Monday, November 30, 2015

Spokane grass seed company grows locally and internationally with help from SBDC advisors

Planet Turf buys new building, gets line of credit, expands globally

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC

SPOKANE, Wash. – More than 500 new golf courses opened in the United States in 1999, the year agronomist/turf grass consultant Jim Connolly launched Planet Turf in Spokane, Wash.

WSU alumnus Jim Connolly
and wife Amy of Planet Turf.
But seven years later, more than 500 courses closed due to the economic downturn. While the golf industry is still huge, for businesses involved in course construction – like Connolly’s was – it was time to shift gears or get out of the business altogether.

Connolly has a degree in agronomy from Washington State University and 36 years’ experience in the sports turf industry. He is a former U.S. Golf Association agronomist and has consulted for superintendents, owners and developers in 13 countries in golf course construction and environmental best management plans.

Shifting to product sales

Getting out of the business wasn’t really an option, so he decided to shift gears. With his wife and business partner Amy, Connolly planned to broaden the Planet Turf brand ( to deliver not just expertise to his clients, but seed, fertilizers and pesticides as well.

“Fertilizer, and other products, are only effective if you know when to apply them, how to apply them and understand the most effective method of application,” he said.

He had the scientific expertise and sales experience to realize his dream, but neither he nor Amy were business experts, so the shift to managing a sales company was potentially overwhelming. That’s where the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) provided valuable assistance.

The Washington SBDC ( provides no-cost, one-to-one, confidential advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition their businesses. SBDC advising is supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration, Washington State University and other institutions of higher education and economic development.

Soil test database aids clients

Over the past five years, Connolly has worked with SBDC advisors Alan Stanford and Vern Jenkins to successfully build the manufacturing side of his company and build equity as well. The core products of Planet Turf include fertilizer, pesticides, grass seed and a variety of products for turf and ornamental maintenance.

Connolly has designed and sells unique fertilizer products that minimize negative effects on the environment.

“We have a database of over 2,000 soil test results and our advice to customers about building healthy soils and plants is why we stand out among our competition,” he said.

Planet Turf grass seed is grown in Washington and Oregon and most of the fertilizers are manufactured in Washington and Idaho. Turf products are shipped across the Pacific Northwest but also around the world, including Japan, Korea and even Mongolia.

Setting up efficient business systems

The shift from diagnosing soil challenges to providing products that address those challenges has allowed Connolly to grow his company from one employee to eight. In 2016, he will move operations to a new 10,000-square-foot facility in Spokane Valley.

The key, he said, was the hands-on advising he received from Stanford, who came to the SBDC after a 35-year career in banking, and Jenkins, one of two SBDC export specialists.
“They aren’t going to build it for you,” Connolly said, “but they can guide you, and I think guidance is what I needed – and still need.”

Connolly credits Stanford with helping him set up business systems so he can quickly and accurately monitor the health of his company. Cash flow was always a problem, for example, because expenses were constant but sales were cyclical.

Stanford’s expertise with financial statements helped Connolly put together a business plan and loan application that resulted in a $400,000 line of credit through Washington Trust Bank. That allowed him to continue to grow the business and post strong financial statements. So strong, he said, that when it was time to get a loan for a new warehouse, the application process was a snap.

Careful overseas expansion

Along with growing its domestic market, Planet Turf has also expanded internationally. Since 2009, export sales have more than doubled, Connolly said, though he plans to proceed cautiously overseas.

“Having the experience of Vern Jenkins on board to help with understanding the difficult business of exporting and dealing with foreign clients is a resource that is very valuable,” he said.

The SBDC “helped us get better,” he said. “Without that we could have been going awfully far down the wrong path – to the point of being unrecoverable.”

Instead, Planet Turf is strong and growing stronger. As any soils scientist can tell you, sometimes a little change can make a big difference.

James Connolly, Planet Turf, 509-951-0270,
Alan Stanford, Washington SBDC adviser, 509-358-7892,
Vern Jenkins, Washington SBDC export specialist, 509-358-7998,

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fast food experience pays off for Central grad

Free advising helps young owner launch franchise ambitions in Olympia

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC

OLYMPIA, Wash. – As a college senior in business administration, Myles Kirchmeier planned to start a business by his early 30s – the age his father was when he opened a heating and cooling company. But Mike Kirchmeier asked his son what he was waiting for: “All you have right now is time and energy,” he said. “Why not take the risk when you are young?”

A year after graduating from Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Myles Kirchmeier became boss at his Pita Pit franchise in Capital Mall in Olympia. His new five-year plan is to own three Pita Pit restaurants – and then perhaps diversify.

Getting the restaurant up and running has involved 90-hour work weeks. Kirchmeier has 12 employees and must stay on top of inventory, supply chain management, quality control, customer service, health and safety codes, accounting, payroll and a textbook index of other business-related issues.

“That’s what I majored in,” he said. “It’s crazy to see it in a theoretical way and then to see it in real life.”

Serious about health and business

Kirchmeier outside his
Olympia Pita Pit
Kirchmeier had become a fan of the healthy fast food offered at Pita Pit while he was a student at CWU. The first restaurant opened in Canada in 1995 and there are now 500 Pita Pits in 11 countries, including about a dozen in Washington state.

Initially he wanted to get financing on his own but, when banks refused to take him seriously, he was referred to Ron Nielsen, an advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in Lacey.

The Washington SBDC ( is a network of two dozen advisors providing confidential, no-cost advising to entrepreneurs who want to grow their businesses. The Washington SBDC has been hosted by Washington State University for more than 35 years. It receives federal funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration and additional state and local funding from other institutions of higher education and economic development.

Nielsen and Natalya Putt, his administrative assistant, have offices in the newly opened Center for Business and Innovation, a collaboration between South Puget Sound Community College and the Thurston County Economic Development Council. The center is on the SPSCC Lacey campus at 4220 6th Ave. SE.

Nielsen, who has owned three businesses over the past 30 years, was skeptical at first: “It’s good to have aspirations,” he said of Kirchmeier, “but you need to have a breadth of experience, too.”

Still, Nielsen had started his own first business at age 19, so he knew youth wasn’t a disqualifier.

“I quizzed him and gave him some pretty difficult homework to see if he was serious, and he really came through,” Nielsen said. “It was good work.”

Finishing school while starting a franchise

Kirchmeier spent the second half of his senior year at CWU finishing his coursework, working 30 hours a week at McDonalds and driving back and forth to Olympia twice a week to meet with Nielsen and Putt.

He was crazy busy, he said, but the drives back and forth didn’t seem arduous because he was enjoying himself: “It’s fun to sit down with someone who knows so much about business.”

For the most part, they worked on the business plan, especially standard financial statements.

“By the time we got done with his business plan, he had as much confidence as some of the seasoned veterans I’ve worked with,” Nielsen said.

Even with a rock solid business plan, Kirchmeier was getting nowhere in securing financing. After seeing the plan – and knowing his son – Mike Kirchmeier agreed to support a good investment. “He’s exceptionally driven; he always has been,” he said of his son.

Holidays at mall anticipated

The grand opening on June 15 was bigger than he expected, said Myles Kirchmeier, and business has hummed along since. With the holidays approaching, he figures business will continue to pick up – his high-visibility location at the mall will help – so he needs to be ready for it.

That’s one of the things the SBDC helped him understand, he said – that there would be seasonal ebbs and flows and he had to plan for them.

When people ask for advice, he said, “the SBDC is the first thing I bring up because they helped me so much. I would definitely recommend the SBDC to anyone who needs help with their business.”

Myles Kirchmeier, Pita Pit Olympia, 360-701-3462,
Ron Nielsen, Washington SBDC, 360-709-2050,