Updated: Wed, 01/09/2013 - 01:04

Savannah Morning News' 2012 businesses of the year

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Newcomer Business of the Year

Savannah Slow Ride

Samantha Meier and Keith Snyder started their unorthodox tour company, Savannah Slow Ride, along with a sister business that manufactures the quadricycles they use — it takes at least four people to supply pedal power — 22 months ago.

Now, in the last year, they’ve grown from a two-person operation with two working quadricycles to a popular tour operator with a staff of 10, six leg-powered vehicles and a backlog of orders from out-of-town companies for their handmade “crawlers.”

Their growth and success came in a year in which they faced several challenges from city officials, led by former city manager Rochelle Small-Toney. Government leaders considered limiting their downtown routes, banning alcohol consumption onboard the crawlers and requiring a wide array of safety equipment.

“Basically, we spent half the year fighting for our own survival and the other half growing into a viable business,” Meier said. “It’s been interesting.”

Meier and Snyder’s perseverance on what has been an uphill ride makes Savannah Slow Ride and Crawler Fabrications the Savannah Morning News’ choice for “Newcomer Business of the Year.”

The Savannah Slow Ride idea is unique but not original.

Meier discovered the touring quadricycle in 2010 while visiting family in Milwaukee, Wis. She was out for drinks at a tavern when the vehicle creeped by on a pub crawl. She chased it down the street and claimed a seat.

“I got on and had a blast,” Meier said.

Meier’s experience intrigued Snyder, her significant other. A marine engineer by trade and a tinkerer by nature, he researched the crawler and found they were popular in Europe. Snyder recognized an opportunity. Not only could he and Meier start a crawler tour operation in Savannah, but they could also manufacture the bikes.

Before long, crawler sketches covered the whiteboard in his office aboard the Diamond Casino cruise boat.

He assembled the first bike in August 2010. Snyder and Meier, who was working in a local restaurant at the time, moved into their current headquarters and bike shop downtown later that year. They picked February 2011 to launch their business.

“We had a hidden agenda,” Snyder said. “Sam and I wanted to do something together. I wanted off the casino boat, and she wanted out of the restaurant.”

— Adam Van Brimmer

Business Advocate of the Year

WTC Savannah

When the Savannah Economic Development Authority board voted in the fall of 2011 to pursue a World Trade Center affiliation for Savannah, it wasn’t without its skeptics.

After all, it was a pricey undertaking that would require an initial $200,000 investment and yearly dues of $10,000.

A little over a year later, the World Trade Center Savannah has begun elevating the Savannah area on the world stage, providing the region with international connections and more opportunities to grow — and attract — business.

It’s that early, right-out-of-the-gate success that has earned the new organization the Savannah Morning News’ Business Advocate for 2012.

“I’m really excited about what we’ve been able to accomplish in our first year,” said Eric Johnson, the SEDA board member who led the fact-finding committee and now serves as WTC Savannah’s first board chairman.

The organization, formed in October of last year as a separate 501(c)3 division of SEDA, has its own professional staff and a 10-member regional board of directors.

Since then, it has secured four “founding investors” in the diverse fields of manufacturing, shipping and warehousing, business advocacy and engineering/architecture.

It has produced one major trade services case study, 11 customized country and industry reports for businesses and customized protocol briefs on 14 countries.

The major case study involved working with the Savannah-based firm of Hussey, Gay, Bell and DeYoung to determine what kind of value WTC Savannah could bring to the process of doing business overseas.

The engineering and construction management firm had already established itself in Bermuda and Saudi Arabia and was looking at the potential of doing business in Turkey.

As a result of meetings set up through WTC Savannah working with WTC Istanbul, the company reported it was able to achieve in a few days what would have normally have taken much longer and cost significantly more.

In the last year, WTC Savannah has hosted 49 international delegates from 17 countries, often partnering with the city of Savannah, for the purpose of highlighting the area’s business assets.

— Mary Carr Mayle

Comeback Business of the Year

The Coastal Bank

Tom Wiley assumed The Coastal Bank’s leadership in 2007 knowing he had an improvement project on his hands, but that was before the recession and banking crisis of 2008 hit.

“Our intention when we got here was to be a consolidator, to acquire other banks and grow our market share,” Wiley said.

Like many banks across the country and particularly in Georgia, The Coastal Bank was built on real estate-based loans. As recently as the summer of 2010, 91 percent of Coastal’s loans were backed by real estate collateral — the highest concentration of any community bank in the area.

Drops in real estate values contributed to losses exceeding $10 million over a three-year period. The hit wasn’t the largest in the area but did promise a long and difficult recovery for Coastal, particularly in a regulatory environment punitive to small community banks.

Yet as 2012 ended and the wider economic recovery continues to creep along, Coastal is showing a profit, a strong capital position and a stability in assets many of its peers can’t rival. The strength of the bank’s underlying fundamentals has Wiley and the bank’s new leader, Jim LaHaise, focused on growth once again.

The turnaround, driven by Wiley, LaHaise and the bank’s management team, makes Coastal Bank our choice for “Comeback Business of the Year.”

“There’s no question with that level of management talent Coastal Bank will continue to have success in the future and will emerge as the preeminent independent bank in Savannah over time,” said Ed Sibbald, director of Georgia Southern University’s Excellence in Banking and Financial Services.

Among Wiley’s management hires was LaHaise, with whom he’d worked at AmeriBank. As the recession dawned and loan defaults accelerated, LaHaise recommended appointing three of Coastal’s strongest bankers and “isolating them to deal with the problem loans only.”

The bank hit bottom in January 2011, with $49 million worth of delinquent loans or repossessed properties in its $484 million portfolio. But Coastal’s problem loan team was already addressing the issue, cutting a million dollars a month from its non-performing assets.

Coastal closed the third quarter 2012 on Sept. 30 with $31.5 million in its problem bucket. Meanwhile, the bank had grown its assets by 3 percent since the end of 2010.

— Adam Van Brimmer

Education Partner of the Year

JCB Apprenticeship Program

At a time when many recent high school graduates are still searching for jobs, Jacob Lindsey has his future mapped out.

Since September, the 2012 Jenkins High School graduate has gone to school at Savannah Technical College and working at construction equipment manufacturer JCB, where he’s getting paid to learn everything from machining to communication and leadership skills.

“This has already been a great experience,” said Lindsey, who took engineering classes during his four years at Jenkins.

“I’m learning way more than I ever thought I would.”

For working to provide that opportunity, JCB is the Savannah Morning News’ 2012 Education Partner of the Year.

Lindsey and four other 2012 area high school graduates comprise the first class of JCB apprentices settling into a three-year program designed to provide them with the education and skills they need to succeed while helping to build a workforce for the company.

The apprentices, who each receive a salary and full JCB benefits package, divide their time between the classroom at Savannah Technical College and the manufacturing floor at JCB.

At the end of the three years, each successful apprentice will receive the appropriate certifications, diplomas or licenses and the opportunity for permanent employment.

JCB kicked off the program earlier this year with the encouragement and blessing of the state’s top officials and chose its first five apprentices from a field of more than 70 applicants.

— Mary Carr Mayle

Entrepreneurial Business of the Year

Wet Willie’s

David Stachel wanted to “open a daiquiri bar on the beach,” and he visited Savannah in October 1989 to talk to a business acquaintance of his brother, local psychologist Bill Dickinson, into partnering with him.

Being a gracious host, Dickinson took Stachel out on the town, starting with the Oktoberfest celebration on River Street.

“Wow, is it like this all the time?” Stachel asked Dickinson upon seeing the festive crowds along the waterfront.

Six months later, Stachel and Dickinson opened their daiquiri bar on the beach on River Street’s cobblestones instead. Wet Willie’s debuted on St. Patrick’s Day weekend 1990 and instantly became the place to party in Savannah.

Today, Wet Willie’s is home to the frozen-drink crowd in 17 locations in seven states. Plans call for the opening of at least six more stores in 2013, including a third local location in City Market and the company’s first foray into the New York City market.

And yes, Stachel got his daiquiri bar on the beach — several stores sit oceanside, including a recently opened location on Tybee and another on Miami’s South Beach.

Credit Dickinson’s ability to master the bar business for the success, said Ansley Williams, owner of River Street restaurants Spanky’s and Tubby’s.

“In the beginning, I told Dickinson ‘Doc, don’t quit your day job,’” Williams said. “Turns out he was a natural — he was better at the bar business than those of us giving him advice. He believed in what he was doing and was willing to do everything necessary to be a success.”

The spirit that has keyed the business’s success makes Wet Willie’s our choice for “Entrepreneurial Business of the Year.”

Dickinson is a psychologist by trade, so naturally he applies a clinical approach to explain Wet Willie’s success.

His entrepreneurial philosophy includes 11 points, culminating in his belief in a “Darwinian approach to business: Change is essential to survival, but only adaptive change. Adapt to change or be selected out of the business ‘pool.’”

— Adam Van Brimmer

Manufacturer of the Year

LMI Aerospace

A reputation for quality and reliability in an industry that demands adherence to the strictest of standards has propelled LMI Aerospace Inc.’s Savannah facility to unprecedented growth, making them a strong asset to the industrial community and the Savannah Morning News’ 2012 Manufacturer of the Year.

Last year, the company’s Savannah facility was named the Georgia Small Manufacturer of the Year at the Governor’s Awards in Atlanta. And, in February, the facility was named Supplier of the Year for 2011 by Aviation Partners Boeing.

Located on Coleman Boulevard, LMI prepares specialty airframe parts for riveting, machined parts and assemblies for nearby Gulfstream Aerospace, a series of large special after-market wing modification kits to Aviation Partners Boeing in Seattle, Wash., and metallic and composite assemblies for Boeing in South Carolina.

With Gulfstream in particular, the company has jointly developed a “just in time” and “point of use” delivery process using LEAN manufacturing practices. Because LMI must be able to provide the required assemblies when and where they are needed, general manager Phil Lajeunesse said, the assemblies are delivered directly to the point of use in Gulfstream’s Savannah manufacturing facility.

The company performs the service so well that for 20 months in a row they have posted 100 percent on-time deliveries to all major clients.

And that, Lajeunesse said, is a direct reflection of the work ethic and attitude of the company’s 55 employees.

— Mary Carr Mayle

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