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SBDC Success Stories

Winnie Industries

Team members of Winnie IndustriesSBDC Success Story

Jon Winnie, a College of Lake County alum, worked in the magnetic fastener industry for a few years before deciding to venture out on his own. With the support of several family members, Jon started Winnie Industries in 2015. The company sells wire and cable management products such as hooks, clamps and rings that are used in the construction industry. Contract manufacturers make the products, some of which are patented by Jon, and Winnie Industries handles sales and distribution.

Jon’s story is a recipe for business success. Good ideas turned into profitable products as a result of a strategic business plan, solid relationships with suppliers and partners, financial and intellectual property management and great customer service. However, it took years of tenacious commitment and hard work for Jon to get the business up and running. Early on, the company’s finances ran negative for months, so Jon would drive for Uber on the weekend to make ends meet. Now, Winnie Industries produces enough income for Jon to cover living expenses and invest back into his growing company.

Jon’s experience illustrates how entrepreneurship can be so satisfying – with intelligence and drive, he grew a business from the ground up. He also was savvy enough to realize that he should get support from others, especially for things outside his area of expertise. Since the early stages of his business, Jon has utilized the Illinois Small Business Development and International Trade Center as a resource for guidance on sales, accounting and acquiring commercial loans.

Future plans for Winnie Industries include patenting new products, growing their presence in the data communication marketplace and establishing a presence in electrical markets. Regardless of the markets he is serving, Jon will continue to put customer satisfaction first. As he commonly tells his team when they are shipping heavy packages, “Tape is cheap, losing customers isn’t.”

To learn more, visit

Plant House

Plant House Owners Natalia and LuisSBDC Success Story

Natalia Garcia turned her passion of photography into a successful freelance career, then COVID-19 hit and abruptly terminated her livelihood. The virus’s threat to health and safety, the absence of social interactions inherent to her photography business and being cooped up at home created debilitating anxiety for Natalia. Fortunately, fond memories of her mother and grandmother lovingly tending plants in her childhood home in Mexico had motivated Natalia to fill her home with plants as an adult. In an attempt at self-care, she started photographing her plants and posting the pictures on Instagram. Family and friends admired the photos and soon began asking for tips on plant care as well as purchasing plants and cuttings. Due to the positive response, Natalia decided to do pop-up shops at various venues – and they were a success! With the help of her husband, Luis, the seed of a business idea was planted. Natalia and Luis began creating a business plan to start a formal plant shop, searching for good rental space and developing a marketing strategy. Plant House, Inc. finally sprouted in November 2021 with Natalia and Luis as full-time employees. The Illinois Small Business Development & International Trade Center at College of Lake County provided guidance on startup questions and made connections to other resources including support for minority-owned businesses and potential grant funding opportunities.

Located at 2221 Grand Avenue in Waukegan, Plant House boasts many plantitas, or young plants, as well as succulents, numerous potted house plants (including rare and exotic varieties), plant accessories and apparel. Natalia also facilitates workshops on plant care for those who want to build their skills. The couple cleans and cares for their plants to ensure no insects or fungus cause damage and they provide custom-designed care labels so customers can continue providing the highest level of plant care. Everyone is encouraged to email or call with questions about how best to love their plants.

At the rate things are going, it won’t be long until they outgrow their current space. Natalia and Luis are committed to building their business and will move to a larger location when they are generating enough revenue to support growth plans. Like many successful entrepreneurs, Natalia and Luis do more than sell a product or service, they meet needs. In their case, they deepen peoples’ relationship to nature and its ability to heal. They also serve others by being vocal about social issues and buying much of their stock from women-owned businesses. “We are more than just a quick sale,” says Natalia. “We love educating people and we love to keep learning.”

To learn more, visit 

Surely Signs - 2022

Surely SignsSBDC Success Story

Surely Signs was featured as a success story by the Illinois Small Business Development & International Trade Center at College of Lake County (SBDC/ITC) in late 2020. We are happy to offer another story about the business, highlighting its impressive success since that time. COVID caused many businesses to go under and Surely Signs might have been one of them if not for the dogged determination of Randy Rice, the company’s President and “Sales Leader.” Randy Rice started Surely Signs only a couple weeks before the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, and initially, there were significant drops in revenue due to reduced needs for business signage. Determined to succeed, Randy pivoted, revised his plans and began selling signs for personal use such as birthday and graduation parties. He also used his sales expertise to gain new business accounts and was able to cover expenses, keep his business open and even retain the full-time employee he had hired before the pandemic.

Fast forward to late 2021. Randy had managed to increase revenues by 50% during almost two years of the toughest climate small businesses have seen in decades. He also had a chance encounter with another sign shop owner at a Home Depot. Greg Kelsey, president of Signs Now, also a Mundelein based company, had been watching Randy and his operation for some time and grew to respect his professionalism, the quality of his products and the care he took to encourage healthy competition. Standing behind their carts in the middle of Home Depot, Greg proposed a partnership. Randy’s initial reaction was surprise, but he was intrigued about the potential. He didn’t want to lose the autonomy he had with his business, and at that point, he wasn’t sure about the relational dynamics that come with having a business partner. The two continued to talk and before long, they found themselves making plans to merge their businesses and share their workspace, equipment and staff. As of April 1, 2022, they officially launched their new business! Over time, they will transition out from under the Surely Signs banner and do business exclusively under Signs Now.

It is wonderful and refreshing to see collaboration on this level. The result is a strong business that serves increasingly greater numbers of customers and provides five people with full-time jobs. All signs point to success and many good things for Randy, Greg and their team.

Visit: and

Surely Signs - 2020

SBDC Success Story

Surely Signs President Randy Rice with employee at their shopSurely Signs President Randy Rice credits his mother with the inspiration for starting his own business. Shirley was a sign painter - the hand-painted kind – and Randy remembers tagging along when she did her work, creating her works of art. Now Randy makes his own signs and he uses technology to help produce his works of art, which includes traditional interior and exterior signage, window graphics, vehicle wraps, trade show displays, banners, yard signs, stickers and more. Randy can turn pretty much anything into a sign.

Decades of experience in the corporate world as an engineer and customer service manager serve as a foundation for Randy’s business strategy. He prides himself on understanding customer needs, designing high quality, customized solutions and maintaining strong customer relationships.

Randy came to the Illinois Small Business Development & International Trade Center at College of Lake County when he had already decided to purchase a franchise from Signworld, which he says is an impressive operation. The SBDC/ITC helped to answer questions about things like forming a legal entity, the best approaches to marketing, financial management and more. After Coronavirus hit, the SBDC/ITC focused on helping businesses to get disaster funding. Randy applied for and received disaster funding through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program, which helped him to stay open and work on growing his business. Most important, Randy says, were the consistent check-ins to see how things were going, to offer encouragement and pass along additional opportunities to grow the business. Randy also is involved with the combined Green Oaks, Libertyville, Mundelein, Vernon Hills (GLMV) Chamber of Commerce, the Waukegan Chamber of Commerce and Business Networking International (BNI). We salute Randy’s entrepreneurial spirit and his drive to succeed and we are honored to include him among the many businesses we have had the opportunity to help.

You can reach Randy at and (224) 715-8493. Visit:

Fire Guys Tinting

"The SBDC helped us with the steps needed to secure a small business construction loan in order to help us expand our business and build a new facility to accommodate our growing needs."
Joe Olsen, Owner of Fire Guys Tinting

SBDC Success Story_Fire Guys TintingSBDC Success Story

Joe Olsen started tinting automotive windows in his garage in 2011. What started as a part-time job quickly became a full-time business offering professional window film installation. In 2014, Joe established Fire Guys Tinting located in Antioch, Illinois. His customer base quickly grew so he moved the business into a larger space to accommodate its growth. Joe explained, "We started out in our garage, but as word spread that we provide quality work, and excellent customer service and guarantee, we had to move into a bigger workspace."

Using a state-of-the art program to computer generate and cut film, Fire Guys Tinting is able to produce highly accurate window film, which means less risk of cutting rubber gaskets or scratching glass. By working closely with the manufacturers, Fire Guys Tinting stays well informed of the highest quality products available, which in turn helps them address their clients’ specific needs.

The demand for Joe’s services continued to increase and in June 2016, he decided to build a facility to accommodate the business’ expansion. He came to the Illinois Small Business Development Center at the College of Lake County for advice and assistance with securing a small business construction loan. Working with the SBDC, they were able to compose a business plan complete with projections and put a finance plan in place. "The SBDC helped us with the steps needed to secure a small business construction loan in order to help us expand our business and build a new facility to accommodate our growing needs," stated Joe. "The staff is very personable, easy to work with and made us feel comfortable."

Fire Guys Tinting is in the process of building its new facility in Antioch, Illinois with an expected completion date in 2017. Joe expressed, "It has been so great to see repeat customers and watch our Fire Guys Tinting family grow!"

RoboThink, LLC

"With assistance from our International Trade Specialist, we discovered business resources and grant opportunities that helped us export our products and services. We attended additional trade shows to sell our franchise abroad and as a result, have seen measurable increases in sales and profits."
Danny Park, CEO of RoboThink, LLC

Robothink CEO Danny Park with robots made with building blocksSBDC Success Story

Danny Park and his team at RoboThink create a world in which imagination becomes reality. The company offers fun and exciting Robotics, Engineering and Coding programs where engineers, tinkerers and builders of all ages can explore the exciting world of STEM! Additionally, it’s a fast growing education franchise that uses proprietary hardware, education software and curriculum to create successful, purpose-driven and financially independent franchisees every day.

As a minority-owned business, RoboThink works in close coordination with Kevin Kim, Specialist at the International Trade Center (ITC) at College of Lake County. The fruitful relationship provided opportunities to participate in the highly sought after ExporTech™ program to create export business plans and receive grant funding through the state of Illinois’ ISTEP program. In 2019 RoboThink expanded its operations, gaining partners in Gulf Coast Countries including South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand, and other emerging countries. But they weren’t done. With the help of the ITC, the successful company was awarded the 2019 Illinois Governor's Small Business Exporter of the Year award in the "Service Exporter" category.

For more information, visit RoboThink, LLC

CR Welding, LLC

Successful business leaders think ahead! Chris Russell, the “CR” in CR Welding, sought support from the Small Business Development & International Trade Center at the College of Lake County. The advisors assisted Chris to create ways to capitalize on market needs, run day-to-day operations effectively and keep an eye on future opportunities.
Chris Russell, Co-owner of CR Welding, LLC

CR-WeldingSBDC Success Story

Chris Russell, the “CR” in CR Welding, started the business in his garage in 2009 and was a main supplier to a company that sold commercial furnishings such as tables, plant stands, bookshelves and wall art. With the help of his wife Jennifer the business grew, which necessitated a move to a larger facility in Waukegan in 2013 and the addition of the company’s first full-time employee. Jennifer left her job in the insurance industry in 2015 and began as CR Welding’s full-time office manager. Further growth required another move to the business’s current location in Gurnee in 2017 and the expansion of their portfolio of services to include powder coating, a dry finishing process that produces a high-quality, durable finish on the items they manufacture. Business is better than ever - Chris and Jennifer currently have three full-time employees and are looking to hire two more in the near future.

CR Welding has its roots at the College of Lake County. Chris and Will, another CR Welding employee, are graduates of CLC’s welding certification program and credit their skills and abilities in large part to their experiences there. Jennifer Russell was recently accepted into a Small Business Administration (SBA) leadership development program which includes 100 hours of training and experiential learning aimed at honing her skills as a business owner/operator. Jennifer was urged to apply for the SBA program by her Small Business Development Center (SBDC) advisor, Shari Stang. Shari has been advising Jennifer and Chris since 2017 and has helped them to strengthen their business in a variety of ways including teaching them to handle accounting responsibilities and manage the business according to the numbers. Jennifer also has attended SBDC training programs to enhance her business skills.

- Chris and Jennifer Russell, Co-owners of CR Welding, LLC

CR Welding provides custom metal fabrication, sandblasting and powder coating services.