Bluffton Entrepreneurs

Fall Magazine 2011Steve Crouse  |   Christine Papenhause  |   Justin Byers


"Entrepreneurship is such a key driver of job growth. Consider the fact that firms less than five years old accounted for nearly all increased employment in the private sector from 1980-2005. Or that nearly 40 percent of our nation's employment comes from companies that didn't even exist in 1980."
—Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Jan. 2011

A Harris Interactive online poll found last year that 40 percent of young people ages 8-24 would like to start a business someday—or have already done so. Bluffton alumnus Justin Byers was in that age range when he started offering computer services to customers; Christine (Sommer) Papenhause and Steve Crouse were older but, in the last five years, have also joined the ranks of Bluffton graduates contributing to the economy through their own businesses.

Christine (Sommer '96) Papenhause
When Christine (Sommer) Papenhause was a Bluffton student, her family had been in business in central Illinois for nearly 90 years, and "it never occurred to me that I would start my own," she says.

In fact, after earning her degree in business administration, she went home to Tremont, Ill., and went to work in accounting and then as assistant to the controller of Sommer Brothers Seed Co.

But in 2005, the news that she was expecting twins "changed my path," says Papenhause. She decided to become a stay-at-home mom and "loved it," she says, but at the same time "felt like I was missing a professional side of my life."

Christine PapenhauseShe found that side again in photography, which she had picked up when her twins, Jill and Alex, were born and eventually evolved into a portrait photography business, C. Papenhause Photography, which opened in May 2010.

Having children piqued her interest "in learning how to take the best pictures I possibly could," recalls Papenhause, also the mother of Joshua, now 4. "The more I learned, the more I practiced and realized what I wanted to do."

"People started to notice, and it wasn't long before I started getting requests" to photograph others' children, she adds. For that, she credits Facebook, where the response to photos she had posted "put the bug in me to start this business."

Actually taking that plunge, however, was difficult, Papenhause admits. "It wasn't an easy decision," she says, noting that considerable research and prayer were involved. "I felt like I was putting myself out there, and I still struggle with it. There's always this little nagging self-doubt."

But "I've been busier than I ever thought I could have been," she says, noting the continuing importance of Facebook as a marketing tool. And she enjoys it, despite the preponderance of work on the business—as opposed to the actual photography—side of the enterprise and what she calls the "challenge in balancing working from home and being present in the children's lives."

"I have a lot of fun with my clients on the shoots and seeing how happy they are when they get the photos, knowing I've captured these important moments in their children's lives," explains Papenhause, who has a number of family ties to Bluffton. Among them: her grandfather, Carl Lehman, was longtime business manager on campus, and her uncle, Dr. Michael Edmiston, is a current professor of chemistry and physics and chair of the Division of Applied and Natural Sciences.

She adds that the Sommer family's business emphasis on customer service has shaped her similar focus with clients, who range from newborns to senior citizens and also include families and many high school seniors. And with her twins now in school full time, she hopes to be able to schedule more photo sessions.

"It's definitely something I hope to continue to learn and grow and see where it leads," she says.

Steve Crouse '73
Steve Crouse had been working in a screen printing and trade finishing shop in Toledo for more than 30 years when, in the mid-2000s, "the printing industry was making a turn for the worse," he says. Printers in the city were losing customers and closing their doors, convincing Crouse, his wife Debbie and their sons Matthew and Daniel—all of whom were working at Erd Specialty Graphics—that they should diversify.

Steve CrouseWith Debbie being a good cook, he says, they had actually been thinking for a while about opening a restaurant. They talked it over as a family, and when Matthew, who was also in real estate at the time, found a building in downtown Toledo, the Crouses bought it. In fall 2006, they launched the Glass City Café at the Jackson Street site.

They now divide their time between Erd, where Steve Crouse is president and part-owner, and the restaurant, where Debbie prepares soups and desserts in the mornings before going to the graphics office on Monroe Street. Their sons also work both places, with Daniel serving as a cook at the café.

"It's been a real family thing," says Steve Crouse, who's in charge, he points out, of the restaurant's decorating, music and art—which was also his major at Bluffton.

The décor reflects the interest of a self-described history buff and current president of the Toledo History Museum. "Being in Toledo, I really adopted Toledo," says Crouse, a North Baltimore, Ohio, native who has spent his entire working life in the Glass City. With its collection of memorabilia, he adds, "the café speaks Toledo."

The music part of his job entails working with Matthew and local record producer Ben Langlois to book the local bluegrass, jazz, folk and pop musicians who play at weekly Saturday musical brunches. Also connected with the Greater Toledo Arts Commission's summer Art Walks series, he displays local artists' work in the restaurant.

"It's not just a café," he says, noting that the noon clientele is largely lawyers and politicians, owing to the eatery's proximity to the Lucas County Courthouse, while evenings bring a mostly younger, "artsy" crowd.

Looking back, Crouse recalls that learning the ropes of the restaurant business were daunting, and admits he was "terrified of the first health inspection." And the toughest thing, he says, was probably adjusting the menu, which he and Debbie had planned to feature "comfort food" like meatloaf and potatoes, only to learn that their customers wanted Reuben and turkey and cheese sandwiches instead.

But they're celebrating the café's fifth anniversary in October with specials and a party. "In a town that's filled with restaurants, making five years is pretty good," says Crouse. "Even though the printing industry still pays my bills, I have more fun down there."

Justin Byers '02, MBA '06
In 2005, Justin Byers had a decision to make.

The Bluffton native had a computer science degree from the university and a job on campus as data-base manager in the advancement office. He had also embarked on a master's degree program in business administration.

Justin ByersAt the same time, though, he was running a computer services business that he had started soon after high school. And in the three years since he had graduated from college, "I made more contacts and got into bigger projects," leaving him with a choice, he says, between making that part-time job a full-time business or moving on to a "regular career."

"I'd never been a big risk-taker," concedes Byers, who was helping residential customers with information technology needs, as well as providing IT support on an hourly basis to small- and medium-sized businesses that couldn't afford a full-time person. But his reading and discussion in the MBA program—paired with an admittedly independent streak—provided "the confidence that it wasn't that huge a leap," he says.

So, in June 2005, what had been Byers' avocation became his vocation and, six years later, he counts 50-75 businesses as repeat clients of JB Networks Inc. Among them are a specialty (boat and airplane) insurance salesman in the Bahamas—a referral from another client—with whom he deals online, and a Georgia-Pacific factory in Milan, Mich. That connection was made through his work for a business that warehouses for Georgia-Pacific in Lima.

Word-of-mouth generates a lot of Byers' business, most of which was originally in Bluffton. Growing up in town and staying for college allowed him to maintain ties with people who had come to know him, he says. And "looking back," he adds, "I wouldn't be in business today if I hadn't stayed here."

He now has more clients in the Lima and Findlay areas and, after roughly four years in a Bluffton office, works out of his home in the area. "The biggest change the last couple years has been figuring out what projects to choose," says Byers, whose father, Timothy Byers '75, is an assistant professor of education at the university. "I've learned you can't be everything to everybody." That's been a hard lesson, he continues, saying it's tough when he has trouble finding time to return phone calls or to get to someone—especially a longtime residential customer—for several days.

Installing wireless routers accounts for much of Byers' residential work, which has dwindled from roughly half of his business early on to about 5 percent currently. That's because of time limitations and the volume nature of his commercial business, but also, he notes, because people now do more of their own work on their home computers or, when there's a problem, discard them and buy new ones. Byers says he may try to build his residential service again if he hires an employee, which he has considered. But at this point, he adds, "I don't know what's in the future for me."