From an aerial view to sweetening the day, NH SBDC Grafton County business advisor sees it all

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February 12, 2018
image of helicopter and bags of candy

Diversity is daily life for Scott Stephens in his role as NH SBDC’s Grafton County business advisor. And that’s what he loves about it.  

His morning might be helping a brand new entrepreneur design customer service; his afternoon could mean reviewing spreadsheets with a seasoned business owner to deal with the explosive growth in her business. He gets clients stopping by his downtown Plymouth office at the Enterprise Center at Plymouth with an idea “that’s just a twinkle in their eye,” or they’ll drop in with “receipts in shoeboxes, and they’re in a bit of a panic because it’s tax time.”

Scott explains that lately, with a robust economy, he’s seeing clients who are in an accelerated growth stage of their business. One such client is former retail shop owner Steve Jackson, now of Country Cupboard Candies, a wholesale candy distributor based in Holderness.

Jackson’s four-year-old candy distribution business is guaranteeing that the skiers of New Hampshire have enough sugar in their systems to fuel their day on the slopes. He provides bagged bulk candies at most of the North Country’s ski hills, and those bags are flying off the shelves.  

Country Cupboard is a “DSD” business - Direct Store Delivery - meaning Steve provides the product and displays for his customers. “We show up with the truck, we write the order, we bring it in, we stock it, and we rotate it,” Steve explains, "full service."

The shop owners love the convenience - they just ring up the product. In fact, they love it so much Steve now has upwards of 70 client venues, from ski areas to tourist attractions, and the Common Man properties across the state.   

It wasn’t always this way.  Steve spent 13 years as a Realtor. When the housing market tanked in 2008, he returned to a prior passion - candy.  He had past experience owning candy stores, so he turned his Loudon-based realty office into Confectionately Yours, specializing in pre-bagged bulk candies and more.  

In January four years ago, he was pondering how to deal with the slowdown in the candy business between Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and heard a radio ad for Gunstock Mountain Resort. He realized that's where all the people were, so "right that morning I grabbed 12 of my own bags from the shop and took them up to Gunstock,” he said.  Steve talked Gunstock’s manager into trying to sell the 12 bags at the food court. The two agreed on the price and Steve returned to his Loudon shop.  

That afternoon, Gunstock’s manager called Steve to say, “We’ve got a problem.” Bad candy? Ripped bags? What? Turns out, the bags had already sold out.  Steve returned to Gunstock that afternoon with a small display of candy, plus a tote full of “back-up” inventory. That evening brought another phone call; another sell-out of inventory! Gunstock was the beginning of Steve’s transformation into a candy distributor. Today, Gunstock continuously keeps three of Steve’s displays in its food court.

Business advisor Scott explains:  “Every year, Steve’s more than doubled his revenues, which is great, but also raises challenges for him.” Steve’s business growth led him to close the retail candy shop and now he supplies the 70-plus venues from his 4,000 square foot warehouse in Holderness. He’s been thinking about expanding beyond the North Country or into Vermont.

After three years distributing, Steve really needed help. “Scott showed me how the company could support having employees,” Steve says. A year later he employs 14 people, and continues to seek Scott’s counsel on payroll and hiring.

“He’s my sounding board on Monday mornings.  Scott comes in and listens. Having somebody like that, you can often then work things out yourself,” Steve says. “With 14 employees, and the warehouse and the truck - it’s a whole different beast.”

For Stacey Berger, owner of White Mountains Helicopter based in Warren, it’s a little different story.  She’s been offering sightseeing tours and aerial photography services around New Hampshire’s North Country for the past two years and says she’s intentionally been taking it step by step. “I’ve always been focused on the customer experience, doing what I do and doing it very well,” she said. “I’m taking it slow and steady.”

Stacey has a consistent stream of customers, and she’s partnered with others in the area. She works with a professional photographer who teaches aerial photography classes. She has another pilot who helps at events, offering short rides.  She has set touring routes, but can also customize her trips to anything a particular customer wants.

“My location in Warren lets me offer routes that people want, the most popular one being to fly over the Notches,” she said.  Stacey’s learned that her typical customer is one with a specific relationship to the mountains and the area.  “Maybe it’s a favorite hike they’ve taken, or a house they want to see from above.”

The Old Man in the Mountain site is very popular with tourists. Locals will want to see something familiar from a different angle. Recently she had a male customer request a tour of hiking routes he’d done with his girlfriend.  That tour ended with a marriage proposal as Stacey hovered over a banner for his girlfriend to see that he had laid out on a field asking “the question”.  

When a fluke storm caused nearby flooding this winter, she helped locals survey the damage.  Another hired her solely to try to get over his fearing of flying. “I’m not sure he’ll return, but he had a good experience,” she says. “I want every aspect of the customer experience to be perfect...from the minute they walk up my driveway, to stepping off the helicopter, it should be perfect.”

White Mountains Helicopter is an example of someone turning their passion into their profession, Stacey explains.  She loved flying since taking a short flight at an airshow as a child. She had no clue, however, how people became pilots.

Six years ago Stacey took 40 hours of instruction with Boston Helicopter in North Andover, MA, and passed the private licensing test.  She then pursued advanced training for commercial flying and for instrument flying (training to fly in low visibility).  

With training completed, she became a hobbyist pilot, leasing a helicopter.  But then, during a stretch of being out of work, she hit on the idea of the touring business and launched it in 2016.

When she realized she needed some business advice, she found Scott through the NH SBDC website.  “We met and he was very easy to talk to,” she says.  “We developed a comfortable relationship.”

Scott helped her structure her budget and finances.  The costs of doing business in her industry don’t vary much, so she mainly had to determine what she could offer at a price to cover her costs.  It was a challenge, she says, but Scott’s expertise helped. Lately they’ve worked on a marketing plan and strategies, and she followed his advice to enroll in the 9-week APEX Accelerator course at the Enterprise Center, led by PSU’s Eric Spieth and sponsored by Live Free and Start. Steve Jackson also enrolled at Scott’s suggestion.

Participants get mentors like Scott and four hours of weekly instruction. With two sessions of APEX completed, Scott says they’re hoping to build on its success and expand its offerings.

“The course really encouraged me to take a step back from this hobby of mine and really look at it as a business,” Stacey said.

Both Steve and Stacey say the experience was extremely valuable, connecting them with other entrepreneurs, who bounced ideas off each other, and encouraged each other. “We inspire each other,” Stacey says.

Scott points out that in APEX, students find others who serve the tourism and recreation industries. “When we see the engagement with one another there, and the spinoffs that can come, it’s like we light the fuse and step back and see what happens,” Scott says.

Sounding board. Support group leader.  Confidence booster.  Scott plays all of these roles as the NH SBDC business advisor in the Grafton County region, supported in part by the Grafton Regional Development Corporation. “That’s the fun part of it,” he says. “They (clients) are all at different stages of business development and they find me through different channels, such as a local lender.”

“When clients thrive and put what they’ve learned into practice; to work with them one-on-one or see them working together in the entrepreneur’s just really gratifying to see the potential for continued growth.”