Entrepreneurs highlight startup challenges at Brussels meeting

In this edition of From The Dugout, Denny Scott of The Citizen reports. 

Last week, at the annual meeting of the Huron County Municipal Officers’ Association, a panel of young entrepreneurs told lower- and county-tier councillors and staff what helped them start their businesses, what hindered them and where their businesses were going in the future.

The annual meeting of the Huron County Municipal Officers Association of Huron County brought councillors and staff from Huron’s lower-tier municipalities and their counterparts at Huron County to Brussels. The event, hosted by Morris-Turnberry in the Four Winds Barn on March 21, included a youth panel on small business. Panelists included Mitch Godkin, owner of Leadbury Bat Co. near Walton; Sarah Reid, artisan cheesemaker and sales representative at Blyth Farm Cheese; Grace Vanden Heuvel, who opened 519 Tours based out of the Goderich area, and Brian Landsborough of Maelstrom Winery in the Seaforth area. 

The panel was moderated by Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity Project Director Peter Smith and put some important questions to the group.

INTRODUCTIONS

Godkin, an engineering student from the University of Western Ontario, explained that Leadbury Bat Co. challenged the status quo in baseball bats, asking why the process for creating the bats hadn’t been changed in over a century.

“I wanted to bring change and innovation to an industry that’s stagnated over 100 years,” he said. “You wouldn’t think there’s a lot to change in wood baseball bats, but I’m proving there is room for a change.”

To that end, he developed a proprietary kiln-drying process, using wood sourced from Huron and Bruce Counties to create bats that have put his business on the map.

He said he is really starting to grow his brand, and part of that is promoting partnerships with other people in the region, citing a recent project he started with Blyth Cowbell Brewing Company that will see bats crafted to resemble the company’s Founders’ Series of beer being available at the brewery for the first day of the Major League Baseball season.

Reid has been at Blyth Farm Cheese for three years after stumbling upon the company between educational opportunities. She said it’s an amazing company, making gouda-style cheese to honour owner Paul van Dorp’s Dutch heritage. 

She said that, being in a small business like Blyth Farm Cheese represents a “sink or swim” situation.

“You can’t pass things off,” she said. “There is a wide variety of opportunities, and I had to go and learn to become a part of it and I think that’s amazing.”

Vanden Heuvel explained that, after spending time living in various areas, she decided she wanted to shape the tourism industry in Huron County instead of looking at it. She said that a distinct lack of transportation services in the area to allow both locals and tourists to visit sites like Huron’s many breweries was a need she could address.

To start 519 Tours, she acquired a 14-passenger van, and worked at it until her “side hustle” turned into a full-time job thanks to the potential for travel and tourism in Huron County.

“I’m booked eight weeks in advance for weekend events and I book up to four tours in one weekend,” she said, adding that her success is thanks to both looking ahead and being in the moment, while taking chances to succeed.

Landsborough explained that, as co-owner of Maelstrom Winery, the business was an experience in taking chances, explaining that when his family first started planting grapes for their now internationally-awarded wines in 2009, 2010 and 2011, they kept it secret.

“We didn’t tell people until 2013,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we could get through everything.”

Since then, the company has blossomed, he said, opening in the family garage in 2015, and now having a new tasting room allowing the company to put its best foot forward.

He said he wanted to be a part of the panel because he is a huge advocate of chasing an unexpected career.

“I went to school to be a psychologist,” he said. “Now I’m a winemaker. For me, at the time, I didn’t think this would be where I’d be ending up.”

MUNICIPAL SUPPORT

Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh Township Councillor Jennifer Miltenburg asked the panelists how much support their home municipalities provided.

Godkin said it was an important question, and he was happy to say that both he and his brother Lucas, a furniture-maker who created the company Axe and Adze, an associate company to Nostalgic Wood, received significant support from Huron East’s Economic Development Officer Jan Hawley, though he added that municipalities are somewhat limited in the support they provide.

“Connection is really their role,” he said. “How much can be changed by taxes and insurance is limited, but making connections with other businesses and services is where municipalities can play the biggest role.”

Vanden Heuvel said that Goderich Town Council greatly supported her, explaining that she had originally hoped to have a group bicycle added to her business, which council supported. Unfortunately she was unable acquire insurance for the project. 

Landsborough echoed Godkin’s comments, saying that Hawley had helped him significantly as well, however, support from Huron County Council and staff was lacking.

“We had more hiccups there,” he said.

Landsborough explained that the county was interested in supporting the winery industry thanks to climate studies showing that the area could grow grapes. Unfortunately for him and his family and Maelstrom Winery, the county’s focus was more on the coast line.

“It left out a few [wineries] that were towards the Seaforth way, as they didn’t think it would be as viable as near the coastline,” he said. “There was some trouble there.”

He said that once Maelstrom Winery showcased its success, more support became available.

Reid also ran into obstacles working with Huron County. She said that, before she started working at Blyth Farm Cheese, its relatively-remote location on a gravel road just outside of Blyth was unknown to her.

“Our one hiccup was signage,” she said. “Trying to get signage up so people could find and get to us was difficult working with the county. It was a huge complaint from our customers and I was surprised how difficult it was to work with the county on that.”

FUTURE PLANNING

Former Warden Neil Vincent  asked the panelists if they ever “spent time to daydream” on the future of their companies.

Godkin said he did, and that he is eyeing different opportunities to get involved with including the United States market and the composite bat market.

“[The latter] is a big daydream,” he said. “The composite bat market is tricky because it’s so seemingly more complicated, even though wood is a more complicated composite than fibre would be.”

Reid said she also looks to the future of Blyth Farm Cheese, hoping to get the company on the forefront of the zero-waste movement. She said she also plans for becoming trained in cross-compatible skills she could utilize if she ever moves on from Blyth Farm Cheese.

Reid also touched on an issue brought up by two other speakers at the event that day: affordable housing.

She said that she is part of a younger crowd of professionals who are finding it difficult to secure housing, saying that, having left to pursue an education, it’s difficult to find somewhere to live that’s not in a parent’s basement.

Vanden Heuvel said that her business started as a daydream and that realizing it emboldened her to think beyond what her company could include. She said she hopes to bring flight tours to her offerings, as well as a boat in which to tour the Goderich area and take in sunsets on the lake.

“I’m not sure on the process for that, or the legalities, but a girl can dream” she said.

Landsborough said he may be too prone to daydreaming, but said that he has planned out his next 50 years for Maelstrom Winery if things go according to plan. He said he wants to see Huron County become the next Prince Edward County, swaying visitors away from traditional wine-growing areas. He said that, while other companies may fear competition, the more wineries that open, the more it helps the industry grow as a whole, as it creates a tourism destination and encourages tours like those offered by Vanden Heuvel.

ATTRACTION

Next, the panelists were asked how Huron County could promote itself and assist businesses in attracting new customers.

Godkin said the first goal for Huron County should be to promote from within.

“A lot of people in the region aren’t aware of what’s going on,” he said. “We should encourage people to be proud of where you’re from, and encourage them to get their friends to visit.”

He said that social media can be a big focus for companies, but he also said that the message can be distorted through mediums like Facebook.

“It’s something I think is getting over-cluttered, and things are getting lost,” he said.

To that end, he puts a big focus on word-of-mouth advertising, resulting in a lot of his business coming from customers and visitors. He said the county needs to build on a groundswell like that. 

“We need people to be proud of being from Huron County and proud of what’s going on here,” he said.

Reid said that collaboration is the key to opening Huron County to new business.

She pointed to initiatives like the Taste of Huron, which encourages visitors to travel to different restaurants and producers in the area, as a success story in that forum. 

She also said that Huron County needs brand ambassadors to tell outsiders what is in Huron County.

“There is this idea that there isn’t much to do in Huron County in ‘the middle of nowhere’,” she said. “If people were aware of what’s going on here, that would be different.”

Landsborough said that Huron County is too humble for its own good.

“Bayfield has the second-most beautiful sunset in the world,” he said. “Goderich is the ‘Prettiest Little Town’ in Canada. We have people coming here, fascinated when you talk to them, because of all the opportunities here.”

He said Huron County needs to capitalize on that and convince people that Huron is a place people can keep coming back to because there will always be another winery, brewery or cheese farm to visit. Part of that, he said, is being able to brag about what Huron has, something the county doesn’t do well