The idea of someday becoming a business owner formed in the back of Donald Keeney's mind when he was a college student.
Donald majored in marketing at Southeast Missouri State University in the early 1990s. When not attending business classes or studying, Donald spent much of his time working at Howard's Athletic Goods in downtown Cape Girardeau. While waiting on customers, he developed sales and management skills during his two years at the store. Howard's specialized in sporting equipment, shoes and apparel. During this time, Donald also gained experience with customizing apparel for patrons.
"I learned a lot about small business while working at Howard's," says Donald. "The experience helped me apply much of what my professors taught in class. And I also got a flavor for what it might be like for me to own my own shop someday."
After graduation, Donald worked a few years for Champs Sporting Goods in Cape Girardeau, St. Louis and Joplin. Next he joined the management team at Voss Enterprises, which based him in south central Missouri near his hometown of St. James. Later he spent nine years — primarily in fundraising — with the Missouri University of Science & Technology in Rolla.
It was during his years at Missouri S&T that Donald began communicating with Tom Cox, the owner of a shoe store in St. James.
"During my years in annual giving, I kept thinking about my early experience at Howard's Athletic Goods, and cultivated a yearning to own my own store," recalls Donald. "One day I mentioned to Tom if he ever thought about selling his shop, I might be interested in buying it."
Tom Cox filed that thought. A few years later he told Donald he was ready to retire and sell the store. After discussing the pros and cons of business ownership with his wife, Melissa, Donald was ready to begin the process of transitioning from an employee to an employer.
Donald soon made appointments with his accountant and a loan officer at Phelps County Bank to start the business-buying process. Both had recommended he talk with Mick Gilliam, a Missouri Small Business Technology & Development Center specialist based at the MU Extension Center in Phelps County, before embarking on a quest for financial backing.
"Mick started asking the difficult questions I hadn't considered," remembers Donald. "He essentially helped me develop a whole market analysis. He also took me from Point A to Point Z along the journey of writing a business plan."
After about a dozen revisions on that plan, Donald was ready to apply for a business loan. The loan was approved, and after some negotiation with Tom Cox, Donald purchased the store.
He and Melissa formed Forest City Footwear, LLC in November 2008. After extensive remodeling and inventory updating, they opened the doors of the store in February 2009.
"You learn a lot once you start running a business, and better understand what questions to ask," says Donald. "Mick has been a tremendous asset to have just a phone call away. He's answered plenty of questions for me."
Forest City Footwear's business has continually increased month-over-month annually during each of its nearly three years in operation. The family-owned store specializes in lines not readily available at the big box stores — such as SAS, Keen, Merrell, Brooks, and Clarks. The Keeneys understand the importance of catering to comfort-seeking customers and happily take special orders for unusual sizes. It is a specialty niche they strive to fill in the always competitive shoe business.
Forest City Footwear also offers such services as shoe repair and a dry cleaning shuttle for local residents. However, the leading revenue generator for the store has been the addition of a screen printing and promotional products service. Customized products include embroidery, screen printing and heat transfer goods. Their clientele include local schools, community organizations, businesses, churches and individuals.
"We can print on virtually any surface that's printable," says Melissa. She regularly assists Donald in the artwork for the customized products, when she's not working full time as a middle school teacher in St. James.
With business constantly growing, Donald has hired an experienced full-time screen printing technician, John Neal, who previously worked for a large commercial screen printer in Bourbon, Mo.
"We hired John initially for his technical skills," says Donald. "But he has also begun to transition to do design work. He has a talent for it and he has a background in art instruction."
And Donald has a talent for sales: "He listens to people and does his best to learn their needs," Melissa says. "I'm glad he likes to work with the customers. I prefer my assignment in the back shop working on designs."
"I enjoy the shop because every day is different," says Donald, who left his development job about a year ago to devote full time to his business. "Small business ownership is all about building relationships with people in the community. Everywhere I go in town, I'm the owner of the shoe and screen printing store. It's not unheard of for me to pick up one or two orders while waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store.
"There are aspects of the old 9-to-5 job that I miss. But it's good to be your own boss ... the benefits of small business ownership far outweigh the occasional frustrations. I really enjoy running my own store."
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This story was featured in the July 2011 newsletter.
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