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Life after GM is successful for Evansville small business owner

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GINA R. HEINE
October 4, 2010
— It’s been five years since Kevin Hamaker parted ways with General Motors, and he’s fine with that.

“I love my life at this point. I don’t have a boss I have to worry about—my day is my day,” said the Evansville man who runs a successful family seal-coating business. “To me, it makes you work harder when it’s up to you to succeed.”


His story is one of entrepreneurship after GM.


“It’s great to see when life gives you lemons, he turned it around and provided something that wasn’t here,” said Jackie Liebel, executive director of the Evansville Area Chamber of Commerce & Tourism.


Hamaker, a Clarkston, Mich., native, worked for GM for more than 25 years. He started in the print shop in Pontiac, Mich., and later completed a retraining program to be a designer.


His family moved to Evansville in 1996 when GM decided it wanted an in-house designer at the Janesville assembly plant. After he was at the plant for 10 years, GM officials changed their minds again, and he was forced to relocate to Michigan to stay with the company.


Hamaker and his wife, Wendy, agreed the family would stay, and he would make the eight-hour weekend commutes for four years until he was eligible to retire.


“That got old real quick,” he said.


As with so many other GM employees now doing the long-distance commute to out-of-state plants, the distance wore on Hamaker, Wendy and their three kids.


Then GM changed its retirement benefits, which would have pushed Hamaker to work until 65 to get what he had been planning to get after his 30 years of work, he said.


“I had always done this (seal coating) back home on the side with a buddy,” he said.


The friend suggested he start his own business.


In April 2006, Tri-County Sealcoating began after Hamaker accepted a buyout from GM.


“I’ve always enjoyed it. I love being outside,” he said. “The sales portion is really what I like.”


Getting started

Getting the word out about his business was probably the toughest part, he said.


He didn’t want to knock on doors, so he placed fliers in residents’ newspaper boxes and placed other advertising.


It’s year five of his business, and he hasn’t placed a flier since early in the year.


He started doing mostly residential jobs, but commercial jobs have increased. This year, commercial has taken over, which he attributes to the economy because more homeowners are becoming do-it-yourselfers.


He mainly works in Rock, Green and Dane counties, and business goes in spurts in areas as word-of-mouth travels, he said.


The crew consists of Wendy, their son, Ben, who is a student at UW-Eau Claire, and an occasional friend. Next year, Hamaker hopes to hire a full crew so he can focus on selling and overseeing jobs. He prides himself on his quality work.


“I’m really picky about making sure everything is neat and clean. I haven’t been able to turn the brush over to anybody else,” he said with a smile.


The seasonal business, however, offers challenges. In winter, he’s picked up other jobs and received unemployment when things really soured last winter, he said.


“I just really like the fact that how much I make is dependent on how much I want to work,” he said.


His advice for other former autoworkers interested in starting their own businesses?


“Don’t go into seal coating,” he said, laughing. “Do whatever you want to do. ... I never thought I could lose 70 grand a year from General Motors and survive. You learn to live on less money. Everything works out in the end, and you’ve just got to go for it.”


By year five of his business, his goal was to be making similar wages to what he made in his former career.


While he’s not there yet, he said the recession has rebalanced the pay scale, and it’s a fact of life that people earn less.


Liebel, who works with Hamaker as a chamber member and also is his neighbor, said he has provided a quality service that the area needed.


It’s encouraging, she said, when people step up and start successful, family-supporting businesses.


“Aim to look for needs that aren’t being met in smaller communities,” she said.



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