Man Has Midas Touch With Small Businesses

March 27, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

Ira Shipley launched his career in a chicken coop.

The Glen Burnie businessman shoveled out 200 wheelbarrows of dead chickens and manure before he could move his new manufacturing company into the coop, a ramshackle shed on an acre of land next to BWI Airport.

Decades later, the company -- Tinker Machinery -- is netting $3 million a year.

And Shipley is still making magic with small businesses.

Bearded and kindly, Shipley serves as a grandfather not onlyto his own grandkids -- 10 of them -- but also to the dozens of small-business people whose ventures he's helped save from going under.

He counsels the novice business owner on banks. He warns that lawyers and accountants are not business advisers. He explains how to stand up to the IRS.

But the 69-year-old isn't a formal consultant. Hehelps people for free, just to be nice.

"I can't even put into words how I feel about him," says Don Dwyer, whose printing business Shipley salvaged by becoming a

partner a year ago. "This man is as genuine as they come."

Dwyer's business, American Screen and Posterin Glen Burnie, needed more than financial backing, he says.

"We could not finance our own growth, but, more than money, we needed help, (advice on) how to not get into situations we'd gotten into."

Shipley and Dwyer teamed up and turned the business around. "That was right up his alley," says Dwyer. "He's an expert at helping people. I've never met anybody in my life as honest and good-hearted as Ira is."

Such appreciation from the business community led the North County Chamber of Commerce to name Shipley Businessman of the Year for 1990, says Lisa Pitt, who works with the chamber.

"He never takes people for granted. When you need something, he's right there," says Pitt. "He's one of those never-say-quit, never-say-die people. He helps everybody, and he doesn't have to let the whole world know about it."

Last year, two young women whose company was foundering asked Shipley to buy the business.

"I could have, but I told them it was foolish and they could find a partner and make the thing work if theysearched," he says.

Six months later, the business is "doing realgood," Shipley says.

Good has often emerged from near-disaster inShipley's life -- like the day he started his manufacturing company in the chicken coop.

On that day, the youngest of Shipley's three children started school, his wife started college, and he started thebrand-new business with $150 and an old Chevy coupe.

His wife, Jacqueline, drove the coupe to school, then he used it in the evenings to deliver the machinery he was producing.

Using the $150, the Shipleys bought a freezer stocked with food. They lived off that for three months, anxiously waiting for the venture to start making money.

"It was risky, but it worked," he says. The manufacturing business,which spins metal parts for defense equipment, quickly prospered.

The property on Elkridge Landing Road that the bank wouldn't financefor $5,000 quickly jumped in value as the airport expanded. Five years later, the same bank lent him a quarter-million dollars to expand his company, and last year, a buyer offered Shipley's three children -- who now run Tinker Machinery -- more than $1 million for the property.

Shipley's always been lucky, he says.

As a Navy seaman during World War II, Shipley was blown off the USS Arizona into the water during the Pearl Harbor attack. "The force of the bombing blew every stitch of clothes right off me."

A tug going to fight the fires picked him up, and for three days he helped battle fire on the USS Nevada. The Navy presumed Shipley dead, and sent his mother, Katherine -- a seamstress raising four children by herself -- a telegram announcing his disappearance.

She refused to believe the bad news and told the insurance agent she didn't want the money from her son's insurance. He left the check on her mantel anyway.

Fifteen days later, a second Navy telegram came. The Navy was happy to report that, indeed, her son was alive.

That day, she took the insurance check and bought coal for her family. The insurance company took her to court, but the judge said she could pay the money back "when she saw fit."

She never did, and her children teased her about it "until the day she died," says Shipley.

After Pearl Harbor, Shipley went on to fight in seven invasions, including Guadalcanal and Okinawa, and "never got a scratch," he says.

Good fortune kept him safe during the '40s, years he worked as a union organizer, walking picket lines in Baltimore and Philadelphia.

When he turned 60, Shipley turned over Tinker Machinery to his children and started another business, Quick Copy Printing in Glen Burnie.

"We were making less than $1,000 a month when we started here about 10 years ago. Now we're making $45,000 amonth," he says.

By now, Quick Copy nearly runs itself, and Shipley goes in to "sign checks and raise hell when I'm feelin' bad," he jokes.

He gets offers every month to buy small businesses, but he usually declines. "You can't run too many of them," he says.

Instead, he dispenses advice.

"For instance, people don't realize banks have to cover themselves by having records they can see. People feel like their integrity is being questioned, when it isn't."

"A small-business man is just a funny person anyway," he says. "They have to be an egotist or they wouldn't start one."

The game is risky -- Shipley's hocked his house more than once for collateral and insists such a move may be necessary for someone starting out.

But the risk and the work are worth it, he says.

"You're your own lawyer at first, your own accountant. Starting your own business is the most fun and interesting thing you can do."

Says his daughter, Mechelle McCabe, "He enjoys helping people because he had such a hard time, and nobody helped him. He's trying to change that in his own little world. Small businesses are the love of his life."

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