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Vegas Weddings boss to get Small Business Administration honor

Vegas Weddings is the rare business that’s grown during the recession.

And unlike, say, bankruptcy attorneys, repo men or payday lenders, Vegas Weddings has expanded even as its potential customer base has dwindled.

Roughly 92,000 couples tied the knot in Las Vegas in 2010, down 26.4 percent from 125,000 couples in 2004. Cliff Evarts, founder and chief executive officer of Vegas Weddings, predicted another 6 percent to 8 percent drop in 2011.

Despite the slumping business, Vegas Weddings has grown from one employee in a converted law office 10 years ago to 40 workers and three downtown locations today. The company now holds 10 percent of the local weddings market.

Thanks to that growth, Evarts will be in Washington, D.C., today through Friday, where the U.S. Small Business Administration will honor him during its National Small Business Week as Nevada’s Small Businessperson of the Year.

Vegas Weddings has expanded even as many smaller Nevada operations cut back or close altogether. Numbers from the state Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation show the Silver State had 68,564 companies with fewer than 100 employees in the third quarter of 2010. That’s down 6.6 percent from 73,424 small companies in 2009’s third quarter, and off 8 percent when compared with 74,555 companies in the same period in 2008.

“The small-business economy is still in the doldrums,” Evarts said. “As you drive around town, you see so many locations that were built specifically for the small businessperson, and thousands of them are vacant. There are real opportunities for someone to get a great location, but no one is doing it, because they don’t think they can make it work.”

Vegas Weddings has succeeded through a combination of “really, really hard work,” great employees, good luck and even better timing, Evarts said.

Start with that timing: Evarts used home equity loans and SBA financing to build Vegas Weddings’ flagship location, with its 100-seat chapel, at 555 S. Third St. The building opened in August 2008, mere weeks before financial markets crashed, taking with them access to the home-equity and SBA loans that help small businesses stay open or expand.

“Even though the land might be less expensive today, and the chapel might be less expensive to build, we could never do this today, because we could never get the seed money,” Evarts said.

Evarts has also diversified his business, adding a window for $50 walk-up weddings and a separate location specializing in quick civil ceremonies. The idea? To capture business from every angle and income group.

Robert Hart, the Nevada State Bank vice president who nominated Evarts for this week’s SBA honor, agreed that Evarts’ fortunate timing and creativity helped him beat the odds.

“It’s the proverbial right place at the right time. Cliff is a very outside-the-box thinker, and that’s what it takes to be an entrepreneur,” Hart said. “He was able to come up with a lot of different approaches and services.”

Hart said he’s seeing hints that other local small businesses may be ready to grow. His phone rings more these days, as company owners increasingly want to know what it’ll take to get an SBA loan. And the certified development companies that package SBA loans tell him they’ve already arranged more financing in 2011 than in all of 2010.

“Everybody has had to make drastic changes, laying people off and cutting expenses just to survive,” Hart said. “Those survivors are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for things to turn around. Some of them are taking the attitude that now is the time to leap.”

But Evarts said he doesn’t think the local economy has bottomed out. The residential and commercial real estate markets could be years from recovery, he said, and the market could experience tougher times as a result.

Leo Bletnitsky, president of information technology consultant Las Vegas Med IT, agreed that Southern Nevada’s small-business market still has its challenges. Bletnitsky’s four-employee company sees continued downsizing among its clients, and though he’s optimistic his business will grow slightly in 2011, he said it’s possible the local economy will stay slow for another two years or so. Uncertainty about potential new taxes and regulations won’t help, he added.

“Those types of things make it really scary, especially for larger companies,” he said. “For me to do well, larger companies need to do well and start spending money.”

Evarts said he’s not sure when the local entrepreneur economy will improve.

“I would never discourage anybody from following their dream, but being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart,” he said. “There are so many unknowns that occur in your business life cycle. Unless you have the financial wherewithal and are fairly quick-footed, it’s really easy to fail. I wouldn’t discourage somebody from starting a new business, but I’m not out trying to open a new business myself right now.”

Contact reporter Jennifer Robison at
jrobison@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4512.

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