Posted July 22, 2007 05:51 pm

Self-made entrepreneurs make the best stories

One of the things I’ve learned writing about business over the years is that the owners of successful companies tend to fall into a few general categories.

Here’s a handful of them.

- The Hobby Entrepreneur: Spouse of a wealthy professional (doctor, lawyer, etc.) in need of a tax writeoff and something to do.

- The Inheritor: Runs parents’ or grandparents’ business; last name often followed by a Roman numeral.

- The Government Leech: Middleman using “disadvantaged” status (race, gender, etc.) to sell the government products or services it could more affordably procure elsewhere.

- The Trust Funder: Same as The Inheritor, but uses family fortune to bankroll a business in a different industry, usually something fun (art gallery, bar/restaurant, etc.).

- The Severance King/Queen: Recently downsized professional sitting on a lump-sum payout; is likely a franchise owner.

There are others, such as The Immigrant, The Consultant and The Bottom Feeder, but my favorite business owner category of them all, and the one that seems to be an increasingly rare breed, is one that I call The Bootstrapper.

But before we get into the Bootstrapper, I must first tip my hat to anyone running a business – regardless of how the business was started. The vast majority of people, myself included, lack the guts and the energy (and almost always the money) to start their own company.

That said, I admire Bootstrappers because they generally start out as the least likely entrepreneurs.

They generally are born with no real business foundation on which to build. They sometimes come from low-income or downright poverty-stricken families who don’t have “friends in high places.” Another commonality is that they, at some point early in their lives, decided they wanted to achieve, to be successful.

Then they actually worked toward that goal, usually toiling long and hard to achieve what they now have.

As I said earlier, honest-to-goodness, dyed-in-the-wool Bootstrappers are becoming harder to find as large corporations increasingly muscle in on the small-business owner.
I also believe that the quality of life in America has improved to the point where poverty is now tolerable enough that most people have little incentive to transcend it. And that’s a shame, because this world could use some more Bootstrappers, such as the subject of this week’s cover story, Jim Felton, the founder of home improvement company Southern Industries.

Like most Bootstrappers, Mr. Felton can relate to just about anybody, from an executive at the country club to a roofer at one of his job sites. He’s also unpretentious; when I asked him about the handsomely bound works of Cervantes, Faust and Dostoyevsky in his office bookcase, he unabashedly admitted they came with the furniture. When you come up through the school of hard knocks, those books aren’t required reading.

Mr. Felton is also extremely generous, and not because he needs a tax writeoff or good PR. Many of the checks he writes are made out directly to individuals in need. The rest are given out by his marketing director, Brad Codman.

“He probably doesn’t even know half the stuff I do,” Mr. Codman told me on a recent visit to the company.

Last but not least, Bootstrappers are among my favorite businesspeople because they’re just plain interesting and inspiring. You’ll see that when you read about Mr. Felton’s life story, including his decades-long struggle with alcoholism and how he now reaches out to help others overcome their personal demons.

I hope you enjoy the story, because they’re not making businesspeople like him anymore.

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ’EM’, RESTRIPE’ 'EM’: Good news for local shoppers. You’ll still be able to buy a Remington Model 710 bolt-action rifle and a 10-pound bag of Tyson chicken wings all in one convenient location.

It appears the Ohio-based owners of Village Plaza Shopping Center in west Augusta have found a way to keep the Sam’s Club store from moving to make room for the new Bobby Jones Expressway/Interstate 20 interchange project. Late last month, city planning officials approved a variance to the Augusta’s big-box store ordinance that will allow developers to restripe the warehouse retailer’s parking lot – which will be much smaller after the interchange project is finished – in a manner that will allow Sam’s to remain right where it sits.

You might recall that the Village Plaza owner’s original plan was to demolish and rebuild the Sam’s Club store on a section of the strip center that is already under a (very cheap, very long) lease by local sporting goods retailer Sportsman’s Link.

During the past two years, the property owners, U.S. Properties Group, made it clear that its future plans for the center didn’t include Sportsman’s Link. The store’s owner, Sohail Abdulla, made it clear he wasn’t about to move without getting a big lease-buyout check.

Thus, the parking lot reconfiguration essentially ends the passive-agressive tête-à-tête the two sides have been playing, averts a legal battle that U.S. Properties Group would have surely lost and lets Richmond County hold on to the store’s sales taxes (there was a chance the store could have left the center altogether and moved across the county line).

The plan will tide Sam’s Club over for a few years until it can get what it really wants, the expiration of Mr. Abdulla’s lease and, ultimately, his 63,000 square feet of space.