Small-business owners discuss their history, growth and keys to success

Monday, June 18, 2012

Tipton Linen

Tom Tipton is owner of Tipton Linen in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

It's hard to believe now, but less than 65 years ago most people didn't have laundry washers and dryers in their homes. In the late 1940s, Tom Tipton's father made a living by taking buggies to people's homes, picking up their laundry and returning it, fresh and clean. In 1958 he bought another local laundry business that had started in 1898. A few years later, he switched his focus to commercial services.

"He realized that to be competitive he had to own his own merchandise: Sheets, towels and so on," says Tom Tipton, owner of Tipton Linen & Custom Matting on Independence Street in Cape Girardeau.

After Tipton graduated from Southeast Missouri State University, he moved to St. Louis to work with one of the largest laundry services in the world, then one in Texas. It wasn't long before he came back to Cape Girardeau to work with his father, and he bought the business from him in 1988.

"When you're young you think the big companies must be the best, but I was wrong. My daddy was the best," says Tipton.

What was the secret to his small-business success?

"Concentrating on it, giving it 40 to 50 hours a week and never not working," says Tipton. "You're always trying to do better."

Tipton works with clients as far south as the Arkansas state line and as far north as St. Louis, where the company has another branch. It's fun to work with all types of people and businesses, he says.

For now and years to come, Tipton will be concentrating on the health care industry. With the baby boomers aging and the need for health care is growing quickly, Tipton hopes to meet the need for clean hospital linens.

"They can count on us. They can count on the quality being there, as it has been for 64 years," says Tipton.

Lang Jewelry and Fine Gifts

Judith Anne and Roger Lang are the owners Lang Jewelers in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

When Roger Lang was 7 years old, his job was to come to the family jewelry store on Saturdays and clean the floors, wipe the counters and take out the trash. Lang is 61 now, and he's still doing those jobs at Lang Jewelry and Fine Gifts in Cape Girardeau, a fixture on Main Street for 96 years.

"It's all I've ever done," says Lang, who now owns the store with his wife, Judith Anne.

Lang's father, Hugo Lang, started working at the store in 1905, not long after Nick Wieler opened it. When Wieler died in 1916, Hugo Lang bought the business and ran it for the rest of his life. Roger Lang's aunt and uncle and father also handled the business over the years.

Today, Lang says his grandfather would be shocked by the variety of the merchandise available and by what jewelry costs today. While the business started out specializing in pocket watches and fine silver, it's expanded to include a variety of modern wristwatches, baby gifts and jewelry of all kinds.

"It's not that we got away from jewelry so much as we just got a lot more into gifts," says Lang. "At one time we carried Reed & Barton silver and flatware. Unfortunately, you don't have a lot of people anymore with a silver tea service out at dinner. We just don't have a market for it."

But Lang still sells antique pocket watches and jewelry, and he feels the store will always be known for its high-quality watches and watch service and repair. Lang is the "watch guy" in town, and often gets referrals from other stores.

Lang says big-box stores and the Internet have changed the way people shop for jewelry, but he believes there will always be a place for hometown dealers.

"One of the big things is service," says Lang. "When someone walks through the door they may just be looking, but they are acknowledged and we try to help them with whatever customer service they need. Plus, our service and repair always keeps us going strong."

Judy and A.D. Hoffman, owners of Wib's Drive-In in Jackson, Mo. (Laura Simon)

Wib's Drive-In

The menu at Wib's Drive-In may be smaller than at other barbecue restaurants, but who needs a big menu once you've tried the famous sliced pork shoulder sandwiches on toast?

"There's a lot of labor involved (to prepare the pork), and most people are not going to do that. From that aspect, we're different and unique," says A.D. Hoffman, who owns the Jackson restaurant with his wife Judy. "It's like the old-style barbecue that we used to have and that I grew up with."

Wib's was built in 1947 and opened in 1948. As the story goes, says Hoffman, Wib Lohman owned a trucking company and wanted a place for his drivers to eat, so he opened the restaurant. He sold the business to Jack Hoffmeister a year or so later, and after another 23 years, Hoffman's parents bought the restaurant in 1972.

Hoffman earned a college degree in mathematics and was studying to be an electrical engineer in South Carolina, but ultimately decided to come back home to the family business.

"I decided I'd just as soon do this, so that's what I did," he says. Hoffman took over the restaurant in 1986, and since then he and his wife have remodeled, added more seating and expanded the menu to include a few extra items, like French fries and hot dogs.

Hoffman attributes the restaurant's lasting popularity to its loyal customers. He meets many people who grew up eating at Wib's but moved out of the area as adults. When they come home to the Jackson area, they tell him Wib's is always the first place they visit.

"You have to have good employees, good clientele and a customer base that likes what you serve," says Hoffman."If we keep doing what we're doing we should be good."

Jason Coalter, President of Cape Printing Co. (Laura Simon)

The Printing Co.

Business can get stale and monotonous over time, says Jason Coalter, but The Printing Co. is all about keeping companies in the game.

"We brand businesses and get our clients excited and passionate about their own companies again," says Coalter, president of The Printing Co., which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. "Whether it be a direct mail, logo design, logoed shirt or a koozie cup, we bring innovation and enthusiasm to our clients. We are contagious!"

Coalter's father, Ted Coalter, started the business in 1987, and Jason joined him right out of high school. At the time, he recalls, it was a small company with a staff of two. The company has since acquired two other locations, in Perryville and Farmington, Mo., added another location in Cape Girardeau and employs more than 20 people. A year and a half ago, the company changed its name from Cape Printing Co. to The Printing Co. to reflect its broader geographic reach. Now, it's about to launch a new division focusing on companies with multiple departments or locations.

Coalter attributes the company's growth to loyal clients and dedicated staff, and the relationships between them.

"Be a 'yes' person, whatever it takes," says Coalter. "Clients come to us and stay with us because they know we will do whatever it takes to get the job done on time. Our staff is dedicated and is not afraid to put in an 18-hour day if a client needs it."

For Coalter, the reward comes when he sees clients get excited about their company's new look or a product they just received. It brings new life and passion to their business, and that creates more opportunity for success.

"Don't forget to innovate and evolve. Companies that stay stuck in a box and just try to maintain don't last," says Coalter. "We all have struggles and tough times with kids or family members and we don't give up on them -- we keep encouraging and motivating them to try and excel at whatever the challenge is. Businesses are much the same way: 'Give up on your business and it will give up on you.'"

Pocahontas Lumber

Pocahontas Lumber was an old, rundown lumber yard until Earl Saupe's father purchased it in 1949. Since then, the business has set the standard for quality supplies and service in the Jackson area. Saupe began working there with his father during high school, and he now owns the 63-year-old business.

Earl Saupe, owner of Pocahontas Lumber in Jackson, Mo. (Laura Simon)

When the business started, he says, "Everything was manually handled. You did it all by hand. There were no forklifts or anything, no equipment to help you out. And now, the items we have for sale are just hundredfold."

Saupe says he could never imagine himself doing anything but working in the family business, and that the key to its staying power is good customer service and prices. In fact, the satisfaction of helping people is Saupe's favorite part of the job.

"We just try to be honest with everybody. The main thing is treating everybody like want to be treated," he says. "Hopefully we'll be around for another 60-some years."

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