A long and winding road brought Rick Snow to his Maine Indoor Karting business in Scarborough. Snow, who grew up in Cumberland, was recently appointed a trustee of the National Small Business Association, a lobbying group that tries to influence policy decisions to help small businesses.
He opened his business after careers in the Navy and finance. After graduating from the Naval Academy, he served on two ships and then was a tactical adviser to the Royal Saudi Navy. After he left the service, Snow worked for Merrill Lynch and then Morgan Stanley until finally his wife suggested he follow his dream of opening an indoor go-kart track. “She was carrying twin boys and there was an extreme amount of testosterone running through her body and I’m convinced that’s what led her to say that,” Snow said.
Q. Why a go-kart business?
A. When I was a little boy, my dad was one of the founders of the Cumberland Motor Club, which was a bunch of car nuts. I loved it, and while I was in the Navy, I had an opportunity to go try formula cars and found a new passion. Also, in 1996 my brother was stationed in the Army in Germany and all of us siblings went over to visit him. As soon as we got off the plane, he said, “We’re going to go karting,” and it was high-speed, indoor track karting and it was phenomenal. I thought we should have one of these in Maine, but I put it on the back burner. But when I retired from the Navy, my wife said, “if you ever want to do this, now is the time to do it.” I’ve done a lot of other functions, too: I was on the board of Casco Bay Navy League and Sea Cadet program and I joined the Scarborough Chamber of Commerce and then, when it became part of the Portland Regional Chamber, I was on the board of the regional chamber.
Q. You recently were named a trustee of the National Small Business Association. Why add that to a pretty full plate?
A. I thought it was quite an honor and felt it would be something interesting. I’ve always enjoyed small businesses – and large businesses, too. We represent about 80,000 businesses nationwide and we have approximately 25 trustees. It’s a nonpartisan lobbying organization, working on small-business issues with our congressional delegation and the White House.
Q. What’s the main focus?
A. Right now, we’re working on patent reform issues. It’s pretty onerous for someone who comes up with their own patent to pay to protect their patent and that seems to us unfair. You have come up with a $5 million bond to fight a patent case, and of course a large business can do that, but it’s hard for a small business. We’re also working on the cost of health care and we want to see ways to improve what we have in place and make it easier for small businesses to insure their employees. Social Security is a big issue, of course, and the debt is an issue – the debt and deficit. At some point, when you look at $17 trillion (national debt), it’s mind-boggling, so there are concerns there.
Q. Will you be spending a lot of time in Washington, D.C., with the NSBA?
A. I’ll be going there next on June 22nd for a big event, where we meet all the different legislative leaders and go to the White House to discuss small-business issues and we bring our concerns to them. So that’s pretty exciting.
Q. Are the issues for small businesses in Maine the same as nationally?
A. In Maine, they’re different in some respects. The biggest things that concern me concern all small businesses – the complications of doing business. I have to have eight different licenses to run a go-kart track and they run into a lot of money, and so there’s some overlap that could be contained. There are significant issues in employment law; you have to stay on top of that. You can’t afford an HR department, so you have to keep track of the laws and make sure you’re not violating any. Then there’s OSHA and the state fire marshal that I work with. He has to license each ride in the state and I work with them and also with the local fire marshals. Signage rules are important because I’m not right on Payne Road near the mall; I’m in an industrial park because of the price. If you look at a mall or shopping center, you’re going to pay $12-15 a square foot, whereas in an industrial park it’s $5-6, but you have to get people to your place.
Q. What are some of your other worries?
A. We worry about the weather. Also, the cost of gasoline, which is a significant cost to us. Since most people in Maine are not high-worth individuals and they live paycheck to paycheck, when the cost of gasoline goes up, there’s all these things competing for that last entertainment dollar, so we want to see the income of our customers grow.
Q. The recession must have had a big impact. How did you weather that?
A. We did a number of things. Out of pure luck, we had an internal marketing and sales director who decided in 2007 he wanted to go into the mortgage business and he was our highest-paid employee. Not having that cost, that helped. And, at our height (of employment) we had as many as 45 employees and now we have 19. Most of our staff are high school or college students working for us part time. We have seven full-time employees. We became more efficient and because we didn’t have the customers, we didn’t have the same hours and we wouldn’t hire as many employees during our winters as summers, which are our strongest times. Then, in the winter of ’08, my wife and I started filling in and putting in the hours ourselves to reduce our staffing. We also became more efficient. We used to have seven or eight people working at a time and now we can work with five and we close on Mondays and Tuesdays during the school year. We’re still trying to get back to ’07 levels; we’re not there yet and gas prices are going up again. That’s something we have to address as a nation.
Q. Has there been any easing up on state and local regulations since the recession?
A. We’ve started to see some reductions in regulations but it didn’t affect us directly. The restaurant still needs permits, local and state; we still need the fire marshals in here, both local and state; and so we haven’t seen all those permits reduced. In terms of medical, we provided health care for our employees, but back in ’11 we realized it was too costly and had to drop that. I had a retirement plan, but over the years those have priced themselves out of the marketplace.
Q. That’s a lot of headaches. What do you like best about your business?
A. I like that I can see my customers leave happy. We provide a very good product and it’s my passion. I love racing cars and seeing other people enjoy that. As a small-business owner, I also like the autonomy of setting my own hours so I can participate in the other organizations I’m on. I would not have had that ability if I weren’t a small-business owner. I can go to my daughter’s classes, or on my sons’ Boy Scout camping trip – I have that flexibility and there’s a lot of different things you can focus on and that’s enjoyable. Because the entrepreneurial side of me is there, which I think a lot of Mainers have, we want to be independent and not have a lot of people telling us what to do. That’s a great part of Maine and the other small businesses I work with; they all want to succeed although there are a lot of things pushing down on them.
Q. Do you get out on the track a lot?
A. I did when we first opened. I thought I’d be racing go-karts every day, but you realize there are other things that take your time. An employee just set a Guinness world record – Ryan Dyer, for the most miles on an indoor go-kart track in a 24-hour period – he went 323 miles and change. We’re still waiting for Guinness to confirm the record. He raised a lot of money for Alzheimer’s research. We help a lot of nonprofits with fundraising events.