It was 1979, a seemingly idyllic year. Movie enthusiasts flocked to theaters to see "Superman" and "Rocky II." Pop singer Michael Jackson was reaching stardom. "The Love Boat" was becoming a prime-time television favorite.
And in Oklahoma, a microbiology professor, a media visionary and two brothers with a passion for veggies set their sights on independent entrepreneurship. Today, the men " who hail from different backgrounds " reflect on the growth of their respective 30-year-old prized businesses.
In the late 1970s, Stan Bauman grew antsy at the University of Kentucky. He'd spent the last 10 years teaching microbiology while conducting fungus research in the school's lab. At that time, the study of fungal diseases in humans and animals was mostly uncharted territory. He had just developed his first blood test kit " which determines whether a patient has a fungal disease and what type " and was ready to make the jump from academia to entrepreneurship.
"He's more of a dreamer" than a teacher, said Scott Bauman, Stan Bauman's son.
It was this idealism that drove Stan Bauman, a University of Oklahoma doctorate graduate, to open his own 400-square-foot research and development lab, Immuno-Mycologics Inc., in Goldsby. Having spent $75,000 on the new biotechnology firm, he was its lone operator until his wife began performing administrative duties two years later. His sons, Scott and Sean, joined the firm as young adults. They bought it from their father just seven years ago, moving it to Norman in 2006. Scott Bauman handles the administrative side of the business, while Sean Bauman oversees research and development.
Today, the firm employs an average of 25 and is housed in a newly constructed, 15,000-square-foot building in an 88-acre business park in Norman. Scientific research and product development take place in a handful of laboratories, both small and large. A walk-in cooler stores the variety of fungal test kits, and another room serves as the shipping headquarters.
Most of Immuno-Mycologics' clients are big reference laboratories or hospitals that typically have more than 500 beds, as well as worldwide aid groups such as Catholic Relief Services and the World Health Organization. The biotech firm ships kits to hospitals in 48 countries and is currently seeing its largest growth in African hospitals, said Scott Bauman, the firm's marketing and sales vice president.
About 70 percent of business operations is spent on kit production, while 30 percent is focused on continued research and development of existing and new products. In addition, the firm has its own reference lab where sea mammals' blood is tested. Immuno-Mycologics receives and tests blood samples sent from worldwide aquatic centers, including Sea World, to determine from what type of fungal infection a mammal " usually a dolphin " suffers.
Last year, the firm yielded $3 million in sales.
Still, even while holding the reputation as Oklahoma's oldest biotech lab, Immuno-Mycologics remains "very grounded," Scott Bauman said.
"We're still in growth mode," he said. "Most people still don't know who we are."
PERRY PUBLISHING & BROADCASTING CO .
By contrast, it's tough for a media conglomerate as ambitious as Perry Publishing & Broadcasting Co. to remain grounded. The Oklahoma City company owns and manages a weekly newspaper, 16 radio stations across Oklahoma, Georgia and South Carolina, 14 telecommunications towers statewide, a bank, a soul food catering business and a hip-hop retail store " all of which are serviced by more than 500 company employees.
"We are truly a diversified company today," founder Russell Perry said.
A former all-state football athlete, Perry's first dance with the media industry began in high school when he picked up a printing job with the Black Dispatch, a then 50-year-old newspaper that catered to the black community in Oklahoma City. He left for college with intentions of becoming a coach someday. But upon graduation, he returned to the paper and picked up where he left. Over the next 15 years, he rose to the top, from advertising salesman to 50 percent co-owner of the Dispatch.
By his late 30s, he had learned the newspaper trade inside and out. Perry said he had also became disillusioned with the paper's politics and sought to start his own publication.
"My policy and my opinions differed greatly" from those of the Dispatch's co-owners," Perry said. "I didn't like their philosophy."
In the spring of 1979, Perry left the Dispatch and "everything I had invested" and secured $125,000 in personal financing. He bought some used office furniture and newspaper equipment from a recently defunct Bethany publication and set up shop with three employees in an 800-square-foot location in Oklahoma City. He hired an outside company to sell door-to-door subscriptions.
"I mortgaged my home and everything I owned," he said.
His weekly paper, The Black Chronicle, grew beyond his modest expectations. Eighteen months later "I had repaid all my debt," he said.
Three years after launching the paper, Perry was able to buy in full a 10,000-square-foot building on N.E. 23rd Street near the state Capitol " where his business exists today. He set up newspaper operations in one portion of the building " hiring about a dozen employees " and leased remaining parts of the building to other businesses. He named the location Perry Plaza. A big, dated yellow sign in front still boasts the name.
Perry said he attributes his newspaper's early success to networking and the relationship-building he accomplished while at the Dispatch. When he ventured on his own, many advertisers followed him.
"I had created relationships with advertisers," he said. "They believed in me."
Perry said he soon saw Perry Publishing was missing a key element needed to grow: diversification.
His first step toward diversifying the company was to invest in First Security Bank, just across the street from The Black Chronicle. It's the same bank he frequented as a young adult and from where he received his first business loan. Perry is now a principal owner.
In the early '90s, he sought to create a broadcasting arm to his successful publication by buying an AM radio station, converting more of his building to house a studio and hiring employees to oversee it. The station played mostly rap music over daytime airwaves. Within the next couple of years, he bought an FM station in Tulsa and then acquired a permit to build a tower in Carnegie in Southwest Oklahoma. The 2,000-foot tower fueled a new business division, The Perry Tower Co. Perry now operates 14 towers and rents them to various telecommunications entities, including cellular phone service providers and television companies.
Other businesses that operate under the Perry name include O City Source, a hip-hop clothing retail store on N.E. 23rd Street, and Soul Fusion Catering.
FRANK'S TOMATO & BANANA HOUSE
The Tanaka brothers may not be developing medical breakthroughs or reaching thousands of Oklahomans via print and airwaves. Still, their small produce distributorship reached nearly $6 million in sales last year, said Art Tanaka, co-owner of Frank's Tomato & Banana House, located near downtown Oklahoma City.
"We're working on a smaller scale," Tanaka said.
Frank's sells and ships a variety of vegetables and fruits to the food services industry. Most customers are restaurants within a 150-square-mile radius of the Oklahoma City metro area.
Although Frank's officially turns 30 this year, the business informally began when Tanaka's Japanese-American father, Tom Tanaka, opened a small produce stand inside the nearby Farmers Public Market more than 60 years ago. He later bought the warehouse, on S.W. Third Street, where Frank's currently operates. Tom Tanaka, now deceased, sold his produce retail in the mid-'70s, but that owner went bankrupt two years later. Tom Tanaka's sons, Art and Ken Tanaka, could not bear the thought of their father's hard work being wasted. They left their respective careers and bought back the fledgling produce retail " in addition to buying a neighboring tomato and banana distributorship " in 1979, merging the two under one name.
Frank's has serviced a steady customer base for the past 30 years. "Loyalty and fairness" have been the major success factors, Art Tanaka said.
"We're loyal to our customers," he said. "They're our priority. We don't lose very many customers."
Art Tanaka said the company stays competitive by offering fair prices and can do so by keeping operating costs low. For example, the company only has about a dozen employees and does not hire sales representatives.
"We grow by word of mouth," he said.
Tanaka said the economic recession has taken a toll on produce distributors and retailers across the board.
"Everything from the seeds and labor on up" cost more today, including farmland, pesticides and shipping rates, he said. There are fewer growers and shippers today, which gives competitors more control over prices, he said.
The Tanaka brothers are prepared to weather the economy and to keep a close eye on the produce industry. Currently, restaurants " which comprise about 70 percent of Frank's sales " are not being hit hard by economic changes, Art Tanaka said. "Elizabeth Camacho Wiley