For Don Wiesendanger, 2004 brought a trio of major changes in quick succession: He turned 50, learned he needed major back surgery -- and was laid off by his employer of 18 years.
The loss of his job came as no surprise. Brown & Williamson Tobacco, where he served as a manufacturer's rep, had kept employees informed as it worked on a merger deal with R.J. Reynolds (RAI). "Everyone knew there could be massive layoffs," says Wiesendanger (see BW Online, 11/24/03, "Chutzpah on Tobacco Road").
Although he received a generous severance package -- 15 months of pay, six months of health insurance, and free use of an outplacement service -- the final day wasn't without indignities.
BUMMED OUT. "I saw my company credit card being cut in half," says Wiesendanger, who lives in Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., with his wife, Betsy, a freelance writer. "They had security guards around in case anyone freaked. I had to turn in my company car and watch as they inventoried it." Plans to "get hammered" with longtime work buddies -- who had also been laid off that day -- fizzled. "Everyone felt too solemn to drink. We all just looked at one another and decided to go home."
Right after the layoff, Wiesendanger injured his back for the second time and spent a month in bed on painkillers before he could schedule surgery to repair three of his vertebrae. During that time, he pondered what to do with the rest of his life. He had a mortgage, a beloved but very expensive hobby -- piloting small planes -- and a high-school education. He knew that one of his supervisors from Brown & Williamson had moved to North Carolina after the layoff and taken the highest-paying job he could find: at Home Depot, for $12 an hour. "This was a guy who had made more than $100,000 at B&W," says Wiesendanger.
A test that outplacement firm Lee Hecht Harrison administered to him suggested he would make a good doctor or dentist. "I would have liked that," says Wiesendanger, "but once I got done with all the schooling, it would have been time to retire."
FALSE STARTS. Already fed up with the corporate life that had made him feel "powerless, like a pawn," Wiesendanger decided to go into business for himself. He did an Internet search with the keyword "franchising" and checked out a number of opportunities. (The Small Business Administration recommends using www.franchise.org, the Web site for the International Franchise Assn.) "I found out a Dunkin' Donuts franchise cost $250,000 and required that you have at least $1 million in the bank," says Wiesendanger. "My feeling was, if I had that kind of money, what would I need with Dunkin' Donuts?"
After spending a sizable chunk of time investigating a promising-sounding opportunity that involved repairing vinyl auto interiors, Wiesendanger mentioned he was color-blind. "They said, 'You can buy the franchise, but you can't do the work.' It would have been too hard for me to pick out the right colors," he says.
By then, however, franchising in general had started to sound unappealing. "The training fee for some of them would have been around $100,000. Most of the companies that sell the franchises want 6% to 8% of your gross, and you had to use accounting software they could tap into via the Internet," recalls Wiesendanger. "That didn't sound like going into your own business to me. It sounded like going back to being a corporate peon."
NEW DRILL. A few weeks into his search, he identified his key career criteria: He wanted a business that involved the medical profession, enabled him to go out and get clients rather than "stand around in a store waiting for customers to come to me," and required initial training and equipment costs of less than $30,000 and a flat monthly fee rather than a percentage. The solution didn't come in the form of a franchise, but a dealership.
Wiesendanger came across the Web site of High Speed Service, a Portland (Ore.) company specializing in repair of dental hand pieces, as drills and polishers are known in the biz. "It sounded like a brilliant concept," says Wiesendanger. "I found out that most dentists have to send their hand pieces away to get them fixed. High Speed Service has you equip a van so you can make the repairs right in the parking lot the same day."
He also found out that routine sterilizations of the hand pieces caused their bearings to need repeated replacement -- meaning a good chance of perpetual business from the same offices.
MAPPING THE AREA. The costs sounded reasonable, about $12,000 for training, $14,000 for buying and equipping a vehicle and purchasing an inventory of hand-piece replacement parts, and a flat monthly fee of $150.
Before taking the plunge, Wiesendanger drove to Buffalo to meet with a current owner of a High Speed Service dealership. "He was a huge help," Wiesendanger says. "I worked with him for a couple of days. I'm not too mechanical, but it seemed like something I could do."
After flying to Portland for 12 days of training, Wiesendanger bought a used Chevy Astro and outfitted it with a workbench and the needed tools. Next, he gathered a database of dentists and used a spreadsheet to break it down geographically in towns in New York's Westchester and Putnam counties. He registered the name High Speed Service Hudson Valley with the county and acquainted himself with the delights of obtaining a license to pay sales tax in three different regions, each with a different rate (see BW Online, 2/28/05, "Ah Tax IDs and Resale Certificates").
PASSING THE GATEKEEPERS. He also put together marketing material about High Speed Service to drop off at prospective customers' offices.
Then it came time to face the hard reality of cold-calling. "I had been warned it takes six to eight visits before you get a client," says Wiesendanger. "But High Speed Service seemed like something unique. I thought I would have to turn away business."
Personable and articulate -- with a resonating voice that once nearly landed him a voiceover career (his "s" was slightly off) -- Wiesendanger began visiting dentists to give out the sales literature and his sales spiel. "I'd say, 'Hi. I'm Don Wiesendanger. I repair hand pieces, and can do it out in the parking lot.' They'd say, 'Wow.'"
But a "wow" didn't mean an audience with the dentist. "The front-office people are like gatekeepers trained to keep evil salespeople away from the doctor," Wiesendanger says. "My wife was getting upset with me because I got so discouraged. She told me to keep at it." (See BW Online, 6/13/05, "Selling: Sneaking Past the Gatekeepers.")
BUILDING UP. His very first sale turned out to be his easiest as well. Just 30 minutes after leaving off his literature, "the dentist called and asked why I hadn't waited around to talk to him. I got back in the van and signed him on."
That happened in February, 2005. Today, nearly a year after starting, Wiesendanger has acquired 58 customers who pay him $40 to $150 for needed repairs.
Once, he made $1,000 in a single day. In November, he had so much business, it left no time for marketing. He still makes cold calls, but less often. Most of the new clients are coming from referrals.
NEW IDIOT. The business brings in less income than his job at Brown & Williamson did, but it provides enough to pay for work-related expenses. And he has begun to withdraw small amounts for himself as a salary of sorts. Mostly, though, he reinvests revenue in an inventory of a wider array of replacement parts so he can offer to make more-complicated repairs quickly.
"I know a High Speed Service dealer who only works three weeks a month and makes $125,000 a year. I'm a long way from that now, but my wife keeps saying I'll make more money, that it will happen."
In the meantime, Wiesendanger loves that he can control his own time, that he can arrange his own schedule, with no daily grind of set hours. "What I like most is not having idiots for managers. I still have an idiot for a manager, but now it's me," he says with a laugh. "If the biz fails, it's my fault. I like having the power in my hands."