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October 19, 2011
Upstate entrepreneurs cautiously upbeat

Frank Ruby, owner of Blue Ridge Hobbies says business is going so well that he is looking for a larger space. / KEN OSBURN/Staff
By Jenny Munro, David Dykes, and Angelia Davis | Staff writers

Small-business owners, the backbone of the state and national economies, say they’re seeing mixed signals in the local economy, with optimism for modest gains and improving
business conditions tempered by fears of another recession.

By nature, these entrepreneurs are a hardy group.

“If I can sell cakes at the economy’s absolute worst, I know I can sell them during better times,” said Andrea Goodjoin, owner of Divine Desserts by Andrea in Greenville

Goodjoin began her cake-baking business in the midst of the last recession, leaving her job to become a baker in 2008. She not only survived but expects growth will continue as the economy improves.

shares a bakery now. With proceeds from a Michelin Development Upstate loan, she intends to move to her own storefront early next year. Over the Labor Day weekend, she began operating a cart in Haywood Mall and has hired one employee, who works with her on weekends.

When Bruce Yandle, an economist who is the dean emeritus of Clemson University’s College of Business and Behavioral Science, looks at economic data, he sees nothing that “suggests there is any perceptible positive current in the economy.”

“The data I see suggest we are moving along a bumpy road,” Yandle said.

Still, he points out that he looks at past data and business owners tend to look at the present and the future.

“They look at the numbers of people who come in. They are looking at the future. I would put a good bit of credence in what small-business men and women think,” Yandle said. “They are risk-takers. But they’re also the survivors of a tough period, so that suggests they are cautious risk-takers.”

A recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business showed a modest gain in small-business confidence in September. The NFIB said small-business optimism gained 0.8 points, ending a six-month decline.

“But about the only good thing to say about it is that the index didn’t go down,” the NFIB said. “The net percent of owners expecting real sales to improve became less negative by 6 points, ‘rising’ to a negative 6 percent. The net percent of owners expecting better business conditions in
six months ‘rose’ 4 points to a negative 22 percent, not exactly a euphoric development.”

The NFIB said the future for small-business sales remains weak and fewer owners are
investing in their businesses.

Twenty-eight percent of small-business owners reported that poor sales are still their top business problem, the NFIB said. In fact, poor sales have been the top business problem for small-business owners for the past three years, the association said.

Access to credit isn’t a widespread problem, with only 4 percent reporting that financing was their No. 1 business problem, the NFIB said. Ninety-two percent reported all their credit needs were met or that they were not interested in borrowing.

“An increase in consumer spending would be the best imaginable stimulus right now, not gimmicky Washington policies,” said NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg. “The key to economic recovery is restoring the confidence of consumers; only then will small businesses begin to see the sales they need to expand.”

Justin Kopelman, a 2009 Clemson University graduate who opened a Pita Pit restaurant on College Avenue in Clemson two years ago, said the current economy is forcing small-business operators to refocus their marketing.

During the summer, he offered punch cards, allowing customers to receive a free pita after they bought nine, Kopelman said. Customers who filled their cards were entered into a drawing to win an iPad, he said.

Frank Ruby, owner of Blue Ridge Hobbies on North Pleasanburg Drive near the Cherrydale Point shopping center, said sales last month were up 7 percent over last year and that’s in “a discretionary business .” “Nobody needs model trains to survive, but our business continues to increase so we have to move to bigger digs,” Ruby said. “So, we’re saying, ‘So what's with the economy.’ We’re going to keep plugging along.”

He is preparing to move to a new, expanded location, partly because his Internet business has increased, Ruby said.

“Small-business owners are typically an optimistic lot,” said Frank Knapp, president and chief executive CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce. But they also tend to be conservative by nature, he said.

“Obviously, there’s still consternation and concern about what the economy is going to do,” Knapp said.

Barbara League, chairman and CEO of G.F. League Manufacturing Co., said her Greenville company “has drastically changed the way we do business” in recent months. The changes, however, have been the result of growth rather than a contraction during the recession and a slow recovery, she said.

The company has experienced few problems during the last three or four years because of the diversity of its client base, she said. When one company slows, another in a different industry is growing, League said.

Employment at the plant, which does fabrication for various industries, has grown in the last several years although it still has fewer than 30 workers, she said.

And that growth is a cause for optimism and some fear, she said. The family-owned company has bought the old Wunda We've facility at 2200 Poinsett Highway and is renovating it with plans to move production there in several months.

The 140,000-square-foot facility has been empty for several years.

G.F. League has run out of space at its 25,000-square-foot facility on Furman Road, where it has been since 1936, League said.

League Manufacturing has diversified since its beginning in 1917 as a wholesale lumber brokerage. In the 1930s, it began manufacturing textile machinery replacement parts.

“For the first 40 to 50 years, we were exclusively married to the textile industry,” League said. But when the textile industry began faltering in the 1960s, “we knew we needed to diversify and fast.”

2009 Article
Blue Ridge Hobbies Grand Opening

When Frank Ruby couldn’t find the model railroading products he wanted, he decided to make the search easier on himself and others by opening a business.

This week, he’s celebrating another expansion of that business, Blue Ridge Hobbies.

The store has moved from a 1,200 square foot space at 2327 North Pleasantburg Drive to a 2,400 square-foot space across the street at 2400-F North Pleasantburg Drive, beside The Home Depot.

The new location allows Ruby to display, add new merchandise, and double the amount of products.

Frank Ruby works on a model train display at Blue Ridge Hobbies' new location. (GEORGE GARDNER / Staff)

The store’s new additions include the “Wall of Track,” the introduction of more than 60 new brands of supplies, and the offering of how to classes on most aspects of model railroading, Ruby said.

The store will also add radio controlled planes, cars, and boats.

Blue Ridge Hobbies will continue to offer model railroading items for beginners up to craftsman. The items available include everything from track and scenery to trains and detail craftsman modeling kits.

The store also responds to the new demand of model railroading with the introduction of DCC (Digital Command Control) operation for Model Trains several years ago.

“It’s kind of like the convenience store of model trains” or hobbies, he said. “If you need it, you can come down to the store and it will usually be on the shelf. It’s rare that it’s not.”

Ruby started the business online at his home in 2005. He opened his first retail site across
the street from the store’s new location in 2007.

The business has grown in products and sales in spite of the recession.

Ruby said sales are up 38 percent in year-to-year comparisons, from January to
September 2008 and 2009. The sales total last year compared to this year’s projections
will be up 29 percent, he said.

“When we first opened we were nickels and dimes – literally,” he said. “We were lucky
some months in the first year to make $9,000 in sales. We do that in a day, day in a half, now.”

Geoff Duncan, a long-time customer of Blue Ridge Hobbies, believes model railroading is
somewhat recession proof because it’s a relatively modest hobby as hobby expenses
go - you get a lot of bang and pleasure for the buck” and “it is a great at home
hobby that doesn’t require a lot of traveling overhead to get there.”

Duncan attributes Blue Ridge Hobbies’ success, in part, to “substantially
discounted products” and Ruby’s knowledge as a model railroader and businessman.

Blue Ridge Hobbies’ grand-opening celebration is Oct. 1- 3.

Customers can register for drawings for free items contributed by major wholesalers during the celebration.

Business writer Angelia Davis can be reached at 864-298-4276.


This page was last updated 08/06/2020


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