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AS GOOD AS NEW: Aaron Robbins’ market niche is in selling second-hand goods sourced from the U.S.
RIGA - Despite the negative economic news that now appears in the media, there are still opportunities for ambitious entrepreneurial types to find their way in the world of private enterprise in the Baltic States. Personal ability and innovative potential can explain why people, no matter what the local economic conditions may suggest, are willing to take risk in order to achieve personal freedom and financial reward.
Whether in a start-up business or sustaining oneself through the tough times of an economic downturn, attitude plays a major role in success. According to a Stanford Research Institute study, success is 88 percent attitude and 12 percent education.
Two standouts with positive mental attitude (PMA)
Cases in point have been found in Riga and Tallinn, as proof that ‘having a go at it’ is really the best way to achieve economic freedom and personal satisfaction. In Riga, behind the recently opened Cafe Stockpot is UK native Richard Johnson and Latvian wife Linda. The two are putting in 15 to 16 hours a day in order to serve up exotic dishes for their customers.
Commitment to success is what it’s all about for them.
The duo’s entrepreneurialism is there. Tired of moving around with Richard’s previous job, the two decided to call it quits with living in various countries. Today they call Riga home.
His previous life saw him in the casino business for some 25 years in London, Prague, Kiev and various other corners of the world, before settling for something in line with his personal ambitions: proprietor of Stockpot in Riga.
As a former pit boss, Richard is an expert at seeing people take chances. Now it’s his turn.
He and his wife decided to get into the food service business based on what they saw as a niche market for his brand of specialty foods. Says Richard, “our goal is tasty food and good location” as the main draw to their local eatery.
Daily they serve six hot meals and one to two salads, plus a mini-snack wrap. There is always some vegetarian, vegan and fish dish to choose from. For the meat lovers, customers can choose a range of dishes from Hungarian goulash to Thai green chicken curry. The menu is always evolving.
With the opening in mid-January, the founders simply use word of mouth and a few printed brochures to advertise their undertaking. Long term goal? A carry out business which is now building, based on the early success in his small sit-down eatery. Richard has introduced a loyal customer card for those becoming steady customers.
In the beginning, when first opened, Richard went door-to-door to local offices and businesses to invite future customers into the completely renovated space that now makes up Stockpot, in the shadows of Gertrude’s Church. Come see us for lunch sometime, says a Stockpot handout inviting office people to “come and enjoy,” in this soft-sell marketing approach.
If customers cannot choose between a number of dishes offered, the chief chef, Richard, will try to accommodate the local wishes of his clientele. “Customer service” is what it’s all about, he adds. “I want to make people happy with what they eat,” he says. Richard is ‘hands on,’ and he and his wife interact with their customers, getting constant feedback in the hopes of improving what they offer.
Along the way, Richard and his wife have achieved their desire to be their own bosses, and their attitude towards the business has lead to satisfaction, for them as well as the customer.
Richard’s positive attitude, and from the beginning his desire for excellent customer service, is paying off. This good mix is what it’s all about. When asked where the name Stockpot came about, Richard responded, “The name was chosen after many brainstorming sessions involving my father, wife and I. Nearly all our menu items start off, or are based on, good stock.”
In Tallinn, American Aaron Robins likewise is proving that a positive attitude equals eventual success. This suburban Washington, DC transplant was offered an opportunity to bring his skill sets to Tallinn “from a family friend who was willing to invest, and I put up the work,” Aaron says with a smile. The work was opening a series of second-hand clothing shops that have now grown to eight stores over the years: USAToday clothing it is called.
“I didn’t have any family in Estonia and had to look it up on a map,” when the idea first came up in early 2004, says Aaron about his now-established Estonian business. When Aaron arrived in Tallinn, the investor had already secured space, but “it was a challenge” to fill. The space was 700 square meters, thus requiring a major commitment for a start-up to pay rent and utilities, says Aaron. The investor’s thinking ran along the lines ‘big is better,’ but nevertheless, Aaron accepted the challenge.
In the beginning, Aaron imported a container a month from the U.S. and quickly proved that a second-hand clothing market is viable in Estonia. By avoiding European second-hand goods, he was able to offer items that could not be purchased anywhere in the EU. Thus he created a niche market of American products in the new EU country of Estonia in 2004.
From the initial financial obligation, Aaron was able to get the business up and running and “paid back the investment after three years,” he says.
Aaron is another example that positive attitude helps breed success. Says Aaron, “I think a major part of being an entrepreneur is being an optimist. I always knew I was going to succeed during those first few years.”
However, doubt did cross his mind. In the beginning “I did not have a lot of money, and in fact lived in my shop for a year” full-time. Only later was Aaron able to pay himself a salary. Employees always got paid first.
In 2008, the world-wide economic downturn played havoc on many, including USAToday. “The downturn was definitely severe, and revenue dropped dramatically from earlier times,” said Aaron.
He and his staff weathered the economic storm, negotiated a reduced rent, and look for other cost savings in order to survive as a business. With a continued positive attitude Aaron marched on through 2009 and beyond. “You have to love work to succeed. I am not good at standing still,” he continues. And move on he did. He opened additional stores, despite the downturn.
When it comes to judging potential employees, Aaron explains, “The most important thing to me is enthusiasm.” I can train people to sell, train them to manage, train them to run a business, but if they are not interested in the work, then they will not succeed,” states Aaron.
He often tells people, “do your job and you’ll get paid; do your boss’ job and you’ll get promoted; make the boss do your job and you’ll get fired.” This is his bottom line in people management.
Thus Aaron’s core values of positive work ethnic and a take charge approach to business management has led to the success of USAToday clothing stores.
Attitude and success go hand-in-hand
Examples of PMA and success are reflective of ‘take charge’ people who are not afraid to under-take business risk in the real world environment, but the basis of a good education is still paramount to facilitate everything in a real world environment.
Various business schools operate in the Baltics, such as Estonia Business School in Tallinn, Baltic Management Institute in Vilnius, and Riga Business School in Riga. These are but a few of business management schools available for those wishing to ‘get it right’ from the start, in a business career.
Juris Ulmanis, MBA Professor at Riga Business School, spent some 18 years in the real world in various leadership positions with international corporation Motorola, from Schaumburg, IL, outside Chicago.
Professor Ulmanis knows firsthand that attitude is what it’s all about, especially in the beginning. He freely admits his teaching job “is to make you successful,” he tells his 25- to 40-year-old students. Additionally, when he asked of the students what success means to them, students respond in the affirmative: “to be my own boss.”
Professor Ulmanis states how students address the point of personal success. “First, I think each person needs to define their definition of personal success and what it is. This is not an easy task. It takes a lot of work and soul searching. In my classes I always try to impose on students the idea that the reason that they are in the business program is that they are here for change.”
The professor’s classes are run like seminars. The students do the talking. “The less I speak, the better,” says the professor. This leads to students challenging each others’ viewpoints, defending their arguments, and generating ideas.
Learn by doing
Success begins between the ears. With the correct attitude, the businesses discussed here have proved successful despite the negative economic downturn.
Professor Ulmanis is nurturing positive attitude and success at Riga Business School, in the learning process.
At Stockpot in Riga, hands-on Robert and wife Linda are practicing positive attitude some 16 hours a day. Eventually they hope to achieve some ‘time to themselves,’ but right now, it’s customer first. In Tallinn business manager Robbins with USAToday clothing exhibits the kind of success that has paid off, and today has 20 employees in various sales and store management positions.
Aaron is already looking at four or five other business ventures unrelated to clothing.
The bottom line? Believe in yourself, Professor Ulmanis would argue. “Learning happens by doing, by being proactive, by action,” he stresses.
With the right attitude, success is sure to follow. As the Nike logo says, “Just do it!”