By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Some of the entertainment industry’s biggest hits have been about enduring friendships. Like Laverne and Shirley. Thelma and Louise. Kate and Allie. And of course, Lucy and Ethel.
Now, meet Elizabeth and Ardith. They haven’t received any television or movie offers (yet), but they’re enjoying life as best friends and business partners.
Known locally as “The Licorice Ladies,” Elizabeth Erlandson and Ardith Stuertz own Licorice International, a Lincoln, Nebraska-based business that ships 10,000 candy orders annually and has an almost equal number of in-store sales. With 160 types from 14 countries, Erlandson and Stuertz have the largest selection of imported licorice in the U.S.
Licorice International’s clientele tends to be older and includes some candy lovers with childhood memories of buying real licorice from the corner drugstore (most “licorice” candy sold in the U.S. these days actually gets its flavor from anise).
“Nostalgia is the real product we offer our customers,” says Erlandson. “They’re 70 when they walk in the door and they’re 10 when they walk out.”
Fundamentals for Success
The co-owners attribute their business achievements to their strong work ethic and a desire to learn, as well as prudent fiscal management and a good staff (they have five full-time and four part-time employees). In addition, both had good mentors earlier in their careers and came from entrepreneurial families.
At the heart of their success, however, is the fact that these friends – who have known each other for 22 years — work well together and have complimentary strengths. Erlandson has marketing and communications expertise cultivated from 25 years as a professional writer. Stuertz worked for 23 years with a heavy construction equipment auction company, where she was responsible for the accounting and human resources departments.
“We admire and respect each other and know each other’s core values,” says Erlandson. “If one of us doesn’t want to do something, we don’t do it.”
“Money is not at the bottom of it. Our friendship is core,” adds Stuertz.
Making It Happen
For several years, Erlandson and Stuertz had a tradition of meeting on New Year’s Eve to map a strategic plan for the coming year. That exercise led to their first joint venture: a consulting practice that provided fundraising, administrative and other support for non-profits.
While the practice lasted only 12 months, it served an important purpose. “Without that experience of working together for a year, we would not have succeeded later,” says Erlandson.
At ages 52 and 57 respectively, Erlandson and Stuertz became Licorice International’s owners when they bought the mail order business from New York confectioner Larry Ring in 2002. They moved the company’s headquarters from Manhattan to their hometown of Lincoln, where they developed a website and began filling orders from their homes.
It didn’t take long for their business to flourish. By mid-2003, orders reached a level where the owners needed more space. Within three and a half years, Licorice International moved three times, adding a retail operation along the way. Its current location is a 4,450 square-foot facility with a store upfront.
Since its launch ten years ago, the company has had its ups and downs. While the recession affected its Internet business considerably, the retail shop has grown consistently. It now provides approximately 40% of total sales, which have increased five fold since the business moved to its first commercial location in 2003.
“We were able to start very economically by running the business out of our homes,” says Stuertz. “Since we weren’t sure how it was going to turn out, we did not go into debt and used personal resources. It was a very wise thing.”
A Can-Do Attitude
Going forward, Erlandson and Stuertz want to extend to younger markets, so they’ve begun adding product variations that appeal to families with children. They also plan to grow their current selection of gluten-free and sugar-free treats to accommodate more people with special dietary needs.
Now in their 60s, The Licorice Ladies say they have no current plans to retire and are “in it for the long term.” Given their can-do attitude, there’s no reason to doubt them.
“We are both big thinkers,” says Erlandson. “Between the two of us, we can implement just about anything.”