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SBDC 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 https://winnieindustries.com/
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 buenavibraplantshop.com
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: https://surelysigns.com/ and https://www.signsnow.com/mundelein
Surely 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 Randy@surelysigns.com and (224) 715-8493. Visit:
"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
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!"
"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
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
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
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.
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“College is the best decision I ever made. As a senior at Zion-Benton High School, I received a scholarship to CLC. I thought, “This is an opportunity.””
“The entire Illinois SBDC International Trade Center staff is an invaluable resource – always available, honest and thorough. If there is a subject outside their realm, they have a network of referrals who are experienced in that field.”
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“What I like especially about the mechatronics classes is the hands-on learning and the helpful instructors who want you to succeed. We also went on field trips to companies, where we got a chance to see practical, real-world examples of ideas such as building and maintaining assembly lines.”
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“CLC is a melting pot; a microcosm of America. The students come from so many different backgrounds and contexts, that you learn almost as much from your classmates as you do from your courses.”
“Margie Porter, who is chair of the mechatronics technology program, understands the challenge of juggling a job, college courses and raising a family. She helps you build your self-confidence in learning the material.”
“One great part of CLC's hospitality and culinary management program is the opportunity to put together a portfolio of your work. It teaches you how to be organized and professional, and it's a great thing to carry into a job interview.”
“I believe that everyone in a classroom serves as a teacher and a student. I take pride in knowing that all of our communication courses have the potential to be life-changing experiences for our students.”
“To create the 'a-ha' moment in my public speaking classes, I set the pace from day one, creating an environment in which my students will feel safe and comfortable.”
“I use many different teaching methods, including: journaling, readings, oral quizzes, in-class and out-of-class activities, role plays, group discussion, media, group work and providing many examples.”
“Whether teaching online or onsite, I encourage active discussions in which students interact with each other as well as the course material.”
“When assigning papers, I encourage my students to choose their subjects carefully. If students can write about a subject about which they are passionate, they will write better papers.”
“Looking back, I had instructors who helped me to see and appreciate the joy, wonder and mystery that exists in the world all around me-whether it is in nature, science and people, or in stories, essays and poetry. I try to do the same thing for my students.”
“I teach because I want to help students imagine a better life for themselves. When they do that, they will be able to imagine a better world for all of us. And that is pretty cool.”
“I knew that I wanted to be a college instructor when I was an undergrad student at UCLA. I would come out of my English classes thrilled with the possibilities that language and literature created.”
“I find it gratifying when I stimulate the students' minds and to see how they go beyond what we do in class; some decide to pursue the subject as a future career. It is very rewarding to know that I can make a difference in students' lives.”
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“I assess myself by the quality of the engineer that I turn out. Often, I am contacted by students who say that their job requires all of those things they complained about having to learn during the program, and that they appreciate me for not backing down.”
“I maintain an open, questioning environment that encourages all reasonable experiments. In addition, I interweave real-world experiences and practical life skills with the subject material.”
“My main goal is to connect with students in a way that motivates them to learn the material deeply, not just to pass a test. And I really enjoy getting to know students on a personal basis and helping them along the path to being an engineer.”
“As an engineering educator, I am in a unique position: I'm educating individuals who will create and use technology that does not exist today.”
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“Helping put students in a position to make a difference in others' lives - that's what makes my job so rewarding.”
“I am passionate about inspiring new students to understand and embrace the rapidly changing knowledge base in the substance-use fields, particularly as it relates to new brain science, strength-based approaches for treatment and evidence-based practices.”
“I love seeing students' minds expand throughout the semester. The students transform through applying philosophical theories and concepts to their own lived experiences.”
“My most memorable teaching experience is to observe a student enter the program with a specific career goal in mind, and after hard work in our program, obtain a specific job working for the company of his or her dreams.”
“I want to help students become problem solvers in the computer information technology field.”
“Teaching allows me to have a profound and lasting positive effect upon the professions in the criminal justice system, especially law enforcement. I enjoyed being a police officer very much, and I strive to pass on my love for the profession through my teaching.”
“While attending high school, I joined my community's rescue squad, and I soon realized that firefighting and rescue work was my calling in life. It's been rewarding to help people who are experiencing some of the worst days of their life.”
“My main goal is to help students understand and appreciate that education is a way of life rather than a journey to a job.”
“What excites me most about teaching is that I get to witness, time and time again, the transformation from student to polished professional.”
“When I was a CLC student, it was such a great experience because the teachers really care about the students. I decided I wanted to teach biology at a community college, and I still can't believe that I am here. It truly is a dream come true.”
“I tell my students that I am successful not when they finish my class but when I hear that they have graduated from an allied health program.”
“I consider the needs of students every time I plan activities and goals for class. As a result, I utilize multiple teaching strategies, from lecture to a small-group critical thinking activity. In addition, I set and communicate high expectations and teach students how to successfully reach these goals.”
“To create the 'aha' moment in students, I always try to connect classroom topics to common life experiences and use labs and demonstrations to reinforce lectures. One learns more by doing than by hearing.”
“I try to relate course concepts directly to real life. For example, there are real-time weather discussions in my meteorology classes, where students see how the course material applies directly to the weather that affects their lives.”
“Teaching is not just about sharing knowledge, but - most importantly - inspiring students and helping them become life-long learners.”
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“I teach using guided notes and a tablet laptop in order to keep students engaged. Writing on a tablet instead of the chalkboard or whiteboard allows me to face my class, so I can see their reactions and more easily promote discussion.”
“My philosophy of teaching can be summed up by, 'Meet students where they are. Help them move forward.'”
“A student who transferred to Northern Illinois University and took calculus classes there emailed me to thank me for teaching her to be a more prepared student and to learn math throughout the entire semester, instead of cramming.”
“My passion for cars started when I was a young boy, holding a drop light for my dad as he worked on the family car. As time went on, I grew up and my Hot Wheels® cars just got bigger and faster.”
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“I'm fascinated with economics' application to everyday life. When we make decisions related to purchases, or when we make choices about what we will do with our time and resources, it relates to the field of economics.”
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“History explains the world to us. CLC offers many opportunities for faculty and students to travel widely in the world. My travels in Jordan, the Netherlands and in several other countries have broadened my experience and helped me to be a better teacher.”
“I seek to make connections between course content and students' lives and to build relationships with and among students in the classroom. Students flourish when working together toward a common goal and when they realize that they can rely on their peers and professors for support and information.”
“I cannot compete with a smartphone in terms of overall information. Consequently, my teaching objective is not just to disseminate information, which students can get from a variety of sources, but rather to assist students in applying this information in real-world situations.”
“I'm fascinated by psychology's mystery as well as its different explanations, theories and philosophical assumptions about human nature. Perhaps most important, the field has the potential to help people live better.”
“I am humbled and grateful for the opportunity to help students navigate college and make decisions that will have a lasting impact on their lives and families.”
“I want my students to be able to recognize the extent to which society influences most of what we do and think, but that we can also change the course of society. To achieve this goal, I often provide a range of different examples and activities. ”
“I believe my students should be active participants in the learning process, and the material should be directly connected to their outside experiences. At the end of the semester, I hope they leave with the belief that they can change the world!”
“Using genealogy and popular culture allows me to make connections for students to unfamiliar sociological theories, by utilizing something they know (their family history; favorite TV shows, or movies) as a starting point.”
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