If there is one person in Rockbridge County who can attest to the business opportunities in the area, it’s Bobby Berkstresser.
The native son embarked on his business career at age 23, starting a two-person car repair shop with $500 in the bank and a box of tools. Forty-five years later, he owns the busiest travel center east of the Mississippi River and is in the middle of a $6 million expansion project over the next 30 months with both of his locations.
“I’m tremendously blessed,” Berkstresser said. “It’s incredible the opportunities we’ve been given here.”
Berkstresser purchased the Lee Hi Travel Plaza in Lexington in 1981, then bought White’s Travel Center in Raphine in 2010. The two travel centers have grown quite a bit in the last eight years, and now employ 430 people.
The travel centers are among the many thriving businesses in Rockbridge County, which features a highly educated workforce and relatively close proximity to major U.S. markets along the eastern seaboard. In fact, the county is within 500 miles of more than 40 percent of the U.S. population and 200,000 manufacturers.
Key factors for business leaders
A strong education system and business-friendly leadership are two major factors that are driving a strong economic climate in the county.
Rockbridge County is home to some of the top-ranked schools in the state, including Rockbridge County High School. In addition, there are four higher education institutions in the Rockbridge County area – Washington and Lee University, Virginia Military Institute, Southern Virginia University and Dabney S. Lancaster Community College.
“There are a lot of good jobs here, so college grads are sticking aroundtoday, more than ever,” Berkstresser said. In fact, one recent college graduate from the area worked for Berkstresser on weekends during college and now has a full-time job at one of his centers
Also, Rockbridge County leaders are tied strongly to the business community and local universities, helping leaders succeed in sectors such as manufacturing, service and agriculture. The county offers the Shenandoah Valley Small Business Development Center, which was started by James Madison University. The business development center helps potential owners start a business and assists current business owners with expansions and business growth.
“The Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors are very pro-business,” said Berkstresser, who served on the board for several years. “The county inspector’s office is second to none. It’s a good place to do business.”
Signs of economic growth
Several recent announcements and projects illustrate the tremendous growth that is taking place in the Rockbridge County area:
Mohawk Industries, Inc., one of the largest residential and commercial flooring product manufacturers in the country, announced in 2018 it will invest $10 million to expand its manufacturing plant in Glasgow. The expansion will create 15 jobs.
Munters Corporation, which makes energy recovery and dehumidification systems as well as custom air handling equipment for a wide range of industries, announced in 2017 it would invest $2.5 million to expand operations and upgrade equipment at its Buena Vista plant. The plant, which is next to Rockbridge County, planned to add 100 jobs during the expansion.
NIBCO Inc., a manufacturer of valves, fittings and flow control devices, said in July 2018 it has bought a 173,055-square-foot manufacturing/distribution building in Buena Vista. The plant will allow it to expand operations in Virginia.
The Rockbridge Area Health Center is working on a $6.6 million expansion that will add 13,000 square feet to the center, which will make it more than double its size.
“Everybody is hiring,” Berkstesser said. “It’s an easy place to do business and taxes are reasonable.”
Strong transportation network
Another major factor for business growth in Rockbridge County is transportation. With 58,000 vehicles a day on two major interstates – I-64 and I-81 – running through the area, you’re within 5 miles of an interstate anywhere in the county.
Excellent access to interstates is, of course, what drove Berkstesser’s success at his travel centers.
Lexington is within 500 miles of Atlanta, Nashville, Boston and New York, which is a good day’s drive. Trucking companies also rely on Lexington for relays, allowing a driver from Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, to drive to White’s, exchange trailers with a driver from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and then both can turn around and go home that day. FedEx is one of about 10 companies that do this several times a week.
And if the drivers want to take some time at White’s, they can find an on-site medical clinic, a gym, pharmacy and much more at the 5,700-square-foot facility.
“We park over 700 trucks and 200 cars now,” Berkstresser said. “In the next 12 months we’ll add 200 more truck parking spots.”
The beauty of the Rockbridge County area combined with easy access to top-level medical care and excellent entertainment makes it an ideal place to live and work.
“We have the best of both worlds,” Berkstresser said.
Starting a Business Here
Looking to begin your journey of starting a business in Rockbridge? It will take a lot of planning and preparation, but the Rockbridge area offers staff dedicated to helping you start your business successfully.
Brainstorm your idea
Have an idea you are very knowledgeable and passionate about? Turn your great idea into a business! Narrow your ideas to a small list and search your chosen industry for existing companies. How can you do it better?
Build a business plan
What is the purpose of your business? Who is your customer? What is your goal? Most importantly, how will you finance your startup costs? Knowing the answers to these questions is a key component to forming your business plan. The Chamber co-hosts Start Smart Workshops with the Small Business Development Center to help individuals write their own business plan. Visit ValleySBDC.org to learn more.
Evaluate your finances
Do you have the ability to finance all of your start-up costs? You may need a commercial loan from a local bank or other lender. Check out our trusted banks and financial advisors in our member directory on page 32.
Determine your business entity type
Business structure affects everything from how you file taxes to personal liability. There are four basic types: sole partnership, general partnership, corporation and limited liability company. There are many factors to consider when choosing your structure. Learn more about types of business structures on the …. website.
Register with the government and IRS
Get all of your forms and legal documents together to get your business registered. If you register as a corporation, you will need an “articles of incorporation” document to register with the State Corporation Commission. Next you might want to obtain an employer identification number from the IRS, register with the VEC and the Department of Taxation. Because tax laws can be extremely complex, small business owners are strongly encouraged to seek professional assistance. Check out our trusty lawyers in our member directory on page 32.
Connect with our local government
Now that you have completed the state and federal requirements, you are ready to begin the registration process for the locality in which your business will be located. Verifying the zoning of the property you plan to operate your business on is vital. Visit our friends below to secure your business license:
City of Buena Vista, Department of Economic Development
2039 Sycamore Ave. | Buena Vista | (540) 261-8616 | www.bvcity.org
City of Lexington – City Manager
300 E. Washington St. | Lexington | (540) 462-3700 | www.lexingtonva.gov
Rockbridge County – Office of Community Development
150 S. Main St. | Lexington | (540) 464-9662 | www.rockbridgecountyva.gov
Purchase an insurance policy
Choose an insurance policy that is tailored to your specific needs. General liability insurance can cover property damage, bodily injury and personal injury. You might also consider obtaining a business owners policy, workers compensation and unemployment insurance. We have a great list of local trusted insurance providers in our member directory on page 32.
Choose your partners
Running a business has proven to be a lot of work. You do not have to do it all on your own, nor should you. We have an abundance of consultants and third-party vendors that can provide expert advice to help you run your business. Visit our member directory on page 32 to find trusted members of the community who will help get the job done, anywhere from book keeping to your IT needs.
Build your team
You should choose carefully the people you would like working on your team. Defining specific roles and responsibilities within your chosen team will help your team communicate and work together down the line.
Brand yourself and advertise
Create your image and gain a band of followers before your opening day. It is important to have a solid marketing plan to get your brand off the ground. You will want to create a logo, website and social media pages to reflect your brand. Not a PR guru? No problem. We know just the right people near you. Contact one of our local advertising professionals on page 32.
Grow your Business
In order to succeed in business, you should always look for more ways to grow. Connect with our Small Business Development Center at James Madison University for information and resources to grow your business. Some of the best ways to grow comes from collaboration with more established brands, partnering with charity organizations or volunteering. See our list of awesome nonprofits and community organizations in the member directory on page 32.
Join the Chamber of Commerce Serving Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County to join a community of the many trusted business leaders in the area. Stop by the office at 18 E. Nelson St. in Lexington today if you have any questions.