Any year is a challenge when it comes to owning or operating a business. But, 2009 has been an exceptionally challenging year. The media told us that we are in an economic downturn…a worldwide financial crisis unlike anything my generation has ever seen. Small town business owners like you folks have felt the impact of that in many different ways. This year especially, that’s what makes the story of our business of the year honoree all the more remarkable. It is a story of three men, who put up everything they had of value to save a company and their employee’s valuable jobs. It is an emotional story, and I am sure I will get emotional just telling it, just like the three men who told their story to me.

The story really starts with Barry Stevens, who was employed with Diversified Plastics, a manufacturing company located west of Centralia on the Sunnydale campus. Barry was the Production Manager who needed a change and decided to go to work for a company out of Booneville.

It was there he met two other men that together would change each other’s lives.

Matt Old and Lance McCann both worked in the Booneville plant when Barry showed up. Within weeks after starting his new job and meeting his new friends, Diversified Plastics called and wanted Barry back…this time as the Plant Manager. Barry agreed to return convincing Matt and Lance to come with him. Diversified Plastics home office is in Nixa MO and Barry soon found out that they were losing half of their work orders and the home office solution was to close the Sunnydale location and move what they could to Nixa. By the time the final decision to close had been made, only a bare bones staff remained. The day before the officials were to make the plant closing announcement, Barry chose to tell his employees himself. Afterwards, drained and emotional, he sat at his desk not thinking about his job loss, but those of his co-workers. It was then that Matt knocked on his door and said one sentence…”Barry, lets buy this place.”

Barry did something he hadn’t done in a while…he laughed.

But Barry mulled it over and decided it was worth a try. Barry had the management skills, Matt had the accounting skills, they just needed one more element…someone with people skills.

The two men then approached Lance, the man with the people skills, and Lance didn’t hesitate…he was in. Now the next part of the story is something that interested me…they went home and each one talked to their wives. Matt and Lance’s wives took the news in stride. They knew that if their husbands didn’t try to buy the business …they would be out of a job. Barry’s wife had a different reaction…she just looked at Barry and said “You going to do WHAT with those two guys?”

The negotiations with the company had its ups and downs and when the dust had settled, a deal was made. But the three men knew that before they could acquire financing, they would need a business plan. So Matt and Lance locked themselves into a room and for two weeks of fourteen hours days, they broke down every inch of the company and rebuilt the business on paper. Lance recalls those dark long days as the hardest thing he has ever done. When one man was discouraged and said “We can’t do this…the other two would tell him to get over it.” How very fortunate they were that each man was not down on the same day. When they had their business plan in hand, they found an accountant who immediately met with them and helped sort it all out. Then they found a lender that was experienced in Small Business Loans and the world of manufacturing and with their help, found additional financial support through the Department of Economic Development. Part of their funding would come from an Action Fund Loan through the DED. But that loan required a government sponsor and since the plant was in Audrain Co., it was suggested the group approach the Audrain Co. commissioners to sponsor their funding request. But most of the workers in the plant, come from Centralia so the men decided they would approach the City of Centralia for sponsorship. Never before has a loan like that been sponsored by a government entity other than the county the business is in. So, they found themselves sitting in front of Lynn Behrns and when he heard their story, all he said was “Tell me what I need to do.”

Barry, Matt and Lance agree, they left Lynn’s office feeling finally that this thing they started, just might happen.

Well, this story does have a happy ending but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t without setbacks. But the guys say that every time a door was slammed in their faces, another would open that would beckon them to continue. With an experienced lender, a knowledgeable accountant, and a government entity to sponsor them, these three men made their dream come true.

Today, Alliance Foam Technologies run two shifts, four days a week and employ 25 people all from this area. They manufacture a unique product that involves foam and steel and sand and I am going to let those guys tell you how that all comes together. This year, they hope to top 1 million dollars in sales. How did they do it…they didn’t give up. They took the skills they had and kept asking questions, kept seeking answers. More they anything, they had a plan and after they had a plan, they planned and planned some more.

When I asked them what they would tell other entrepreneurs, they told me they would say...have a goal, have a mission statement...have a plan. Find your strengths and your weaknesses. Make sure the market needs what you can supply and stay positive. Expect sleepless nights and lots of second guessing. And never, never be too proud to ask for help. Barry, Matt and Lance all told me that one of the lighter moments of this whole process, was to see Lynn Behrns face, when they plopped the five inch stack of required depart of economic development paperwork on his desk. Lynn, that must have been some look!

So this year, the year of financial turmoil, our Chamber recognizes a business that took a chance, a risk, and an opportunity to steer their own destiny and save jobs while they did it. It is a privilege to give the 2009 Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year award to Alliance Foam Technologies.