Uncle Bob's pops on

Jim and Valerie Wright bought Tucson-based Uncle Bob's Popcorn in 2007, hoping to capitalize on a 50-year-old brand.

The Wrights, who spent much of the 1990s working for Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., graduated from the University of Arizona and returned to Arizona in 2001, seeking to escape the corporate treadmill.

When they visited Uncle Bob's to check out equipment to start a popcorn business in Chandler, they were told the business was for sale.

"We felt if we turned it around, we could make it thrive again," Valerie Wright said.

They bought in and moved back to Tucson, but the recession, broken-down equipment, a lack of focus on core products and the lack of past documentation made it an uphill battle.

In March 2010, the couple contacted SCORE, which Jim Wright first used when he started a business while in high school.

"We felt we were at the end, we felt we needed to know if we were going to make this run," said Valerie Wright, who studied archaeology at the UA but wound up working as an editor for Microsoft.

The Wrights' SCORE mentor, Corky Arens, made them treat the business as a startup, starting with a new business plan including manuals detailing how every product was made.

"I can't tell you how supportive they have been - it made a real difference," Valerie said.

Today, Uncle Bob's Popcorn (www.unclebobspopcorn.com) is profitable and on a much sounder financial footing, Jim Wright said as he watched an industrial corn popper spew out 10 pounds of fresh popcorn in four minutes.

But they're not getting rich.

"If you want to make a small fortune in the popcorn business, start with a big fortune," Jim Wright quipped.

Concrete results

When Deby Wiest and Nathan Hartzell found out their precast concrete company was being closed by its corporate parent after failing to find a buyer, they decided to act.

Concrete Designs Inc. had turned out precast architectural products such as massive columns and fancy fascia since 1958 and was acquired by industry giant Oldcastle in 1998.

The recession and housing crash cut deeply into the company's business in ornamental concrete for luxury homes, and by mid-2011 Oldcastle was looking to sell off the money-losing Tucson operation.

But Wiest, who started with the company as controller in 1988 and stayed on as manager under Oldcastle, and Hartzell, who came to Tucson with Oldcastle, saw the potential to save the company and its 40 remaining jobs.

"Neither one of us wanted to walk away from it," said Hartzell, who could have moved to a job with Oldcastle in Phoenix. "We weren't really sure how to go to a bank to get funding, or how to approach the parent company with our crazy idea."

The pair set about writing a plan to acquire the business, and found a cooperative seller in Oldcastle.

"As we looked at the options, it just seemed like it could be a workable thing, structured the right way," Wiest said.

Unsure of their plan, the pair contacted SCORE for help, after Wiest found mention of the group in a newspaper article.

Their SCORE mentor, George Cates, helped them revise their acquisition and business plans, brought in a SCORE banking expert and helped them find the right local accountants and lawyers.

Finally, they won financing from Tucson-based Commerce Bank of Arizona and acquired the business and assets in January and arranged a lease of the property with Oldcastle.

Wiest and Hartzell are now co-owners of the company; Wiest is now president and Hartzell is vice president and general manager.

Today, Concrete Designs (concrete-designs.com) has shifted more to the commercial building market, churning out such architectural features as fascia, finials, plinths, corbels and quoins from its factory near East Ajo Way and South Country Club Road.

Some of the company's recent projects include Tucson Fire Central, Casino del Sol and the old Roy Place Building at North Stone Avenue and East Pennington Street, now occupied by the UA.