Nichole and Leon Sargent define Maine’s entrepreneurial spirit. They now live on a small hobby farm, Nichole downsizing her heard of horses and Leon still investing in cattle. They and their three children have been long time active members of the agricultural community; participating as a family in Equine Assisted Activities, fairs, and the Pine Tree Steer and Ox Association. Leon has worked as a professional butcher for a variety of companies his whole life, but had always dreamed of owning his own business. He and Nichole first approached CEI in the Spring of 2018 with the dream of building a new facility, after being referred by a lender at their local bank who told them CEI could help strengthen their business plan and projections.
They both knew they wanted to be smart about their first steps: while Leon had extensive industry experience and had managed/trained others, and Nichole brought a complimentary suite of management skills, they didn’t have as much experience with the business side of things.
The plan to build a new meat processing and packaging facility was scrapped when the Windham Butcher Shop, an existing facility that Leon had once worked at, became available for purchase. Purchasing the business would significantly reduce their startup costs and debt burden and was an intriguing possibility. The 40-year-old facility, however, came with its own quirks, including a lack of historical financials to review.
“We were really lost with the financials,” Nichole recalls, “Butchering has been around forever, but we couldn’t find any industry resources or templates for developing our projections.” With the help of an advisor at the CEI Women’s Business Center, they combined their experience with CEI’s business expertise to develop a template of their own. It was a good template too, the first-year projections ended up being off by only $56.
Purchase of the Windham Butcher Shop was completed with support and financing from a collaboration of partners, including CEI. Following the ownership transfer, the Sargents set right to work making the company their own – improving the facility; building relationships with local farmers, restaurants and businesses; and improving working conditions and job quality for their employees.
Unless you learned it from a family member, like Leon did, there are few opportunities in Maine to learn the professional butcher’s trade, so Leon has taken to mentoring new employees and plans are in motion to convert a portion of the property to a training classroom. Meanwhile, Nichole has worked with advisors at CEI to improve job quality by developing HR policies and procedures, like the company’s first formal job descriptions, clear benefits, and by adding much-appreciated perks like an employee break area and homemade breakfast burritos (filled with Windham Butcher Shop sausage, of course).
As one of a handful of USDA-licensed processing facilities in the state, the Windham Butcher Shop and the Sargents play a key role in the community. Local farmers need a quality, reliable place to have their animals harvested and processed, and local restaurants are looking to buy custom cuts for their establishments. Windham Butcher Shop has strong relationships with both of these types of clients. They’ve also used their industry expertise to help develop policy, as when they were invited to a recent USDA roundtable by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree.
It’s not all smooth sailing: maintaining an aging facility to USDA standards requires constant vigilance, but the Sargents are on much more solid footing thanks to the resources and advice provided by CEI. “We have a much better grasp of what we’re doing now,” says Nichole, “and we understand what we need to look out for.”
For themselves, and for the farms and businesses that depend on them, the Sargents plan on putting that knowledge to use for the long haul.
Author’s Note: As of 3/18/20 – Windham Butcher Shop has been working diligently with their producers, as the “extreme human reaction” to social distancing has left most of their producers without product, readjusting their herds and harvest dates.
Per Nichole, “Our employees (little crew) are busting their butts and doing an amazing job stepping up.”
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CEI offers a wide range of assistance to emerging and existing business owners. Through one-on-one consultation, training, workshops, seminars, peer networks and other services, CEI helps individuals across the state get the information they need to start or expand their business. In addition to providing general business assistance, CEI has programs for women; marine-related businesses; farms; ag and food businesses; and refugees and immigrants.
Check out the full range of CEIs Business Advising offerings at https://www.ceimaine.org/advising