FHLBank grants help elevate local small businesses to next level

When Joe Gougeon moved back to the U.P. from Texas, he transitioned his skill set to an entirely different industry.

Gougeon, who had previously worked in occupational safety and had served a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, started his own business, Timely Tree Service, out of Marquette in 2021. The one-man operation has grown since then, with the help of a small business grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis,  an option he wasn’t aware of until a client suggested he pursue it for his business. 

Abundant with nature, the Upper Peninsula is the perfect location for his business, he says. “The U.P. has no shortage of quality tree care companies and no shortage of trees that need caring for. Timely Tree Service is working to step up and provide one more quality option for tree work, especially smaller scale projects, in an area where the work is almost never-ending,” he says.

Despite its start as a solo endeavor, Timely Tree Service has grown steadily in those two years. In the early days, Gougeon could be found doing it all: evaluating jobs, managing customer relations, climbing, cutting, cleaning, and working out of his pickup truck and flatbed trailer. 

Joe Gougeon on the job with his company, Timely Tree Service.Now, in his third season of business, Gougeon is at the point of hiring an employee to assist him. With an Elevate grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis (FHLBank Indianapolis), he is able to invest in the next step of his business. “For the first time I have jobs booked prior to the start of the working season,” he says. “The stable of equipment has grown from just a truck and trailer to include a chipper, a small stump grinder, and a dump truck, which was courtesy of the Elevate grant.”

Headquartered in Indiana, FHLBank Indianapolis is a regional cooperative, which means it is owned by its member banks, credit unions and other financial institutions in Indiana and Michigan. Its district includes both states, where cities across the region benefit from partnerships between the bank and various community-based financial institutions and philanthropic organizations. 

The bank is part of the national Federal Home Loan Bank system, which provides access to liquidity to its financial institution members – banks, credit unions, insurance companies, and Community Development Financial Institutions – to ensure funding is available to the communities they serve. FHLBank Indianapolis also pumps millions into the district to support affordable housing and community development initiatives.

The government-sponsored enterprise believes small businesses are the foundations of economies, and the bank works to lift up entrepreneurs and small businesses via the Elevate grant.

The Elevate grant enables small business owners to expand their ideas, inventions, innovations, and workforce throughout Indiana and Michigan. Grant recipients can use up to $20,000 for capital expenditures and workforce training.

Locally, in the U.P., four small businesses were awarded 2022 Elevate grants, totaling nearly $74,326 in funding. The businesses range from fruit and vegetable farms to outdoor gear manufacturing companies and bakeries. Thanks to the grant, these small businesses can now invest in commercial kitchen equipment, industrial machines, vehicles and hire additional employees. 

“Small businesses play a vital role in our communities by providing products and services that meet a variety of local needs,” says MaryBeth Wott, senior vice president, Community Investment & Underwriting Collateral Operations Officer for FHLBank Indianapolis. “The Elevate grant allows FHLBank Indianapolis to partner with member financial institutions to support these small businesses. Together, we provide a boost to help make their visions a reality. Not only does this grant help businesses reach their goals, but often it helps create more job opportunities within their communities. It’s really a win all around.” 

Before being awarded $20,000 from the Elevate grant, Gougeon admits he thought grants were mostly for nonprofits or other industries. “I had no idea that there was funding available for businesses like mine,” he says. “I was referred to the Elevate program by Glenn Johnson at Upper Peninsula State Bank after doing some work for him last year. He sent me the information about the program and after looking through it all, I felt it was a perfect opportunity for Timely Tree Service that I would have otherwise had no idea ever existed.”

With the grant, Timely Tree Service is able to scale up and better meet customer demand. “The grant funds were used to buy a dump truck, a staple piece of equipment for any small tree service, which up until now, Timely Tree Service had been working without. The jump in efficiency and sheer hauling ability means being able to take on some larger scale jobs that would have not been possible before and it necessitates hiring a helper to make the most of this new capacity for work. It’s really a big move forward in how I was predicting the business growth to play out.”

Austin Gongos and Nathan Ackerman, co-founders of Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear in Hancock.Another local business, Chicken Tramper Ultralight Gear (C.T.U.G.), in Hancock, received a $20,000 Elevate grant from the FHLBank Indianapolis through working with Superior National Bank. The outdoor gear manufacturing company sells durable and lightweight gear made by hikers, for hikers. Co-founder Austin Gongos started the business with Nathan Ackerman in 2018. After each of them made backpacks for their own outdoor adventures, the pair realized there was a space in the market for lightweight, durable gear equipment. 

“We focus on durability with the aim that our gear will last thousands of miles and create less waste in the long run,” Gongos says. “Our hope is to help get more people outside and instill passion for the natural world. We want our customers to love the gear they buy from us and to be part of our mission.”

Over the past four years of business, the company has grown from operating in a two-bedroom apartment to a 6,000-square-foot building. Today, the business has seven employees. Last summer was the first time C.T.U.G. started applying for grants, a process Gongos says is very much worthwhile. 

The co-founders at work in their shop.“The application process helped us outline our needs and figure out how best to spend the capital we would hopefully receive. Since receiving the capital, we purchased three new computerized industrial sewing machines that are greatly improving our process times,” he says.

For small businesses to be eligible for the Elevate small business grant, applicants must partner with a member institution of FHLBank Indianapolis. In this case, C.T.U.G. worked with Superior National Bank to pursue the funds. Superior National Bank both reviewed and submitted the application on behalf of CTUG to FHLBank Indianapolis. The application was then scored by FHLBank Indianapolis and C.T.U.G was awarded funds. 

“Along with the new machines, we also used the funding to hire and train a new employee and pay for increased ad spends on social media," Gongos says. "The range of uses we're allowed through the FHLBank grant has helped us be flexible and explore new solutions to problems we encounter as we grow and expand.”

Being a small business owner isn’t for the faint of heart and requires much resiliency.  Gongos calls the Elevate grant a ‘total game-changer for the small business, enabling them to reduce the cost of making gear, which has opened up a new sales channel. “While before we were majority direct to consumers, we can now reach out to different retailers and wholesale our gear to them while still making enough money to justify selling to them.”

FHLBank Indianapolis returns 12.5% of its annual profits to communities throughout Michigan and Indiana through dedicated funding and grants for affordable housing and community investment initiatives. More information about the Elevate grant program is available at fhlbi.com.

Sarah Spohn is a Lansing native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over Michigan, leaving her truly smitten with the mitten. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, community, and anything Michigan-made. You can contact her at sarahspohn.news@gmail.com.
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