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Launch Pad to fund these 3 new ideas

By Dave Baity

Since April 19, entrepreneurs have vied for funds from Launch Pad, a program sponsored by the Gaston County Chamber of Commerce and Belmont area’s Montcross Chamber of Commerce that would boost business that local entrepreneurs were planning or in the early stages of opening.

After a series of work and mentoring sessions on preparing business plans and marketing strategy in a local version of the “Shark Tank” television show, the contestant field narrowed to six.

And last month, Alan Nash, the oldest and most experienced of the contenders, walked away with the top prize: $12,500 in seed money and $2,000 of in-kind services such as legal and marketing advice, plus other perks to back his effort to manufacture and market an innovative medical device used to close gaping wounds. The device, he said, is designed to prevent victims – of automobile crashes or soldiers injured on the battlefield – from dying of blood loss before they could get treatment.

The second-place prize of $7,500 and $2,000 of in-kind services went to Emory Vandiver and C.J. Austin, a Huntersville couple on their way to opening the Catawba River Antiques Mall in Belmont’s former Majestic Mill. They touted the firm as the largest such business in Gaston County and the second-largest in the Charlotte area.

The building’s 67,000 square feet is divided into spaces for more than 350 antique vendors from throughout the Carolinas. And, the couple told the panel of judges and the 185 audience members at the Launch Pad final competition, after a widespread advertising campaign, 200 spaces had been leased prior to the planned Oct. 18 opening.

Chris and Jill Ashley, a Gastonia couple currently living in Boone, where Chris is completing studies for an economics degree at Appalachian State University, won the third-place award: $3,500 and $2,000 of in-kind services to expand Appalachian Leather Works, a business they began early this year. The couple, along with a leather craftsman and a marketing employee they’ve hired, produce handmade scorecard and yardage-book covers and other personalized accessories for golfers that they market through an Internet site and a Twitter account.

Filling a medical need

Nash, 63, and his wife, Suzanne, moved to Gastonia in 2006. A New York native, he grew up in Farmingdale, Long Island, where he spent his high school years working in his father’s business that manufactured women’s clothing. After earning a marketing degree at Northeastern University and taking master’s level courses at Boston University, he opened a successful marketing and printing firm.

“I didn’t get the master’s degree,” he said last week, “I just went for the education,” which he deems is the key to success in a business venture. He also took classes in machinery design and continued his education by buying studying books on innovative machinery design and new technology that intrigued him. As a result, and remembering how machinery his father used in his clothing factory, he learned techniques that could be applied to other types of manufacturing.

“I’m not an engineer, but I know what a machine needs to do: things that can crank out maximum productivity,” he said. In manufacturing, you want to develop a process that you can repeat six months or 10 years from now to produce a quality product that gives good service and can be sold at a competitive price, he added. “Personally, I always chose quality and service” as the most important of those standards, he said.

He’s a firm believer in borrowing technology from one manufacturing technique that can be amended to make another process more productive. That served him well when he and his wife took over an adhesive bandage manufacturing business, he said. As a result, he owns 16 patents for innovations that changed the industry during the 25 years they manufactured bandages that made their way to the shelves of big box superstores across the nation for some 19 years.

Based on the need he saw from operating the bandage firm, he formulated and researched the idea for the lifesaving device he designed and for which he is pursuing a patent. He plans to manufacture and market it through ACUTECARE Solutions, a firm he and his wife are launching.

“Every 10 seconds,” he told the Launch Pad judges – and audience members, whose votes counted for 10 percent of the points that decided grant winners – “someone in the nation is rushed to an emergency room because of injuries from an auto accident.” And if the wounds they suffer aren’t quickly closed by rescue workers, they can die before they reach an emergency room, he added.

The device he plans to produce can be applied with minimal training in less than three minutes, he said. It would have a worldwide market that includes emergency medical technicians, military medics and nurses and doctors in hospital emergency rooms. He believes he has found an unmet need since the lone competitor product can only be applied in an emergency room.

“It’s easy to use,” he said, noting that emergency personnel can learn to use adhesive device in a matter of minute. “And best of all, since it is a Class 1 medical device, it requires no clinical trials,” he added.

Space for dealers

Emory Vandiver and C.J. Austin aren’t strangers to the business world or to antiques, Vandiver said.

He has partnered with his father, former NASCAR driver Jim Vandiver, at Choice Trucks, a Huntersville firm, and personally owned several businesses during the past 30 years. Austin, he said, has extensive management and customer service experience in the restaurant field.

“I’m the numbers man and she takes care of people management,” Vandiver said, noting that their mall had hired some 30 employees before opening.

He and Austin became interested in antiques, first as collectors, then as vendors. For several years, they sold antiques at a leased booth in a Greenville, S.C., antiques mall before deciding to open the Belmont business.

After months of looking for sites in the Carolinas, they chose Belmont because of its proximity to Charlotte and easy access from both Carolinas – and they say their project can become an attraction for antique collectors throughout the Southeast. Vandiver said, they also plan to use Internet sources to market high-end goods nationally.

Golf accessories

Chris Ashley became interested in making leather golf accessories because he’s an avid golfer, he said. After putting together a collection of putters, he could find no covers for the heads of the clubs that suited him. So he ordered some leather from an Atlanta tannery and designed his own. Friends and relatives were wowed by the hand-stitched cover and voiced interest in buying some for themselves.

Chris cuts out the designs for the leather goods and punches the holes which Jill uses to hand stitch them together. Both are self-taught and use techniques they learned by buying and studying books on leather craft, they said.

“I use a saddle stitch just like they use to join the pieces of a horse saddle,” said Jill, who took time off from her job as a registered nurse to be a full-time mom to the couple’s son, Brett, 2, and Grant, age 11 months. “And, of course, to help in the leather business.”

Opening an online store and a Twitter account to market the leather goods has paid off, the Ashleys said. The price of the personalized and handcrafted goods range from $45 for a leather cash cover – it easily fits into a golfer’s pocket – to a line of custom-dyed genuine alligator leather belts that sell for $340 each. And, they said, Appalachian Leather Works and its merchandise has been featured twice on as well as several other links to other golfer interests.

Internet advertising has landed the couple customers from Australia, South Korea, Canada, Denmark and across the United States, Chris said. “And we haven’t even tapped into the Japanese market, where golf is growing stronger each year,” he said.

Chris said the couple will return to their Gastonia home when he gets his Appalachian State degree next May; he plans to search for local space where additional employees can be added to the workforce that now includes him, his wife, a leather crafter and a marketer.

“Actually, 1,000 square feet would serve the purpose for several years. We just need a bit of extra space which to work,” he said. “And I just want the business out of our den,” Jill quipped.

Merryman Cassels, who coordinated the Launch Pad program, said both Chambers of Commerce were excited that the competition attracted so much interest from Parkdale Mills, Duke Energy, Gastonia Sheet Metal and other firms that provided funds and joint sponsorship. And, she said, Gaston County Schools, Gaston College and Belmont Abbey College pitched in with support services.

“It was very exciting to see such a dynamic combination join in cooperating to lift up new business opportunities in Gaston County,” she said.

Dave Baity is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Dave? Email
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