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Small Business Owners Invest in Communities

The owners of small businesses throughout the Metro Milwaukee area say it works for them to be part of the fabric of their communities.

Small businesses work for a strong community.

The days of Henry Ford coming into a community to build a plant and hire 25,000 workers are gone. But the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well on a much smaller scale. From neighborhood diners and booksellers with a handful of employees to niche operations with dozens of employees, small business owners have found ways to be profitable while strengthening the community in which they operate.

Paul Schueller, CEO and part owner of Franklin Energy Services in Port Washington, Wis. was an engineer for Wisconsin Natural Gas Company.  Schueller saw an opportunity and struck out on his own.  “It’s more cost effective for energy companies to find ways to improve energy efficiencies than to build additional power plants,” said Jan Peiffer, communication director for Franklin Energy Services.  Schueller developed energy efficiency programs for the energy and utility companies to implement. That was 17 years ago.

Today, 41 employees work out of the corporate office in Port Washington. There are 22 locations throughout the United States employing a total of 315 engineers and technicians.  The company calls them "green collar jobs.” In 2010, it was listed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as one of the best places to work in Wisconsin. “We are very proud that our employees would give us this recognition,” Peiffer said. It was cited for approachable leadership and a positive work environment.

Like all businesses, Franklin has challenges. Utility companies are offering energy efficiency programs on the customer level resulting in a reduction of usage and lessening the need to pursue energy-saving strategies on the production side.

Weather also plays a part. Severe temperatures put burdensome demands on utility companies. Weather also affects smaller businesses. The small boutique, card shop or bookseller is much more vulnerable to the capricious nature of weather, the economy, gas prices, road construction or seasonal traffic.

Nichole Kloss, manager of Java Dock in Port Washington, is trying to sustain business throughout the year. “We are very seasonal, but we also have customers from local businesses nearby that support us.”

Kloss and three employees make, bake and serve breakfast pastries, soups and sandwiches fresh and onsite. “We use as much local products as possible – vegetables from a local farm down the road, flour from a nearby mill, meats and cheeses from Gibbsville.”

Norm Bruce, owner of Martha Merrell’s Books in Waukesha, has employed strategies as well to keep the business going in the face of online discounters and big book-selling chains. “My wife had a dream to own a bookstore when we retired,” he said. “We bought the bookstore in 1994. She’s a library media specialist at Woodside Elementary in Sussex and I take care of the store. So you could say I’m living my wife’s dream.”

When his wife Eve suggested to Bruce, a retired elementary school principal, the idea of having a bookstore, he knew it would be easier taking over an established store instead of investing in a start-up. They purchased Martha Merrell’s Books, opened in 1972, and within months were told the building was being torn down. Bruce moved the store to the 5 Point area of Waukesha, but eventually needed more space. Eight years ago, the store moved to its current location on Main Street.

Martha Merrell’s Book is involved in community events, from summer evening of Friday Night Live to holiday celebrations of Silver Bells, throughout the year establishing itself as a community partner.  “We also collect books for our Armed Services,” he said.

Bruce admits book selling is a tough business, so he tries to provide something the national booksellers can’t.  “We carry books by local and self-published authors. We have book club coordinators who will come to your book club and talk about books that may interest your group.” Martha Merrell’s serves 45 book clubs in the area, many of which use the bookstore to meet and discuss their latest read.

Because Bruce and his wife are educators, it was important to have a strong section of books on teaching and education. “We give a lot personalized service. If you’re looking for a book and it exist, I will search to find it.”

The bookseller also cross-markets with other small businesses up and down Main Street – working together to keep each business strong and part of the community.

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