SCORE protege becomes the mentor

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)

 

That SCORE can help at several junctures is something for entrepreneurs to consider, Halverson notes. “A lot of people think SCORE is just there to help you get started, but they are there if you have a bad startup and you need help. They are there when issues arise throughout. Owning a small business is no easy road to walk. There is always something that comes up, and the mentors there have experienced so many different scenarios over the years that their advice is incredibly sound.”

Halverson, herself, became a SCORE counselor to repay a debt of gratitude. “I had such an awful start. It was just terrible. By all rights, I should have closed my doors three months after I opened, and I’m still here. I just decided that after 30 years in business, it was more than time for me to give back and help other startups. So, I’ve gone full circle with SCORE.”

One of the main beneficiaries is Martin, who has been better able to focus his startup venture. Since he has had a variety of experiences, it could be easy to get tugged in several directions, but he’s been able to avoid that thanks to Halverson’s guidance.

“SCORE is helping me define and refine those experiences so that I can get a clear message out of what I want to say to an audience,” he states, “and they are helping me take the right path into making the contacts that I would like to make. So, they are very good at packaging me so that I really can define who I am.”

Most of the time, SCORE counselors are helping people in their 20s who want to go into business for themselves. Martin’s situation is a bit different because even though he has something to offer, time isn’t exactly on his side, so Halverson’s help is invaluable even though she’s in a different line of work. “Our businesses are quite different, but the fundamental idea of how to make a business prosperous and successful are very much the same,” Martin explains. “She has a wonderful history of growing step by step and reinventing herself as she goes along the way, and that has really helped me tremendously.

“Her constant advice to me, and it’s good advice, is to take your time, take the proper steps in order, and don’t jump directly into the big leagues until you have mastered the process to climb up into it. So, she’s been very, very good at that.”

Martin’s nature is reflected in his first book, titled Play Hard – Have Fun: A Philosophy for Life. A second book, already titled Take the Stage: Leadership Lessons from the Theater, is being written as Martin works to build his business. Given his experience and his research, Martin doesn’t take issue with the notion that skills used in theatrical work are everyday business skills, as well.

“You cannot go into any organization and not find some kind of drama, so I’m taking the artificial drama of theater and having people relate to that experience,” Martin explains. “I talk about how that can influence what you do at work and how you handle a tough organizational challenge. In the theater, we have rehearsals, and my job as director is to encourage, to give criticism, to give notes to people about their performance. How can I do that effectively, without raising their anxiety level, and get the very best possible performance out of them?”

A little free advice

Halverson is one of 50 current or retired business operators that serve as business counselors for the Madison Chapter of SCORE, which is one of 350 nationwide. Their wisdom is provided free of charge, and the notion of getting free help from a business operator who has been through the ringer herself is something that Martin is grateful for.

“I was a little taken aback by it. I was surprised,” he acknowledges. “One of the things I love to do is research, so when I first heard about this, I did a lot of research about this organization to make sure it was legitimate. I did look into things like how much of a surprise am I going to get at the end of this in terms of how much it’s going to cost? And there wasn’t any.

“These are experienced businesspeople who want to share their business knowledge with neophytes like me,” he adds. “Now, I’ve been in a business, in a career, for a long time but not in this particular business that I’m just trying to start. So, yes, I said hallelujah! What a wonderful thing for experienced business people to do, to want to give back to the new people starting up.”

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