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Wednesday, June 27,2012

Drowning in stories

Greater Lansing Business Monthly marks 25 years of small business cheerleading

by Lawrence Cosentino

What are Lansing entrepreneurs up to? A lot of good, it seems. In the June 2012 issue of the Greater Lansing Business Monthly alone, they’re “Creating Jobs and Growing” (Reliable Aftermarket Parts), “Getting Better All the Time” (Accident Fund), “Sticking to the Plan” (Lansing Asphalt), and, of course, “Putting People First” (Bob Trezise of Lansing Area Economic Partnership). Maintain that level of buzz for 300 issues spanning 25 years and you end up with a potent positive charge.

Publisher Chris Holman proudly declares himself a “small business cheerleader and advocate.” 

“I want to be the positive voice,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is uncover a bankruptcy or insider trading.”

Thursday, the Greater Lansing Business Monthly celebrates its silver anniversary with a party on the riverfront from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Lansing Center with live music, food and boat rides and guest speakers.

Not everyone was sold on the idea when the magazine launched in 1987. 

“We didn’t start at the most opportune time,” Holman said, “but if you’ve got a good idea, there’s no bad time for it.”

Back then, Holman kept getting the same question: What are you going to do when you run out of stories?

In 1987, many people thought all a business reporter in Lansing had to do was to kick back and watch the varnish peel on the venerable “three-legged stool” of General Motors, state government and MSU.

A quarter century on, Holman admits that the stool is a bit “sawed off,” but his staff has to hustle like butterfly collectors in Costa Rica to catch up with the area’s diversifying business scene. As it happens, an economy lit by a thousand quirky points of light, from gourmet popcorn to farm equipment to Web services to yoga studios, ideally suits the magazine’s formula of half a dozen or so people-oriented profiles each month.

In the last 25 years, Holman has seen Old Town alone develop from a dry ocean bed of urban decay, with a 90 percent vacancy rate, to a coral reef of galleries and shops topping 90 percent occupancy.

“There are more businesses here than I can cover in 50 years,” Holman said. “We’re drowning in stories.”

Holman is especially excited by the area’s potential to excel at tech transfer, or the application of research and development to marketable products.

“People are so specific in their industry and make a good living in small niches,” he said. “It’s like being a gardener and all of a sudden you see new types of flowers popping up.”

In the next 25 years, he expects to see even more small businesses and more diversification, only with the extra spice of creativity.

“You’re going to see Lansing become more artsy,” he said. “There’s now a discernible economy in culture and the arts, and we’re starting to re-realize that.”

Holman had no intention of starting a magazine in the first place. He was doing fine as a business consultant, specializing in feasibility studies for products.

One afternoon, while setting up a sales force for a Kalamazoo entrepreneur, he picked up a copy of the Kalamazoo Business Digest.

Holman was sure that a business digest would play in Lansing. He thought about buying a franchise from the national publisher that owned Kalamazoo’s digest, but he found out he would have to cede too much control.

Back in Lansing, he sat down with Chamber of Commerce head honcho Jim Jordan and put together a list of 50 community business leaders. Holman interviewed about 35 of the 50, including Joseph Reid, now president of Capitol Bancorp, O’Leary Paint Co. president David O’Leary, attorney Jack Davis, Wayne Williams of Williams Auto World, and Realtor Van Martin.

They all thought it was a good idea and said they would advertise.

With that caliber of backing, Holman thought he had a sure bet when he took the magazine to several publishers. To his surprise, nobody was willing to take it on. Magazines on the shelf are like gardenias outside the greenhouse. About 90 percent of new magazines fail and 70 percent never make it past their fourth issue, according industry observers.

But Holman was well organized and confident about his estimated target market.

“I’m not a risk-taker,” he said. “I believed in it from the beginning.” He decided to publish the magazine himself, taking on payroll and all the other burdens of a new business. For the first six issues, his office was the trunk of his car. (Now the office is in downtown Lansing.)

Three decades ago, the rule of thumb was to give a new magazine four years to hit its stride. Holman broke even by the second month.

He has never been tempted to move out of the area.

“I do business all over the world,” Holman said. “Lansing is the best. I just love the fact that people here have a great work ethic, a natural honor.”

Most of his advertisers never sign a contract.

“We haven’t been burnt many times over doing business that way. People don’t take advantage of us very often, and when they do, they’re usually out of the marketplace.”

For fun, Holman spends time with his three kids and two grandkids. He prefers business material to pleasure reading, but just finished his friend Jack Ebling’s book on the Detroit Tigers and an epic saga of polar exploration called, fittingly, “Endurance.” Trekking to the South Pole is a bit harsher than publishing a magazine for 25 years, but there are points in common.

“The stamina and commitment of people to do well and just stay alive was inspirational,” he said. 

Greater Lansing Business Monthly 25th Anniversary Celebration

11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

Thursday, June 28,

Lansing Center riverfront.

Live music, food, boat rides, guest speakers. 

Free.

(517) 487-1714

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