Meet local superstars who have overcome obstacles to rise to the tops of their fields
Frogs are helping this company leap to the top
Peter Gasca and Rhett Power
Owners, Wild Creations
In 2010, Wild Creations’ owner Peter Gasca posed for a photo with his business partner and co-founder Rhett Power. The Myrtle Beach company was ranked number one by The Capitol Corporation as South Carolina’s fastest-growing company. In 2011, they were honored as an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. They’ve been recognized by Forbes magazine, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the list of praise goes on. How did they do it? By selling frogs and small aquariums by the millions. And they’re just getting warmed up.
Eleven years ago, Gasca was a homebuilder living in Phoenix, Arizona, at the height of the building boom. “It was rocketing,” he said from his office on Pine Island Drive in Myrtle Beach. “So I quit my job and moved to Washington, D.C., to get my MBA. Everybody thought I was crazy. I wanted to be an investment banker.”
Gasca was stopped dead in his tracks just after his graduation in 2001. “9/11 happened and the jobs dried up. I couldn’t get a job in New York, or anywhere for that matter.” But he persevered and eventually landed a position with a company that shipped him off to work in Kazakhstan. While in Central Asia he met Charleston native Power, who would become his business partner in an unlikely little part-time venture the pair found with the help of a business broker.
“It was 2006, and we’d moved to South Carolina to start a search. We were in Columbia at the time,” said Gasca. “We’d looked at all kinds of businesses: pest control, pet stores, dead body removal…it had great cash flow, but when I saw the word ‘scraper’ on the inventory list…needless to say we didn’t go through with it.”
The pair’s broker, now in desperation, suggested a trip to Myrtle Beach to check out a small family-owned business that had growth potential. “It had great cash flow,” recalled Gasca, “and strong sales for five years in a row, but I in no way wanted to be in the aquarium business in Myrtle Beach. But we decided to check it out—hey, it was a chance to go to the beach for a few days. I came down, met the owner, he walked me through the pitch.”
The pitch was how to sell Wild Creations aquariums. Gasca and Power were sold, purchasing the company in 2006 and putting their future in frogs.
The small plastic aquariums hold specially treated gravel, cut bamboo, and two adorable, active little frogs. “They’re African Dwarf Frogs,” said Gasca, pointing to an EcoAquarium on his desk. “For the most part the EcoAquariums are self-cleaning. You feed the frogs little pellets twice a week. The frogs are way more durable [than fish], they deal with temperature fluctuations well, and they do well in these small aquariums. In nature, they’re at the bottom of the food chain, so they love to be where they feel they’re safe from predators. Their lifespan is anywhere between six months and five years. We still have aquarium owners who call us to buy our food packs who were the original owner’s customers and say their frogs are eight years old.”
Through aggressive marketing, years on the road going to cash and carry trade shows, and finally landing big national accounts such as Brookstone, the small company began to take off. Wild Creations ships thousands of EcoAquariums around the U.S. each week—up to 15,000 per week during the peak season. “We’re in around 1,200 specialty toy shops,” said Gasca. “We did the math and estimate that in the past five years we’ve shipped 1.8 million frogs.”
And they’re not stopping with frogs. The company represents a diverse line of toys, including radio-controlled snakes and birds, and they’re launching the first crowd-sourcing website geared toward kids—www.jumpoff.co. “It’s like Kickstarter,” said Gasca, “except this is for [kid product] entrepreneurs, to help them develop their ideas and products—from funding, to patents, to prototypes.”
Wild Creations’ owners are running that rare Myrtle Beach business that doesn’t rely on the hospitality industry for its success and that reaches beyond the beach to find its customers. Visit Wild Creations at www.wildcreations.com.
To the Top
No obstacle too great for Horry County’s new police chief
Horry County Police Chief
Sitting in her busy office in late September, just hours prior to being named Horry County Police Chief, Saundra Rhodes, 43, was eager to have the waiting over. She wasn’t left in suspense for long. Later that evening she was officially offered the position, which she accepted. As Interim Chief for the previous seven months, she was hopeful that she’d be chosen, but not overly confident.
Rhodes was candid in her recollection of a career spanning 20 years, and how she, as a black woman and a single mother of a now 13-year-old son, managed a full-time job, motherhood and earned a master’s degree all while putting away bad guys. Superwoman, indeed.
Rhodes, a Conway native, earned her undergraduate degree in criminal justice at the University of South Carolina and her master’s degree from the University of Cincinnati. “I would go to my son’s [sports] practices with books and homework,” said Rhodes, “but told him I’d be there paying attention when he had a game. He’s a great kid and has been through every bit of this with me.”
Rhodes gave up ambitions to pursue a law degree to come home and help care for her terminally ill sister. “In 1997, the year my sister passed away, I was promoted to sergeant. I had thought about going to law school, but by then [law enforcement] was in my blood.”
“I’ve worked undercover in narcotics, and really in every single division, but community-oriented policing was where I found my niche. We worked on quality of life issues and building relationships with the community.” Rhodes was promoted to sergeant of the C.O.P.E. teams—Community-Oriented Policing & Enforcement.
“Law enforcement is a male-dominated field,” she said, “so there were a few occasions over my 20 years where I had situations with supervisors, but for the most part it’s been a really good experience. Obviously there’s a dynamic with me being not just a female, but a black female in a mostly white, male environment. There were some obstacles, but most of them were many years ago, and I’ve always felt comfortable here. I came up through the ranks, and I felt like I was [treated as] a police officer first.”
“I remember years ago being told [by a colleague] that I would never be anything more than a detective simply because of my sex and my race. But to know there’s even a possibility of being named chief says that there’s been a change of mindset. ... That was a significant moment for me. I am truly appreciative of any confidence shown in me,” she said.
At the swearing-in ceremony she said she felt the swell of emotion that only 20 years leading to a moment can bring. “I was overwhelmed and humbled at the show of support. Mr. Jobe Blain had his family bring him [to the ceremony] in his wheelchair because he didn’t want to miss the event. He was the first black officer hired by the Horry County Police Department. Mrs. Dozier came. She was the Housing Authority manager when I was a small child. She told me she remembered my running throughout the Huckabee Heights projects before my parents were able to buy a house of their own. It reminded me of where I came from and makes me want to let others, who may be in their own humble beginnings, know that setting goals is great, but working hard to achieve those goals can take you anywhere you want to go.”
Cashing in on niche marketing
Owner, OIR Interactive
Success can often come out of failure. But how many of us simply stop at failure, never to muscle our minds past the thought of defeat?
Justin Rockwell, 29, was fired from a previous job before starting up OIR Interactive in North Myrtle Beach, which has found a successful niche (Steve Jobs, anyone?) in mobile marketing technology in our part of the world.
“Sometimes you just have to do it,” he says. “You just have to jump in and not worry about the consequences—not think about the what-ifs. I had a good job, working for another company, but I wasn’t satisfied. And before that, I was fired. But this is the only way I felt I could control what I wanted to do.”
It’s that entrepreneurial gene Rockwell’s programmed with that took him from his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y., to school for television production with a focus on non-linear digital video editing to work in IT at a convention center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to commercial production in Myrtle Beach at WBTW, to the launch of OIR five years ago after a move to the coast for his wife’s restaurant management job transfer.
Let’s face the obvious—to open a business in 2007 was risky. The economic downslide was merciless. Not for the faint of heart. “The way I always viewed it, even if things are dicey, things can always open up,” says Rockwell. “I didn’t start with a whole lot of money. No. But guess I got lucky.”
This self-taught programmer and designer knows better, however, that there was a lot more than luck involved in taking OIR Interactive to the next level. “There’s a direct correlation between making money and working hard, sure,” says Rockwell.
The software service company develops web-based apps used by clients, like Constituent Club, TextBoard and SMS Marketing. But all six employees (including Rockwell) also provide website design, search engine optimization, pay-per-click campaign management and email marketing.
“We develop products we find there’s a real need for in underserved markets,” says Rockwell. “And right now, there’s a big demand for businesses for texting analytics and for political campaigning. These products have taken off because of that. We actually found that Horry County is a real hot spot for politics.”
His Constituent Cloud political campaign software is loaded with a proprietary algorithm that ranks every voter in a district according to voting history, party, race, gender and more—a powerful tool for politicians in running a targeted campaign and volunteers mapping out their walk lists.
TextBoard is a web-based platform that helps small businesses and retailers with limited mobile marketing dollars quickly create, maintain and analyze SMS marketing programs. OIR’s clients can run two-way texting campaigns and promotions to current and future customers. Friendly messaging can cost clients as little as $0.04 per outgoing message.
For all his high-tech panache, Rockwell was the first South Carolinian to receive Mobile Marketer certification from the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA).
“For the past couple of years, we’ve really tried to lay the groundwork so that we can be prepared when the economy comes back around, and we’re starting to see that already,” says Rockwell. “I thought, ‘If I can do well in the recession, when we come out of it, we’ll really do well.’ Because of that groundwork, we have a stable business. Now our goals are to expand and conquer, because the nature of these systems is not limited to a specific region.”
What he is limited to is 24 hours in a day, which can keep him working and away from personal time with his wife, Pamela, and their 2-year-old son. “The downside of this is that there’s a lot of time sunk into the business,” says Rockwell. “Some nights, I’m working up until midnight or later. But when I do have free moments, I like to escape to the park or beach with my family. My wife is my biggest supporter.”
Also here to offer encouraging support is the growing network of technology-based organizations, like the Grand Strand Technology Council and the layout of fiber-optic technology from HTC. “Myrtle Beach isn’t known as a technology-based hub, but that’s changing,” says Rockwell. “It’s going to be a really good place.”
This couple is counting on a future of fitness
Judy McCrackin-Langfitt and Bill Langfitt
Owners, Core Fitness
Judy McCrackin-Langfitt and her husband, Bill Langfitt, have a sign in their office at Core Fitness Club: “Just don’t give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there’s love and inspiration, I don’t think you can go wrong.”
And that’s essentially how this fit-and-fun couple rolls.
While coordinating group exercise classes for the American Athletic Club, McCrackin-Langfitt could see the emerging popularity of pilates and wanted to take that conditioning model to the next level.
She took a leap of faith, just as the recession was gripping the country’s economic ankles in 2008, and opened the Core Pilates studio. The studio was located downstairs from American Athletic and featured state-of-the-art Stott equipment and personalized instruction.
“It was a struggle for the first year,” she admits. “But I knew it would take off. … I didn’t go big, just 1,000 square feet. And when pilates was well-established, I added TRX and Boot Camps.”
As the recession deepened, American Athletic owners made the decision to become a 24-hour gym, move out of the Grissom Parkway location and cancel group fitness classes.
McCrackin-Langfitt had always dreamed of having her own gym with custom classes, but she wasn’t fully prepared for the landlord’s offer to take over the yawning 14,000-square-foot facility.
“It was huge to me,” she says, “When American pulled out all the equipment, I stood in the gym one night and I have to admit, I was scared to death of all that space!”
“But the landlord was willing to work with me and I wouldn’t have to build-out. An aerobics room floor alone is a $20,000 expense and clientele was already used to coming here.”
With the two-story commercial building quickly becoming empty suites of echoes, they negotiated an equitable rental agreement, she applied for a small business loan and the Langfitts went to work on their new gym while still running a limited menu of classes.
And then another recessionary wrinkle reared its ugly head: Bill got laid off from his full-time banking job.
“So here we were with a family, spending every minute getting the gym up and running, I had to rework my business loan application and Bill loses his job,” she says. “But Bill has a degree in fitness and that’s always been his passion, so we took it to be a sign that we were supposed to work together on this. This is how it should be.”
In every way, it turned out to be a labor of love and inspiration.
Their vision of a fitness emporium took shape, the business loan came through, new equipment and bikes and weights filled up the spatial void, the Stott Pilates studio moved upstairs into the gym and doubled its fan base and many a staffer put their money where their faith was, leading classes for free during the start-up.
“It may not make sense to open a new business during a recession,” Bill Langfitt points out. “But when everything seems to be out of control in your life, one thing you can keep control of is your own fitness. Working out can really help you get through the worst of times.”
And in the case of the Langfitts, even though the chips were falling, opportunity kept knocking at their back door.
“It all worked out,” she says with a wave of her toned arm. “We love what we do. We work out here, we teach, we work the front desk, we like to keep in touch with our members and have the best staff.”
Even though new players have entered the highly competitive gym market, Core Fitness has been right on point and flexing its muscles since its grand opening last January.
“You have to stay relevant and interesting,” she says. “Be cutting-edge without falling prey to fads, that’s the challenge in this business. But we brought Stott Pilates here successfully and we’ll always be looking for the new best thing in fitness.”
It wouldn’t be surprising if that “new best thing” was knocking at their door right now. And what sets the Langfitts apart is the fact that they will stare an opportunity in the face and let it in.
Tony Brumfield has made the best of challenging situations
Owner, Full Steam Ahead
One of nine children, Tony Brumfield was the only sibling who didn’t go to college.
“I was dyslexic, so school was painful for me,” says the owner of Full Steam Ahead (FSA). “So when I said ‘no’ to college, my mom told me that I had better find something to do. I started working with a friend who cleaned carpets. … Mom lent me a little money to start my own business and away I went.”
“I did small jobs for the next four or five years, adding repairs to my services. Then, in 1996, Hurricanes Fran and Bertha came through and people needed restoration, roofs were totally blown off. I ended up handling over 1,000 jobs that year but it was nerve wracking. Could we handle it? Would we have the cash flow to keep going while waiting for claims to come through?”
“That’s when I really took the permanent leap with FSA from being a carpet cleaning and small repairs business to a full-serve restoration company,” says Brumfield.
And then, after a little breather, Hurricane Floyd swept through the Grand Strand in 1999, dumping so much rain so fast that an unheard of number of neighborhoods flooded and many homes washed away.
“We gutted 1,000 condos alone after Floyd,” Brumfield says shaking his head.
No stranger to natural disasters and risky business moves, the next catastrophe Brumfield would face came with no high winds or rain, but packed just as powerful a punch.
As the recession took hold in 2008, the real estate market collapsed.
Overnight, power tools and hammers fell silent and the bustling, over-inflated new home construction sector lost its footing.
For businesses like Full Steam Ahead that specialize in fire, water and mold restoration, it was an economic nightmare.
“All of a sudden you have hundreds of builders and contractors out of work here at the same time,” recalls Brumfield. “They all went into renovation work. … When the wildfire swept through the Barefoot Resort area, we would normally get a lot of that work, but contractors were going door-to-door, saying ‘I can handle that for you.’”
To make matters worse, FSA lost the new home punch-list business from builders who wanted to quickly move on to the next project and insurance companies decided to nix coverage for mold remediation.
Was it time to cut back, downsize, tighten up and lay off?
Brumfield didn’t see it that way. Instead, he decided to expand, work smarter and shake hands with relationship marketing, in both the customer and insurance circles.
He looked at it as a risk that would hopefully pay off in the long run.
“We decided to reinvest in the company,” says Brumfield. “We upgraded our technology system, bought state-of-the-art equipment, started weekly training in all aspects of the business and added employee benefits because we wanted an inspired, engaged workforce. … We don’t have much turnover here.”
“If you budget down, even when things get tough, that’s what will happen. You will fall to that budget. We went flat for a while, but with everyone working together to touch more people and always find more sales, we had our best year ever in 2011.”
In the face of homes and disasters, Brumfield realized that his brand stamp was all about trust, and he focused on his company being entrenched in the community and having an honorable workforce.
“All of our employees do charity work, not because they have to, because they love doing it. We raised $16,800 for March of Dimes this year, the second biggest contribution from this area. We’re proud of that.”
As it turns out, Brumfield’s mother’s decision to convert his college fund into his carpet cleaning business wasn’t such a bad idea after all.