Leon Smith III is a third-generation owner of Niagara Lubricant Company, Inc.—a manufacturing mainstay in Buffalo, New York since 1923 (his grandson, who is also part of the family business, represents the fifth generation). Leon’s also a service-disabled U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War.
Leon’s professional and service experiences result in a business that’s run like a well-oiled machine. At the plant, which is located in the heart of Buffalo’s East Side community, Niagara Lubricant employs about 30 people full-time, including many from the surrounding neighborhood.
In this Excelsior Growth Fund (EGF) interview, Leon shares valuable insight about staying the course when faced with business challenges. In addition, EGF has included several resources for veterans like Leon that want to transition to business ownership.
First, can you give the nutshell version of what Niagara Lubricant does?
We’re a contract-packaging manufacturer for things like automotive maintenance supplies, waxes, polishes and more. We do private-label production for clients around the world.
While you’ve operated in Buffalo for 95 years, you had a significant change in recent years.
Yes, we had a fire at our former plant, the one we’d been in for decades. We lost everything, absolutely everything. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but losing everything that your family and employees have built over 90 years is absolutely devastating.
But you rebounded.
Yes, absolutely. We took over a building that had been vacated by another manufacturer. We’ve always been in the City of Buffalo, we love it and we’re glad to operate here.
And you continue to grow your business. How do you do that?
We always look for new opportunities—new products, clients and markets. Our name, Niagara Lubricant, only scratches the surface of what we produce. Now, too, we’re in a larger facility that has a lot of upgrades and we expanded our staff.
Growing to a global scale can be daunting for business owners. Do you have any advice?
Work hard—work really hard—and don’t be afraid to grow, and you’ll succeed. Also, use the resources that are around you. We’ve built our business through a combination of word-of-mouth, internet outreach, manufacturing representatives, trade shows and the like. If you want your business to be successful, you have to work at it consistently.
With a business as well-established as yours, what kinds of funding needs do you have?
Most recently, we needed working capital to take on a significant new project.
How did you find out about EGF?
EGF was recommended by one of our consultants. Once we were in touch with EGF, we knew we didn’t have to go to any other funders. EGF was excellent to work with—minimal hassle and everything was done rapidly. I wasn’t expecting that—I was truly surprised by how great they were to work with.
How long have you had funding in place and what difference has it made to your business?
We received the loan about two to three months ago and with working capital in place, we had the financial resources we needed for the project and we’re achieving our goals.
EGF looks forward to watching Leon’s success as he continues to grow his family-owned business with the next generation. If you’re an entrepreneur that’s served in the armed forces, there are numerous programs and certifications that can help your business reach the next level.
Special certifications like the Veterans First Verification Program can provide invaluable access to one of the largest procurement organizations in the world—the U.S. federal government—for businesses with veteran-owned small business (VOSB) or service-disabled veteran owned small business (SDVOSB) certification through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Here are some additional resources for business owners that have served in the armed forces — EGF’s Business Advisory Services team is available to help, too:
- EGF’s affiliate, New York Business Development Corporation, offers a Veteran Loan Program that provides funding for working capital, business acquisition, purchase of real estate, machinery and equipment and other needs. Current and past members of the U.S. Armed Forces are eligible. EGF Business Advisors can help with the process, too.
- Boots to Business is a two-step entrepreneurial training program that’s offered by the U.S. Small Business Administration in partnership with SCORE, Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers and Veterans Business Outreach Centers. It’s available to service members transitioning or retiring from the U.S. military and their dependents at participating military installations.
- Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) is a three-phase entrepreneurship program operated by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University, with support from the SBA and corporate and foundation partners. The program is open to all female veterans, active-duty female service members, and female partners and spouses of active duty service members and veterans who are interested in starting or growing sustainable businesses.
- North East Veterans Business Resource Center offers business development workshops for veterans, as well as other services.
EGF is honored to help our country’s veterans and the people who support them. If you’re interested in these or other loan and business development programs, contact Excelsior Growth Fund today.