Pat Daninger | Crain's Twin Cities

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Pat Daninger

Background:  

Daninger is the co-owner (with his wife Sharlene) of a 115-year-old Forest Lake dairy farm that expanded and added a full creamery in 2008 under the name Autumnwood Farms.

The Mistake:  

Bad timing and flawed forecasting.

We really didn’t get the indication from anyone that the recession was coming until it happened. We started in March of 2008 and it really came into play by January and February of 2009, with sales dropping 30 percent.

It really hurt, and we thought we must be doing something wrong. We started calling around the country talking to other bottlers and found out they were all experiencing the same thing.

Also, we had a feasibility study done, and had conducted research ourselves. In the study, we were told we’d see a profit in six to eight months, when a realistic time frame was really seven to 10 years. We had to refinance twice.

At that point we were too far in to get out; if we were to quit we would have lost everything. And part of our original reason for expanding was to enable our kids to come back and be part of the operation if they wanted to.

There wasn’t a whole lot we could have done differently other than just try to work harder and do more hand-to-hand promotion in stores. Our product is not something you can just advertise; you have to get someone to actually try it. Some of our workers spent a lot of time [offering samples] in stores, helping grow sales to compensate for the slide.

Once the market turned, we saw sales increases of 10 to 15 percent through 2015.

Around year seven it started becoming easier to make payments, lenders became more confident in us and it wasn’t a day-to-day struggle anymore, with crises fewer and farther between. Now, we have in a loan request so we can put up another barn and double our herd size. And we want to start putting out ice cream on site as well.

A lot of times, your gut instinct is right.

The Lesson:

Our payback plan was way too fast—I should have been more discerning and not believed the study. One of the other things I learned was not to mistrust my gut instincts too much. A lot of times, your gut instinct is right. I’d also recommend that other [entrepreneurs should] talk to a ton of other people who are already doing what they want to do,  learn what pitfalls to avoid. 

Another thing is that you need to take care of your personal health. It burns some people out, doing this. We’ve gotten to the point where we can hire good people to carry some of the load, let them know what needs to be done, then stay out of the way and let them do it. But some exhaustion is just inherent with a business startup, and I don’t know how you can get around that, initially.

When we first started, we dedicated the business to the service of God. That provides us some peace of mind that if it’s going to succeed, it’s due to him. 

 

Photo courtesy of  Mariah Daninger.

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