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SCORE protege becomes the mentor

Phil Martin, a recently self-employed public speaker and an atypical startup leader, is benefiting from the three decades of business experience SCORE mentor Kris Halverson (not pictured) can offer.

Phil Martin, a recently self-employed public speaker and an atypical startup leader, is benefiting from the three decades of business experience SCORE mentor Kris Halverson (not pictured) can offer.

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For Kris Halverson, the concept of paying it back has come full circle. To survive a rocky start in the retail trade, Halverson once needed the help of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE). To help her weather a wicked recession, she turned to SCORE counselors again, and now that things have stabilized, she’s ready to help today’s entrepreneurs.

Halverson is helping one startup in particular where the sole proprietor doesn’t exactly fit the younger, fresher entrepreneurial mold, but he’s one who is teaching business clients about the relationship between two creative endeavors — business and the arts.

The pupil, Phil Martin, is a teacher himself and has long had a flair for the dramatic. He was an award-winning television writer for the Nashville Now television show during its 10-year run on TNT. He is also the author of one book with another on the way, a published playwright who created original musicals, an actor who has performed a one-person show, and a college professor who shares his love of theater with Edgewood College students.

Speaking publicly

Martin, who is quick to note the similarities between business and the stage, now is a self-employed public speaker. Local business operators who might sometimes feel immersed in daily drama might be interested in knowing that Martin often speaks on the benefits that business leaders can derive from live theater, where commercial contributions include the importance of what he calls “serious fun” and real leadership lessons for entrepreneurs.

Most of those lessons center on the importance of understanding people, a key element of Martin’s public presentations. “A cynic once said that if you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business,” Martin notes. “To that, I add the theater is the business of understanding people because that’s what we do all the time, whether it’s the characters we portray or the actors who are trying to get into those characters.”

Fortunately for Martin, he doesn’t have to address interpersonal drama with Halverson, the owner of Alstad Inc., but in an indirect way he is being aided by a bit of entrepreneurial drama that is part of her story. It started in the late 1980s when her first retail business, Flowers Forever, a permanent plants, gifts, and art shop, was undermined by what she termed “insufficient help” from a consultant and a loan officer she characterized as “predatory.”

Fortunately, the help of SCORE was a godsend for Halvorson’s venture, as her counselor gave her some much-needed direction. “You have to remember that I realized within three months that I’d basically been had,” Halverson explains. “It was like, ‘OK, what am I going to do?’ I had been set up as a retail operation and that was not going to fly.

“After talking with SCORE, it was pretty much determined that I needed to change direction. So, I started to do commercial work doing interior plant designs for a lot of companies in Madison.”

Such plantings once were called artificial but now they are referred to as permanent plants, and Halverson provided them for a client list that includes but is not limited to hotels, banks, apartment complexes, hospitals and clinics, and car dealers.

SCORE’s advice would point Halverson in a direction that will allow her business to reach the 30-year mark this July, but that initial counsel was not the only time SCORE came to her aid. As the business grew, she realized the venture needed a name change because it was serving larger corporate clients and Flowers Forever was a bit misleading because people tended to focus on flowers and not on forever. Alstad Inc. had the corporate feel that better fit the clientele she was dealing with.

“My target market is very specific,” she explains. “They are the people who have too many ‘hats to wear,’ and I have developed a very specific strategy to approach them successfully.”

That approach includes e-commerce via a revamped website, added staff to handle larger orders, and people who come onboard on as-needed basis. To survive the Great Recession, SCORE recommended that Alstad diversify, which was well aligned with client requests for more and more products and has really made a difference in the past decade.

The shop since has added patio furniture, lobby furniture, and office furniture, and it was able to bring in its own line of flooring. In addition, Halverson considers herself blessed to work with Robin Stroebel at InteriorLogic, Chris Lukens with Preferred Homes Sales & Construction, and Andy Look at 4 Sight Custom Homes. Alstad also is a distributor for Cali Bamboo.

“We’re distributors for some very specific products, so the reality is that our business has evolved so much that the plants are a very small part of what we do, even though they were our mainstay for 10 or 12 years,” Halverson notes. “Again, when the economy tanked really bad, our business was struggling, and I went in to talk to SCORE again, and they said the key to survival is going to be diversifying, and so that’s what I did. That’s when the plants sort of took a backseat and we started doing all these other products.”

(Continued)

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