Irene and Len Stuttman were about ready to throw in the towel. After 13 years in the soy-nut manufacturing business, their company -- INARI Ltd., in Mason, Mich. -- had $450,000 in annual revenues and $11,000 in annual losses. They had stopped drawing salaries and were doing no new marketing. Despair was setting in.
Then along came Edward Lowe, creator of Kitty Litter, chairman of Edward Lowe Industries Inc., and a man with a mission to help save U.S. manufacturing. "I'm tired of reading 'Made in Taiwan,' " he says. "What about 'Made in the U.S.A.'? "
The Stuttmans met Lowe at a local entrepreneurship seminar. Eight months later he plunked down $300,000 for an 80% share of INARI with a proviso that the founders could buy back ownership as earnings improved. He then helped them rewrite their business plan and reorganized the company, bringing in Charles Follett -- former president of a National Gypsum Co. division -- as president and CEO. Irene Stuttman took over the accounting department, and her husband became head of R&D and sales (much to their relief, they say). Meanwhile, Lowe put his own company's resources at the disposal of INARI, introducing the small manufacturer to a nationwide chain of food brokers, monitoring its financial condition, developing marketing plans.
INARI is one of two small manufacturers that Lowe has taken under his wing. The other, Jelene International Inc., is a $500,000 cosmetics company based in Troy, Mich. In addition, Lowe plans to open his own American Academy of Entrepreneurs early next year. Entrepreneurs will gather on his 3,000-acre farm to thrash out their business problems with academics and successful company builders. Invitations will be extended to entire families, Lowe says, in hopes of easing the strains on entrepreneur marriages. Outside the classroom, students will participate in the academy's athletically challenging Step Beyond program.
And what's in it for Lowe? "I just hope to make a small difference before I leave for that great cat box in the sky," he says.
-- Elizabeth Conlin