Small-business owners avoid pitfalls, find achievement

Stacia Guzzo (right) founded SmartyPits, an all-natural deodorant, after her mom, Kathy Walsh, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

When Joe Cozart joined Teachout Security Solutions back in 1985, he was just looking for a start, maybe toward a future as a police officer.

By the time company founder Bernard Teachout was ready to retire 10 years later, Cozart’s career path took a pretty major detour. After a decade as a security officer, Cozart shifted his ambitions wildly, buying the company from Teachout.

Stacia Guzzo (right) founded SmartyPits, an all-natural deodorant, after her mom, Kathy Walsh, was diagnosed with breast cancer.

It was a direction Cozart never anticipated.

“When I started working as an officer, I was thinking I was just picking up some experience, thinking I wanted to be a police officer,” said Cozart, who bought the business from Teachout in 1995. “But the path has obviously changed.”

Not in a bad way, though. Cozart’s shift from cop to small-business owner has clearly been a pretty successful one. Flint-based Teachout Security Solutions opened branches in Saginaw in 1999, in Lansing in 2001 and in Troy in 2004. Four years later, the Troy office expanded and moved to Southfield.

With some 500 employees, the biggest problem Teachout has at the moment, according to Cozart, is finding more.

“Our biggest challenge lately has been finding manpower, quality people who want to take on the challenge,” Cozart said. “A lot of our entry level positions are stepping stones, not necessarily career positions for folks on the entry level. Hiring people has been the biggest challenge as of late.”

Teachout Security Solutions owner Joe Cozart bought the company from its founder in 1995.

That kind of success might not be surprising to anyone paying attention to statistics offered by Constance Logan, the Michigan District Director of the U.S. Small Business Administration. The state’s small business climate, Logan noted, is extremely positive.

Logan pointed out that Michigan is again ranked among the top states for doing business, this time coming in 12th in the Tax Foundation’s 2020 State Business Tax Climate Index. Michigan is one of just two Midwest states to be in the top half of those rankings.

Combined with a cost of living that is 10% below the national average, Logan said, “Michigan has repeatedly earned its reputation as a business-friendly state.”

Making the leap
Cozart made the jump that the SBA’s Logan says is a tough one to make: from employee to owner.

“Lots of entrepreneurs are really good at what they do, but don’t always know the ins and outs of … managing a successful operation,” Logan said. “They may have gotten into business because they had a talent and passion, but soon learn they need help in managing all the aspects of running their business.

“And making that leap … takes courage and commitment,” she added.

It’s a leap Stacia Guzzo knows well.

Guzzo, 39, dove into the fragrant world of deodorant-making after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer (her last treatment came in 2005). Since the telltale lump was discovered underneath her armpit and not in breast tissue, and since there was no genetic predisposition toward cancer in the family, doctors told her it was likely an environmental cause.

A researcher since her college days at Loyla Marymount in Los Angeles and in grad school, Guzzo started looking for potential environmental causes. What she discovered was that the aluminum contained in antiperspirants could be a risk factor.

Still unsure, Guzzo decided it wasn’t worth the risk, and developed her own aluminum-free deodorant in 2013. SmartyPits was then born in 2017.

“For me, whether (aluminum) was what caused my mom’s cancer, I didn’t want to take a chance …

“I cleaned up a lot of my life habits,” said the Tehachapi, California-based Guzzo. “I was a clinical-strength antiperspirant user, I needed something that worked. I couldn’t find anything aluminum-free on the market that worked with my body chemistry, so I slowly learned how to make it myself.”

Guzzo started making her own deodorants on her stovetop, producing small batches for her personal use. Then friends started asking her for it, and it started selling at farmers markets, local craft fairs and even some local retail stores.

Now the company has 19 employees, and the all-natural antiperspirant products are available in 4,000 retail locations nationwide and in 15 foreign countries.

SmartyPits started out making some 50 sticks of deodorant a day on owner Stacia Guzzo’s stove, but has graduated to some 2,500 sticks a day.

“It was a need that I had for myself, for my own personal quest for wellness in the aftermath of us dealing with (her mother’s) cancer,” said Guzzo, whose mother is now a 13-year survivor. “As a brand, SmartyPits started taking off in 2017, so it really was a slow roll. It came about because there were other people who had the same need as me. I just didn’t know it when I first began.”

She knows it now. Her 2,400-square-foot warehouse in Tehachapi is up to 2,500 units a day, a far cry from the 50 a day she was producing when she first started.

The firm started with a double boiler, and has since moved through 13- and now two 45-gallon tanks that run every shift. Guzzo had to learn about everything from setting up the business to hiring employees.

For instance, a lot of high school students came looking for internships, so she “had to make sure I was properly aligned about how long they could work with a school day.”

When she started making deodorants in 2013, “There was no information available on how to scale a deodorant company,” Guzzo said. “We had to make it up as we went along. We still have to tweak it every once in awhile.”

Dodging the pitfalls
Guzzo appears to have dodged some of the traps that befall many an entrepreneur. The U.S. SBA’s Logan points out that thousands of entrepreneurs start new businesses every year. All of them are “bright and full of hope,” she said, but there are “plenty of statistics” that show more than half of them will be gone after four years.

Clearly, though, there are millions that survive and thrive. According to Logan, Michigan is home to more than 870,000 small businesses, employing some 1.9 million people, nearly half of the employees in the state.

To be successful, obviously, Logan believes budding entrepreneurs should take advantage of help that is available to them. The SBA has a variety of resource partners, including Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and the Veteran Business Opportunity Centers.

“Having the right small business mentor and counselor can help any entrepreneur with developing the right small business plan and third party data necessary to have great financial projections that are necessary to obtain a business loan,” Logan said.

That’s not a problem for the folks at the Cheese Haus in Frankenmuth, where the William “Tiny” Zehnder family has ridden herd over the business for 51 years.

The business was founded by Tiny Zehnder on May 23, 1968, then sold to daughter Judy Zehnder Keller in the 1980s. Now, the Cheese Haus is run by Judy’s daughter, Martha Zehnder Kaczynski, and son Michael Zehnder.

Cheese Haus team member Marie Sparck cuts cheese made in the store at one of the three cutting stations set up in the store.

How far have they come since the beginning? The Cheese Haus now features a dozen cheeses made in-house, plus some 270 different cheeses. The store features three cutting stations, two of which highlight Haus-made cheeses.

But, as a family owned and operated small business (and like other small businesses) the Cheese Haus faces its own challenges. For instance, the Cheese Haus can’t pay out big salaries (although Kaczynski said the company has been “over minimum wage for awhile”).

What they lack in dollars, Kaczynski said, they make up for in benefits, which allows them to do what the SBA’s Logan says is crucial: put together a good team.

“The biggest thing for success is when we have strong managers,” said Kaczynski, pointing out that general manager Tammy Rodda has been with the company more than 30 years. “With a family owned business, finding good talent that can assist so we don’t have to be there 24/7 is a challenge.”

Like any small business, the Cheese Haus has had to adapt. At first, it was all cheese, all the time. But Kaczynski said they started listening to their customers, and now have more “tourist” items and kitchen gadgets.

The goal: listen to guests, then give them what they want, “things they can’t find on Amazon,” Kaczynski said.

Brian Haggard, a recruiter for Teachout Security Solutions, chats with Lydia Michael of Blended Collective at the MichBusiness gala. Flint-based Teachout Security Solutions has grown to some 500 employees and expanded to Saginaw, Lansing and Troy.

“We try to cater to different holidays, we listen to our guests and give them what they want,” Kaczynski said. “We also have wines and craft beers, and a lot of Michigan-made products. But we carry cheese from all over the world.”

The Cheese Haus faces many of the same challenges faced by other businesses. For instance, state and federal regulations can sometimes make life difficult.

“When the state or federal government imposes some things, it makes life a little harder,” Kaczynski acknowledged. “You have to compete with the big boys, and that makes it harder. You have to evolve with the times, and I think we’ve done that.”

Kaczynski said the Cheese Haus has put together a “great team” that has fun together.

“Our mission is to create enjoyable experiences, for our guests and for each other,” she said. “If you’re not having fun, what’s the point?”