Intelligence, flexibility, leadership, and belief. Starting a business from scratch, and then maintaining it and growing it for years to come, requires all these things, plus plenty of hard work. There is also, perhaps, a little luck along the way.
Is it easy? Hardly. But impossible? Not at all, according to Evansville residents who invest in and build businesses here and elsewhere.
An entrepreneur is defined by Merriam Webster as someone who “organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.” “Risk” is a scary word for some. But local entrepreneurs say that with the right mindset, as well as a terrific concept, it’s less so.
“In the virtual world we now live in, talent can be anywhere,” says Eric Steele, the southwest Indiana entrepreneur-in-residence with Elevate Ventures (see Names to Know, page 29). He says his role daily “is just to make connections. If somebody comes to me, either an idea is a fit or not a fit, but I can connect them with somebody doing something similar throughout the state. So, all of that helps.”
The Evansville region is home to innumerable entrepreneurs who have chased all sorts of dreams. Evansville Business spoke with a few of them about their experiences and what they have learned along the way.
Entrepreneurism can involve leaving one company to start another. Such was the case with Kyle Fields, who was a vice president for SS&C Technologies in Evansville, but in August 2021 decided, along with a partner, to break away.
They formed Bridge Alternatives, to assist hedge funds, venture capitalists, and private equity firms with accounting and financial management services. The company started on New Year’s Day 2022.
It evolved rather quickly. After the arrival of COVID-19, C.H. Robinson, a logistics company that occupied a former Integra Bank building at Third and Main streets, moved out and changed to a work-from-home model.
Fields wanted a traditional office environment, so he moved Bridge Alternatives into the building’s ground floor. The company works with 28 clients across the U.S. and the world, but 19 of its 23 team members are in Evansville.
“It was about having an idea, jumping at the idea, using my own capital, and going after my own network to create something here in Evansville,” Fields says.
Fields notes that SS&C, his former employer, also has maintained a significant presence in the city following his departure. To Fields, that speaks highly of the region’s talent pool.
“I think they want to continue to grow, and I think all the competitors that are here will want to continue to grow as well,” he says. “It’s a healthy position for the community because we’re recruiting more and more people.”
Finding a Niche
“The logic behind the name is, it’s an alternative resource,” Kyle Fields says. “As opposed to hiring five people internally, maybe they hire one person internally and four of us, or three of us to bridge that gap. Or if a company’s CFO leaves, we step in and bridge the gap between them by bringing in a new CFO or a controller.”
During his colorful entrepreneurial career in Evansville, Pat Coslett has learned lessons of perseverance, taking the right kinds of risks, and above all else, having some fun along the way.
Coslett’s Simplicity Furniture and Sleep Shoppe storefront at North Green River and Vogel roads is as much about people and relationships as merchandise. Coslett greets each guest warmly and hosts occasional comedy and musical performances and nonprofit fundraisers in the store. He never takes things too seriously, least of all himself.
It’s been good for business. Since opening on the East Side in 2018, Simplicity Furniture has not only survived the COVID-19 pandemic but expanded.
Coslett is the first to admit, though, that it’s been a choppy ride here and there.
For longtime Evansville residents, the mention of Coslett’s name might conjure memories of Pearl T. Pig, Wally the Wallaby, or Mike Libs & The Chocolate Factory. They were all part of Pat Coslett’s Furniture Festival on the West Side, which he owned from 1999 to 2005.
Coslett took over the business — known as L.B. Jones Furniture — upon his father Joe’s retirement. House animals, zany commercials that still live on YouTube, and celebrity appearances at the store were all part of the formula.
“I got a reputation as a class clown and ran with it,” Coslett says today.
Obstacles arose, however, including the closure of a bridge at Diamond and Fulton avenues, near the store. “That bridge was down three years, and our business was off 30 percent,” Coslett recalls. “Banks still want to get paid.”
With the Furniture Festival shut down, Coslett says he “licked my wounds” and found other pursuits that were fulfilling. He worked in local radio and as a traveling furniture factory representative. He also got involved with the Evansville Association for the Blind, specifically a factory that gave jobs assembling and selling mops and brooms to visually impaired residents.
“That might have been the best job I ever had,” Coslett says. “That’s when I learned it’s not about the furniture. That’s the God’s truth.”
But Coslett still had the desire to have a storefront again. “I thought I had one more good run in me,” he says. Except, Costett knew times had changed since the days of Pearl T. Pig. He realized a reboot on the East Side would need some help.
Coslett credits Doug Claybourn, an adviser with the Small Business Development Center (see Names to Know, page 29), for helping him craft a modern business plan that could work. Legence Bank backed his vision for a new store.
Coslett is proud today to keep the entrepreneurial bent in his family with his sons Chase, who is also an instructor in Ivy Tech Community College’s entrepreneurship program (see Incubating New Businesses, page 31), and Kelsey. Coslett describes his boys as “good human beings who believe in what we’re doing.”
“I still react from emotion,” Coslett says. “I’m still the ‘ready, fire, aim’ guy. But now I have my sons in the business with me, and their role is to keep me from doing stupid stuff.”
Simplicity Furniture has fared well, although Pat Coslett says getting through the pandemic required another risk – he sought a loan for new inventory at a time when retail everywhere was suffering.
It paid off. “We truly had furniture in stock where no one else did. Other stores were directing customers to us,” he says. “That was the risk of my life. It was either going to make us or break us, and it enabled us to buy the building next to us.”
In business, focusing on small things can help achieve big things, Darrick Hayden says.
Over the last few years, despite the pandemic, the duo of Hayden and Josh Tudela have grown Parlor Doughnuts from a modest Downtown Evansville storefront to a bustling second location on the city’s East Side, and then to a nationwide chain. Parlor Doughnuts has 64 franchise agreements from coast to coast.
It happened by taking a methodical approach.
“One of the great principles in entrepreneurship is to start from where you’re at, take what you have, and continue to try to get better,” Hayden says. “We’re not looking for perfection but progression. Are we getting better? We approached it with that attitude.”
Hayden has been an entrepreneur for as long as he can remember. His father ran Rogers Academy and Rogers Design (which today are under one roof on Main Street), and it was a family enterprise.
“It was my upbringing, and I had the opportunity to develop many businesses within that business,” Hayden says. “Entrepreneurship was part of my life early on, watching it, having my own salon. That all started very early.”
For 25 years, Hayden worked in church planting and ministry, with his family’s business on the side. It’s different now – Hayden describes himself as “mainly an entrepreneur with a heart to continue to impact lives.”
He started Proper Coffee in 2015 and later joined forces with Tudela’s Parlor Doughnuts vision. Evansville residents responded so favorably to Parlor Doughnuts that it made Hayden and Tudela — himself the owner of COMFORT by the Cross-Eyed Cricket — curious if the concept would click elsewhere.
“We went strategically into some other parts of the country,” Hayden says. “My son Noah moved to California and started one in Oceanside. Someone else in the group went to South Florida and one to Denver. And Nashville was right behind that.”
Another key part of Parlor Doughnuts’ vision is to engage interns and mentor them in business, marketing, and entrepreneurialism.
Hayden says it’s all a part of the same entrepreneurial spirit he was raised with.
His best advice for aspiring business owners? “If you already have the idea, start where you’re at, gather people around you that believe in that same vision, and build something together, but allow patience in the process,” he says. “You’re going to make mistakes, there’s going to be problems, but ask, are you getting better? Are you progressing? Things aren’t built overnight. They are built by daily due diligence.”
Building a Brand
Despite coast-to-coast expansion, Evansville remains the Parlor Doughnuts capital, with the recent debut of the company’s relocated and expanded Downtown storefront at 204 Main St. There, residents can enjoy coffee and treats while Parlor Doughnuts officials train franchisees from across the country.
New store operators from Valparaiso, Indiana, and Jacksonville, Florida, were among recent visitors. The Main Street headquarters has a test kitchen, and a second-floor transformation into classroom space is planned and will begin soon.
Relocating to her hometown of Evansville in the early 1990s to care for her mother, Connie Robinson chose to run for an open seat on the City Council and also start a business.
She represented the Fourth Ward on the City Council for a record 24 years and in 1993 launched HMR Enterprises, a distributor of restaurant and hospitality supplies that she still operates today on Read Street.
Entrepreneurship, Robinson says, “is in my blood.” Her mother and father ran a grocery store in the 1950s and owned rental homes. After graduating from the University of Evansville with a degree in business, Robinson was employed by hair care company Clairol and then worked for her brother in Dallas, Texas, before moving home.
The 1995 opening of the Casino Aztar riverboat created newfound opportunities for Evansville’s hospitality industry.
Robinson says some existing companies approached her at the time about joining them, but “I thought I can do this myself, and start my own company. And that’s what happened. I started my own company 30 years ago, and for 30 years, this is what I’ve been doing.”
Robinson started HMR on credit cards, she says, largely because it was difficult for women and minority business owners to obtain loans. The business’ name honors Robinson’s mother, Helen Mary Robinson.
HMR Enterprises distributes supplies to regional businesses, schools, and daycares, and it has served customers in Indiana cities such as Gary and Anderson. The company has six employees, and Robinson says it still occupies much of her time.
She says aspiring entrepreneurs often seek her advice, and she always tells them, “If that’s what your dream is, pursue it.”
Relationships always matter in business, Robinson adds.
“I always think people buy from people they’re comfortable with, who they can trust and have a good relationship with,” she says.
Words of Wisdom
Connie Robinson cites one regret: She wishes she had bought a building for HMR rather than pay rent for several years. Quality employees are important, she says, and so are a capable accountant and a skilled lawyer, though she adds that entrepreneurs also must acquire ample knowledge on their own.
Doc’s Sports Bar
Before Joshua Pietrowski owned Doc’s Sports Bar, he was a faithful customer there.
Known to friends as “Big Cat,” Pietrowski worked in the restaurant industry and was ready to take the next step. After college at the University of Southern Indiana, he moonlighted at Turoni’s Pizzery & Brewery, working in the kitchen. Along the way, he became interested in crafting beer and brewed for Turoni’s as well as Haynie’s Corner Brewing Co.
Pietrowski often visited Doc’s after work, taking home dinner multiple nights a week. He got acquainted with Doc’s then-owner Stan Fishburn, whom he described as “one of the most generous people I know.”
The two got to know each other so well that in 2018, Fishburn was ready to hand Pietrowski the keys.
“You know, we just talked about it one day,” Pietrowski says. “I was 29. I was ready to get into business for myself. Cory Edwards, my partner, and I had been kicking the idea of our own bar at least for a few years. I was thinking, if this blows up in my face in five years, I’m still only 35 … It was a good risk to take.”
Things did blow up for Doc’s and Pietrowski, but in a good way. The pandemic was a setback for restaurants everywhere, but Doc’s, at 1305 Stringtown Road, maintained a loyal following.
It’s a favorite local spot to watch football, basketball, baseball, auto racing, and especially major soccer matches. Soccer memorabilia adorns the walls.
With Doc’s doing so well, Pietrowski is looking ahead to his next entrepreneurial endeavor. Along with investor Alan “A.C.” Braun and fellow restauranteur Scott Schymik, Pietrowski plans to open an Irish pub called Patsy Hartigan’s in Downtown Evansville in late 2023.
Pietrowski is grateful for the mentorship of Fishburn as well as the late Jerry Turner, founder of Turoni’s. He refers to Turner as “my business dad.”
From Turner and others, Pietrowski says he’s learned over the years not to fret about money.
“If you worry about money, you won’t do things right. If you do things right, the money will make itself,” he says.
Gaining a Following
Josh Pietrowski says he’s learned that in business, relationships are the foundation of everything. He takes pride in having a big friend network — regulars at Doc’s, neighbors in the Haynie’s Corner Arts District where he lives, and elsewhere in Evansville — and that’s helped him build a reputation at Doc’s.
“If customers feel like the person that owns the place is their friend and has their best interests in mind, they’ll support you through thick and thin, even when you’re an idiot,” Pietrowski says. “Sometimes, even when you make mistakes, if they know you’re their friend, they’ve got your back the way you’ve got theirs.”
South Central, Inc.
J.P. Engelbrecht, CEO of Evansville-based business holding company South Central Inc., is bullish on the concept of entrepreneurship. He says Evansville has had its share of success stories, and there’s untapped potential for many more.
A third-generation CEO, Engelbrecht took the reins at his family enterprise from his father, John D. Engelbrecht, in 2008. South Central for decades was associated with Evansville media, especially WIKY-FM, which dates to 1953. Station founder John A. Englebrecht, J.P.’s grandfather, lived upstairs from the studio.
South Central eventually owned six radio frequencies in Evansville and a string of others in Tennessee, plus some television stations. But J.P. Englebrecht saw the media landscape was rapidly changing, and the company moved in an altogether new direction.
“We got out of television and radio almost nine years ago now,” he says. “And then we had a conversation of, are we really a radio-media family, or are we a business family?”
The answer was the latter, so South Central evolved. There was a cookie company venture in Chicago, Illinois (which the company has since ended), a human resources business in Nashville, Tennessee, and an opiate addiction treatment business, also in Nashville.
Two recent investments were Fibertech Plastics in nearby Elberfeld, Indiana, and Janus Fire Systems in Crown Point, Indiana.
To Engelbrecht, South Central’s evolution was an example of what entrepreneurs must do: focus on the future.
He flatly rejects the idea that the biggest obstacle to entrepreneurism is a lack of capital. He says funding is available for the right business concepts with the right people steering the ship.
And yes, Engelbrecht adds, it can and does happen in Evansville.
“There’s plenty of capital in the region. There’s plenty of capital in Indiana,” Engelbrecht says. “Money is never, ever the problem. Entrepreneurs love to use that as an excuse: ‘Oh, they just won’t give me money.’ It’s not the problem. The problem is the sword in the stone: leadership. When it comes down to it, for an entrepreneur to succeed, they have to have leadership capability. There has to be a compelling story that they can articulate. And then there has to be belief.”
Any aspiring entrepreneur must be able to explain what they expect the return on investment will be, J.P. Engelbrecht says. “They just think, hey, my little widget is wonderful, or my restaurant’s going be wonderful. But they haven’t said, is this going to be a risk-return that somebody would be willing to invest in? That’s part of the leadership piece.”
Garatoni School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation
Ivy Tech Community College Evansville
An Ivy Tech Community College program is fostering entrepreneurial spirit among area residents of all ages and backgrounds.
The Garatoni School of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Ivy Tech’s Evansville campus is open to anyone with a business dream — online or brick-and-mortar, large or small. Some students already have an established business, while others want to get their idea off the ground.
The 48-week program — launched in Evansville in August 2022 as Ivy Tech’s fourth cohort in Indiana — provides mentoring as well as education. Instructors and entrepreneurs Chase Coslett and Chris Johnson invite community business leaders to share their expertise.
Course topics include creating a business plan, conducting market research, adhering to compliance and legal requirements, managing a business’ day-to-day functions, and understanding the market, leadership, and financial concepts. The program also serves as a vital link to the Southwest Indiana Small Business Development Center.
“What I hope they get out of this is so much more than entrepreneurship,” says Coslett, whose father Pat owns Simplicity Furniture and Sleep Shoppe. “What we’re teaching these individuals to do is have confidence in themselves, be open and honest about who they are, and use their strengths to somehow make themselves happy.”
Joshua Marksberry, a student who won a $20,000 pre-seed investment in an Elevate Nexus pitch competition, says the dollars “will support the development of two new products: Catena Fortify, which can boost the physical properties of plastics, and Catena Grow, capable of improving yield and growth as an agricultural fertilizer enhancement.”
Initially, Ivy Tech coordinators hoped for a first cohort of 10 students. More than 20 replied. In fact, the Evansville program has proved so popular that an additional cohort will start in August under instructor Tonya Kirby.
“It’s about not only professional but personal confidence,” Johnson says. “It’s really two pieces for me, purpose and passion. And I’d love for them to be able to monetize their talents.”
Names to Know
For those who want to be their own boss, the Evansville region is rich with resources and counsel. One entry point is the Southwest Indiana chapter of the state’s Small Business Development Center, where budding business owners can receive help with market research, an analysis of startup costs, and more.
Have a bigger proposition? Seek out a group like Elevate Ventures, a statewide venture capital organization funded by the Indiana Economic Development Corp., among other sources. Elevate has invested in several area start-ups including ZeroCarb LYFE, a protein-based pizza crust company profiled in the February/March 2023 issue of Evansville Business.
Just getting started? Enroll in a class at Ivy Tech Community College’s Garatoni School of Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Aspiring business owners of any age or background gather to learn from guest speakers and instructors, connect with mentors, and launch a business. One Evansville student, Joshua Marksberry, recently won a $20,000 pre-seed investment for his climate and deep tech start-up, Catena. The award donor? Elevate Ventures.