Sweet success

Published 8:32 am Wednesday, August 19, 2009

FRANKLIN—In a tough economy, many businesses hunker down, cut costs and try to ride out the storm.

Another phenomenon sometimes happens, too.

Necessity breeds entrepreneurs.

Joseph and Jacob Gray are probably two of Isle of Wight County’s youngest businessmen.

The brothers — Jacob, 13, and Joseph, 9 — have started J&J Small Engine Repair in the back yard of their Carrsville home.

Jacob, a rising eighth-grader at Windsor Middle School, said he loves “to mess with motors.”

He began working with his dad, Walter Gray, when he was 5 years old. Before he became disabled, Walter Gray worked as a supervisor for a general contractor. He also worked outside fixing motors at home.

“I watched my dad and wanted to help him,” Jacob said of his budding obsession with fixing things.

The brothers wanted to earn money and began by doing something they were passionate about.

Their back yard is jam-packed with lawn mowers, weed eaters, chain saws, tillers.

An outbuilding that was going to be used as a chicken coop got turned into a work shed for the boys instead.

The boys even work on go- karts and outboard motors.

“Every tool that can work on small engine equipment, we’ve got it,” Walter Gray said.

Now, the elder Gray, who has to use a wheelchair to get around, supervises from the back porch as the boys go to work on each project.

“I’m the yeller and the screamer, I guess,” he said with a laugh. “I make sure they don’t get cut.”

Jacob was more diplomatic about his dad’s role.

“He gives us helpful advice,” he said.

During the summer, the boys have worked sunup to sundown.

The business will continue when the boys go back to school.

“They will do their homework first and then they can go outside and work,” their mom, Sharon Gray, said. Sharon has been a first-grade teacher for 25 years. She has worked 24 of them at Westhaven Elementary in Portsmouth.

Both the boys — Joseph, a rising fourth-grader at Carrsville Elementary School — stay on the Honor Roll at school, Sharon Gray said.

Now, they’re getting schooled in life. They get constant advice from their dad.

“You keep the customers happy, you’ll keep getting them back,” he told them.

Eventually, the family hopes to grow the business.

“I’d like to have a shop that takes money,” Walter Gray said.

Economists have said that entrepreneurship often blossoms in a recession.

People who are out of work tend to try and find something they love to do and expand on it.

Velma Boone, owner of the recently opened Sweet Stuff Pastries in downtown Franklin, started off by selling candied apples as a home-based business. She would go from business to business with her tasty treats.

“I thought I’d go into a shop because I was selling so good on the street,” she said. “I’m trying to ease my way in here.”

Right now, the entrepreneur is making candied apples and doughnuts in her shop, which is in a former seafood shop.

Boone bought a fryer from RingO’s Donuts in Smithfield and learned tips and tricks from the owner, Kirk Ring.

“I have been baking my whole life, but he gave me doughnut training,” she said.

She has sweet dreams beyond candied apples and doughnuts, though.

“I want to start making cakes and pies,” she said.

The store is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday.

Though most entrepreneurs are highly motivated — they are doing something they are passionate about, after all — the sad fact is that many don’t make it past the first year.

The Grays and Boone have one advantage.

Virginia was recently named one of the “Five Best States to Start a Business” by U.S. News & World Report and has been ranked No. 1 six times for being pro-business. Some of those entities that have given the states accolades include Forbes.com, CNBC, Governing Magazine and Education Week.

Local entities are doing their part to help start-ups, too.

The Franklin-Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce has programs to help those who are starting a new business.

“The Chamber hosts business seminars throughout the year and offers business support and networking opportunities,” said Executive Director Teresa Beale.

“There are many tools to assist entrepreneurs with starting a business locally,” she continued. “The Chamber is a satellite office for the Hampton Roads Small Business Development Center where business counselor, Jim Carroll, assists clients each month. His expertise continues to help start ups and established businesses. Jim also contributed a comprehensive set of books to the business section of the Ruth Camp Campbell Memorial Library.”

The Franklin Business Incubator also fosters new businesses in the area.

“Having a “Business Incubator” available to aspiring entrepreneurs who want to grow their own ideas and plans in Franklin Southampton is a very positive job-creating asset,” said John Smolak. “At the local level we try to also offer timely business seminars and workshops to assist our small business incubator tenants.”

“I think that the (Virginia Department of Business Assistance) has bent over backwards to make starting a business in the state of Virginia much easier now than it has ever been,” said Nancy Parrish, Business Incubator manager. “Not only do they have a wonderful Web site and great resource materials available that are free, but they have also developed the highly successful, much-talked-about workshop called “Entrepreneur Express — Moving Your Business Forward” that they have taken into many cities and counties across the state at least one time during the past couple of years.”