Vernon Clarke has been a lot of things: schoolteacher, salesman, high-tech executive, and even assistant superintendent of schools for Fairfax County. But it was running a cheesecake factory in Northern Virginia that taught him, finally, how to ask for help.
"I don't think you can be in small business, or own your own business, if you don't have control of your ego," he said, in the mild southern accent that reveals his deep Virginia roots. "Once you are willing to say, `I made a mistake' or `I am vulnerable to mistakes,' and see that there are helping hands, that's part of the road to success."
It was learning this lesson, more than anything, that allowed the 62-year-old Clarke, with his son Kevin and his wife, June, to turn a struggling business on the brink of failure into a thriving enterprise on the brink of expansion.
Just two years ago, World's Best Cheesecake was struggling to turn a profit after years of slowly sucking the savings out of Clarke's pockets. This year, the company will reach about $2 million in sales and post its second year of real profit -- about $100,000. And the Clarkes are in the middle of planning a critical move from an 8,000-square-foot rented facility in Chantilly to a modern 20,000-square-foot plant they are building near Richmond in Caroline County.
The key ingredient in this turnaround was the devotion and doggedness of the Clarkes. But it took something else to make that effort jell, and it came from outside: assistance from various federal, state and local agencies whose mission it is to help small manufacturers and boost economic development.
Together, the grants, gifts, loans and brainpower that World's Best Cheesecake got from the public sector have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clarkes.
That money very likely saved a company. And a family's dream.
Vernon and June Clarke bought World's Best Cheesecake 13 years ago when it was a small Alexandria bakery and retail shop. Like so many bureaucrats, he had always wanted to own a business, but what possessed him to buy a cheesecake shop? The answer is simple, and perhaps not the wisest advice to a hopeful entrepreneur: It was available.
"My CPA was the CPA for World's Best Cheesecake," Clarke explained. "It had a tremendous name, and a quality product, but they hadn't grown the business, so I felt we had a great opportunity to bring it back to prominence and make it bigger."
Lesson number one: Just because you've spent years in management positions at big companies doesn't mean you know how to run your own business.
"To be honest, it took a lot longer than I thought it would," he said. "I thought in seven years we'd have it turned around financially."
That would have been 1993, the same year the company moved to cheaper space in Chantilly. But it didn't happen. Not even close. Over the years, Clarke pumped about $150,000 into the business to keep it afloat.
In 1989, Clarke pressed his son, fresh from college, into joining World's Best Cheesecake.
"It was definitely not my plan to come and work for him," said Kevin, now 32, amid vats of cheesecake batter and freshly crumbed pans. "But my dad just really needed the help."
Soon, Kevin took over the daily operation of the business while his father concentrated on selling and building market share. June did whatever else needed to be done. Still, it was a struggle. The business just wasn't really growing.
"Every year, it was, `When are we gonna get there? When are we gonna get there?' " Kevin remembers.
"I swear, at times we were thinking, are we going to make it? Are we just going to go down the tubes?" Clarke said.
Finally, desperate, he reached out. In late 1994, Clarke asked a friend who had been successful as a franchisee of Athlete's Foot stores to come in as a consultant.
He brought a machete and started cutting.
"To the bone," Clarke said. "We laced up the boots real tight."
Lesson number two: Fat is good in cheesecake. It is bad in a company.
World's Best Cheesecake also began using brokers to sell its products, and slowly, the business began to grow. In 1996, it still wasn't making money, but it was running out of room.
And that's when things began to change.
Clarke was looking for a new site everywhere -- Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, whatever might help the business work. Then he happened to mention to someone at the Food and Libations Association of Virginia that he was considering leaving. Almost immediately, Clarke got a call from a guy at the Virginia Department of Agriculture. "On behalf of the governor of the state of Virginia, we'd like to meet with you and see if there's a way to convince you not to leave the state of Virginia," the man said.
At least, that's how Clarke remembers it. The thrill of that phone call still hasn't worn off. "We were saying, `Uh-oh, I think we've got a fish on the hook,' " he recalls.
The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Economic Development took the Clarkes on a tour of the state and rolled out the red carpet. Vernon Clarke still can't get over being driven to an Orange County industrial park and having someone hold his umbrella for him.
"They made us feel important," he said. "The thing they kept emphasizing was that we were a business with 25 people. You don't understand how important 25 employees is to some of the localities that have high unemployment."
Ultimately, the Clarkes decided on Caroline County, north of Richmond, where they got the best deal. They got the land, worth $120,000, deeded to them, and a grant of $55,000 for infrastructure such as an access road and curbing. The $10,000 in machine and tool taxes that they have been paying annually will drop to $500 flat. Utility costs will go from $2,000 in Fairfax to $125.
And the state offered lots more benefits for sticking around. The Department of Business Assistance sent its Workforce Services people in to make a training film for the company. The A.L. Philpott Manufacturing Extension Partnership sent two guys to do time/motion studies, projections, cost analyses and so on. The Clarkes also got reduced-rate loans for buying equipment.
Lesson number three: Work that retention agreement for all it's worth.
The study done by Philpott, which just eight months ago opened an office in Northern Virginia, has proved invaluable, and enabled the Clarkes to take their business to the next level.
For example, the study showed that boxing cheesecakes was the plant's main bottleneck. After studying the problem and various solutions, the company decided to buy a new boxing machine for $55,000. Where it had taken four people to pack 300 cakes an hour, the company could now pack 1,000 cakes an hour using three people.
"It's the only way to keep up with the growth," Kevin Clarke said.
World's Best Cheesecake's business has taken off, and it will be a tight fit to keep going in its current space until next June. The company has found a huge and growing market in the school fund-raising business. It sells its cheesecakes and key lime pies to stores such as Giant and Price Club. It supplies cheesecake to Starbucks in the mid-Atlantic region. It is developing new products like crazy: frozen cookie dough, cheesecake truffles, and more.
To say Vernon Clarke is happy about how things have turned out doesn't convey the emotion that overcomes the man as he talks. He runs through the history of his business, repeatedly wiping his eyes, and still he misses the occasional tear on his cheek.
"God almighty, I'll tell you what, the heartaches that you go through, and the people that have helped you . . ."
He doesn't finish his sentence.
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Gerry Ward is executive director of the A.L. Philpott Manufacturing Extension Partnership, a state agency that evaluates and helps Virginia firms and did a comprehensive study of World's Best Cheesecake. "Sometimes I think it's as simple as a matter of perspective," he said. "The difficulty for many of these small-business folks is that they have so much to do, just on a daily basis . . . that they really don't have time to put in the systems they need."
The partnership can be contacted at www.vpmep.org.