The Business Press: Homemade success

01:54 PM PDT on Wednesday, June 23, 2010

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY
Contributing Writer

Diana V. Powers, founder of a boutique salsa company which she describes as a healthier and gourmet alternative to the mass-produced bottled salsas, isn’t your typical entrepreneur.

Yes, like most entrepreneurs she works constantly, either overseeing the production of her Diana’s Sports Salsa, marketing her product or hosting tastings at various supermarkets. But the wife and mother of seven began producing her natural salsa in the kitchen of her Riverside home with the simple goal of supplementing the family’s income to help pay for their children’s athletic endeavors.

Now with most of her kids grown and on their own, Powers’ salsa is being produced on a larger scale and is available at several upscale markets in Orange County.

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Paul Alvarez / Contributing Photographer
Diana’s Sports Salsa also is sold online.

“As the years went by, we were finding it harder and harder to be involved in their sports because of the costs.” Powers said in an interview.

Her six sons all played baseball while her daughter, Lindsey, took up short track speed skating in 2002. At the time, the only place to get the training her daughter needed was in Long Beach. That began a six-year commute between Riverside and Long Beach and thousands of dollars in costs associated with her daughter’s pursuit of the sport.

“I had always made salsa and brought it to our kids’ games or gatherings at our church,” she said. “Then people asked me to make it for their gatherings. Then their friends wanted to order my salsa for parties and graduations. So I started doing it on a larger scale in my kitchen.”

The Southwestern style salsa features fresh, roasted chilies, and comes in three varieties — mild, hot and extra hot, she said. Powers explained that when she began selling her salsa, the most affordable way to package her product was by canning her own jars at home.

She would then sell them for between $3 and $7. Another unique aspect of her business is her label – Diana’s Sports Salsa – Great for Chips and Good Times – a red, yellow and black script design that includes pictures of red chilies and tomatoes that was originally produced by her son, Justin.

“I’ve since sent the label off to an artist to clean it up, but the original artwork was done by Justin,” she said. “I’ve never made much of a profit. Most of the investment I used to start my company came from my savings and whatever I sold.”

Powers attended a food show in San Diego to get her salsa in front of food critics and buyers for supermarkets.

“I was known as the salsa lady. I would pull a little red wagon behind me at my son’s games full of jars of my salsa,” she said. “When we went to a food expo in San Diego I wasn’t sure how we were going to be received. But by the end of the show, we were rated in the top 10 by critics.”

Powers said by early 2005 she was producing 60 quarts of salsa a month out of her kitchen. But in August 2005, everything was put on hold when her son, Samuel, broke his neck in a motorcycle accident and spent months recovering after being treated at Loma Linda University Medical Center.

“Once my son recovered and started walking again, I started my business again,” said Powers.

“I started making it for more and more people, until I found it difficult to keep up with all the requests,” she said. “So I decided to make a business out of it.”

Her business started to pick up last July when she was producing 70 to 100 quarts a month to meet the demand. With her business expanding, Powers formed MVP Food Inc. and moved production of Diana’s Sport Salsa from her modest kitchen to a facility in Newport Beach.

“When I saw the first 200 gallon batch produced at the cannery, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘That’s mine,'” she said.

Today, with her children ranging in age from 13 to 30, Powers has expanded her business plan, and now Diana’s Sports Salsa can be found not only online ( www.dianassportssalsa.com), but among the national brands at Whole Foods, Promelis Westcliff Market in Newport Beach and Irvine Ranch Market.

It took three months to get her salsa on shelves at Whole Foods in Tustin. Powers said she approaches the grocery buyer at each individual supermarket and leaves them product.

“If they don’t like it, you’re out,” she said. “But, Sue (Matthis) at Whole Foods loved the product and began carrying it. It’s like going door-to-door, but I go store-to-store. I’m really hoping to get into Whole Foods in Laguna Beach and Long Beach.”

So far no Inland supermarkets carry her salsas. Powers said she hasn’t approached Stater Bros. Markets yet but instead is focusing on a “couple of small stores in Redlands.”

At $5.99 for a 16-ounce jar, she admits it’s not cheap but argued that for a “high-end gourmet” product the price was right. Powers pointed out that recently over a three-day period, 11 cases were sold during a tasting at Whole Foods. Online, Powers sells her salsa for $4.79 a jar.

Matthis, the grocery buyer for Whole Foods in Tustin, said the company allows its buyers to bring in local products.

“It’s been on the shelves for two months and has been selling,” Matthis said. “We decided to stock it after she dropped off samples. We really liked what we tasted.”

While Powers has been able to get her product into several stores, financially it’s still been a struggle. With a $1.25 profit from each jar sold, she expects to earn $60,000 this year. She expects 15 percent growth next year.

“My goal is to be in 12 Whole Foods stores by the end of 2010,” she said. “I’ve been in conversation with Costco. If I could close them by the end of the year, then you are talking about taking my business to a whole new level.”

Her plans for next year include producing tortilla chips and expanding into Arizona and the Pacific Northwest. Powers said she’s currently developing two new products and has talked with a chef about updating the salsa’s formula, since it hasn’t been updated in seven years.

She declined to discuss any new products but hinted that Diana’s Sports Salsa may produce a fresh salsa that’s sold in the deli section at area supermarkets. Powers said after using some of her family’s savings to start her business, she’s “preparing to look for financing” to expand and hire additional employees.

“I’m a mother of seven children,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for the most part on my own. My husband has been wonderful, but it’s time I expand and get additional help.”

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The Business Press: AVS sees security systems in its future

2:46 PM PDT on Wednesday, June 16, 2010

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY
Contributing Writer

During the boom times when homeowners were using the equity in their homes for any number of purchases, including expensive entertainment and speaker systems in their living rooms, bed rooms, backyards or basements, they turned to a Riverside business specializing in offering high end products and installation.

But with the collapse of the Inland housing market, the company, AVS Systems, has found that to continue being a successful small business it needed to switch its focus from high-end flat screen televisions and speaker systems to offering home security systems.

It’s a decision owner Art Daza believes will allow his company not only to survive but expand once the economic environment begins to improve.

(Caption: Special To The Business Press – AVS System software can display security cameras on entertainment centers.)

“I came out to Riverside … when all the new homes were being built,” Daza said. “Construction is done, but we are still here. We’ve always done security systems, but the focus of our business had been on installing entertainment systems.”

In the good times, 80 percent to 90 percent of Daza’s business was installing televisions and speaker systems. But those figures have switched, now security systems make up 80 percent of AVS Systems’ business.

“Last year, we finished a project for the Orange Perris Community Center. It was probably our last TV job,” he said. “Times are changing. Now we are installing a lot more nanny cameras and neighbor cameras. We won’t angle cameras into a neighbor’s house, but the cameras are focused on driveways and back yards.”

He said the neighbor cameras have two purposes: one to settle disputes, while others living in communities with large numbers of foreclosures site security as the main reason for installing cameras. Daza has also experienced an increase in interest from business owners, who use the technology to get a handle on loss prevention or monitoring the productivity of their employees.

AVS Systems’ price structure varies depending on the project. It may be based on the size of the installation or the number of cameras included in a project.

For the installation of a four camera security system, prices range from $1,500 to $2,000. His company will also install a basic, one camera system for between $800 and $900. That includes all the cables and other attachments needed to install additional cameras at a later date.

“These systems also allow the owner to monitor activity from their smart phones,” he said. “There is no monthly fee, but the costs are about $20 to download the application to your Blackberry” or other smart phones.

Not all the firm’s projects are installations, Daza said his company offers security upgrades to their entertainment systems that allow a customer to monitor the cameras from their televisions.He also expects to receive his license within the next 60 to 90 days that will allow AVS Systems to install monitored alarm systems.

“It’s a long process to receive your license,” he said. “We first applied around Christmas. It will allow us to install the monitored systems, while receiving a percentage of the monthly fee customers pay the monitoring company.”

Daza said the monitoring company would handle emergency calls, while his firm would be notified of any problems with the alarm systems.

His firm has sought to created a niche by being able to redo installations of other security systems. He cautioned that many homeowners who buy cheaper security systems at big box retailers and have independent contractors install them face problems later on.

“We have been called to homes where they have left the cables exposed, so we hide all the cables properly behind the walls,” he said. “Also, when the recorder or cameras fail, we have to explain that it is not an installation issue but a quality issue.”

Daza declined to detail profits, though he said the company is profitable. “We were hurting for a while,” he said.

He said with the emphasis on security systems his company over the past six months had been making up for lost business. Daza didn’t expect his television business to return to pre-recession levels, due to changing consumer shopping habits.

“To buy a TV they just run to one of those big box stores,” he said. “We also have been hurt by Sony’s decision to stop selling televisions to us and focusing on stores like Wal-Mart, Sears and Best Buy. There is no margin left in TVs.”

He said AVS Systems does have a showroom at 7123 Arlington Ave. in Riverside. But with the loss of Sony as a supplier that showroom will be closed within the next 30 to 60 days, he said.

“When we do estimates, we’ll do them in home,” said Daza, who added that he was confident that “change will work out well.”

He said AVS Systems focus would remain on Riverside as it has since the business was founded in 1993.

“Because if I don’t focus on Riverside, some other company from Orange County will,” he said. “It’s working out well. If you search for us online we come up in the top three companies. With so many companies that do what we do failing, I’m grateful to still be here.”

The Press-Enterprise: Thousands of Inland households ‘unbanked’

09:29 AM PDT on Thursday, June 3, 2010

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY
Special to The Press-Enterprise

For most Inland residents, stopping by the bank or using an ATM are mundane tasks, but for thousands of their neighbors, it’s a foreign concept.

Those who fall into the category of the “unbanked” and don’t have a checking or savings account turn to check cashers, grocery stores or payday lenders to get the cash or money orders they need to pay their bills.

In the Riverside metro area, according to data compiled by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., more than 150,000 households, or 11.5 percent, are described as “unbanked” — a situation that could cost them hundreds of dollars a year.

In California, 9 million households, or 7.7 percent, were classified as unbanked, according to the FDIC.

Most of the unbanked Inland residents are employed but still “disconnected from the financial mainstream,” said Rita Fillingane, director of research and information with the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues in Ontario.

She said some turn to check-cashing businesses, while others, including many immigrants, use ethnic grocery stores to cash their pay checks, for a fee. These outlets also offer the opportunity to purchase cashiers checks or money orders, and to send money to family in Mexico and other countries, she said.

“We need to educate them so they understand that a credit union or bank (allows) consumers to take control of their finances,” Fillingane said.

Banks and credit unions offer many of the same services that check-cashing businesses offer, including remitting money to Mexico, but with lower fees.

Ernie Hwang, president of Riverside-based Security California Bancorp, said people without bank accounts face higher fees and interest rates on every transaction.

According to the Bank on California project, the average person using check cashers will spend an extra 5 percent of his or her income annually for the service.

That means having a bank account could save the average person about $800 a year, according to data compiled by the project.

Hwang said his company, which is the parent of Security Bank of California, works with its small-business clients to get their employees to open checking accounts.

“Our big thing is education,” Hwang said.

The Bank on California project is a private/public partnership created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that launched statewide in December 2008. It aims to help the 9 million California families that don’t have bank accounts by getting them to open starter accounts.

These starter accounts don’t require a monthly minimum balance, charge a $10 monthly fee, and waive overdraft fees for a period of time.

So far, 37 banks and credit unions have joined the project to offer starter accounts to the unbanked in Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose and Santa Ana.

Despite not being on the list, Bank of America offers starter accounts at every branch in California, including in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, said Spike Keil, program specialist with Bank on California in Sacramento.

As of March 31, the Bank on California program had led to 110,064 new accounts statewide, Keil said.

The Press-Enterprise: Ontario extends deal on convention center

09:06 PM PDT on Wednesday, June 2, 2010

By CHRIS H. SIEROTY
Special to The Press-Enterprise

With a June 30 deadline fast approaching, city officials have decided to grant SMG a two-year contract extension to operate the Ontario Convention Center, according to a city official.

The decision comes about six months after officials decided that instead of automatically approving another two-year deal, they would prepare a report that would outline the possible alternatives to SMG operating the facility.

Among the possibilities outlined in December were to have city staff oversee the facility, approve a new contract with its current operator or contract with another company to operate the space.

“In the end, we did an extension with SMG,” City Manager Chris Hughes said. He said once SMG agreed to reduce their annual management fee to $160,000, the city council approved the extension on April 20. Hughes said SMG had agreed to reduce their management fee by $100,000 over the next two years at the 250,000-square-foot facility.

Based in Philadelphia, SMG has operated the facility for the past 10 years. The Ontario Convention Center, which first opened in 1997 and operated as a nonprofit for two-years, operates at about a $1.5 million annual deficit.

Bob Brown, an SMG employee and general manager of the convention center, declined to comment on plans to reduce the facility’s operating costs.

“Our contract terms are extended through June 30, 2012,” Brown said. “The terms of the financial arrangement have not been finalized.”

Former City Manager Greg Devereaux, who resigned his position in January to become San Bernardino County’s chief administrative officer, began the convention center report. Hughes, the city’s former fire chief, took over for Devereaux and oversaw its completion and the contract talks.

“The new city manager is terrific,” Brown said. “He understands our business well and supports the efforts of the Ontario Convention Center to generate economic impact for the city and its shareholders.”