It may take a village to raise a child, but as Jim Cecere ’91 found out, it can take the Hobart and William Smith community to build a business.
After a successful finance career working for firms such as JP Morgan, BNY Mellon and Vanguard Group, Cecere — a member of the President’s Leadership Council who graduated with a degree in American studies before earning an MBA from Duke University — felt the urge to create something new, and he wanted to create it in his hometown of Geneva, N.Y. That’s when the HWS connections began.
A conversation with Cecere’s classmate, Associate Vice President for Advancement, Leadership Giving Jared Weeden ’91, led to an introduction to Trustee Scott Mason ’81, P’13, who serves as president of Rubicon Wealth Management, and a connection with Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies and Chair of the Entrepreneurial Studies program Thomas Drennen.
These connections and the ensuing discussions led to the creation of Finger Lakes Goods, which Cecere describes as “the Amazon of the Finger Lakes.”
“The concept of Finger Lakes Goods is the idea that in and throughout the Finger Lakes, there is a terrific amount of wonderful, quality products being made,” he says. “What I’m creating is a retail experience that makes those small-batch products available through one source.”
Mason explains that Finger Lakes Goods sprang out of a conversation about what the area was lacking. “Local artisans and craftspeople have wonderful products, but often lack the distribution channels they need to reach customers other than those who come into their stores or happen to pass a sign for their roadside stand or find in a small retail store,” he says.
To assess the viability of the idea and refine the Finger Lakes Goods business plan, Cecere worked with Drennen and his entrepreneurial studies senior capstone class. The 14 students were broken up into four groups focused on finance, marketing, competitive research and customer discovery.
Carly Pruitt ’20 was part of the marketing team that developed the bundles of products available on the Finger Lakes Goods website. “Being local for eight months of the year, we knew Finger Lakes Goods was a really good idea,” she says. The geoscience major and entrepreneurial studies minor hopes to start a business of her own one day. “Working with Jim illuminated the small details I’ll need to focus on when developing my own company,” she says.
For economics major Omari Davis ’20, working with Cecere taught him the importance of knowing your audience. “Jim understands the local community and the people who are going to buy from him. He realizes that people really want this,” he says. Part of the finance group that developed projections for the company, Davis hopes to work as a financial adviser after graduation. “Jim showed us how important it is to have excellent presentation skills,” he says. “You have to be able to tell your story.”
The first phase of operation for the online Finger Lakes Goods store includes curated gift boxes and bundles, a general store and gift shop of shelf-stable goods and pantry items such as honey, pancake mix, sweets, salsas, ketchups and mustards, soaps and self-care items and artisan jewelry. In the second phase, Cecere plans to offer refrigerated items such as meats and cheeses; in the third phase, he’ll incorporate wine and craft spirits. He anticipates all three phases will be complete by the fall.
While sales continue online, Cecere is also busy building a brick and mortar version of Finger Lakes Goods. He describes the storefront on Linden Street in downtown Geneva as “an experience center.” Noting that retail needs to evolve to compete with the convenience of online shopping, he realized there was an opportunity to create “an attraction for families, visitors and residents.”
The physical store will include all the products available on the website as well as profiles of the producers of those goods — as Cecere points out, “customers aren’t buying from me, they’re buying from the local producers such as Birkett Mills, the Finger Lakes Cookie Company and Keuka Candy Emporium” — and pop-up shops where producers can sell their products, interact with customers and provide demonstrations and workshops.
“Imagine chocolatiers demonstrating how they put candy creations together, winemakers showing how they make wine and beekeepers hosting a honey-making class,” he says. The anticipated open date for the store in July.
Mason reflects on the creation of Finger Lakes Goods as mutually beneficial for Cecere, the Colleges, the Bozzuto Center for Entrepreneurship and the city. “Being able to leverage the resources of the Colleges, the students, the growth of the area, an alum like Jim who has an entrepreneurial flair and someone like Jared to connect us — it’s a Geneva story,” he says. “It’s a Hobart and William Smith story.”