June 30, 2006
By Susan Green
During an economic downturn, it's not uncommon to read stories about decaying urban centers and population flight to the suburbs or about business closings that devastate small towns in rural areas.
This is not one of those stories.
And although it does have roots in a rural village that has seen its share of economic decline, this is the story of one man's vision and determination and his commitment to the people of Middleport, Ohio.
As a boy, Richard Hill accompanied his mother on shopping trips to Vaughn's Supermarket. Conveniently located, it was the only place in the area to buy groceries.
By the time Vaughn's closed its doors in early 2005, Hill had become manager of the store, which had been part of the Middleport community since 1978. The store's closing was the culmination of unsuccessful attempts to salvage a steadily declining business that suffered from a variety of problems, including a downturn in the local economy.
Watching the people who worked there lose their jobs was one of the lowest points in Hill's life. "They had no place to go because there aren't a lot of jobs around here," Hill recalls. "This is a small town with a population of about 2,500, and everybody knows each other. It was like we were one big family." Residents throughout the community felt the repercussion of the store's closing as well. Hill decided he had to do something to not only get his friends back to work, but to make sure members of the community, who did not have the means to drive to the next town or across the river to West Virginia, had a place to buy groceries.
Hill's decision: Buy the store.
An important project gets underway
Securing the capital needed to purchase the business required a business plan, but Hill wasn't sure he had the expertise to draft one. "I went through the normal routine of buying a book and some software and tried to scratch out a plan," he says. "But I wasn't very good at it because it's not something that I did every day."
While talking to a friend about his need for a business plan, he learned about the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Ohio University's George V. Voinovich Center for Leadership and Public Affairs.
The center, which is fully integrated with the Master of Business Administration program at Ohio University, works with small business owners in southeast Ohio to help them draft operational, marketing and business plans, financial projections and growth strategies.
"Richard came to us last spring because he had an opportunity to purchase Vaughn's Supermarket," says Lissa Jollick, a business consultant with the SBDC. "We worked with him to determine whether the supermarket was a viable option. And we wanted to make sure that if Richard bought this business, he could make it work, because that was something the previous owners were unable to do."
Jollick, along with students Phil Tribble and Matt O'Brien, met with Hill and determined the business was viable.
"Richard had a lot of experience in managing a grocery store, but he didn't have enough capital to buy the business," Tribble says. "He needed a business plan that would allow him to apply for a loan and get the business moving in the right direction."
O'Brien says when he and Tribble first met Hill, it was apparent how passionate he was about this business, and how committed he was to the community of Middleport.
"This was a short project, only two weeks long, so we had to work fast," O'Brien says. "Richard was open and helpful with the information we needed and his insights into the industry were invaluable. He knew things that we'd never be able to find in our research."
Hill says his working relationship with the students was surprising, "I thought they'd be kids just putting in their time, but it was the opposite," he says. "These guys jumped in with their heart and soul once they saw the need for the community. I'd get phone calls late in the evening and e-mail in the middle of the night.
"They really cared about this project and it made a difference in the end -- I couldn't have done it without them."
Jollick agrees and can't say enough good things about the students' commitment, "Phil and Matt had a lot on their plate in terms of class work, but they knew how critical it was for this grocery store to get up and running again," she says.
The result of that commitment was a business and marketing plan that offered Hill exceptional value and enabled him to secure funding to buy the store. "The business plan, which was beautiful and professional, was the turning point for me to be able to get the funding I needed," Hill says.
A grand opening
Two months later, Hill opened the Hometown Market.
Community response to the opening was staggering. "There were nearly 800 people here for the ribbon cutting," Hill says. "They were lined-up down the street and around the block. There were so many people here that it took a while for them to actually get into the building.
"We received flowers and thank you cards from people telling us how happy they were that we'd opened, and homemade cards from kids. It touches my heart when people are that grateful for something like this."
Now that Hometown Market has been operating for more than a year, Hill is pleased with the success of the business. He's doubled his inventory and more than doubled his staff. "It has exceeded our expectations," he says. "There has been a steady increase in business -- we started with 15 employees and now we're up to 35. The community has been very supportive."
This is as much Middleport's success as it is Hill's. The community has been economically depressed for some time, and local politicians, along with economic development personnel and bankers are watching the situation closely because they understand how critical the store is to the economic well being of the village.
And the store has contributed to economic development in Middleport and Meigs County by not only creating jobs, and giving people a place to shop, but also by buying and selling local products.
Hill practices what he preaches by buying local goods for the store. "I preach here all the time to shop locally when you can because it supports us," he says. "So we do the same -- it's good product and there are a lot of farmers down here, so when produce is in season we buy from as many of them as possible. We also buy from a local farmer who produces eggs year-around. If it's made locally we do our best to try to sell it."
The benefits of partnership
Although Hill attributes his success to the relationship he had with the SBDC, Tribble quickly points out that credit goes to Hill.
"This was my favorite project," says Tribble. "Being able to see the impact that we had was very rewarding. But most of the credit goes to Richard. It takes a lot of guts to put your financial life at risk to buy a business on the verge of failure."
O'Brien cites his experience with this project as excellent preparation for his career. "I learned to really listen to what people say," he says. "In any situation you have to listen in order to effectively manage a problem.
"It was great to have real experience, with real problems, real solutions and real results. Seeing Richard Hill's success was very satisfying."
The success of the Hometown Market has spurred further economic development in Middleport and another relationship with the George V. Voinovich Center for Leadership and Public Affairs, which has partnered with community leaders to draft a strategic plan to guide revitalization efforts in the village's business district.
It's no surprise that Hill is involved with this, too.
"The Voinovich Center has a real impact on the economic development of this region," Jollick says. "If you were to ask any of our external stakeholders, they'd tell you that they see huge benefits to the services we offer here at the SBDC, not only through the work of consultants like myself, but through the MBA program."
As for Hill, he stresses he couldn't have done it without them. "We appreciate the SBDC and everyone that was involved. If it wasn't for them we wouldn't have been able to accomplish this," he says. "Sometimes when I'd be down in the dumps and worried about this going forward, Lissa would give me the encouragement I needed to keep going. We were able to create something I'm really proud of."
Students engaged in vital programs at the George V. Voinovich Center for Leadership and Public Affairs broaden their horizons and build upon a rich academic tradition of community partnerships. Their efforts reflect the university's Vision OHIO commitment to service throughout the region.
Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.