Big News! We won Ad Age Small Agency of the Year.

march 9, 2020

Why Entrepreneurship Matters to a Region

tony treadway

Every business starts as a small one that is driven by an entrepreneur. Much is being said in our region of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia on the topic of recruiting and nurturing young entrepreneurs. There are many great stories here of those with a vision and courage to build a thriving company. Here is just one. The story of Creative Energy.

Rewind to 1991 and the downfall of the Soviet Union. That world event sparked the beginning of our company. At a defense contractor in Tennessee (founded by entrepreneurs) word came from the U.S. Navy that with no more Commie threat there was no need for new orders for nuclear fuel to power American aircraft carriers and submarines. I was head of the company’s PR department with a handful of talented communicators. Top management said that I would be spared from a massive layoff but the rest of my people would go. I had a better idea.

Supported by the defense contractor’s president, my vision of a thriving full-service ad agency was born. So, I walked away from a great job and with our entire team of highly motivated employees jumped aboard a rubber life raft and started rowing away from a leaking ship. Our survival kit included three months of working capital, some used equipment, a 1987 Chrysler New Yorker and space in the back of a converted Western Sizzlin’ steakhouse. More importantly, we all believed in a solitary vision of doing world-class work from the home of our choosing, not Madison Avenue.

Like every small business, our first year was critical to our survival. It set a path that we still follow. Securing as early clients, a Piggly Wiggly supermarket franchisee, a five-unit burger chain and a canner of sweet potatoes and pimientos, we soon found a niche that was recession-proof and more fun than aircraft carrier fuel. We’ve since grown expertise in other exciting market segments including manufacturing, retail, financial services and tourism.

By the end of 1992, we were growing enough to move from the kitchen of the Western Sizzlin’ to an abandoned ladies dress shop on Main Street in Johnson City. There we thrived and helped bring back to life a tiny piece of the city’s downtown landscape. By 1999, our sights were on the largest building in the downtown, an abandoned department store. The owner was enticed by our offer of a seven-year lease on the top floor of the department store and renovated the entire structure. Known today as the Kings Center, it’s in the middle of a thriving downtown rebirth. As an entrepreneur, I also learned two important lessons. Your rewards are directly related to the risks that you are willing to take. Secondly, life doesn’t reward cowardice, so you had better be smart… and bold. That’s when we found an abandoned TV station to bring to life an another nearby building that remains as the ideal home for Creative Energy and for an affiliated acquisition of a digital agency where my wife, Teresa, serves as president. 

We’ve brought four extraordinary properties back to life, but what else can an entrepreneurial venture do for a region? This is key. In a small city best known as part of a verse in the song Wagon Wheel, we’ve given more than 100 local talents a place to do world-class creative from the region in which they were born—so far. As leaders in the region lament the brain drain of young talent departing after college, we’re offering a compelling reason to stay.

In fact, we’re recruiting top talent away from the big cities to move here. In turn, they are becoming valuable members of the communities within the region. They are volunteering their time individually for important causes and enriching the lives of the people they touch. As a company, we’re volunteering employee time at animal shelters and food banks. Employees are pitching in to buy clothes for kids and the elderly with a company match in funding.

As a company that’s creating messaging in various digital and traditional forms across the world were also the agency for clients within our region to help them thrive. From helping one local convention and visitors bureau bring thousands more visitors here to spend their tourism dollars to that five-unit burger chain opening its 30th location as a nationally-recognized leader in the fast food industry, we’re adding value to their business and the region as a whole—and we’re far from finished.

Some of our founders remain as dedicated to our vision as the day we started and help lead our team of nearly 40 communications pros. These employees are raising families in cities like Bristol, Kingsport, Greenville and Johnson City. Thanks to them and my wife, I still wake most mornings with another great idea and seek ways to grow those ideas on our own or for one of our clients. We hop on planes to meet our clients across the nation and many return the favor by coming to our region to stay at our hotels and dine here to fuel the economy.

Like most every other regional story of entrepreneurial success, we’ve done it by our bootstraps and without government incentives. We’re proud of that. Our success can be summed by the dedicated of our employees, a willingness to never give up and clients who support our vision and value our insights and creative talent.

As for growing more entrepreneurs here, a few thoughts emerge. An entrepreneur’s spirit is largely born at an early age. Identifying those with the trait should be nuturered early by successful entrepreneurs and not only by teachers and professors. That nurturing is to share ways to create a business plan, secure financing, such as opportunity zone funding, and how to market their ideas to the world’s digital marketplace.

Secondly, the region should not only seek new, yet unproven, entrepreneurs but support successful ones that are already here. With their processes already proven regional support can help those companies continue to hire young local talent to address brain drain issues. Successful entrepreneurs in a region are absolute treasures for the economy—no matter their size.

The largest employer in our region, Eastman, was founded by an entrepreneur from a New York town whose current population stands at 1,583. George Eastman’s idea of placing photographic film into a small, compact roll instead of a bulky plate was the spark that saw the birth of personal cameras. Today, Eastman boasts 14,500 employees and 50 plants worldwide with its headquarters in Kingsport. Don’t tell me that entrepreneurs shouldn’t be the gems of any economy and any region.