Somewhere toward the end of our conversation, one that lasted close to three hours, Mary Curran said the reason she had invited me to meet was to show me that “a small group can be a strong force.”
We were at the Wide River Winery in the Village of East Davenport. I’d been invited to sit in on a meeting of the “Whine and Wine Club,” a group of entrepreneurs and friends who meet once a month to talk about life and business. They give each other advice on everything from navigating the latest regulations to dealing with the emotional pressures of having dozens of people depend on you for their livelihood.
“What I love about this group is that if there’s an emergency, you can call and they’ll be there,” Curran said.
Around the table that afternoon was Curran, owner of Straight Shot Express, and Straight Shot Express territory VP Bill Hayes. And there was Bob Hickman, Chenhall’s Staffing and HR Network, and Beth White, a Government Contracting specialist with Iowa State University, Center for Industrial Research and Service.
They had the ease of a close group of friends, slipping quickly into their roles. White is the youngest at 40 and the entire evening they kept their eye on her, playing by turns the roles of mentor and friend. Hayes plays the comedian, filling any silence with a joke and his laughter. Curran is the anchor, the life and glue of the group, and Hickman is the man whose career took him to every corner of the country and cast his social network wide enough that is seemed there wasn’t anyone in the Quad-Cities he didn’t know.
The atmosphere was light-hearted, but the issues we discussed were not. They talked about the risk of owning a business and the freedom and the weight of it.
“Most entrepreneurs start a business after something dramatic happens,” Hickman said. There’s a sudden shift and a rethinking of priorities, he said, and that leads to a willingness to take the risk and pour everything, day and night, into starting something of your own.
That’s what happened to Mary. She spent most of her career in advertising and marketing and decided she was ready to “jump off the cliff” after beating breast cancer, diagnosed in 1999 when she was 48. The “cliff” came in the form of an opportunity to start a trucking company franchise in the Quad-Cities. Straight Shot Express has a fleet of “50 vehicles of various sizes,” Hayes said.
“In the beginning, it was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year,” Curran said.
They invited me to chat as part of my “What They Don’t Know About Us” series of columns about the people in our part of the world, what they believe and what in life brought them there. We talked about politics, but by the time I stood up three hours later, I couldn’t tell you who they voted for. I could only tell you that they stopped believing the government had any answers a long time ago.
“I’m still waiting,” Curran said. “I’ve heard candidates make a lot of promises to help small businesses. We have a lot of hope, but I haven’t heard the solution yet.”
Current tax code seems to disincentivize growth by taxing any business over 50 employees the same, she said. “There’s no impetus to grow, because you’re penalized. It’s a disservice to people to scratched and crawled their way to success.”
And she used an example of a federal small business loan program she heard about during the last administration that her trucking company could have qualified for, but she gave up on the idea after visiting three banks who said they didn’t offer it. It was fodder for a great speech, but not something that was easily available in the real world.
After a while, the conversation steered away from tax code and business logistics and on to the other things that make life full, like music – Bob plays the piano and Mary is an opera singer – and mentoring. As a Cherokee from Oklahoma, Bob has steered some of his success toward the tribes in his home state, making sure young Native Americas have opportunities and know someone is watching out for them.
I put my pen down and just listened.