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Successful entrepreneurship in rural Virginia highlighted at the Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperi

Entrepreneurs need to be savvy, relentless and opportunistic, said a panel of four successful business owners hailing from rural Tidewater Virginia at the Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity.

The summit was presented by the Virginia Rural Center and is the signature annual conference that brings together the Commonwealth’s administration, elected officials, community leaders, educators, businesses and more to discuss the challenges and solutions for growing rural Virginia’s economy. The summit was held Sept. 26-27 at the Tides Inn in Irvington on Virginia’s Northern Neck.

The panel on entrepreneurship highlighted startup successes in rural Virginia and was moderated by Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Basil Gooden, Ph.D. He noted that as traditional businesses in rural Virginia fade, the state has to “rely on innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity to keep our rural areas moving forward.”

Jenny Crittenden, co-owner of a third-generation family farm called Heart 17 Produce in Middlesex County and executive director of the Gloucester Main Street Preservation Trust, relayed the success story the Gloucester Main Street Association, founded by the late Gloucester philanthropist Edwin Joseph and his wife Adrienne Joseph.

“The vision this man had was unparalleled to anything we’ve ever seen,” she said.

Joseph bought a run-down retail center on Main Street in Gloucester, remodeled and updated it and secured leases for the Gloucester County Library and U.S. Post Office, as well as a number of other businesses. The proceeds from the leases fund downtown development of Main Street, making it the only financially self-sustaining Main Street in the country.

Crittenden said she was hired by the association in 2006 to develop relationships, hold events and “have fun and have energy downtown.” The association has developed a map of revitalization for the village area for the next 15 years, earned a National Historic District designation in 2010, beautified the area by installing lamp posts and banners and launched both facade and interior improvement grant programs.

Last year, the Gloucester Main Street Association was awarded a $100,000 grant through the state’s Community Business Launch program to develop entrepreneurs for Main Street. The “Launch Gloucester” committee was formed and received 43 applications to the eight-week entrepreneurship program.

Ultimately, six entrepreneurs opened businesses on the half-mile Main Street, creating seven full-time jobs and 21 part-time jobs, Crittenden said. The total project investment was $454,000.

“It was a frenzy of people opening businesses on Main Street last year,” she said. “It was an amazing success. If you have a chance and you have a small town apply for that grant. It is life-changing.”

Bryan Taliaferro, president and founder of Montague Farms in Essex County that manages 15,000 acres of grain crop production across four mid-Atlantic states, described the journey that led his farm to be a successful producer of non-GMO soybeans for food products in Asia, primarily Japan. It’s a journey that involved being beneficiaries of the soybean breeding program at Virginia Tech, seeking new market opportunities and seizing windows of opportunity.

Taliaferro shared lessons he’s learned in more than 40 years of working on his family farm. His first advice is to leverage the resources available in Virginia. He recounted his own example of how a Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services had a representative stationed in Tokyo, Japan, in 1987 who made a connection with a Japanese businessman who was seeking a specific type of soybean for import.

That connection led to a thriving business in growing soybeans natto, a fermented soybean popular in Japan.

Soybeans for natto is an example of a product that’s a non-traditional source of revenue, proving the need to be bold when opportunity arises, Taliaferro said.

“If there’s an opportunity, seize it,” he said. “But balance aggression with careful analysis.”

His last bit of advice was to surround yourself with a good team. These include lenders, vendors, transporters and others.

“A banking relationship is number one,” Taliaferro said.

Morgan Wright, president of Wood Preservers and based on the Northern Neck, welcomed the crowd to the region and mentioned that in this part of Virginia the economy runs on fishing, farming and forestry.

Wood Preservers started in 1955 and Wright assumed management in the mid-1990s. The company concentrates on about six product lines, including marine pilings, utility poles, foundation pilings — including products used in the construction of the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in New York — wood products that won’t burn, landscaping mulch and composite poles used for decorative lighting.

Wright said his company is built on three principles. These include serving the company’s customers and their markets.

“Because without them, there’s no reason for us to be here,” he said.

He also said it’s important for everyone in your organization to do what they say they’re going to do.

Communication is also key. Wright recounted how he gathered his employees to talk to them as the recession hit 10 years ago. Some employees were left smiling and others were crying after his talk. The lesson learned: “It’s more important what they hear than what you say.”

The biggest challenge for Wood Preservers is regulatory compliance, Wright said.

“Year after year, the regulations get stricter and stricter,” he said. “They keep making it harder and harder. Maybe it’s the right thing to do but it makes it harder and harder.”

Jay Wolfson, launched Northern Neck Burger Company three years ago in Kilmarnock, has added a restaurant in Tappahannock and is looking to expand in Gloucester. He said he loves working in rural areas because they are the best examples of government and commerce working together.

Wolfson had vacationed with his family on the Northern Neck for years and a week after losing his job in Dallas, Tex., moved to the area. Just 78 days after arriving, he opened Northern Neck Burger Company.

“We went for it and we’ve been very successful,” Wolfs said. “We’re very fortunate that the community supported us.”

Wolfson described the work that went into opening the Kilmarnock restaurant, from his two kids helping sand eight picnic tables he bought locally at M&M Building Supply, to his wife helping paint the concrete walls past midnight and then up and back painting by 6 a.m.

He did it, he said, with almost no money.

“No,” he said, “no money. Scary time. But we had perseverance and we weren’t willing to give in.”

His wife wrote on the window in shoe polish to like their restaurant on Facebook and they started marketing before even opening.

“Within one week of writing that 1,000 people started following us,” Wolfson said. “I don’t even have that many friends. Ever. The community wanted us here.”

Wolfson’s marketing efforts were enhanced when he won a $20,000 prize from EVB Bank and WWBT NBC 12 in Richmond for a television commercial. “We had a really fun time making that commercial,” he said. This commercial came out and we exploded. It was awesome.”

For entrepreneurs, Wolfson’s advice is to be relentless and to cultivate support from the community. “We work it every day,” he said. “I think I could go under if I don’t push today. I know without everyone in this community and this place to support me, I’d be going back to the big city. And I don’t want to. I’m not going.”

He also says he spends a lot of money on marketing and is committed to being open seven days a week.

In closing comments, Gooden asked each panelist what advice they would give to regional leaders.

Wolfson said local businesses need their support. “Get people into your town,” he said. “We’ll do well.”

Taliaferro said community leaders need a mentality that encourages business and doesn’t squelch it.

Crittenden said millennials have landed with their entrepreneurial mindset.

“They’re looking for personal growth,” she said. “They’re not looking for a boss, they’re looking for a coach.”

Wright emphasized educating the workforce. Have them show up ready to work and let them know their cell phone is not something they need to use on the job, he said.

“They need to be willing to do the work and be willing to learn.”

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