SBA Award Winners Share A Knack For Hard Work, Long Hours–And No Starting Pay

By Mike Cote The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The winners of this year's Small Business Awards shared the ups and downs of their entrepreneurial journeys and what keeps them going strong.

Manchester

It's hard to find takers for a position that promises long hours and zero starting pay.

Owning your own business offers those perks and so much more -- if you're tough enough to take the plunge.

The winners of this year's Small Business Awards shared tales from the field as they accepted their honors Tuesday at the Derryfield Country Club during a reception hosted by the New Hampshire division of the Small Business Administration and the New Hampshire Bankers Association.

Joshua D'Agnese, owner of the Village Gun Store in Whitefield, was honored as the Veteran-Owned Business of the Year.

The Tilton native bought the store four years ago after injuries he sustained in Afghanistan forced him to retire early from the Army. It took him about a year to secure financing for the store.

He also had to convince his wife, Nicole. That challenge better prepared him for dealing with customers angling for a discount.

"Once in a while a guy comes up to me to the counter with a gun. 'You got to help me out, Josh, with this price. It's hard to convince my wife to spend money.' D'Agnese recalled.

"I'll tell him, 'I have no sympathy, man. If you think it's hard to convince your wife to buy a gun, convince her to buy a gun store.'"

While being a business owner means being "the last to get paid, the last to go home," D'Agnese said he enjoys being his own boss and having the chance to help people.

Fellow veteran Alec Lieberman, who was honored as the Young Entrepreneur of the Year, told the group that veterans often struggle with "finding their tribe" and a sense of purpose.

"It's hard to find those things when you get out. And I absolutely have those with my business," he said.

And now, Leiberman's even getting paid. He likes to joke that harvesting seaweed for $2.89 an hour -- his first job at age 12 -- was the second lowest paying gig he ever had. The first was being the owner On Target Fitness, a gym he opened three years ago in Portsmouth.

"You know what that struggle is," Lieberman said. "But fast forward to this morning, and I wrote myself a paycheck, and so far this year I have not skipped or reduced a single paycheck to myself."

'Their American dream' The founders of Micro-Precision Technologies in Salem made similar sacrifices to ensure the company's survival, said current owner Sabina Chen.

"That was my mom and my dad, who for many years did not pay themselves so they could keep the business running," said Chen, who was honored with the Jeffrey Butland Family- Owned Business of the Year Award.

Chen's parents, Etang and Chris Chen, immigrated from Taiwan in 1968, two months before she was born. Her father, Etang, who died a year ago, bought MPT in 1987 at age 50 -- which Chen noted is the same age she is now. The company manufactures hybrid integrated circuits and other high-tech products for military and industrial use.

"MPT was their American dream for which they toiled nights and weekends, for which they would never give up hope, even in those years when business was bleak and they couldn't pay themselves." Chen said. "This was how my parents showed their love, not just for me and my brother, but for our extended family who worked for MPT, the cousins whose educations were paid for by MPT salaries and all the MPT employees who were invested in our company's success."

Vivian Cubilla-Lindblom, who owns Maple Nut Kitchen in Swanzey, left her native Paraguay to find success in the United States. She and her husband bought the granola company several years ago after moving to New Hampshire from Florida.

"I really love what I do. I wake up every day and never feel like I'm going to work," said Cubilla-Lindblom, who received the Women-Owned Manufacturing Small Business of the Year Award.

But she's been tested along the way.

"The past five years were full of so many great moments, but it was also just as full of I-want-to-pull-out-my-hair moments," she said. "But every one of those moments has been worth it. If I'm being honest, I'm probably on mistake number 980 with this business. You name it. We've done it all wrong before we got it right."

Help along the way Throughout the reception, winners thanked their employees and the small business network that helped them launch their company, including local banks and credit unions, SBA staff and mentors from SCORE, a nonprofit affiliated with the SBA that offers advice to small business owners.

SCORE often works with entrepreneurs who have never run a business -- people like Angela Hanscom, who launched TimberNook in Barrington in 2013. Hanscom created a camp focused on engaging senses through outdoor play that has grown into a curriculum adopted in New Hampshire by private schools and early childhood centers. The business now has 50 locations in the United States, Canada, Australia, UK and New Zealand.

"I'm a pediatric occupational therapist by trade," Hanscom said. "This wasn't my plan, by any means. It just grew from demand and took off."

Steady demand has led to rapid expansion for this year's Small Business Persons of the Year, Erica and Hale Cole-Tucker. Their Tucker's restaurant company has locations in Hooksett, Concord, New London, Dover and Merrimack.

The couple thanked their bankers, investors, parents -- and especially their employees.

"Business is 100 percent a team sport. We talk about our team a lot at Tuckers, and we know they are crucial to our success," said Erica Cole-Tucker, who teared up as she read from a prepared statement. "But we want to point out that it's not just the team members that work in our five locations."

The couple's employees are used to their enthusiasm and tease them about it.

"Well, you can ask our team, but if there are two words Erica and I overuse in our speeches, it's 'amazing' and 'incredible,' and we cry a lot," Hale Cole-Tucker said. "I think our team has developed a drinking game out of both things."

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