Small Business

Award-winning Wichita small businesses share secrets of their success

Watermark Books owner Sarah Bagby at her store at the corner of Douglas and Oliver Tuesday. (May 1, 2018)
Watermark Books owner Sarah Bagby at her store at the corner of Douglas and Oliver Tuesday. (May 1, 2018) File photo

The owners of the winning companies in the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce's Small Business of the Year awards couldn't be more different.

One is a seasoned owner of a 41-year-old bookstore, while two others have just a few years running a 9-year-old metal recycling company with 80 employees.

But Watermark Books & Cafe owner Sarah Bagby and Allmetal Recycling owners and cousins Clint and Kolby Cornejo have learned some things running companies that chamber judges decided stood out. They were named winners in a field of nine companies at a Wednesday luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Wichita. Allmetal won for companies with 26 to 100 employees and Watermark won for companies with 25 or fewer employees.

Here's some advice Bagby and the Cornejos said has worked for them and could work for other small business owners.

Don't try to be something you're not: Bagby said Watermark survived competing with big box bookstores such as Barnes & Noble and online bookseller Amazon by not losing sight of why she and her employees were there in the first place, which is a "passion for literature" and their love of reading books. "We just stayed focused on what we wanted to be and what we wanted to do."

Observe other businesses: Clint Cornejo said when he makes a sales call to a company he's "taking mental notes when I go into these places," such as how they motivate and treat their employees. "I learn a lot from just watching other companies and how they do things and how they grow."

There are no dumb questions: When Clint Cornejo’s networking with other business people, it goes beyond shaking hands and handing out business cards. He's asking questions, even ones that could be construed as dumb. "You've got to put yourself out there. Don't be afraid to ask a question and have an open mindset. There's no such thing as a stupid question . . . you don't know if you don't ask. And that's what makes a difference.”

Don’t apologize for employee pay: Bagby said one piece of helpful business advice she has received is to not feel bad about what you can afford to pay your employees. “It’s all relative for what the business can sustain . . . when we do well, everybody does well. When the store performs better, then we have more to spend on that.”

Hire well: Kolby Cornejo said a small company and its owners benefit from good employees across the board. “From the top all the way to the bottom, no matter what type of employee (or) what they do for you, surround yourself with good ones. That’s what makes a company turn every day.”

Jerry Siebenmark: 316-268-6576, @jsiebenmark