There are scary clowns and then there are clowns like Jim Herman, aka Jimbo the Clown, of Shawano.
The newest member of the Green Bay SCORE chapter, Herman is also an experienced businessman, inventor and devoted volunteer. He has seen the pinnacle of success in business and has struggled through catastrophic business failures. His company, Wisconsin Contract Sewing, took off almost immediately after he started it in 1984.
“I moved to the Shawano area in 1982 to be near my daughter and was hired at a leather manufacturing company," Herman said. "However, the owner forgot to pay his taxes and the business closed shortly after. One of the companies we did contract work for came to me and said, ‘Why don’t you start your own business?’ So, that’s what I did.”
With a $10,000 bank loan, Herman started with two clients. As a wholesale manufacturer, he made an assortment of items from cassette cases to saddle bags. He added accounts, including a huge contract with a major Wisconsin company. His workforce ballooned to 72 people and was growing.
Then, two things happened that devastated the company.
"On Dec. 10, 2002, my factory burned to the ground,” Herman said. “It was a catastrophe financially. Everything I had went up in smoke, and when the insurance company got done, there wasn’t much money left. I lost my biggest account and was basically left with some smaller clients and a few sewing machines.”
The next major issue developed slowly as American companies began to feel the affect of unequal tariffs and businesses began to contract with countries like China and Mexico. With higher payroll costs and a desire to treat employees fairly, Wisconsin Contract Sewing could not remain competitive.
“I have companies that are concerned about what will happen now with tariffs and want to work with me, but I’ve looked at what they’re paying and can’t duplicate that,” he said.
Herman said that companies like his have a formula based on the cost of materials, labor charges and fixed overhead, and try to get 15 to 20 percent profit on top of that. He hasn’t been concerned with getting rich but does want to make a living.
As the number of accounts declined, he amended his business model to serve fewer clients with a streamlined facility. He built a warehouse with an office in his home. Also an inventor, Herman has several products that he’s designed and is starting to test. That was his introduction to SCORE.
“I talked to two of the SCORE mentors and they taught me a lot," Herman said. "They connected me with a woman in New London, and she got back to me and said I had great ideas, but there are competitive and insurance issues that would make it difficult to pursue.”
He is not discouraged and is taking what he learned to redefine his customer base and target market. Experience has taught him that a business failure is not the end; it is merely a matter of changing the way things are done and working hard. It is something he does in all areas of his life.
As Jimbo the Clown, he serves as president of the Shriner’s Clown Unit and visits children in rehabilitation centers. All of the money earned by the Clown Unit is donated to burn hospitals. He brings his clown act to area festivals, the annual Shrine Circus and parades.
In addition, he repaired an estimated 1,400 sewing machines last year as a volunteer for The Nicaragua Project (supported by Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partners of the Americas) and goes to Nicaragua every February to train people and fix their existing sewing machines.
Although his business takes up much of his time, he says the volunteering gives great joy and he loves making children smile. He is proud of his company and the impact he makes, and is looking forward to volunteering as a SCORE mentor.
“I’m excited about this,” he said. “I’ll be careful to give good advice and share the wisdom I have. I want to encourage entrepreneurs, but also let them know that a new business will take a lot of time and effort and to not expect to be compensated right away.”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.