Mary Lou Rankin turned fried pies into delicious retirement business

October 4, 2015
Mary Lou Rankin, who turns 86 this month, explained her technique for making homemade fried apple pies. The entrepreneur cooks and sells food at area festivals and from the front of a former hardware store she ran for many years. Photos by Tom Eblen

Mary Lou Rankin, who turns 86 this month, explained her technique for making homemade fried apple pies. The entrepreneur cooks and sells food at area festivals and from the front of a former hardware store she ran for many years. Photos by Tom Eblen


MILLERSBURG — Mary Lou Rankin doesn’t fit the modern stereotype of an entrepreneur. She isn’t young. She isn’t high-tech. But she makes delicious fried apple pies.

Those pies have made Rankin something of a celebrity across several counties between Paris and Maysville.

Rankin sells apple pies and other homemade baked goods most Saturdays on Main Street in this northern Bourbon County town of 800 people, from the front of a former hardware store she ran for 31 years.

Look for the sign of a big, red apple with the mathematical symbol for “pi” on it.

A sign on Millersburg's Main Street advertises Mary Lou Rankin's homemade fried apple pies, which she sells on weekends from the front of a former hardware store she and her husband ran for many years. Her son, artist Frosty Rankin, now uses most of the building as his studio. Photo by Tom Eblen |

A sign on Millersburg’s Main Street advertises Rankin’s homemade fried apple pies, which she sells from the front of a former hardware store she ran for many years.

Every summer and fall, Rankin fries hundreds of pies and other home-cooked food to sell from her Mary Lou’s Kitchen booth at festivals in Paris, Augusta and at Blue Licks State Park near Mt. Olivet.

“I’ve been doing this about 35 years,” Rankin, who turns 86 this month, said as she carefully turned a few pies in her electric skillet as the dough became just the right shade of golden brown. “I’ve worn out a whole lot of skillets.”

Rankin grew up on a Harrison County farm, where she learned about entrepreneurship and responsibility.

“We were taught to work,” she said. “Some of ’em now don’t know what work is. I’ve always thought that if you have a job, you do it.”

Her late husband, Robert F. Rankin, worked for a time at the Old Lewis Hunter distillery at Lair in Harrison County. It closed in 1974.

“Then my husband went out to look for a little farm and ended up with a hardware store,” she said. “Can you figure that one out?”

He soon became a plumbing contractor. She ran the hardware store, which closed in 1996, while raising their two sons.

Her oldest son, award-winning artist Gaylen “Frosty” Rankin, now uses the back of the store as his art studio and gallery. The front is now used for storage, and as a place for his mother to sell baked goods, flowers and vegetable plants in season.

Rankin said her mother was a good cook and taught her how to make fried apple pies. But she never thought of making them to sell until the Millersburg volunteer fire department, of which her husband was a member, burned down in 1975.

“The city said they couldn’t afford to pay for it, so all of the women got together,” she said. They made and sold baked goods and other items for several years and finally raised enough money to rebuild the firehouse.

Her fried pies were so popular that people kept asking for them, Rankin said. She realized she had found a business opportunity.

The key to a good pie, Rankin said, is homemade crust fried to perfection. She used to buy her apples locally, but now gets sun-dried ones from California. She prefers sun-dried apples to fresh, and mixes them with a secret blend of spices.

“My mixture, of course, I’ve worked on that for years,” she said. “I’ve got a fella that just keeps after me about it, and I’ve got one in Winchester that wants to buy my recipe.”

She especially enjoys meeting and talking with customers. A man from Cincinnati came to her store earlier this year. “He said, ‘I was told that you make the best pies in the country,'” she said. “I never saw the man before in my life.”

She has met a few famous people while selling food at festivals, including journalist Nick Clooney and jockey Pat Day. When her son was presenting a piece of art to Gov. Steve Beshear, she came along with fried pies for the first family.

“I got to meet the governor,” she said. “Now I’m ready for the president.”

Rankin said she keeps cooking as much for her health as for the money. After two bouts with cancer over the past dozen years and recent cataract surgery, she worries that if she slows down too much she won’t keep going.

When she isn’t cooking and selling food, Rankin mows and tends her yard. In the winter, she re-canes chairs for customers, a craft she has done for three decades.

“It keeps me mentally sharp,” she said of work. “I’ll tell you what, if you don’t use your brain you’ll lose it.”

Rankin cooks fried apple pies. "I've worn out a whole lot of skillets," she said.

Rankin cooks fried apple pies. “I’ve worn out a whole lot of skillets,” she said.


One secret to Mary Lou Rankin's fried pies is her homemade crust.

One secret to Mary Lou Rankin’s fried pies is her homemade crust.


Two Lexington food entrepreneurs share their secrets to success

July 19, 2015

When I first wrote about Ilias Pappas and Lesme Romero several years ago, they had a lot in common. Both were 30-something immigrants, former chefs and new food entrepreneurs with a passion to succeed.

Since then, their businesses have grown well beyond expectations. Both recently opened new restaurants and have more projects in mind.

So I thought this would be a good time to check back with them and ask what advice they have for other food entrepreneurs. As it turns out, their advice has a lot in common, too.

Many people dream of opening a restaurant or food business. But it is a lot harder than it looks. Many open and most of them close, despite their owners’ passion and hard work. How have these guys succeeded when so many others have failed?

First, a little about them.

Ilias Pappas of Athenian Grill started with a food truck and how owns two restaurants, a catering business and manages two Kroger food kiosks and will soon be opening the cafe at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Tom Eblen

Ilias Pappas of Athenian Grill started with a food truck and how owns two restaurants, a catering business and manages two Kroger food kiosks and will soon be opening the cafe at Ashland, The Henry Clay Estate. Photo by Tom Eblen

Pappas, 35, came to Lexington from Lamia, Greece, to attend college. After transferring to Florida International University, he worked in several Miami restaurants. His aunt and uncle, George and Louiza Ouraniou, lived in Lexington, and they made and sold Greek food on the side.

When his uncle was killed in a car wreck in 2011, Pappas moved back to Lexington to help his aunt. The next year, he started the Athenian Grill food cart, serving homemade Greek specialties at local brewpubs and Thursday Night Live.

Pappas was part of Lexington’s first wave of food trucks. I wrote about him in May 2013, when he became one of the first to transition his cart into a sit-down restaurant. He opened Athenian Grill in what was originally a two-car garage at 313 South Ashland Ave., and it has flourished.

On May 13, Pappas added a much larger Athenian Grill restaurant at 115 North Locust Hill Drive. He bought La Petite Creperie to open kiosks at two new Kroger stores on Euclid Avenue and, this week, in Versailles.

He continues to do a lot of catering, as well as an occasional food truck gig for the brewpubs that helped him get started. He now has about 30 employees, most of them full-time.

In addition, Pappas has agreed to open a 600-square-foot Greek rotisserie food stand late next year in the Summit shopping center under construction at Nicholasville Road and Man O’ War Boulevard. And he said he has been approached by franchisers interested in taking his concepts to other cities in the region.

Lesme Romero began Lexington Pasta with his business partner, Reinaldo Gonzalez, in a former one-car garage on North Limestone Street. After building a large wholesale business in fresh pasta, Romero recently opened Pasta Garage, a fresh fast-food Italian concept they hope to expand. Photo by Tom Eblen

Lesme Romero began Lexington Pasta with his business partner, Reinaldo Gonzalez, in a former one-car garage on North Limestone Street. After building a large wholesale business in fresh pasta, Romero recently opened Pasta Garage, a fresh fast-food Italian concept they hope to expand. Photo by Tom Eblen

Like Pappas, Romero and his business partner, Reinaldo Gonzalez, started their business in a former garage.

Both had grown up in South America with Spanish fathers and Italian mothers. They became friends at college in Cleveland and worked in Italian restaurants there. Gonzales eventually became an industrial engineer in Lexington, while Romero worked in finance in Florida.

Through their shared love of fresh pasta, they saw a business opportunity. They started Lexington Pasta in a small garage at 227 North Limestone in 2009, selling fresh pasta there, at the Lexington Farmers’ Market, in markets and restaurants.

In addition to retail sales, they developed a regional wholesale pasta business and outgrew the garage. So they leased an 8,000-square-food building at 962 Delaware Ave. in 2013 and renovated it into a production kitchen with room for growth.

The low profit margins of wholesale pasta led them to decide to create a restaurant concept. Three weeks ago, Romero, who now manages the business, opened Pasta Garage in the front of the building.

The fast-casual concept serves made-to-order pasta bowls for lunch six days a week. Business has been so good, he already is looking to expand the dining room and add evening and Sunday hours.

Future plans call for Pasta Garages in the Hamburg and Beaumont areas, as well as behind the original Limestone garage, which they plan to convert into an Italian market later this year. They also have been approached by regional franchisers. Lexington Pasta now has five employees.

Pappas and Romero say several things contributed to their success:

Their food concepts were new to Lexington, and their timing was right. They started small and grew in phases by providing high-quality food with fresh ingredients and building relationships with business partners, customers and peers.

Both businesses developed a close partnership with Alt32, a Lexington architecture and design firm that created their restaurant interiors.

Romero and Pappas have become friends and advisers to each other. They also are part of a network of local food entrepreneurs who share ideas and learn from one another.

Both men say they are their own worst critics. They listen to customers and are constantly looking for ways to improve. They value customer relationships more than short-term sales. Those relationships contributed to successful online fundraising drives to help them raise expansion capital.

“Every customer needs to understand you are there for them,” Pappas said, adding that the same goes for employees. “I want to hire people who know that if this business does well, they will do well.”

Both Romero and Pappas work constantly, but they know they can’t do it forever. That is why they hire good people and trust them.

Pappas, who married June 20, said delegating responsibility isn’t just about work-life balance; it is about being smarter in business. “You should not be making important decisions at 1 a.m. when you’re exhausted and beat-up,” he said.

Romero and Pappas said their work is more about self-fulfillment than money. But successful food entrepreneurs must love both food and business — one or the other isn’t enough. And they must stay focused on achieving their vision.

“You will have your ups and downs,” Romero said. “Just make sure you work for what you believe in.”

Entrepreneur thinks he has a new angle for office furniture

June 21, 2015

Lexington software developer Wayne Yeager has spent a lot of time sitting in front of computers since he got his first one, a primitive Radio Shack TRS-80, at age 11.

“Thirty five years or so,” he said. “That’s a lot of sitting.”

Yeager knew studies have shown that sitting for long periods is unhealthy. It also became painful, so he looked for alternatives.

“I thought, I’ve got to get a standing desk; all the cool kids are getting them,” he said. “It was awful. I lasted about an hour.”

He tried sitting on a balance ball. Then he tried a standing desk with a treadmill, but found it hard to walk and concentrate on writing code at the same time.

Wayne Yeager demonstrates the LeanChair in his garage workshop. Photo by Tom Eblen

Wayne Yeager demonstrates the LeanChair in his garage workshop. Photo by Tom Eblen

“Then I saw where Hollywood actresses used to use these leaning boards between takes so they wouldn’t mess up their costumes,” he said. “I thought, that’s not a bad idea. I wonder if I can get any work done while doing that?”

After two years of tinkering, Yeager, 49, soon hopes to begin production of the LeanChair he designed. A user stands on an angled platform while leaning back and resting against a padded back and seat, which Yeager says takes about 25 percent of weight off the feet.

The pads are supported by two bent steel pipes with some spring. At arm level is a small, swing-out desk for a computer keyboard, mouse or writing pad. Yeager has his computer monitor on an adjacent standing desk at eye level.

The angle of lean is one of many things Yeager keeps experimenting with in prototypes he has made for himself and friends. So far, he hasn’t consulted with ergonomic experts.

“I have read three ergonomics textbooks, but that does not an expert make,” he acknowledged. “I am the world’s first guinea pig on this. I’ve been doing it for hours a day for a couple of years.”

Yeager launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to begin manufacturing the chairs, which he plans to sell through his website, He reached his 30-day fundraising goal in a week, but is still accepting backers. (More information: and search for “LeanChair”.)

Some of Yeager’s backers are friends from Lexington and Salvisa, his hometown in Mercer County. He also has promoted the campaign on social media, which paid off when the technology website noticed and wrote about it.

Among Yeager’s early backers was Warren Nash, director of the Lexington office of the Kentucky Innovation Network at the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics.

Nash saw the LeanChair campaign on LinkedIn and was intrigued. He said he knows Yeager, but he isn’t a client.

“I always try to back entrepreneurs in the community,” Nash said. “In this case, it hit home because I’ve got a back problem and I’ve been looking for a solution. I liked that he knows the problem he’s trying to solve and has done a lot of customer validation. I think he’s on to something.”

Yeager’s biggest challenges may be how to scale up manufacturing to meet demand and lower costs, and how to make the LeanChair adjustable and customizable to meet a variety of customers’ needs, Nash said.

Yeager, who said he has started and sold several small technology companies, plans to use his Kickstarter funding to buy more tools and supplies. He joined Kre8Now Makerspace, a shared membership workshop that opened recently at 903 Manchester St., and plans to work from there.

He is getting help from his wife, Karen, a Lexmark retiree with a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering. He also plans to outsource some aspects of production.

“I don’t know anything about upholstery or esthetics,” he said, noting that prototypes so far have used backs scavenged from office chairs.

Yeager wants to keep tweaking the design even after he begins manufacturing. In addition to experimenting with angles, he wants to look at padding, lumbar support and knee rests. He also wants to make the chair lighter so it can be more easily moved. He is taking advance orders for LeanChairs online, at $295 each.

“I imagine most of the users are going to be computer desk jockeys,” he said. But anyone who spends hours at a desk could be a customer.

“Robots haven’t replaced us yet,” Yeager said. “We still have to find a comfortable way to get work done.”

UK Venture Challenge helps college entrepreneurs refine their ideas

March 1, 2015

150228UKVenture0178Mark Manczyk explained his idea for re.3, a company that would sell sustainable consumer goods, Saturday at the UK Venture Challenge. His presentation won first prize, a $1,500 scholarship, and he will go on to the next level of competition.  The second-place winner was Phillip Gordon, below. Photos by Tom Eblen


It takes more than a good idea to create a successful business. But the best way for an entrepreneur to start is to make his or her idea as good as it can be.

That is the focus of the University of Kentucky’s Venture Challenge, a competition for student entrepreneurs. The fourth annual challenge was held Saturday morning at the William T. Young Library auditorium.

Ten teams pitched business ideas to a panel of three judges, who chose three winners to share $3,000 in scholarship prizes. The first- and second-place finishers advanced to regional and state competitions sponsored by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.

“It’s a great exercise, because learning how to develop ideas is so important,” said Randall Stevens, a Lexington technology entrepreneur who was one of the judges.

“Rarely is your first idea the one that’s going to make it.”

Judging with Stevens were Shirie Hawkins, director of UK’s Bluegrass Small Business Development Center, and George Ward, executive director of UK’s Coldstream Research Campus.

The winner, who received a $1,500 scholarship, was architecture student Mark Manczyk, 23, of Taylor Mill. He pitched his idea for a company called re.3.

150228UKVenture0030The company would sell consumer products with short use cycles — such as non-prescription sunglasses and iPhone cases — that are made by environmentally sustainable methods. The added touch would be that once a product had outlived its usefulness, the company would take it back for recycling.

The judges liked his idea because it was a creative approach to an issue that consumers are increasingly concerned about.

“It’s all about ‘Can you build that brand?'” Stevens told Manczyk, suggesting that he consider a “subscription club” sales model to better engage customers for repeat purchases.

“I think that was a fantastic idea,” Manczyk said afterward, because it could help create a customer community. “It’s about rethinking recycling: the object is in some ways less important than the idea of being able to continually recycle and reuse.”

The second-place winner’s business idea also came from a personal passion, which developed after Phillip Gordon was pickpocketed in Spain. Gordon wants to create Nomad Apparel, a line of travel clothing with a zippered and radio-frequency-protected pocket for safeguarding credit cards and other valuables.

Gordon, 22, from Louisville, has designed jeans with a special secure pocket. He wore a prototype to his presentation, which got high marks from the judges.

“It really gave me an opportunity to hone my presentation skills and public speaking,” Gordon said of the Venture Challenge.

Taylor Deskins and Jessica Shelton pitched an idea for a stock market-themed bar in downtown Lexington, where drink prices would fluctuate throughout the night to engage patrons. They had seen a similar place in Spain.

After they presented, Stevens suggested that rather than open their own bar, they first develop and market the concept to existing bars to use perhaps once a week, as a way to gauge the concept’s popularity with less investment.

Maged Saeed and Alexander Hamilton pitched The Bar Hop, a smartphone app that would leverage social media data to help users decide which bar to go to based on how many of their friends were there and the ratio of men and women in the place.

The students also envisioned tie-ins with ride services, such as Uber and Lyft, and functions for buying drinks. The judges thought it was a creative idea, but was trying to do too many things. Focus on the core idea, they said, and build from there.

Afterward, Saeed and Hamilton spent some time talking with Ward, whose business career has focused on the hospitality industry. He had several suggestions for rethinking their app to increase its likelihood of success.

Warren Nash, director of UK’s Von Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship, pointed over to them and smiled.

“That’s what I like,” he said. “Watching the after-discussions, talking about how do you get there, how do you make the connections.”

Sponsors of the UK Venture Challenge include UK’s Gatton College of Business and Economics and Innovation Network for Entrepreneurial Thinking, as well as the Bluegrass Business Development Partnership, a collaboration of UK, Commerce Lexington and the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.

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How to improve Appalachia? Create more local entrepreneurs

July 21, 2013

Thomas F. Miller thinks he knows how to make Eastern Kentucky’s economy more vibrant, diverse and sustainable: create more entrepreneurs. How could that be done? Well, he has some ideas about that, too.

Miller, 67, has been thinking about these issues since 1971, when he left a Big Eight accounting firm to move to Eastern Kentucky and work for what is now Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.

From 1973 to 1981, Miller was president of Kentucky Highlands, one of the most successful initiatives to come out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Miller later worked in economic and community development in San Francisco, his native Tennessee and for the Ford Foundation in New York and Africa.

130717TomMiller0010Miller recently sent me a report that summarizes his four decades of thinking about Eastern Kentucky’s economic challenges. We met last week in Berea, where he has lived since retirement, to talk more about it.

“I can’t let go of the big conclusions I’ve come to about the development challenges around here,” Miller said.

Eastern Kentucky’s economy has been dominated for more than a century by extractive industries — coal, timber, oil and gas. Production costs were kept low and most profits went elsewhere.

Those dominant industries and geographic isolation limited diversification and civic engagement. Eastern Kentucky’s economy became almost solely dependent on the boom-and-bust coal industry — and government transfer payments.

Efforts to bring industry from elsewhere into Appalachia has had limited success for a variety of reasons, and most of those jobs have paid low wages. Many of Appalachia’s talented and ambitious entrepreneurs have left for better opportunities elsewhere.

You can’t just throw money at the problems, Miller said. That’s why the billions of public and private dollars that have gone to Appalachia in the past half-century haven’t solved the problems. More important than having capital, he said, is having people who know how to successfully put capital to work.

Kentucky Highlands and other similar organizations in Central Appalachia have done some good work in this area. But they simply haven’t been big enough to make the impact that is needed, he said.

Miller proposes creating an Eastern Kentucky Venture Fund, led by a half dozen or so senior Kentucky business people with exceptional talents. They would need to raise at least $250 million in public and private equity and debt to create and nurture entrepreneurs and to invest in new businesses, often through existing organizations such as Kentucky Highlands.

And an important focus would need to be creating businesses that bring new money into the region by producing products sold elsewhere.

“While government has a role to play, this kind of development strategy can’t be led by government,” Miller said. “Government is about trying to please a lot of constituencies. Private investment is about saying ‘no’ 99 percent of the time.”

Because this kind of fund would be more about regional development than quick profits, it would be hard to attract most private equity. But, with the right kind of leadership and vision, Miller thinks, a number of big foundations would be willing to invest. So would regional corporations and utilities that stand to benefit from an improving Eastern Kentucky economy.

“We must make the most of the entrepreneurs we have, bring more of them into the region and grow them at home,” Miller said in his report.

The best Eastern Kentucky entrepreneurs are likely to be homegrown ones — people who have a passion for the region and don’t want to live anywhere else, he said.

This effort would require culture change in a region where work has often meant working for someone else. And it would require extensive training in economics, entrepreneurship and business skills, from elementary school through college, both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities such as Junior Achievement.

“You would try to do everything you can do to increase people’s ability to think like entrepreneurs and, more importantly, give them opportunities to practice,” Miller said.

“There are no silver bullets,” he said. “It’s probably a 50-year strategy, at best, and the first 10 years aren’t going to be pretty. But we know that this investment strategy works in Eastern Kentucky, that betting on the people here is the thing to do.”

New program to nurture Kentucky’s young entrepreneurs

January 28, 2013

Thirty years ago, Kentucky created the Governor’s Scholars Program. Twenty-six years ago, the Governor’s School for the Arts. Now, the Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs.

The idea for this new summer program is the same as with the other two: identify high-potential high school students and bring them together to boost both their development and Kentucky’s future.

The Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs is now taking applications for the first class of 50 students who will attend a free program June 9-29 at Georgetown College. The deadline to apply is Feb. 15. For more information, go to:

Kentucky’s economy needs more entrepreneurial thinking, said Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., which is creating the program.

“Increasingly, people are going to have to create their own jobs, figure out how to create their own value,” he said. “Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking. It’s a different mindset.”

More young Kentuckians need the skills and mindset to start their own businesses, rather than assuming they will always work for somebody else, Kimel said.

This three-week program will include tours of innovative companies and talks by Kentucky entrepreneurs. Students also will hear from lawyers and other professionals who help entrepreneurs make their companies successful.

There will be a lot of teamwork time devoted to students’ ideas for products or services that could be turned into companies. That will include learning about business plans, iteration, investment capital, production, sales, marketing and long-range strategy.

“The program will be all about creative thinking, critical thinking, innovative thinking,” said Kimel, who in 2000 started the Idea Festival, an international creativity festival now held each September in Louisville.

The program is open to 9th, 10th and 11th graders in Kentucky’s public or private schools. Students may apply as individuals or in teams by filling out an online application and submitting adult references.

They also must create a two-minute video explaining their idea for an innovative product or service, or why they would be suited to become part of a team that comes up with one.

One criteria that will not be considered for admission is a student’s grades. After all, some of America’s most brilliant innovators — from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates — didn’t do well in school.

“Just because you’re a ‘C’ student doesn’t mean you’re not incredibly smart,” said Laurie Daugherty, the program’s director. “Sometimes the personality types and thinkers who make the best entrepreneurs are the kids sitting in the back of the class not really engaged in the stereotypical classroom style of learning.”

Daugherty has been traveling around Kentucky, speaking at high schools to attract applicants and raising money for the program among business people.

“There has been a lot of excitement about it,” she said. “The first application was from a student in Louisville who already has a company and wants to learn more about how he can grow it.”

KSTC has a $50,000 seed grant from the state Economic Development Cabinet. The rest of the estimated $200,000 needed for the program is being raised from businesses. There will be no cost to students.

Gov. Steve Beshear kicked off the fundraising effort recently by bringing 40 entrepreneurs and corporate leaders to Frankfort for a presentation.

“Business people get it,” Kimel said. “I think they realize this is an important part of our future, our ability to create these kinds of people and companies and jobs.”

Randall Stevens, who has started several companies in Lexington to develop innovative technology, is one of the entrepreneurs who will be teaching at the program.

“I’m a big believer in the educational process of how to become an entrepreneur,” he said.

Part of that process is learning to be comfortable taking the calculated risks needed to succeed.

Part of the program’s value will be creating a network of young Kentucky entrepreneurs going forward, Stevens said. He is trying to organize that kind of network among his fellow 24,000 graduates of the Governor’s Scholars Program.

“I want them to leave with a good education,” Kimel said of the first class of students in the Governor’s School for Entrepreneurs, “but also with a sense of empowerment that I can do this, or I can think differently.”

Entrepreneur groups hope to make Lexmark’s loss Kentucky’s gain

September 17, 2012

What if Lexington had the opportunity to attract more than 500 highly skilled technical workers, many of whom suddenly had the flexibility and motivation to start their own companies?

The good news is that Lexington doesn’t have to attract them; they’re already here. The bad news is that many of them are getting ready to leave.

Lexmark’s decision last month to lay off 350 employees and 200 contractors as part of closing its inkjet printer operations has prompted entrepreneur support organizations and state and local officials to scramble to find ways to keep them in Kentucky.

The Kentucky Science and Technology Corp. is marshalling resources across the state for a project called “Another Path.” It is inviting workers being cut by Lexmark to a free informational meeting Sept. 24 from 9 a.m. until noon at the Embassy Suites Hotel, 1801 Newtown Pike.

Meanwhile, a non-profit group called Startup Advantage has scheduled another free event for the Lexmark people to meet local technology entrepreneurs and investors at 5:50 p.m. Sept. 26 at West Sixth Brewery, 501 W. Sixth St. Learn more at

“We see this as an exciting positive reaction to an unfortunate situation,” said Kris Kimel, president of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., a private, non-profit organization working to develop the state’s high-tech economy. “This is a unique infusion of experienced technical knowledge and creativity, and we need to do whatever we can to keep it here.”

Kimel said many of the people Lexmark is letting go are engineers and senior-level designers with expertise and experience in microfluidics, the precise manipulation of tiny amounts of fluids. That specialty has many valuable applications besides inkjet printing.

“There’s a lot of knowledge and talent that we think has adjacent uses,” Kimel said. “There are new companies there, without a doubt.”

Kimel said several of the people leaving Lexmark have already contacted KSTC for information and advice about starting their own companies.

Kimel said he has enlisted help from the offices of mayors Jim Gray of Lexington and Greg Fischer of Louisville, the University of Kentucky, University of Louisville, state economic development officials and even private insurance companies.

Among the things they’re looking at: Could state unemployment insurance be extended to these entrepreneurs while they get new companies started, the way it would be if they were simply searching for a job with an established company? Could health insurance companies figure out creative ways to extend coverage to these startup entrepreneurs and their employees until they get going?

Another Path will not just be a “one off” meeting, Kimel said. KSTC staff members plan to set aside at least three or four hours a week to work with those leaving Lexmark to help them navigate the complexities of starting a company or working for a startup.

“We’re trying to design a pretty comprehensive process to mine that talent and see how many companies we can grow from this,” said Kimel, whose organization already runs several entrepreneur-support programs as part of its work.

“It’s a different mindset than just going to work for another big company,” he said. “Starting your own company isn’t for everyone.

“This effort is about creating an ecosystem to support those people who want to try.”

Randall Stevens, a Lexington technology entrepreneur involved with Startup Advantage, said the group wanted to reach out to those leaving Lexmark to help them get to know local entrepreneurs, investors and those who provide support services for startup companies.

“If you get people in a room together, you have more of a chance of things happening,” Stevens said. “A lot of being a startup is being around others who can encourage you.”

The Lexmark workers also might be able to find some short-term work opportunities or entrepreneurs they could help mentor with their expertise and experience.

Kimel believes Kentucky’s economic development future will depend more and more on entrepreneurship, rather than enticing established companies to relocate to the state.

“Lexington has never had this big a pool of technology talent suddenly available,” Kimel said. “And if we don’t do something, most of that talent will leave.”


Lessons from two of Kentucky’s top entrepreneurs

May 28, 2012

More than 400 local business leaders packed a Lexington Center ballroom last Tuesday to hear lectures encouraging entrepreneurship in Kentucky from two of the state’s most successful entrepreneurs.

Jim Host, the founder of Host Communications and now chief executive of, and Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, told their personal stories, talked about why Kentucky needs more entrepreneurs and offered their personal tips for success.

I know how much business people love lists of success tips, so I will share those later. First, though, I want to discuss why, beyond their obvious success, Host and Lyons are worth your attention.

Both are classic, hard-charging entrepreneurs. They are keen observers of business and society. Not only do they embrace change, they try to anticipate and drive it. They know that people always want better ways to satisfy their needs and desires, and in that space are great business opportunities. They know how to make things happen.

Jim Host

Host is a home-grown success story. He moved to Ashland as a boy and has spent most of his life in Kentucky, including serving in state government and running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor early in his career.

Host created world-class companies in travel, sports marketing and communications. Now he is trying to create the future of television. Host never felt he needed to move elsewhere to succeed. More importantly, he never allowed his vision to be limited by Kentucky’s cultural aversion to change.

Most recently, Host led the effort to build Louisville’s KFC Yum Center arena, despite being a blue-bleeding University of Kentucky alumnus and fan. Working in Louisville underscored for him the foolishness of allowing intrastate rivalries to obstruct progress.

Host, 74, has become an evangelist for Louisville-Lexington cooperation. He was founding chairman of the Bluegrass Economic Advancement Movement, a new effort led by both cities’ mayors to bring more advanced-manufacturing jobs to Kentucky.

Lyons’ story is different. Born, reared and educated in Ireland, he came to Kentucky in 1974 because he thought it was a great place to start a business.

Pearse Lyons

Alltech began with the idea of developing and making all-natural animal nutrition supplements. Now, the company’s goal is no less than figuring out how to feed the world using natural ingredients and breakthrough technology, not to mention making good beer and whiskey on the side. Privately held Alltech now has 3,000 employees in 128 countries, including more than 500 in Kentucky.

Part of what makes Lyons worth watching is that he has figured out how to embrace and build upon Kentucky’s strengths without feeling limited by its traditional shortcomings. He is bullish about Kentucky’s potential. He took a “Kentucky Proud” road show to England’s Windsor Castle. Alltech is selling Bourbon Barrel Ale in China and, soon, in Ireland. Alltech just launched the Lyons Farm brand of premium meats, which have a distinct Kentucky marketing flavor.

“If you can’t sell Kentucky as a place to do business, then you’re not in any shape or form a salesman, because it’s an easy sale,” Lyons said. “I’ve been around the world I don’t know how many times, and I’ve never found a place as conducive to doing business or rearing a family as Kentucky — y’all.”

Now, about those success tips. Both entrepreneurs stressed the importance of having a positive attitude, passion for your work, a willingness to take risks, a confidence in self and a good sense of humor.

Among Host’s success tips:

■ Be prepared. Eighty percent of any sale is preparation; 20 percent is presentation.

■ Under-promise and over-deliver.

■ Do not lie or misrepresent to a client about anything. “You build great companies on integrity and character,” he said.

■ Write down the five most important things you need to do each day, and do the hardest one first. That will clear your head for creative thinking.

■ If you focus on creating excellence, profits will follow.

Among Lyons’ success tips:

■ Take a chance, any chance, to start a business. And, if possible, go it alone. You can never truly align partners’ dreams with your own.

■ Be curious and add to your expertise, both through your own education and by hiring great people.

■ Avoid negative people, whom he called “energy vampires.”

■ Be prepared to change your business, but not your core values.

■ You have two ears, one mouth; listen more than you talk, and take notes.


Young Lexington entrepreneur launches OuiBox

October 27, 2010

The Internet has been shaped by a series of bright, young entrepreneurs whose ideas changed everything. Peyton Fouts hopes to be the next one.

On his 25th birthday Wednesday, the Lexington man is launching, a multi-platform Web site with a unique writing tool Fouts developed. It harnesses Internet search engines to research papers as you write them.

Fouts said he has spent five years creating OuiBox with help from about 100 consultants, lawyers and programmers around the world. He thinks the site could become huge, and a group of experienced local investors agrees. Members of the Bluegrass Angels investment group have invested several hundred thousand dollars in the company.

“I wanted to make a system that would change the world,” Fouts said. “Not just change it, but better it.”

OuiBox is a free site that brings together a user’s email, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts, plus has its own social network, news, calendar, photo, music, video and blogging applications. Each application is branded with “oui,” the French word for “yes.”

The main application is OuiWrite. In addition to searching for relevant sources as you write, the software can automatically format a paper in MLA, APA or Chicago style and create footnotes.

“For math you have a calculator, and for English you have OuiWrite,” said Fouts, who is initially targeting middle, high school and college students. The site includes software that lets parents set limits.

Fouts has a pay version of OuiWrite for legal research, and he hopes to earn money from selling related iPhone apps and limited advertising. But most revenue will come from getting a cut of purchases users make from online retailers through the site. Fouts said he has spent years negotiating agreements with most major retailers. A portion of OuiWrite’s cut will go to charities, especially those that help orphans and abused children.

Fouts recently formed a board, and OuiBox’s first director is Bart Van Dissel of Lexington, one of the Bluegrass Angels investors. He is a former Harvard Business School professor and former management consultant with the prestigious firm McKinsey & Co.

Van Dissel said OuiWrite initially attracted him to the company. After showing it to his two college-age children, he recalled, “they immediately said, ‘I’ve got to have this.'”

In addition to OuiBox, Van Dissel said computer code that Fouts developed and is patenting to more accurately track online purchases made through the site could prove profitable for the company. Others have already approached them about licensing it, he said.

Van Dissel said Fouts is “very different” from other technology entrepreneurs he has worked with. “Most don’t have the combination of creating a grand vision and the focus and detailed knowledge and discipline to make it happen,” he said. “I can speak directionally at a very high level and he gets it immediately.”

Fouts grew up in Lexington, one of six children of a lawyer and former teacher. He was home-schooled until the eighth grade, then went to Lexington Christian Academy. Fouts said he got the idea for OuiBox the day after he graduated from the University of Kentucky at 19 with degrees in English and communications. He also had studied computer programming.

Fouts said he sleeps about three hours a night and spends most of his time developing OuiBox on seven Apple computers in his Masterson Station home, where he lives alone. He relaxes by building Lego structures and volunteering as a youth group leader at Southland Christian Church. Faith has been a driving force for Fouts. “I told God that if He gives me the ideas, I’ll make them happen,” he said.

Last fall, Fouts threw a party at Lexington Ice Center for the Southland teenagers and a couple hundred of their friends to recruit them as OuiBox testers.

“They have been a valuable sounding board,” he said.

Fouts has hired Miss Teen America 2010, Katie Himes of Cynthiana, as a celebrity endorser. He has hired YouTube bloggers to promote OuiBox online. And he is giving away several iPads to people who register and tell their friends.

One potential marketing strategy is enlisting school systems as partners, with OuiBox’s charity cut of purchases going to those users’ schools. In addition to generating revenue, the strategy could help ease concerns teachers might have about OuiWrite. Van Dissel said he recently approached the Fayette County Public Schools and is waiting to hear back.

Fouts hopes to have 100,000 OuiBox users by Christmas and a million within a year, which Van Dissel thinks is “highly optimistic.” That kind of traffic would require a big increase in rented server space — and millions more dollars in second-stage investment.

“I feel that this is my calling,” Fouts said of OuiBox. “My main goal right now is to get students on there and wow them. If I’m not wowing them, I’m not doing my job.”

Aria man has advice for entrepreneurs

February 1, 2010

Everett McCorvey performs at "A Prelude to A Grand Night for Singing" in May 2008. The "Prelude" and "Grand Night" events have become big fundraisers for UK Opera Theatre and popular community events. Photo by Tom Eblen

Everett McCorvey isn’t a businessman; he’s a musician and a teacher. He has started a lot of companies, but not the kind you usually associate with entrepreneurs.

McCorvey is a skilled entrepreneur nonetheless, having accomplished the unlikely feat of turning Lexington — a city best known for developing racehorses and basketball players — into a center for developing opera singers, too.

Since McCorvey came to Lexington in 1991, he has transformed the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre program by attracting public support and private donations. He said the program he began building with a $20,000 loan now has an annual budget of more than $1 million and an endowment approaching $5 million.

In his spare time, McCorvey started the American Spiritual Ensemble, which has toured the world and recorded several albums in an effort to preserve music inspired by slave melodies. The group began another tour last week with a sold-out performance at Frankfort’s Grand Theatre.

McCorvey recently formed Global Creative Connections to produce opening and closing ceremonies for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. He said he wants those productions to include as many Kentuckians as possible.

Last week, McCorvey, with backup from the American Spiritual Ensemble, gave a lecture at UK about entrepreneurship. He offered many insights into the attitudes, behaviors and strategies that have helped him succeed.

Some of them might work for you, too, even if you have little interest in business — or opera. That is because entrepreneurship isn’t necessarily about making money; it’s about figuring out ways to achieve your dreams.

McCorvey, 52, was born into segregated Montgomery, Ala., and lived around the corner from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. His mother was a librarian. His father worked overnight for the post office, ran a grocery, dabbled in real estate and sprayed homes for bugs. Plus, he was active in church and the local civil rights movement.

“My father was a tremendous role model for me,” McCorvey said. “My only problem was that I didn’t have the energy to keep up with him.”

McCorvey’s interest in music was sparked by a student trumpeter at Alabama State University who rented a room in their home. McCorvey persuaded his father to rent him a trumpet so he could learn to play. Performing in school bands, he later switched to baritone horn.

When McCorvey auditioned for the University of Alabama, he mentioned, as an afterthought, “Oh, by the way, I also sing.” Professors soon convinced him that his primary talent was singing, so that’s where he focused. “I had to work very hard to develop that talent,” he said.

McCorvey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Alabama, then spent years in New York and abroad, performing in a wide variety of genres and venues — opera houses, Broadway theaters, TV commericals. That’s when he met his wife, singer Alicia Helm McCorvey.

He learned a lot about the business of show business before returning to Alabama to earn a doctorate. “And because Alabama was not like New York, I learned that if I wanted to do something in music, I had to create the opportunities,” he said.

McCorvey joined the UK faculty after teaching at a small college in Knoxville, Tenn., but a mentor warned him that opera would never be appreciated in Kentucky.

“I don’t know if I took that as a challenge, or what,” McCorvey said. He knew that creating an outstanding program would require recruiting the best singers available and producing professional-quality operas to train them.

While serving on the UK Athletics Association’s board, McCorvey studied the basketball program’s strategies and applied them to his goals.

“I thought that I needed my own athletics association,” he said. “Babies here leave the hospitals in UK sweatshirts. I thought that what I need to figure out is how to make Kentucky babies grow up loving the arts.”

He noticed that Lexington was filled with amateur singers and others who appreciate music. So he convinced some of them to create the Lexington Opera Society, which raises money and rallies support for UK Opera Theatre.

Entrepreneurship, like an opera production, is all about collaboration, he said. It requires engaging people who have skills you don’t have and creating a vision others want to share.

McCorvey said his job was best described by the late comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly, an opera lover he met while spending time with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

“He said, ‘If it’s important to you, your job is to make it important to them,’ ” McCorvey said. “That’s basically what I do.”

  • McCorvey’s advice for entrepreneurs:

    • Enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy what you do, do something else because life is too short.
    • Surround yourself with positive spirits.
    • Celebrate the amazing talents of others.
    • Be patient, be persistent and pray constantly.
    • Don’t try to do things that aren’t in your skill set.
    • Work harder than anyone else at the things you do well.
    • Engage people who have skills you don’t have and collaborate with them.
    • The more collaborative you are, the more you can achieve.
    • Engage your community in every way possible.
    • Find the good and praise it. (A tip from his friend Alex Haley, the late author of Roots.)
    • Stay away from ‘energy vampires.’
    • Embrace your fears and go with them.
    • Stay focused on your dreams and goals. Stop doing things that don’t support them.
    • Be good and kind to everyone; you never know when it might come back to you.
    • When a door closes, a window opens. Some doors should close; celebrate that.
    • Expect good things, and look forward to the next opportunity for something special to happen.

Planning an incubator for social entrepreneurs

July 18, 2009

It is a tried-and-true model: an “incubator” building with shared office space that cuts overhead costs and provides a creative community where business entrepreneurs can learn from and be inspired by each other.

Could the same work for social entrepreneurs?

In fact, it works quite well in many cities.

The Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice wants to create such a place in Lexington.

Within five years, the KCCJ hopes to have perhaps 20,000 square feet of shared work and meeting space near downtown for emerging non-profit organizations and entrepreneurs interested in making the world a better place.

The organization has a non-binding letter of intent to put the facility in the Old Pepper warehouse, a cavernous building on Manchester Street that is planned as a focal point of the Lexington Distillery District.

“When people come together, you have the space between where so much can happen,” said KCCJ Chair Shannon Stuart-Smith.

KCCJ has been developing the idea for two years in cooperation with other local groups. But the effort was jump-started late last month when a delegation visited the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, Ontario, one of North America’s most successful social incubators.

Located in a renovated industrial building, the Toronto center rents desks, telephones, printers, Internet connections and other modern necessities to social-oriented entrepreneurs, companies and non-profits that have fewer than five workers.

The center also fosters an atmosphere — both physical and psychological — that encourages networking, brainstorming and collaboration. That includes everything from informal conversations between desks to planned events, such as twice-weekly “salad club” meals.

That atmosphere is what KCCJ hopes to replicate in Lexington.

“The tenants didn’t think of themselves as tenants; they thought of themselves as partners in the program,” said jeweler Joe Rosenberg, a KCCJ board member. “What we’re hoping to do is take what they’ve learned and build on it.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that once you put this together, you’ll fill it up,” Rosenberg said.

Debra Hensley, an insurance agent and former Urban County Council member who has been working on the idea for several years, estimates there are 100 fledgling organizations and entrepreneurs around Lexington whose mission involves social and environmental issues. Many work out of their homes, or in isolated offices.

“Within 10 minutes, I thought, this is what I’m looking for,” said Jason Delambre, a young Lexington-based sustainable energy consultant. who went with the group to Toronto.

KCCJ, which started as a chapter of the old National Conference of Christians and Jews, has worked for decades to fight discrimination and promote human equality and inclusiveness. The organization sees creation of a social incubator as perhaps the best way it can contribute to future progress in Kentucky.

The next step involves figuring out how to raise $1 million to $5 million to build the space and develop a business model to sustain it, Hensley said. Similar centers in other cities have a variety of financial models, depending on local circumstances.

“We’re making a tremendous leap with this project,” said longtime member Marilyn Moosnick.

But then, the work of the Kentucky Conference for Community and Justice has always involved making tremendous leaps. Perhaps that’s why it has been able to do so much good.