Ray Montelongo ’99 had no idea he’d be running his own company five years after graduation. He wasted no time putting his skills to work in developing Montel Technologies, a company that specializes in delivering high-speed Internet access to the hotel industry.
After graduation, Montelongo first worked with his brother Jim Montelongo ’91 MBA ’04, who has an engineering firm in Peoria. While there, he dabbled in technology but wanted to move back home to Rockford.
He honed his technology expertise in what he considered a wide-open market, targeting hotels nationwide, including large markets like Las Vegas. With about 8,000 hotel rooms under his watch, he expects to add another 10,000 in the next few months.
Montelongo explains a large number of companies started the industry by charging hotel guests $9.95 a night for Internet service, but guests didn’t buy into those excessive rates, and many providers went bankrupt. That left many hotels with inoperative systems. He started bringing them back online with 24/7 technical support, and the referrals started pouring in. Now he has eight employees who serve as support staff with independent contractors in various markets.
Montel Technologies offers flexibility the hospitality industry and its guests want. Over the next two years, Montelongo expects his business to explode as more hotels, and now campgrounds, opt for this service.
Montelongo’s first big break was a $350,000 contract for 15 hotels serving 2,000 guests. It was a “smack of reality” at the onset as he negotiated learning curves along the way. In its third year, Montel Technologies is thriving. He’s even had offers to buy his company, “but I’m not ready for that yet. I want to see how big we can grow.”
He says the biggest advantage of self-employment is “controlling my destiny.” He travels extensively while exploring new opportunities, including innovations such as “wireless hot spots” in restaurants, truck stops, and RV parks. “We’re in a niche where we can drive an entire market.” He recently partnered with Bel Air Networks, a leader in the wireless industry. Montel Technologies will be one of its 20 value-added resellers in the United States. His first new deployment will be at Costanoa, an exclusive resort on the Pacific Ocean in California.
His greatest reward has been being recognized for quality service. At a recent trade show, his customers were referring potential clients to his company.
All in all, Montelongo is even more satisfied than his customers and is keeping his eyes open for the next technological leap.
Was it the call of the trout that brought Justin Waldsmith ’00 back into the family pond? Maybe he just couldn’t deny any longer that he was hooked on his family’s business.
The Fish House, a popular Peoria seafood restaurant, has been in his family for more than three decades. Waldsmith knew he preferred the self-employed lifestyle long before he graduated as a management major. Dr. Fred Fry stimulated his interest in going into the family business. He benefited from instruction in creating business plans and how to turn concepts into reality with all the necessary steps. He even kept his textbooks because of their outstanding reference material.
The most important lesson he learned was how to work with family relationships, succession planning, “giving up control,” and other family business-related issues. “A father is always the toughest boss, but it opens up a whole new relationship.” In fact, Justin recently convinced his father Gary to open a restaurant in Bloomington within the next year. “Family business is basically all on you. You either succeed or fail based on your efforts. It’s a lot of hard work,” he says.
Waldsmith did go out and work for someone else…for exactly three months after graduating. “It just wasn’t for me.”
He recalls his father’s excitement about him coming into the business and his mother Sharon’s worries about long hours. “When I was eight years old, I peeled shrimp, prepped lobster tails, and made rolls. When I was 17, I started busing and waiting tables. I worked as sauté chef, then kitchen manager. That’s really important. Walking in there as the owners’ son, I earned my way. I could do every job in the place. That’s a topic we talked about in class—‘jumping’ over employees. It would be hard for me to gain their respect if I did that.”
He enjoys the immediate feedback you get in the restaurant business. “Within 45 minutes or an hour, you’re going to find out if the customer is happy. We win or fail right there. I like that. I like the people. It just keeps the job fresh. It’s continually something different.”
Waldsmith advises, “In the end, the way to be in business is for yourself.” He recommends enrolling in entrepreneurship classes at Bradley. “Those classes are definitely a tool to get there.”
Kim Hiley Fisher ’92 didn’t follow the textbook with her entrepreneurial experiences. She just did it her way and now has three clothing boutiques in Chicago.
Moving to Chicago two weeks after graduation, Fisher worked with traders at an online stock company for four years. Then she moved to a small company of eight that had lunged into the Internet.
She saw her employers’ success and decided to try her hand at owning a clothing store. “I’ve always loved clothes, I spent all my money on clothes, loved everything about them, ever since I was a little kid.”
As she and her parents were walking down the street in Lincoln Park, they noticed a clothing store for sale at 2480 1/2 N. Lincoln. Within four days, Fisher had signed a lease.
“I met for three hours with the lady who owned the store and picked her brain for all the things I needed to know. I also went to a lot of trade shows and showrooms,” says Fisher, who sat in front of the store for a couple of days to study pedestrian traffic.
Named after a fashion area in New York near Greenwich Village, the doors to Tribeca opened in September 1997. Putting in long hours doing everything from taking out the trash to arranging advertising to buying and tagging merchandise, Fisher talked with her customers about what they’d like to see in the store. “You don’t know as much as you think you do. It takes a couple of years.”
Now with a partner, Fisher opened Tribeca on the Avenue at 1013 W. Armitage in 2003. Hot Mama, a maternity shop near the second store, opened last spring.
Discussing her motivation as a boutique owner, Fisher says, “It’s your business. You decide everything, even what hangers to buy. I’d talk to people who were so excited about having a boutique in the neighborhood. You also feel a sense of completion; you feel good helping another person feel good. I know it’s only selling clothes and it seems simple, but so many people don’t feel good if they don’t have the right outfit on. I understand that. I’m not ‘salesy’; I’m just chatty. You get to know the customers. They become comfortable with you, and they come back.”
Often the lone female in her major, Anne Edwards Cotter ’77 was student body president, an experience that she credits as great training for the business world. Cotter couldn’t escape the entrepreneurial bug; it bit her entire family. The daughter of a civil engineer, she worked for her father during high school and for a year after graduation, thriving on the construction site dynamics. After that, she worked for several companies, learning the intricacies of construction management, project management of office interiors of high-rise office buildings, the construction part of a real estate company with a focus on building renovation, and then commercial development. With each stop, she picked up more hands-on lessons.
As her family grew, Cotter took a sabbatical from her career, then opened Cotter Consulting in 1990 as a part-time business.
She remained a one-person operation for the first three years, then began adding staff. Her first big project was when she partnered with a former employer on the redevelopment of Navy Pier in Chicago. Opportunities continued to literally build upon each other as she courted new clients, always focusing on providing project management services on behalf of commercial, public, and institutional property owners. Now, Cotter oversees 32 employees, primarily in the Chicago area, though the business has extended into Champaign and Milwaukee. Clients run the gamut from not-for-profit organizations to public bodies, even O’Hare International Airport.
Her company’s credo is, “We lead the team to the successful completion of the project.” She finds that satisfying and has been able to build long-time, productive business relationships that have enabled her firm to grow.
She concludes, “Being in business for yourself is not for everyone. It takes a combination of skills, temperament, personality and high-energy level. You need perspective and have to love people. Three of my employees have left to start their own businesses. Entrepreneurs spawn other entrepreneurs.”
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