200812-biz-coverthumb.jpgIt’s a powerful statement about a community’s entrepreneurial spirit when two home-grown entities make it into the Top 10 of a respected national business magazine’s annual ranking of the best companies in the country. That’s exactly what happened this year, as PetroQuest Energy was ranked 6th and LHC Group 8th on Forbes’ list of 200 best small businesses. Each year Acadiana Business identifies and recognizes the spirit of the increasingly diverse companies driving our economy. And while these young entrepreneurs may never reach those heights, we’re confident they’ll continue to inspire others with their work ethic and creative talents. Meet the Class of 2008.

The Deer Hunter
Ryan Busbice

Growing up in Lafayette, October through January meant one thing to Ryan Busbice: deer season. And now that he’s 29? That hasn’t changed one iota; in fact, it’s consuming him these days.

Busbice has turned his favorite hobby into a multi-million-dollar enterprise, Wildgame Innovations, an idea born in the fall of 2000 after he and his father, Bill, read a story about the volume of deer corn sold by one company in north Louisiana. A light bulb went off for Ryan, who had been experimenting with feed formulas to attract and grow deer on the family’s private lease. He realized the potential for marketing his own products. “It really opened our eyes [to the opportunity],” Ryan says.

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photo by Robin May
 

Ryan and his younger brother Matt went to work perfecting various formulas, then set out to package, trademark and market the products. By 2002 — a year after graduating from UL with a degree in general business — Ryan had a meeting in Nebraska with the senior purchasing agent at Cabela’s, one of the largest outdoor outfits in the world. His father (a successful local businessman) came along for moral support, but it was young Ryan who ran the meeting after Bill took it upon himself to start the conversation. The anxious entrepreneur could immediately tell the Cabela’s rep wasn’t coming around. “It got awkward fast,” Ryan recalls, “so I just jumped in and went through every product.”

Cabela’s placed an order — and the rest, as they say, is history. The Busbice brothers launched into the trade show circuit, and the orders snowballed.

What started as Wildgame Innovations has grown to include Flextone Game Calls and a majority interest in both BA Products, a deer feeder company out of Grand Prairie, Texas, and Florida-based cross bow manufacturer Barnett Outdoors. And, as this story was going to press, another deal was in the making involving the buyout of a major competitor.

Local stores like Lafayette Shooters, Acadiana Outfitters and G&H Seed’s five area locations sell the Broussard-based company’s products — items that also line the shelves of all of the big outdoor players — from Academy to Bass Pro and even behemoths like Walmart. “I’ve been to Walmart [corporate] four times in the last month,” Ryan says.

It was just a year ago that the Busbices really hit the jackpot with a product called Acorn Rage, selling 120,000 bags in 2007 and moving about 400,000 of the 5-pound bags this year. They retail for $14-$16. “That’s like our staple in the industry right now,” Ryan says. Just recently, Brett Favre endorsed Acorn Rage in a commercial and has even done a segment on the Busbice family’s TV show. Yes, the family has its own popular reality series, Wildgame Nation, which airs on the Outdoor Channel — Cox Channel 247 locally. Primarily the brainchild of 26-year-old Matt, the show has been a successful format for promoting the company’s products. “The show is about what it’s like to be in the industry, working in the industry and hunting and working with family,” Ryan says. “We’re just a regular family that gets along — and doesn’t always get along.”

When they close their books this year, the Busbice brothers will have amassed about $25 million in 2008 revenue. “This is all gross,” Ryan clarifies for anyone who might read too much into the four companies’ sales volume. “I can tell you this it’s not anything close to net.”

Whatever the case, that’s a whole lot of acorns. — Leslie Turk


Nature’s Own
Betsy Mitchell

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photo by Isabel LaSala
 

As Cajuns by blood or heritage, we have paid little mind to fancy or progressive food trends, because let’s face it, we arguably dish up the best-tasting food in, well, the world. Then there was Betsy Mitchell. Locally born and raised, Mitchell, founder of Conscious Cuisine, boldly imagines and dares to promote a vision of nutritional feasting in Lafayette and its surrounding areas.

After about five years of working and living in California, Mitchell longs to share all her acquired wisdom about healthy living with her native community through her catering and cuisine. She prepares meals using primarily local, fresh, organic, and minimally processed ingredients, passionately believing that “food that is actually ‘good’ for you does not have to taste ‘bad’ to you.”

Skeptical? Before you feel too betrayed, you should know that some of her client favorites are chicken fricassee and crawfish étouffée. But give her fair credit for including eclectic specialties like turkey and beef lasagnas, fresh corn tamales, macaroni and cheese, various preparations of wild-caught fish, and her fresh, Thai coconut curries. If your own experience in the kitchen assures you that these menu items cannot possibly promote good health and enjoyable dining simultaneously, then allow Mitchell to enlighten you.

Mitchell’s resume of nutrition credentials lists all the way back to her youth when both of her grandmothers taught her the importance of a family’s well-being, including the necessity of a wholesome diet. Her maternal grandmother graduated with a master’s degree in home economics and proceeded to teach the subject, while her paternal grandmother worked as one of the first female radio hosts in America, delivering a regular show on, you guessed it, home economics. “I feel like I am carrying on a tradition of care that I learned from my grandmothers,” Mitchell says. “I am a modern take on some of their old-fashioned wisdom.” 

Mitchell’s progressive side developed in more recent years while she apprenticed with a naturopathic doctor. However, it was not until later, when she worked for an organic foods cooperative, that she found her calling. After six years on this path, her passion and experience motivated her to start Conscious Cuisine, where she now works as a personal chef to a handful of clients and a caterer to the general public.  She typically caters to smaller, boutique-type events and dinner parties with less than 25 guests, but she hopes to start booking larger parties soon. The cost of her services runs approximately $28 to $40 dollars per guest, depending on the menu, but she works with each client individually and can accommodate smaller budgets. 

Mitchell acknowledges that she faces a tough crowd in her native Acadiana, because she fully understands the extent to which locals adore our traditional, old-fashioned favorites prepared the way we’ve always known and loved them. But she’s not the least bit intimidated. She uses smart business sense to sustain her venture without sacrificing any of her standards in the process. She is constantly experimenting with recipes, types of cuisines, and ways to spread the “organic mentality.” Soon she will graduate as a licensed nutritional counselor and eagerly anticipates spreading the joy of living and eating well through this discipline. So whether it’s for a crowd of a hundred or in the company of one, Betsy Mitchell enthusiastically shares her passion for good quality nutrition with anyone who will listen. “I hope and strive to shed a some simplistic light on a sometimes confusing subject of eating better and feeling better, too,” she says. — Elizabeth Brown


Thinking Outside the Box
Charlie Hohorst III

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photo by Robin May
 

Charlie Hohorst III has been thinking about turkey just like everybody else, but he’s also been thinking about ducks and chickens and 30,000 Turduckens. The 39-year-old entrepreneur estimates he’ll end up shipping out that many by year’s end through CajunGrocer.com, the company he started with his father, Charlie Hohorst Jr., a decade ago. But at the rate their holding company, Webmatter Fufillment Solutions, is growing, there’s more for the Hohorsts to talk about than just turkey.

In 1998, the younger Hohorst left the McIlhenny Co. where he had been the maker of Tabasco sauce’s international brand manager. “E-commerce wasn’t even really a buzz word,” he says, “but the idea came from just working on Tabasco’s Web site, and I saw the opportunity to start CajunGrocer.com, a one-stop shop for Cajun food.”

The site launched in June 1999 with three employees — Hohorst, his father and a warehouse manager. “My warehouse manager is still with me,” Hohorst says. “Back then she was reading a book, waiting for the orders to come in. Now she can’t even see straight.”

Now 12 full-time employees are on staff throughout the year, and an additional 40 employees are added during the busy holiday season months of November and December. “We do half of our annual sales in those two months,” Hohorst says. “It’s intense.”

The online storefront offers more than 1,200 Louisiana food products, items that are usually hard to find outside of the Bayou State, that can be shipped anywhere in the U.S. Seventy-five percent of the company’s offerings are perishable goods packed and shipped in dry ice.

The biggest seller is the Turducken, the turkey-stuffed-with-a-duck-and-stuffed-with-a-chicken that can run you anywhere from $79 to $125, depending on your selection and method of shipping. In 2004, the Wall Street Journal rated CajunGrocer.com’s Turducken as the best overall and the best value for ordering the stuffed birds online. Not surprisingly, nearly all of CajunGrocer.com’s business is out of state, focused predominantly on the West Coast and New England where Turducken isn’t a household word. Hohorst says 40 percent of the Turducken business during the holidays is repeat customers.

If relying on a niche like turkey sales during two months every year seems like a risky proposition, consider these numbers: The National Turkey Federation estimates that last year, 271 million turkeys were raised in the U.S., and this year, 46 million turkeys will end up on Thanksgiving tables. Hohorst isn’t worried about his business drying out anytime soon. “There’s so much room for Turducken growth. It’s unbelievable,” he says. But the Hohorsts aren’t putting all of their stock in turkeys either. In 2005, they took CajunGrocer.com’s business model and applied it to another niche market, creating WellnessGrocer.com, specializing in organic and gluten-free foods.

And from its inception they have offered product fulfillment solutions for other e-tailers. When Hohorst first approached Reily Foods about carrying its products on CajunGrocer.com, Reily asked the Hohorsts to carry out fulfilment for its mail order and online business. Since then Webmatter Fulfillment Solutions has specialized in drop shipping specialty foods items for customers like Zatarain’s, Savoie’s Cajun Foods, Festival International, Richard’s Cajun Foods, and QVC. Webmatter maintains a 24,000-square-foot warehouse with more than 2,000 products in Lafayette, with a recently constructed 5,000-square-foot freezer. They are currently in discussions to drop ship an Emeril Lagasse product for the Home Shopping Network and will be taking on fulfillment for Cabela’s during next year’s holiday season.

With an annual growth of 20 percent, Hohorst says the biggest challenge has been managing growth and scalability, anticipating that growth and scaling the company to fit it while continuing to ship orders out in a timely fashion with a high level of customer service.

“It’s all the same process,” Hohorst says. “It doesn’t matter who the customer is. As long as the order’s inventory is inside the warehouse, we can pick, pack and ship for whoever.” — R. Reese Fuller


Direct Approach
Spencer Hoyt

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photo by Robin May
 

When Spencer Hoyt launched his own company, Comit Technologies, in 2004 at age 25, it wasn’t much of a surprise given his pedigree. “The entrepreneurial spirit kind of runs in the family,” he says. “My dad has his own company [Pixus], my brother has his own company [Nimlock] and every single one of my cousins on the Hoyt side of the family owns their own company.”

“I was the only one left,” he says.

Today, Spencer Hoyt has an ownership stake in three major companies, with a combined annual revenue of more than $3 million, along with at least a dozen other minor Web site ventures. It’s not uncommon for him to spend 70 hours a week at the office.

Comit Technologies quickly gained a reputation for not only designing quality Web sites but also helping e-commerce sites optimize their search engine results, thereby increasing their daily traffic. Hoyt recalls he and his staff soon questioned why they weren’t running their own e-commerce sites. “We said, ‘We’re making money for all our clients. Let’s do something for ourselves.’”

Hoyt began looking for the perfect product to sell. Knowing that there were hundreds of established e-commerce sites dealing with popular everyday items like furniture, clothes and stereo equipment, he needed to find a niche. When Hoyt’s pregnant sister-in-law told him she had trouble finding breast pumps online, it was serendipity.

Hoyt launched Breastpumpsdirect.com in August 2006. He recalls being slightly embarrassed about being a breast pump salesman at first. But after the site sold a surprising 11 pumps, at an average of $200 a piece, on its first day, all modesty flew out the window. “Everyone in our office was high-fiving,” Hoyt recalls. “And we were like, ‘you know, we’re going to tell everyone we’re selling breast pumps. Start spreading the word!’”

In order to expand the brand, Hoyt launched strollersdirect.com at the beginning of the year and next month will have his newest e-commerce installment, babycarriersdirect.com. So is diapersdirect.com next?

“I’ve actually looked at diapers direct,” Hoyt says. “I almost bought the domain name last year. I didn’t buy it, and someone else bought it.”

“But at any given time,” he continues, “I probably have about 30 Web sites on the books that I have domain names for that I’m ready to build out, but I just don’t have the programming resources in house. I’ve got three full-time programmers, and they can’t keep up.”

Hoyt’s cross-promotional sites all tout free shipping, safe and secure online shopping, and personalized customer service. The products are all ordered directly from the manufacturers, and Comit has some 12,000 square feet of warehouse space next to its Eraste Landry Street office for storage. Orders ship out daily. Combined, the sites are now producing more than $1 million in annual revenue.

“I’m self taught,” says Hoyt, who has a bachelor’s degree from UL Lafayette in general studies. “In school, I never I made good grades because I never really tried, but as soon as I want to learn something I research it and I learn everything there is to know about it.”

These days, the majority of Hoyt’s time is spent with his latest venture, Aerion Rental Services, which rents out equipment to oilfield companies. Hoyt started the company with three former fraternity brothers. All in their 20s, the four partners were relative newcomers to the oil business, but that hasn’t kept Aerion from experiencing early success. 

“A year and a half ago, I didn’t know anything about the oilfield,” Hoyt says. “I can now see starting another couple of oilfield companies. Who knows? The next greatest technology could come out, and I might be doing that in a year. I don’t really limit myself to one area.” — Nathan Stubbs

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