Emerald Coast Business Journal

In the Land of Entrepreneurial OpportunityWhile the Emerald Coast Garners the Attention of National Business Chains, the Area Continues to Embrace the Enterprising Spirit

By Maria Mallory White

Though the sand is still sugar-white, and the skies are still brilliantly blue, the economic horizon beyond the Emerald Coast is brooding with uncertainty. Hoisting hopeful index fingers, business-cycle forecasters across the nation are studying the indicators and monitoring key indices. Which way is the wind blowing? Is a recession heading in?

In his nearly three decades as an Emerald Coast entrepreneur, Jim Dettle has heard it all before. Long-time independent retailers, Dettle and his wife and business partner Kim, are owners of Today’s Fashion Boutique, located in the Paradise Key Center in Destin, and they have weathered their share of storms – both economic and environmental. “We’ve had some real challenges here since 2004,” he admits. “Ivan came in pretty strong. That was the same year we had four storms.”

It was Ivan that hit the Dettles’ business hardest. In its wake, they were left with a store that had no roof. Six months later, their landlord decided to raze rather than rebuild what had been their business address for some 24 years. Undaunted, the Dettles regrouped. “Everything is cyclical. We’ve been in business 28 years, so we see it go up and down a lot,” Jim Dettle says. “There’s a lot of opportunity because of the beaches here – that’s the draw that pulls people to this area. Regardless of what’s happening with the storms or the economy, people do come. The beach is the magnet.”

For entrepreneurs like the Dettles, the Emerald Coast’s beaches are the proverbial – and profitable – silver lining in the region’s economic outlook, drawing millions of visitors each year.

Add to that lucrative tourism base complementary housing and land development and a thriving military installation with the knock-on effect of suppliers, contractors and ancillary businesses, and you’ve got a mix of variables that make the Emerald Coast a most attractive address for business owners. “From defense contractors who started business in their garages and sold them for hundreds of millions, certainly to land developers, small businesses … (the Emerald Coast) is an area that I think breeds entrepreneurs,” says Jim Breitenfeld, president of the Destin-based consulting firm Breitenfeld Development Services, which manages the Destin Harbor Association.

The Emerald Coast began to outshine other destinations across the Sunshine State beginning in the mid-’80s, Breitenfeld says. Before that, when it came to second homes, tourism and land development, southern and central Florida commanded most of the attention. As prices in those regions later skyrocketed, people began looking at the Emerald Coast as a low-cost alternative, he says. “It was sort of the last undiscovered area in Florida,” Breitenfeld says. “There was about a 10-year period there where for relatively low cost and with a good idea, you could get in and serve those visitors.”

And as businesses sprung up, a steady supply of out-of-towners helped fill their coffers. “We have a region, the five-state region, and all those people can drive here on a tank of gas,” Dettle points out.

Breitenfeld agrees: “This area became the darling of the Atlanta market. We’re five hours from Atlanta. We’re only an eight-hour drive from Houston. We’re easy to get to, so people started investing. Once you start getting quality development going on, that spurs quality development.”

These days, more and more travelers come for extended and even permanent stays. “Every week you have a fresh group of people coming in or coming back,” observes Hunter Harman, a real estate broker, whose Beach Properties of Florida is based in Grayton Beach. As new development creates more “infrastructure” in amenities, such as restaurants, shopping centers and even the new Panama City airport, Harman says the Emerald Coast is steadily transitioning from a more vacation-oriented locale to a longer-stay destination or permanent place of residence – all of which bodes well for firms like his. “In this form of sales, our product is here, our ability to sell our product is directly connected to the beach and the activities around 30A,” he says. “The fact is that there are so many people that come through this area, and … more and more, they come for the beach, and they stay for the lifestyle.”

Meanwhile, despite the ups-and-downs of national business cycles, the Emerald Coast has nurtured an entrepreneurial energy that’s contagious. “It doesn’t take much for people to say, ‘Wait a minute. We’ve got a million people who come here for vacation, and they come for two reasons: first, to have fun and second, to spend all the money in their pockets?’

Entrepreneurs go, ‘This is too easy,’” says Brietenfeld, who counts himself among the many families of business owners residing in the area. “My daughter-in-law is in business for herself, my son-in-law is in business for himself, and so am I — which is a totally different world than what I grew up in,” a world where people took jobs with corporations, he says. “In a lot of markets, it’s ‘What are we going to do?’ Here, you can drive down the street and find four different things.”

Chan Cox certainly found his niche. In 2001, Cox, an Alabama native, moved his retail wine and spirits business to Destin. Lured by the area’s growth, its baby boomer-dense demographics, attractive per capita income and cosmopolitan culture, Cox launched his operation with a 5,000-sq.-foot store selling wine, liquor and beer. “When I moved from

Pensacola over here, I found a lot more success doing the same thing than I did there,” he reports. “I had businesses in both places, and I have now sold my businesses in Pensacola. All of them.”

Today, Cox’s Wine World store in Destin boasts 8,000 sq. feet and offerings that include a wine bar that serves lunch and dinner, an extensive cheese section, gourmet foods, 10 different kinds of stem glasses and accessories of all types. “Our business more than tripled from the first year through our fifth year,” says Cox, who also operates locations in Sandestin, Panama City Beach. His plans for growth include opening a Niceville store by April 1.

The key to his success? “I see it as the tourism market that’s driving this economy. I see it as all resort-oriented and development-oriented. It’s people buying second homes and vacationing here, and people profiting from this tourism market and all the associated businesses of development and tourism,” he says. “The title companies, mortgage companies, the banks … every bit of that is

development-related. You’ve got all kinds of commercial development, second homes, and obviously it’s affluent people down here who can buy half-million and million-dollar condos as second homes,” Cox says. “It’s created a great opportunity for our work force.”

Such growth has garnered Corporate America’s attention. As national chains and conglomerates recognize the Emerald Coast’s market potential and open outlets here, local entrepreneurs such as the Dettles have had to find a way to withstand the competition. “What happens is as more and more retail moves in, they’ll split the pie, and it makes (business) more challenging,” Jim Dettle explains. “We’ve seen quite a few independents go out of business. I’ve seen a lot of them come and go. You’ve got to know what you’re doing.”

That means anteing up and doing more and more for customers. Dettle, Cox and Harmon all say one way they distinguish themselves from bigger rivals and nationally owned competition is by specializing in customer care. “You’ve got to do what they can’t do, and it usually has to do with really caring about your customers and proving it, really being there for them and offering that service,” Dettle says. For his part, Dettle works hard to forge connections with his clientele. He and his wife send birthday cards to Today’s Fashion’s shoppers, and they host after-business-hours birthday parties for small groups, serving cake and cocktails. They compile reports on fashion trends and e-mail them to the 2,000 Today’s 1TK (First to Know) Club. “We’ll just blast it,” Dettle says. “We let people know about new arrivals. If we’re going to have a sale, we’ll send it to them first. If we have events, like fashion shows, we’ll send it out. We also do a calendar that we print every year.”

For Cox, an expansive selection is his key for meeting customers’ needs. “I’m broad market. I want everybody’s business, and we work real hard to get everybody’s business,” Cox boasts. “We’ve got an enormous inventory, everything from collectible, rare, aged wines to the best price in the market on jug wines.

Being an entrepreneur means being able to call your own shots – and creatively serve your customers, Harman says. “When you have a big company … there’s a box that you have fit into. When you have (an entrepreneurial) company, you’re able to provide services that big companies are not willing to do or won’t do.”

Beside the steadily encroaching chains, Emerald Coast entrepreneurs face additional challenges. “There are things that hamper us, but they sort of mirror some of the challenges Florida has overall,” Breitenfeld says, including the limited availability of money for new businesses. “In the state of Florida, historically, when investors had money, they invested it in land because it was a good deal,” he says. “Buy an acre. Sell it in a year at double that amount,” so, the money wasn’t going into venture/investment capital, he says.

And then there’s the real estate market. “If the housing market slows, a lot slows around it,” he says, and along with that, will come the inevitable demise of the weaker players.

“That’s bad if you’re being sorted out of the market, but it’s good if you’re left, because you’re going to be stronger,” he says.

Still, says Breitenfeld, the outlook for Emerald Coast overall entrepreneurialism is good. “You wake up in the morning here, you look out the window, and you see opportunity.”