Successful ’11 for 10 to Watch

As the deadline (1 p.m. on Nov. 28) looms for Douglas magazine’s fourth annual 10 to Watch competition, it’s a great time to bring you up to speed on what this year’s crop of 10 to Watch winners have accomplished.

In March, Douglas recognized Cook Culture, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, Body Dynamics Headquarters, Pizzeria Prima Strada, Lizard Adventure Travel, Origin Gluten-Free Bakery, Evidents Mobile Dent Repair, Onlyhuman Furniture, Draught WISE Draught Integrity Technicians, and Sterling Financial Accounting Services as 10 to Watch for 2011.

Judging by a quick look at some of their successes over the past year, they were quality picks.

Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre drew rave reviews and robust attendance for its staging of complex, high-energy shows like Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story and Fire. Artistic director Brian Richmond says it was thrilling to finally present a performance — Buddy — at the Royal Theatre, and that the company is looking forward to expanding its season from three to five shows in 2012, as well as holding auditions in major markets for acting talent such as Toronto and Vancouver.

“We’ve doubled our budget, basically, going from $500,000 in year one to $1 million next year,” Richmond tells Douglas.

In addition to Richmond, Blue Bridge’s staff includes one full-time and one part-time employee, but the part-timer is about to become full-time, he says, thanks to the budget boost. The company’s national profile surged when Meg Tilly added her star power to the Blue Bridge production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — leading to coverage in leading newspapers like the Toronto Star and San Francisco Chronicle. Blue Bridge’s board of directors has also grown.

“We now have 11 people on our board,” says Richmond. “We’ve been sought after this year. Instead of going out and seeking people to serve on our board, they are coming to us.”

At Lizard Adventure Travel, owner/operator Liz Bonham says the business has expanded into unexpected territory: weddings.

“Adventure travel has grown a little bit, but wedding groups are going really well. People are tagging tours onto their destination-wedding plans. When they come to town for a wedding, they really want to see something unique to the area.”

Bonham plans to attend bridal expos over the winter to learn more about how to capitalize on the lucrative wedding market. In January, she’ll start the hiring process for the summer high season. She hopes to have three full-time staff on board to help with her bus tours. Bonham would also like to buy another bus at some point to keep up with demand, but says it’s probably not in the cards for 2012.

“I’ve been driving the bus and doing the marketing and everything else,” she says. “I would like to get a second bus, but I want to first get the existing bus running with other drivers instead of me so I can focus on the business.”

If you watch TV, you’ve probably seen ads featuring Onlyhuman Furniture owner Chris Rothery. You know, the one in which his wife and business partner Christina Stack proclaims that he “always wears plaid.” Well, it’s not true, says Rothery, who chuckles at the corniness of the commercial but has no regrets about making it.

“People come up and ask me why I’m not wearing plaid,” he laughs. “People notice these things, and they remember.”

He says 2011 has been a solid, steady year for the business. They’re eyeing relocation to a bigger space and ramping up their online presence with a web store.

“In a sales sense, we’ve sold a lot more,” says Rothery. “Soon we’ll be selling accessories online. We feel like we can sell those nationally.”

Given the state of the economy, Rothery says steady-as-she-goes performance is more than welcome.

“We’re still here and still growing. It can be tough, so the fact that we aren’t stagnating is great.”

{advertisement}With its prime location in the glassy Atrium building, Cook Culture has been one of the higher-profile new businesses of the past year. Owner Jed Grieve says he’s carrying 60 per cent more inventory than November 2010, when the business launched, and that’s a testament to how savvy entrepreneurs can make the most of an economic downturn. When times are tough, he says, people want to know more about where their food is coming from and how to prepare meals for themselves without sacrificing quality and well-being.

“We’ve seen an increase of 300 per cent in the number of customers coming through the door,” he says. “And 90 per cent of our gross profit is coming from retail sales. People get great value out of things they buy from us. They see it as a good investment that will allow them to save money. And when things turn around, we’ll see a shift toward the higher-end items. You just need to know how to play it.”

He says Japanese knives and French-made, cast-iron cookware have been big sellers, and so has pretty much anything to do with pizza — stones, cutters, flour, etc. Cook Culture’s lineup of cooking classes continues to be an excellent source of word-of-mouth marketing, even though they’re essentially a “break-even” aspect of the business.

“The classes continue to evolve as we’re listening to what customers want. The class offerings are getting stronger and stronger and our lineup of chefs much deeper. I never thought I’d see this level of skill in one place in Victoria.

It’s been a big year for Sterling Financial Accounting Services. Not only did owner/operator Tanya Sterling hire a second administrative assistant, she also gave birth to her first child.

“I’m working through the work-life balance thing, but it’s going very well,” she says. “We’re receiving a lot of referrals from clients and local professionals. The business is growing and we’re looking at hiring another person, probably a tax technician.”

Sterling says the company’s initial focus on seniors and elder care quickly expanded to younger demographics as her older clients asked her to advise their children and grand-children.

“They want to make sure their kids are financially literate, as well as keep them in the loop,” she says.

She’s also broadened the firm’s scope to include small-business services.

“We weren’t really marketing to them but found there are lot of people who need guidance in starting their small business. They don’t realize how important the financial aspect is. They don’t want to spend the money, and then if they let it slide, two or three years later it can be much worse. I hadn’t realized how prevalent that was.”

As a new business owner herself, Sterling says she’s absorbed many lessons in the past few years that should serve her well as the company grows.

“The staffing is something I’ve had to learn — I didn’t think it would be so hard to find the right people and retain them,” she says. “Our goal is to grow to 11 people, but it takes at least a couple of years to fully train somebody.”

Now that she’s past the three-year mark, Sterling says she sees “light at the end of the tunnel,” so to speak.

“There’s still a lot of hours involved, but maybe not quite so much, and after that it’s tweaking and revisiting instead of creating.”

That’s just a small sample of the success last year’s 10 to Watch are experiencing. Will your business be one to watch in 2012? There’s only one way t
o find out — and that’s to submit your application by 1 p.m. on Monday, November 28.

Good luck!