Who can blame Susan K. Johnson for wanting the Bonner Business Center - where entrepreneurs can get a boost launching a small businesses - to run as, well, a business.
Some are a bit startled at her determination to do things like collecting back rent from tenants. Or explaining to tenants that the center services are not hand-outs. Like instilling a little bottom-line sensibility into the budding clients.
“I try to give them a taste of real life,” she said. “They need to know what it’s like out there.”
Johnson took the helm of the 3-year-old center this spring. She’s no stranger to the Sandpoint business community, having headed Sandpoint Unlimited, the economic development arm of the city, before moving down a few doors in the business center to the manager’s office.
The center’s first big success resulted in the director’s position opening. Unicep, a dental equipment company, graduated in April from the center’s bays to new office space a few blocks away. It also took then-director Bob Larimer with it, as he went to work for the fast-growing company.
Johnson and her husband, Beaner, have their hands all over Sandpoint’s business community. They own Pastabilly’s restaurant and are on the verge of opening a bagel shop in downtown.
“She’s the backer-upper,” said Beaner Johnson of his wife of five years.
“Beaner doesn’t like to tell people no,” Susan said. “He lets me do that.”
With a background in banking and finance, Johnson moved from Southern California to Sandpoint four years ago with Beaner after they were first married.
“I thought we we’re going to retire when we came up here,” she said. “But we found things to do.”
While recruiting companies to relocate and invest here as Sandpoint Unlimited director, Johnson also took a stab at civic duty, winning a spot on the City Council. Councilwoman Johnson had to resign her seat to run the business center.
“I found out that people are more than willing to express their points of view,” she said. “I think that if you’re going to participate, you really need to be part of the solution.”
The business center serves as the solution for small companies that are looking for a place to grow. Recognized as a model for business incubators, the Bonner Business Center is now full of tenants who make speciality foods and products.
Like most homes, the heart of the center is the kitchen. The commercial kitchen facilities there provide the only regulated place for small businesses to whip up everything from pickled veggies to barbecue sauce in large batches.
“We’ve had to raise the rates for the kitchen,” Johnson said. “But it really serves us as a source of revenue. Someone’s in there almost all the time.”
The rest of the center tenants get the benefit of a shared receptionist and rents that are somewhat less than if they were to pay for retail space in Sandpoint.
They also have easy access to small business counseling resources. So far, Unicep is the center’s most successful graduate, but more are certain to follow.
“People in small business have to be willing to sacrifice their personal assets,” Johnson said. “Sometimes people will have a great product but will have unrealistic expectations. This can be a great way to find out if their business can survive outside here, or even a way to find out if your product doesn’t have a market without risking so much.”
Johnson’s business shrewdness may, at times, be interpreted as being a little firm, she admits.
“I shouldn’t have this cold - I’m too mean,” she said jokingly while fighting off a few symptoms. Staffers around the center say they don’t see Johnson that way at all.
Johnson’s official title is economic development director, as she also serves as a business liaison between the city and the center. She manages several properties for Sandpoint near the center.
The Johnsons love to fish, travel and watch the progress of their daughter, a freshman at Gonzaga University in Spokane.
With the new bagel shop and the first restaurant to keep them busy, the Johnsons won’t be “retiring” in a business sense anytime soon. They also won’t be leaving Sandpoint.
“I just love it here,” she said. “I really can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
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