|The original version of this story referenced a chamber of commerce location. Bill Gowen is the head of the Crook County Chamber of Commerce.
OPB regrets the error.
In OPB’s series on Rural Economies, we’ve visited a master clockmaker in Sisters, a boat repairer in Reedsport, a farmer in the Willamette Valley and several other entreprenuers. And while each business owner is unique, many share philosophies about how to run a company in a small town.
In this final story in our series, Kristian Foden-Vencil examines a few of those philosophies.
If you’ve been following our ‘Rural Economy’ series, you’ll remember Ed Beacham. He makes clocks by hand, in his shop in the central Oregon town of Sisters.
Ed Beacham: “I like making things. I like building, I like creating. I like designing. What amazes me most about myself is that I have the patience to make 100 parts and be able to put it together when I get done.”
He loves Sisters. It gives him the peace and quite he needs to work. But he also knows that when you live in such a sparsely populated area you have to be self-sufficient. And it’s become a philosophy that reaches across his life — from his business to driving down the road.
Ed Beacham: “Being on your own, you never leave somebody stranded in a snow bank. They could die. So it’s just a different kind of concept. You never travel without food and water and a blanket. There’s just ways of living that you do, but you always stay consistent. You don’t be dependent on a whole bunch of other people coming in and trying to fit your marketing program or profile or something.”
In line with his philosophy of self-suffiency, Beacham also doesn’t take out loans. When he needs a car, he saves up the money and then buys one. He says the peaks and troughs of income at the shop just aren’t reliable enough to sustain regular monthly payments.
Ed Beacham: “That’s the way it works. Is that people who are leveraged. Those are the ones that get hurt. Because then if they don’t have a consistent income, to pay the bills for everything. They’re dead.”
Dan Rohrer: “You have no problem if you don’t have any debt.”
Dan Rohrer designed and built a machine that pounds fence posts into the ground.
Like Beacham, Rohrer also subscribes to the idea of self-suffienciency. For example, he doesn’t borrow money - not even for his Prineville factory.
Dan Rohrer: “If people would realize there’s a lot of hard work involved in this, to stay out of debt - to not borrow a lot of money at a high price to do something instantaneous. I went into this thing as a person that probably wasn’t going to make a bunch of money for five years. I did only what I had to do to keep the process going and once we got some money we then started expanding our tools and getting in a position where we could make more tools more efficiently and be able to supply a very good product.”
It’s a philosophy that’s serving him well. An Australian distribution chain recently signed Rohrer up to supply fence post drivers downunder.
Rohrer’s decision not to borrow money to grow his business is all the more impressive when you look around his factory. It’s small, but there are hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of computer-driven lathes — all bought with cash.
Rohrer says not borrowing money has allowed him to keep the price tag of his fence post driver at $450.
Dan Rohrer: “I do not want to raise the price of this tool We have maintained it for a reason and that’s to stay profitable. Because the only way you can remain in business is to remain profitable.”
Inside, the factory, Jay Deeaye works three lathes cutting metal bars into pistons for the fence driver.
While he’s not the business owner, he shares another philosophy that’s close to the hearts of many people living in small towns — buy local:
Jay Deeaye: “I shop in Redmond. I don’t go over the mountain to go shopping. I try to shop right here to buy products that are made and people who are selling stuff in our area.”
That buy-local philosophy is another key tenet of doing business in a small town.
The head of the Crook County Chamber of Commerce, Bill Gowen, says local business owners know their success depends on strong ties.
Bill Gowen: “A rural community is a group activity. It isn’t many people operating independently. It’s a group activity and we’re all concerned about each other’s existence and success and families and ties that bind us together as a small community.”
He says there’s a word-of-mouth network that runs through Prineville that beats any newspaper, radio or internet. So if there’s a good special in the market, he says, people tell each other and snap up all the bargains before any ad comes out.
Another couple of hours drive east from Prineville, is the small town of Burns. Paul Clements pays his mortgage there by making large signs for local businesses.
He’ll take you on a tour to see them outside the neighborhood pizza parlor, church and car dealership. He says the people he knows love Harney County. And they’ll work several jobs to stay here.
Paul Clements: “So for example, if you go to the movie tonight. You’ll see the same guy that changed your tire at Les Schwab. If you go pick up a pizza, you’ll see the same guy working the nightshift at Safeway. So a lot of people are working two or three jobs. The person who sold you a piece of property is also the person that sells you clothing down at their store. So there are lot of people who are just hard working, honest struggling people who make Harney County living because they love living here.”
It can be a hard life, cobbling jobs together in order to earn a full-time income. But Clements and many other small town business owners believe that’s not altogether a bad thing.
Paul Clements: “People need to be on the edge so that they can, just like me, stretch my wings and get out of my little circle, and make something with my life and maintain my pride and my dignity.”
The philosophies held by many small-town business owners are shared by entreprenuers everywhere. But perhaps the physical reality of being alone in a rural area — that feeling of being close to the edge — has fostered a cautious attitude that has served Oregon’s rural businesses well during this downturn.
This story is part of our Rural Economy Project. We’re looking at how small businesses and communities around Oregon are coping with the recession that began last year.
The Rural Economy Project is a partnership between OPB and the Rural Development Initiative, Sustainable Northwest and The Oregon Consortium and Oregon Workforce Alliance.
The Rural Economy Project is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.