Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Good News? Maybe if You Squint...

Pulte Homes said Tuesday it would cut another 16% of its workforce. Since 2006 the company already eliminated nearly 25% of its workforce. Okay, now here's the good news--these further cuts will save the company about $200 million on a pretax basis as its restructuring continues.

Ann Arbor based Borders Group, Inc., the nation's second largest bookseller reported a larger than expected first quarter loss. And now the good news--the "bookseller did not provide any earnings outlook, but is eyeing a return to earnings growth in 2008, Chief Executive George Jones said." (reuters)

Midland's Dow Chemical, which acquired Union Carbide in 2001, owns the infamous Bhopal chemical plant, site of the 1984 accident that killed 3800 people. The good news? They are not responsible for any cleanup since they never operated the plant. An Indian firm, Bharuch Environ Infrastructure Limited (BEIL), is slated to burn the remaining waste. Although environmental activists are concerned about transport of the waste to the incinerator in Gujarat, and have filed a petition with Bhopal High Court to prevent the move, the state run Gujarat Pollution Control Board supports the incineration. "We cannot get emotional. Let's burn the waste and forget it forever," GPCB secretary Sanjiv Tyagi told Reuters.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

More Tabloid News from Michigan

Man fined for using free Wi-fi. Picked up in the Netherlands as international high tech irony.

20-Story Michigan Building on Sale on eBay. Our real estate market is so weak that if you are trying to sell the tallest building in Battle Creek, eBay is your best chance of reaching someone, anyone, who can buy it! The owner says eBay is a good tool that "reaches a whole lot of people." Well, yes.

Canadian with Beaver Dam Bombs is Detained in US.
The Ontario man, held and questioned by US Customs officials, claimed he used the suspicious device to blow up beaver dams along his trap line. According to the Soo Evening News, the beaver dam story was not confirmed, so why did WTOL in Toledo make that the story?

Found Poem on Brood XIII (Cicadas are Coming!)

Something apolitical...

Cicada nymphs can wait no longer
Seventeen years of living underground
Harmless animals
Said to taste like almonds
With the texture of avocados and a nice crunch
I will settle for a tee shirt

Monday, May 21, 2007

Music, Prosperity and Legislative Priorities

During this state budget crisis, a lot of people are asking if the arts should receive funding from the state. Last month, arts advocates rallied in Lansing to protect funding already in the pipeline. The situation in Michigan is so grave that school funding will most certainly be cut next month. So why continue to advocate for arts funding?

I met with Charles Avsharian to get his thoughts on the arts, music and business in Michigan. A violinist, educator, entrepreneur and CEO of Shar Music Company, Avsharian was born and raised in Ann Arbor and has a unique perspective. His own independent spirit instigated what eventually became Shar Music Company.

Now in its 45th year, Shar began when Charles, a student at the Curtis Institute, managed to sell strings to Philadelphia Orchestra players at a discount unmatched by dealers at the time. The young conservatory student had the moxie to sell strings to the legendary ensemble renowned for its amazing string section. Chicago had brass, but Philly had strings–the “Philadelphia Sound,” cultivated by music director, Eugene Ormandy. Avsharian’s father, observing Charles in action, pursued this business idea and began selling strings by mail order from Ann Arbor.

At the age of 29, Avsharian brought his single-minded focus to the company and made two shocking career moves for a gifted violinist. In his second year as a violin professor at the University of Michigan, Avsharian resigned. Shortly after that, he declined the position of concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony. He made these choices in order to help grow the company with his father, Michael, and brother, Michael Jr. "At that point I made a full commitment to working for the company," he said. " Because I'm competitive by nature, it became my role to develop the company. I was lucky I had a brother and father in whom I had complete trust." Avsharian's son, Haig, is the current President of Shar.

Today, Shar employs over 100 people. A full service music company, Shar specializes purveying everything you could possibly need to play, teach or learn a bowed string instrument. They have an extensive website, a showroom in Ann Arbor and a booming mail order business.

Avsharian attributes Shar's consistent growth and success to being in the right place at the right time. "We offered a discount nationally when no one else did,"he said.

I asked Avsharian if he sees benefits to being based in Michigan. "I never thought about it that way. As far as our company goes, for mail order, we could be anywhere. All that was required in the beginning was a first class post office," he said. With the internet and shipping options beyond U.S. mail "we could be in a cave in Colorado and it would still work."

On further reflection he added,"Has Michigan been good for Shar? Yes. There are communities that have a lot of musical activity and interest--Grand Rapids, East Lansing, Okemos, Toledo, Ann Arbor. The Great Lakes states provide a significant component to Shar's business. There are a lot of school music programs and orchestras in this region."

"I think Michigan has a lot going for it. It is an attractive area. But there are short term problems. Mind you, short term could be 50 years. The Detroit area is changing; the surrounding areas are growing with new businesses. The government really needs to upgrade conditions for the underprivileged. We need to get things going to take care of people. But there are so many checks and balances in government, sometimes nothing happens,"he added.

On the subject of budget cuts to arts programs Avsharian remarked provocatively, "The arts are totally unnecessary. Man can live without music; he doesn't need it to live. He wants music. He can live without paintings. He doesn't eat them; they don't shelter him. He wants to look at paintings. He wants the arts."

Clearly an advocate for arts education, Avsharian said,"the only way the arts are going to make it is if the media steps up. In the U.S. the media makes things happen. We have to help young people get into the arts. Government is negligent in this. There are always other priorities. I would wish that our legislators might more carefully think over the important question regarding funding of the arts and education in the arts. I would ask them to help mold the political will of our government so as to embrace the notion that the Great Lakes State might also become the Great Arts State."

Can the market cultivate arts appreciation? Avsharian drew the distinction between active and passive responses to music,"You need to get young kids to feel the pleasure of making music. Not just putting it in their ears, but creating music." To this end, Avsharian would like to find a way to give back to the community. "I have an interest in getting kids started at no charge, perhaps through a pilot program somewhere. It's something I want to make available, a gift." But it is still in the concept stage.

As for Shar surviving in a tough economy, he said,"Oddly enough, in every economic downturn, and there have been some big ones in 40 plus years, Shar does better. I'm not an economics professor and I don't really understand it. More than likely we are dealing with people who can afford more regardless of the economy and who value developing musical skills in their children. They understand that studying music and playing an instrument are beneficial to brain development."

Shar emphasizes the role of teachers in its business. "The most important thing for this company are the teachers. We have a saying around here--the teacher is queen. They are the people we need to inform and take care of. They want convenience, variety, quality, free shipping. We need to help them better serve their students and students' parents."

So there you have it: the symbiotic relationship of the arts, business, education and government-self evident to entrepreneur in the arts. Now, how about the folks in Lansing? Could we really be the Great Arts State?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Business Ambition Meets Social Conscience

Downsizing doesn't have to be the end of hope and future plans. For many entrepreneurs it marks the beginning of their independent small business careers. Sharon McRill, owner of Betty Brigade, had spent six years helping develop Borders web presence when she was downsized over four years ago.

"I was one of the original five people that started We built the website up so much that it was sold to Amazon. We did a really good thing for the company, but worked ourselves out of a job. We didn't know that's what we were working toward," McRill remembers. "Yes, I was downsized, but I got a stock option buyout and took all that money and put it into creating this business. Failure was not an option."

"I was literally sitting on my couch, feeling sorry for myself watching Oprah do a show about living your best life and starting your own business, when I realized I could start a business," McRill said.

"I started what I'm doing now on a much smaller scale for family and friends, while looking for another job," said McRill. But demand for her services grew rapidly and she found that working as a personal assistant/concierge worked best as a full time occupation.

Since then, the company has grown into a full service concierge company that provides organizing, party and event planning, wedding planning, pet care, and residential/business moving coordination, and referrals. Currently based in Ann Arbor, McRill plans to open another office in West Bloomfield, an area with high demand for Betty Brigade's services. She hopes this expansion will ultimately lead to national franchising.

"Starting a business is by far the hardest thing I have done. An entrepreneur needs to be strong-willed and even stubborn; they can't be wishy washy. You have to really want it. You have to be able to weather the storms and work smart,"McRill advised. Part of that is finding and utilizing the abundant small business resources currently available.

"Early on I put together a mentor/adviser team of about eight people who meet with me quarterly over dinner and share their advice," she said. McRill also has a long range business plan that she reviews and revises annually.

McRill firmly believes in the power of giving back to the community. A portion of her business consists of giving referrals to local companies that provide services that her company does not. Although she doesn't collect a fee of any kind for passing on business to other companies, she contends that this generates good will and future business for Betty Brigade. She also has developed a reputation as a "green" business, due to the large amount of recycling that results from her company's work and a Waste Knot partnership with Washtenaw County Waste Reduction.

Betty Brigade participates in charitable projects, as well. "My company helped build a Habitat for Humanity house last year. Called Rainbow House, it was the second Habitat house in the nation to be built by the LGBT community. I ended up donating $10,000 of company resources to help build the house," McRill said.

With respect to the business, economic and media climate in Michigan, she acknowledges the negative tone and bad news, but counters it with openness and realism. "There are some very serious issues. Michigan has seen better days, but there is a lot of new technology and new industry coming. If you pay attention, you'll see it. The biotech industry in Michigan can become unrivaled in the next five to ten years, if it is allowed to flourish," she said.

"I can't save the world, but I am responsible for my own little plot of land, which is where my business is. If I can take care of that, I can feed my employees and feed myself, while taking care of clients."

That's sound advice for anyone in Michigan right now.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hope for LGBT Homeless Youth in Southeast Michigan

Up to 42% of homeless and runaway youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, according to the National Runaway Switchboard--a number vastly disproportionate to the general population. What does this mean for the Detroit area?

Grace McClelland, Executive Director of the Ruth Ellis Center, says we are in the midst of an epidemic of LGBT homelessness. "The estimated number of homeless youth not receiving shelter services in Detroit on any given day ranges from 1,600 to 2,000. Of those, 640-800 homeless LGBT youth are on the streets of Detroit every day," according to a recent report by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, titled "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth: An Epidemic of Homelessness."

The Ruth Ellis Center, created in 1999, provides short-term and long-term residential safe space and support services for runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Detroit and southeastern Michigan. It is one of only four agencies in the nation that specifically focus on the needs of LGBT youth and it is the largest youth drop-in center in the country, straight, gay or otherwise, says McClelland.

The Center was named in honor of Ruth Ellis, the renowned "matriarch" of Detroit's African-American gay and lesbian community, who lived to be 101 years old. An out lesbian all her adult life, Ellis was known for her hospitality and generosity to people whose race or sexual orientation put them at odds with the dominant culture. At the age of 100 she cut the ribbon on the new Center bearing her name. "We really did model the agency after the legacy of her unselfishness in giving to young people. She was a female entrepreneur and she was black and lesbian. She opened up her home in 1930 to gay and lesbian people in Detroit. This was pre-civil rights movement. She could have been killed," McClelland recounted.

The Center has four programs: the Street Outreach Program and Drop-In Center, Ruth's House Transitional Living Program, and Ruth's House Emergency Shelter Program. "Last year, we had 14,880 contacts with runaway, homeless and at-risk LGBT youth in Detroit," reports McClelland.

Over the last three and a half years, the number of contacts has risen exponentially, from less than 1000 in 2002 to the current levels. McClelland attributes this increase to several factors. In 2003-2004 the Center developed the Street Outreach Program to such an extent that now, the word is out and youth find the Center through each other. The SOP has six full time staff and about 70 volunteers. McClelland also speculates that more youth are coming out due to the encouragement of the gay rights movement and a perception that society is more open to LGBT people. In addition, youth are coming out at younger ages than before. But for the LGBT youth of Detroit, coming out often results in judgment and rejection by families and churches. "The kids are coming out or being outed, and they are immediately being ejected from their homes,"McClelland said.

Once on the street, in addition to the stress of being poor, hungry and homeless, the youth are vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation by predators. They are also targets of violence for being gay. The Center reaches out to these youth by offering referral to shelters and housing agencies, one hot meal daily, access to shower and laundry facilities, clothing, access to mentor relationships, education on HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and independent living skills.

The Transitional Living Program, an 18-month program for youth 16-21 years of age, accommodates five residents and provides comprehensive services to build independent living skills. The five-bed Emergency Shelter is open to 12-17 year olds for stays up to 14 to 30 days. But where do the other homeless youth actually stay?

"A lot of our young people 'couch surf.' They stay with people they know until they wear out their welcome and move to another house. We have kids who live outside. We also have a significant number of youth who live in abandoned houses with no heat, no plumbing, no electricity, no water... nothing," McClelland said.

What more can be done? "The public needs to be made more aware through the media," McClelland said. After the NGLTF publication was released in January, CNN and the New York Times did contact the Center and published coverage is pending, yet mainstream local media have not publicized the Center or the report.

But they still can and it would be helpful.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Small is Beautiful: Conversation with Glenn Bourland

Glenn Bourland, owner of Ann Arbor's By the Pound, says business is good. I met with him today to get his take on the current economic conditions in Ann Arbor and Michigan.

The store, celebrating its 25th year of operation, has been in Bourland's ownership for the last 12 years. Offering bulk foods, ethnic specialty foods and gourmet products, the international inventory ranges from tea and coffee to nuts and grains, spices and candies. Located in South Main Market, the store enjoys sustained business from a regular and loyal clientele. Bourland attributes his steady business success to his focus on products that are staples in the kitchen. "I sell things that people will buy even if their discretionary income is lower. Some of the products are specialty items, but none of them are very expensive," Bourland shared. Even in what most believe is a very weak economy, By the Pound is doing well.

Contrary to conventional business wisdom, Bourland didn't have a business plan when he pitched into running the store 12 years ago. But his instincts have proven sound and the store is thriving. His approach to running the place is very common sense. I asked Bourland for any insights he had to share with people contemplating starting a new business. "It takes a lot of work and thinking outside the box. You need to keep overhead low. I don't hire out anything I can do myself. I do my own bookkeeping, taxes, payroll, ordering, inventory, and maintenance,"Bourland said. He also mans the cash register much of the time. And that is where easy conversation cultivates longterm customer relationships.

Bourland considers customer service central to the success of his small business. "I like to talk with people. I'm not Kroger or Busch's, so the difference I offer is friendly customer service. I want to shop somewhere I enjoy going even if it is a little more expensive." And this is clearly the sort of welcoming environment Bourland fosters in his store.

In a word of caution Bourland said,"I remember reading once that if somebody likes your store they'll tell seven people, but if they don't like it, they'll tell twenty two."

Bourland's strategy is instinctive; he listens to customers and stocks what people want. He pays attention to competition and tries to keep a distinctive and high quality set of products. And he prices products carefully to ensure continued profits.

In January, a European deli called Copernicus opened next door. Bourland says business has improved with the arrival of this new neighbor. Over the years, different stores have come and gone in South Main Market. And those ups and downs have had an impact on By the Pound. Bourland has had to adjust product selections and inventory during those changes at South Main Market. For now, though, a healthy synergy is stimulating business among Bear Claw Coffee, Copernicus, By the Pound, Brazamerica, and Back Alley Gourmet.

Perhaps the effort to develop high density residential real estate downtown will add to this promising synergy. Time will tell.