‘Axe,’ and You Shall Receive…
Wooster’s AMRE students deliver impressive business plan to emerging company
WOOSTER, Ohio — If Steve Ferguson didn’t have an axe to grind, he and his brother, Mark, might never have joined forces in a blossoming business venture.
Two years ago, as Steve’s godson, Ryan, was preparing to graduate from high school and enter Paul Smith Forestry School in upstate New York, Steve set out to find the perfect graduation gift. It didn’t take long to decide that he wanted to give Ryan a high quality, handcrafted, American-made axe. After all, every forester needs one, right? But there was a problem: he couldn’t find any.
“I came across a few that were made in the U.S., but they were all forged in China,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘this country needs an All-American axe of its own.’”
That, and an improbable sequence of coincidences, started the wheels in motion. Steve, a 1985 College of Wooster graduate and a child psychologist in Portland, Maine, brought Mark, a 1983 Wooster graduate and a software company owner as well as an attorney in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, on board. He also invited Mark’s daughter, Lela, who was learning the craft of welding and forging at the New England School of Metalwork, to join them. He then reached out to his college roommate, Fred Safford who just happened to be a forester in the Buffalo area. With that, a College of Wooster odyssey was underway.
The Fergusons were no strangers to hands-on craftsmanship. Their father, Phil, a 1957 Wooster graduate and a retired Presbyterian minister, enjoyed woodworking and had a rather large shop in their home. Their grandfather, Leland, was a master mechanic at Fisher Body in Detroit and had a small metal shop in his home, too. He also arranged for Mark to work at small tool-and-die shops of friends during the summer when he was in high school and college.
“We thought it would be fun to set up a business that we could all be involved in,” said Steve. “It was interesting how everything came together the way it did.”
Mark, on a trip home from Columbus to Cleveland this spring, dropped in on John Ramsay, professor of mathematics and the architect of Wooster’s Applied Mathematical and Research Experience (AMRE), an eight-week summer program in which students serve as consultants for clients in business, industry, education, government, and the non-profit sector.
Mark remembered a conversation he had had with Ramsay about AMRE two years earlier when he needed some assistance with another project, and decided to reconnect with him. “I realized that our startup needed a business plan,” he said. “I knew that we could probably do one on our own, but none of us had the time.”
Ramsay was intrigued by Mark’s proposal, but he explained that the AMRE projects had already been set up for this summer. It would be almost impossible to pull things together in a few short weeks. Mark persisted and Ramsay relented, calling on Peter Abramo, director of entrepreneurship at Wooster, to join them for a consultation in his office. Abramo, who is also a blacksmith, knows a thing or two about forging, and when he heard about the project, he said, “Oh yea, we’re doing this.”
Ramsay quickly recruited three students (rising sophomores Bob Beall and Jack Marousek, and rising junior Liam Fukushima), hired two advisers (Bryan Karazsia, associate professor of psychology, and Vikki Briggs, a former insurance executive), and turned them loose.
“The first thing we wanted the students to do was to tell us whether or not this was just some crazy idea,” said Mark. “We also wanted them to develop some demographics on potential buyers, and what the national and international markets [for axes] look like at this time.”
On May 12, the three students and two advisers met for the first time to begin conducting market research and putting together a business plan. In this LinkedIn era of networking, the three realized that they already had connections and commonalities in place, including their participation in varsity athletics, which gave them unique insight into the importance of being a team player. Still, the challenge ahead was daunting; they had a lot to do in eight short weeks.
“There was no location, no logo, not even a company name,” said Beall of Midland, Mich. “We didn’t have any type of roadmap, so we had to start by making a lot of educated guesses.”
The first four weeks were chaotic, but by the midway point, things started to fall into place. “We met with Mark (Ferguson) and some of his former college buddies during alumni weekend,” said Marousek of North Royalton, Ohio. “They redirected us and helped us to chart a path for the next four weeks.”
Early on, the group focused on marketing and branding, but later realized that not enough time was being spent on the product and where it would fit into the market. “We came up with a core-user profile,” said Fukushima of Tokyo, Japan, “to give them an idea of the demographics of the ideal customer.”
As the deadline approached, Beall, Marousek, and Fukushima developed a list of deliverables, which included a financial packet (complete with start-up costs and projected sales figures) as well as product gaps, alternative options, promotions, and ultimately a business plan with suggestions for a series of next steps.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of research they did in eight weeks,” said Mark. “They’ve come up with things that we would never have considered and actually put us on a slightly different path. We will take the plan that they have given us and refine it over the next 12 months.”
Briggs noted that the students learned about entrepreneurship and the risks any business owner must take when starting a new business. “I am not sure any of them will decide to be an entrepreneur,” she said, “but I do know that their experiences from this summer will help guide them when they are deciding on their careers.”
As for the students, they learned how to conduct market research and present their findings in a public setting. Most importantly, they discovered how to take the lessons they learned in the classroom and through their research, and apply it to a real-world experience.
In addition to a business plan, Beall, Marousek, and Fukushima left their clients with a sense of optimism when they noted that demand for axes made in the USA is healthy and growing progressively stronger. But, they also offered words of caution, advising the group to start small and grow organically.
The Fergusons have taken their advice to heart. The business is emerging quickly after starting in a place where many successful endeavors have begun, including the late Steve Jobs’ Apple Empire — in a garage.