro-zone crisis," he said. "And the U.S. fiscal crisis was not a pretty event this year."
But, he added, "The U.S. consumer has really done a great job in 2011. Retail sales on a year-over-year basis, they actually are up pretty nicely 7 percent from October to October.
"If [a small business] can come out with a product or service that is good, I think there is a market now. And I think that's an important point that may not have been the case a few years ago."
Mr. Ceniceros, in between fitness classes that average about 25 people a class, said last week, "I'm definitely surviving. I'm living off of this."
Demand has been strong enough to expand from his start-up of 2,800 square feet to 4,000 square feet. He's added 15 more punching bags and 1,000 feet of mat space.
"My classes kept growing and I said if I don't expand, I might lose business because it's going to be too crowded. So I took a chance, and I'm glad," Mr. Ceniceros said.
Another company that took a chance was the Appliance Center in Maumee.
The company expanded its store in 2009 to include furniture, bedding, and other home furnishings. It also has added workers and its sales are "up a little bit," Appliance Center manager Jim Gryzwinski, said. "We're still expanding. We've gotten into our furnishings and flooring and cabinets now, so we needed more people. If it wasn't for our expansion, I don't think we'd be in business today. You do what you need to do to survive."
The economy has been both cruel and beneficial to R/P Marketing of Toledo, a public relations firm begun in 1993.
In April, it finished a 2,400- square-foot addition, added four employees to bring its work force to 35, and began a niche marketing division that works with hospice groups.
Then one of its largest clients decided this fall to reopen its account for bids. "We opted not to participate in that," R/P owner Martha Vetter said.
The decision to move on without the client forced temporary layoffs of four staffers. "We knew the bulk of the revenue was going away for a short period of time, and we didn't want to be in a precarious position," Ms. Vetter said.
But the change also has presented the company with an opportunity to grow even bigger, she said. Staff was refocused to help launch a marketing division that will serve groups and associations.
"Normally to lose a large piece of business would scare the bejeezus out of me," Ms. Vetter said. "But this was a perfect time to dive in and do a ton of that new business-associations work. We had wanted to do this before but we were too busy to do other work."
Brandon Cohen, a University of Toldeo business school professor who focuses on entrepreneurship, business law, and finance, said it is not surprising to find many small businesses doing well because the weak economy has forced small businesses to focus on key work and provide more value to their customers.
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If a business finds its market is shrinking and its financial life threatened, an owner is more likely to do what is necessary to survive, he said. "That owner will ask himself, 'How do I really get back to growing my business?' The answer is by focusing on what you do well and making sure your customers are satisfied," Mr. Cohen said.
Great Lakes Marketing, a Toledo firm that does market research, product testing, and focus groups, is one of those firms influenced by the economy to make changes.
But those changes, which included moving to a larger building and purchasing new technology, have gained the company more work, owner Lori Dixon said. "We have expanded our space and added technology. We have hired [10 employees] and we've been able to hire amazing people," she said. The firm now has 66 staffers and its sales have been up 52 percent since 2008.
"I don't want to say we're not affected by the economy, but we do a lot of work for companies that have to stay in touch with their customers in good times and bad by necessity," Ms. Dixon said. "I think they look at every dollar they spend now as being harder to earn, so they better not spend money on products that don't resonate with the public or messages that don't work."
As a result, many firms are now eager to test products or hold focus groups in Toledo, because the city has gained a reputation for being a perfect demographic cross-section of the country, she said.
Not complaining is Jason Yono, who with his brother Branden opened Ritter's Frozen Custard in the Westgate Village Shopping Center in Toledo at the start of this year. They have managed to break even on sales and expenses.
"The economy is bad, but typically ice cream places are pretty recession-proof. Ice cream, it's kind of a treat-yourself item," Mr. Yono said. "It's done pretty good. We haven't blown the doors off yet, but ice cream places typically take a few years to get going."
The store began with six employees and still has six, but Mr. Yono said he knew the business needed to expand despite the economy, so it hired a person to make ice cream cakes, and it is pursuing corporate-catering jobs.
"We'd like to see a little more sales, but it's one of those things where we're just getting to learn the business. We think next year will be much better," he said.
Not every start-up has managed to succeed, though.
Toledoan Melvin Surprise saw a need for an old-fashioned delivery service for fast food, groceries, and other sundries, and decided to give that a go last April. His Mr. Silver Delivery business, however, has been sporadic.
"It hasn't worked out like I hoped," he said, adding that he is hindered by not having much of an advertising budget. "It has worked somewhat. I have got some people who have called, but not a lot," he said.
The concept was customers call Mr. Silver, who purchases groceries, fast food, beer, or other small items. The client pays for the items, plus a $4 delivery charge for one stop. He delivers within the 43612, 43613, and 43623 ZIP codes. He felt the service was perfect for people without cars, the disabled, or the elderly.
He hasn't given up yet and will stay with it another three months, but if business doesn't pick up he may have to move on to other job opportunities.
Meanwhile, business has been booming for Jen Myers of Genoa, an independent sales contractor for a new Web site, DailyDealsForMoms.com, a Groupon-like concept that offers local and national items and services at a large discount to the Web site's users.
Ms. Myers, who used to teach classes on using coupons, joined Denver-based Daily Deals for Moms a year ago as a sales representative. Her job is to contact businesses and get them to offer deals on the Web site, for which she receives a commission.
The poor economy, she said, is fueling business for the site and providing her with a nice income while working mainly at home.
"In this economy, it's kind of the perfect storm," she said.
"It really has been an awesome ride for me for the past year."
Contact Jon Chavez at: email@example.com or 419-724-6128.