Growing, growing, growingPublished 12:23pm Monday, March 25, 2013
By Colleen Thompson, staff writer
Five small businesses right here in Albert Lea have found ways to not only make ends meet in this economy, but grow their businesses, as well.
1. Albert Lea Tailors
Address: 122 S. Broadway
Owner: Adele Helleksen
Albert Lea Tailors has been in the sewing business for 30 years. Adele Helleksen has been the owner since 2004 and has been pushing the shop forward with the times. She, along with her five part-time employees, alter, repair and fix pretty much any material customers bring in.
“We can fix delicate clothing but also the roughest of leather,” Helleksen said.
Formalwear? Old suitcoats? Broken jacket zippers? Jeans that have too much length but not enough for the gut? Albert Lea Tailors can fix them all. Prom dresses, wedding gowns, jeans, suits, horse blankets and even lawn mower bags are just some of the clothing articles that Helleksen and her coworkers can repair.
“The lady that owned the shop before me told me, ‘When the times are bad, people start bringing in their old things.’”
Helleksen has seen this proved true. With the downward turn in the economic times, people have started bringing in old items to be “revamped” rather than buying new clothes. She’s seen a lot more 30- to 40-year-olds come in lately instead of the mainly older crowd. She has frequent customers who come from Austin, Mason City, Rochester and even the Twin Cities.
Albert Lea Tailors is busier now than ever. Helleksen has seen consistency in her workload for the first time, instead of a pattern of dry spells followed by an overflow of projects. She used to have two days a week where there wouldn’t be any work for her to do. Now she has two to three weeks worth of work to do most of the time.
Helleksen has been able to take her work out of the walls of the downstairs shop, as well. She has been sewing patches on soldiers’ uniforms at the National Guard Armory since 2005, and was asked to come help with fittings at a prom dress exchange in Alden on Jan. 26.
Helleksen works to make her customers’ lives easier. She often goes to customer’s houses to pick up or drop off articles of clothing. If elderly customers have difficulty going down the stairs to her shop, she will meet them on the main floor and do their transactions there. She also works with people’s schedules and priorities and will adjust things as needed when there are emergencies.
“The location is hard,” Helleksen said. The business is at an underground level, below Celebrations Party & Gift. “It’s been here for 30 years, and I still get people who come in and say, ‘I had no idea this was here!’”
2. A Creative Touch Photography
Address: 340 S. Broadway
Owner: Steve Tovar
An idea sparked
Steve Tovar first picked up a professional camera 18 years ago when his daughter was involved in high school sports. He purchased a 35 mm camera and took shots of her when she was cheerleading.
“I’ve always loved photography,” Tovar said. “But my first pictures didn’t turn out so well.”
That was fuel to an already burning flame. Tovar began researching and studying photography books. He purchased and downloaded four computer programs with editing features. He also bought a digital camera and has spent lots of money on the newest photography technology. Art, special backdrops, effects and editing programs have become his specialty. He now has a full-time photography business, which includes photo restorations, abstract photography, art composites, photo overlays, custom digital poster prints and banners.
“I needed to improve my ways, and I got pretty good,” Tovar said. “Now it’s my career.”
Where is the focus?
“My work is very important to me,” Tovar said. “It has to be perfection.”
Tovar proofs every picture from each shoot he does. He thinks and plans out different poses and locations for each customer extensively beforehand. He strives to stay away from generic pictures and expected scenery. He will then spend two to three days editing and enhancing one batch of pictures. He once spent 40 hours perfecting one high school senior’s photographs.
“I have to read people and than act on that,” Tovar said of his guarantee that every customer will get unique photographs. “It’s more complicated and intricate than most people think.”
Although Tovar has more customers and more photo shoots than he’s ever had before and also received Best Photographer last year through the Albert Lea Tribune’s People’s Choice Awards, he doesn’t do a lot of his own advertising. He relies mainly on word of mouth from satisfied customers. He believes that good work will pay off with repeats and referrals.
“I want the pictures to be so good that you hang it up, and you don’t want to take it down.”
Tovar has customers who have heard about his business through friends of friends and people who have come from Austin, Owatonna and the Twin Cities. Technology has smiled upon him, as well. Not only does he attribute much of his success to his natural love of art, but being able to post his work on Facebook has been very kind to him. Technology has helped him go beyond the normal, Tovar said.
“People like my photos and have started contacting me off of Facebook,” he said.
Tovar also cuts hair at his hair styling studio, Tovar’s Styling Salon. He hopes to do more advertising in the future and start hanging his photographs up at Northbridge Mall.
3. Raleigh’s Ace Hardware
Address: 2525 Bridge Ave.
Manager: Matt Raleigh
Making the cut
Good service is a noticeable, desired and maybe even genetic trait. Raleigh’s Ace Hardware has been devoted to good customer service since 1994 when Dennis Raleigh first opened it.
His son, Matt Raleigh, graduated from Winona State University and came to work at the hardware store, then called Coast to Coast, in 2003. Dennis passed away from cancer in 2010, and Matt took up the manager position along with the customer service legacy his dad left behind.
“We’re known for our customer service,” Raleigh said. “It’s the main thing that sets us apart from Walmart, Home Depot and other competition.”
Knowing what you’re selling and have knowledge of the products is also key, Raleigh says. He knows background and brand information on most everything in the store. If customers have a question, he’s the go-to guy.
Raleigh’s Ace Hardware has proof that its one of the best. It was voted the Best Hardware Store through the Albert Lea Tribune’s People’s Choice Awards for the past nine years and was one of the top five rated hardware stores nationally out of 5,000.
“When we hire new people, we tell them to help the customer,” Raleigh said. “That’s what we do best.”
Jack of all trades
Besides stocking its shelves with carpenters’ favorite things, Raleigh’s Ace Hardware offers many services to better serve its customers. Pipe cutting and threading, hunting/fishing licenses, key cutting, blade sharpening, carpet cleaning, machine rental, and glass, screen and small engine repair are all available on location. Housewares, cleaning, electrical, plumbing, hand and power tools, hardware, paint and sundries and automotive supplies are what one can expect to find in the aisles. If the store doesn’t have it, someone will order it.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth in customers in both homeowners and contractors,” Raleigh said.
Raleigh’s Ace Hardware has seen significant growth in the past 12 months. It added a popular new line of paint, Benjamin Moore, that was voted the top-performing interior paint by Consumer Reports in February. The hardware store also recently picked up the tool brand Craftsman, which is typically only available at Sears, plus Clark+Kensington paint.
“Brands people know bring them to our doorstep, and our service keeps them coming,” Raleigh said.
Along with expanding merchandise, the physical layout of the store has been updated in the past year, too.
“We were too outdated and needed to open the place up,” Raleigh said. “We reorganized so the stuff wasn’t just thrown on the shelves.”
The store is also offering a brand new instant rebate system. As of January, customers can receive a rebate right at the cash register instead of waiting for it to come in the mail.
“This is new for us and it’s fantastic,” Raleigh said. “Hopefully it will help us grow.”
4. Studio 22 Salon
Address: 2211 E. Main St.
Owner: Sarah Ball
Hair they are
“Hair is a reflection of who we are,” said owner and manager Sarah Ball.
Studio 22 Salon has been a full-service hair and nail salon since it opened in 2006. The salon can cut any hair type, style any do and make nails look clean and well-kept. The stylists specialize in cuts, perms, straightening, up-dos, dying, highlights, smoothing treatments, pedicures, manicures and waxing.
Ball bought the salon last June from previous owner Carrie Hershey. Ball has been working at Studio 22 for 4 1/2 years.
“All the girls here are really great,” Ball said. “They rent from me so they all have a sense of ownership and equally benefit when we do well.”
The stylists continuously attend training and will be attending styling shows in March. Studio 22 also invites a professional to come and hold a class where they can learn about new styling procedures. The salon’s suppliers often share information, videos and literature on new things going on in the hair styling world.
“We want to keep up with the ‘fresh new looks,’” Ball said.
There are quite a few hair salons in Albert Lea, but Salon 22 likes to stay on top of the competition. The salon has a full staff and the newest employee has already been there for a year and a half. The seven stylists and two receptionists have been there a long time as well, with over 80 years of combined experience, whereas a lot of businesses frequently do staff turnovers, Ball says.
Comb one, comb all
Keeping updated and current is important for both the look and atmosphere of the salon. The building underwent a remodeling in August; walls that used to be gold and red are now gray with black swirl designs.
“We like it to be new with how it looks and what we’re doing,” Ball said.
The salon has seen several improvements in business since January 2012. CND Shellac, a recent breakthrough in Power Polish, has become very popular. The new Ombre hairstyle, a dark shade with a lighter shade at the bottom, has become a customer favorite, as well. Studio 22 has been busier than they were in the past and have been attracting new clients that recently moved to town.
“Being involved in the community and really believing in what you’re doing,” Ball said, is the key to having a growing small business.
5. Sanderson Auto Repair
Address: 131 W. College St.
Owner: Mark Sanderson
Not like the other guys
Sanderson Auto Repair takes pride in customer service and honesty.
“I started the business because I enjoy working with people,” said founder and owner Mark Sanderson.
That’s the philosophy behind everything the technicians and mechanics do at Sanderson Auto Repair. Meeting the needs of Albert Lea’s vehicles since 1985, each of the 14 full-time employees is ASE certified and has an average of 15 to 18 years of experience, with more than 200 years of collective experience.
“Customer service is priority No. 1,” he said.
Sanderson Auto wants to make sure its customers receive quality for a fair price. The business mails out 5,000 coupon postcards a month; each postcard includes discounts and coupons for oil changes and other services. Sanderson Auto recently started a new “Refer a Friend” program, where customers can get a free oil change or maintenance visit for introducing a friend to the automobile repair shop. Sanderson Auto is also the only AAA facility in Freeborn County.
“Listen to customers,” Sanderson advised other businesses. “Build relationships to find out what their needs are.”
Automobiles, RVs, trailers, diesels and snowplows can all be serviced at Sanderson Auto. If it’s got wheels, they can probably fix it, Sanderson said. Besides offering service and parts at one location and servicing all makes and models of domestic and import vehicles, the business also sells tires.
In the past year, Sanderson Auto has become both a Michelin and U-Haul dealer. Advertising through its website, the radio and newspaper has been advantageous for the business. Sanderson increases his advertising budget each year, continuously tries to offer more services for his customers and has new customers coming in all the time.
“People seem to be holding on to their cars longer,” Sanderson said. “We benefit from that.”
People have been keeping their cars and focusing on fixing them up instead of purchasing a new vehicle in recent years. The average duration of a car on the road used to be seven years but has now gone up to about 11 years.
“We try to implement new things that are instrumental and help us grow,” Sanderson said. “We’re 20 times the business that we used to be.”