Small fly fishing business continues to thrive in Lakeside

The Great lakes Fly Company is located at 4426 Regent Street in Duluth.  The store supplies flies and other fly fishing supplies to residents all over the Twin Ports. Photo Credit: Gram Krause-Lyons Copper John Red, Spring Wiggler, Flash Sided BH Woolly Bugger, Egg Sucking Leech. Confused yet? Unless you’re a fan of fly fishing, you probably have no idea what any of that means.

They are all types of flies you can find at John Fehnel’s Great Lakes Fly Company.

It’s hard to miss Fehnel. He’s the tall one with white-gray hair, a matching beard, and a bright orange Great Lakes Fly Company hat that’s full of hooks and fishing flies.

Great Lakes Fly Company is currently located in the Lakeside community of Duluth, Minn. Fehnel has owned the shop since 2001, though he has moved four times. This is one small business that is truly thriving in a frustrating economy.

In the first nine months of 2009, small businesses accounted for almost 60 percent of the net job losses, as stated in the Small Business Associations Research Summary.

Fehnel can count his blessings that he is not factored into this percentile. He keeps his costs low by maintaining only one employee, who works only one day a week.

“I only hire locals,” said Fehnel. “I like to give somebody something.”

Besides your employees, there are other vital aspects to owning a business.

“It is important to have a competitive advantage,” said Patricia Borchert, Assistant Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Fehnel’s advantage? He puts his customers first.

“The customer is your boss,” said Fehnel. “Treat your customer like shit and you don’t get paid.”

One loyal customer, Duluth resident Brian Johnson, mentioned how much he enjoys keeping Fehnel company. Johnson is an electrician in Duluth and spends his spare time fly fishing trout around Duluth.

A group of young fishermen wait patiently for a bite near the end of the Lester River. The river is a hotspot for local fishing. Photo Credit: Gram Krause-Lyons

“It’s really fun to fly fish,” said Johnson. “I like that it’s a challenge. There’s days where you don’t catch anything and then there are rare days where you may catch twelve fish.”

It’s obvious that Johnson likes to spend his time at the Great Lake’s Fly Company. Together he and Fehnel spend time discussing the best places to fish and the best products to use while Fehnel works on creating new fly lures for his company.

As important as it is to maintain good relationships with customers, Richard Braun, a small business consultant at the Center for Economic Development in Duluth suggested other important tips as well.

Braun, also an entrepreneur, works with businesses that are struggling, as opposed to the old model of working with start-up companies.

“It’s easier to save ten jobs then to create ten jobs,” said Braun.

Braun shared his three tips to owning a successful business.

“You need to write a business plan, you need to run your business by the numbers and know your profit, and you need to be an expert in everything—insurance, marketing, garbage and so on,” said Braun.

Fehnel added that one of the most important things is to be interested in what you own.

“If you’re going to own a business,” said Fehnel. “You’re going to have to like it.”

Fehnel spends most of his days at the Great Lakes Fly Company. He has one day off, which is his day to go fishing. His favorite place to go fishing is close to home.

“I’ve been fishing the Brule River since 1994,” said Fehnel. “I love it.”

Fehnel has also lived in Alaska, where he had the opportunity to do a lot of fly fishing. Although he loves it there, he says he loves it here in Duluth just a bit more.

Hearing Fehnel talk about the rivers and fishing of the area, you can tell he really enjoys his job. Even though he spends most of his time in the shop, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If you own the shop you should be there,” said Fehnel.  “I hate guys that buy businesses and are never there.”

Small businesses like Fehnel’s are imperative to the welfare of our economy. “They create the jobs,” said Braun. “They drive our economy.”

According to the Small Business Association, small businesses have generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years and pay 44 percent of total U.S. private payroll.

“Small businesses are essential,” said Borchert, pointing out the statistics.

What advice does Fehnel give those wanting to start their own businesses?

“Don’t be in it for the money,” said Fehnel. “Do it because you like it.”

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