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Ruskey promotes doing business in...

Ruskey promotes doing business in Mississippi, shares his small business journey

By: Phil Hardwick - April 5, 2024

  • Mississippi’s Small Business Person of the Year encourages prospective entrepreneurs to find something you love doing, day in and day out, and make it replicable.

John Ruskey, owner of Quapaw Canoe Company in Clarksdale, was recently named Mississippi’s Small Business Person of 2024 by the Small Business Administration.

Last week we learned about his company. In this column, we interviewed Ruskey about what it’s like to be the owner of a small business in the Magnolia State.

How did you learn about your SBA selection as Small Business of the Year?

I received a personal phone call from Janita Stewart, the District Director of the U.S. Small Business Administration, sharing the news. I was very surprised!  But humbled and honored also. I know the state of Mississippi overflows with hundreds of thousands of hard-working business leaders and their staff, creating a vital engine for the economy. I’m not taking this lightly.

I look forward to working with Ms. Stewart and her staff in promoting the great state of Mississippi, and the attraction of its communities as nurseries (or new locations) for the small business. There are 32 million small businesses in the U.S. More than half of Americans either own or work for a small business. Small businesses also create about two-thirds of annual new U.S. jobs. 

What got you interested in this type of business?

I’ve always been hydrophilic. My mother called me “Water John.”  Even though I grew up in one of the driest regions of the country, the mountain west, I always sought out the valleys, and the lowlands, and felt most comfortable near streams and marshes and other kinds of wetlands.

After high school graduation, my best friend and I got inspired by Huck & Jim and decided to build a raft and float down the biggest river in North America, the Mississippi River. After five months, we crash-landed on the first big island in the state of Mississippi (Cat Island). I became river infected. I got the mud in my blood and shed some blood in the mud. In 1998 I started Quapaw Canoe Company to share the great wild beauty of the river with others. It all started with one two-person Grumman canoe, with one client at a time, and grew from there.

This is your 25th year in business—quite an accomplishment. Tell us about some of your ups and downs.

The pandemic years 2020-2021 set us back with a severe downturn in clients and trips. We tightened our belts, reduced staff, and focused on new avenues of cash generation through low-contact activities such as canoe construction. PPP helped us survive, but just barely. During 2022 we saw a partial return to normalcy. Unfortunately, I was forced to make more loans to survive. It was a painful learning experience. We implemented new systems of hygiene and efficiency.

John Ruskey

Personally, I suffered a family tragedy during this period. My health spiraled downward. I became crippled by a childhood injury returned to haunt me. But now the light is shining in new ways. Everything has gotten better with new partnerships, a new location opening (in Memphis), increased revenue, and successful hip surgery. Now surrounded by new partners, reinvigorated staff, and a pathway forward. I feel like a new business leader with a bright future.

At the same time, I feel my aging body and am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I am actively seeking a partner to help strengthen and sustainably carry our work on into the next decades to come, for the benefit of all. I am a worker bee and a dreamer type. But not so good on all the other aspects of healthy business-like development, marketing, and promotions.   

From the beginning, QCC has grown slowly and steadily. QCC started in 1998 with one aluminum 2-person canoe. One year later, we added six aluminum canoes and our first giant voyageur-style canoe (29 feet long, 10 passengers). Ten years later we were paddling the river with four voyageur canoes and a flotilla of smaller ones. We quickly outgrew our original basement location. In 2014 we expanded into an 18,000-square-foot building, concrete & brick factory on the banks of the Sunflower River in downtown Clarksdale. In 2016 we opened an outpost location in Vicksburg (Layne Logue), and in 2022 Memphis (Matthew Burdine). We are currently partnering with Wilson, Arkansas, to open a location there in 2024.

We go wherever the water goes. Like the Mighty Mississippi herself, we have grown horizontally not vertically. We are a mission-driven business. Our goals are exceptional service and safety. We intentionally plow profits back into the company to build a strong foundation, and over the decades have grown slowly, thoughtfully, purposefully, and organically. Our objectives are to create a strong system of operations, foster an excellent staff work culture, and build solid infrastructure with efficient shuttle vehicles, high-quality paddles, life jackets, and camping supplies. Our mission is happy clients and a healthy river-environment; not the bottom line.

I see you studied Philosophy in college. How did that affect your choice of business and the way you conduct business?

Philosophy has helped me survive the complicated ins and outs of life. I was a little shocked when we received the SBA award because we have been struggling to keep going since the pandemic. The award reminded me that it’s not all about the bottom line but is mostly about the quality of your service (or product), and the vision of your work. We have always considered the whole in our decision-making. It all begins with the experience of the client. How will this experience lead to a happier person?  But it grows from there: how will we help create a better community?  How will we help make a healthier world?  Those are the kinds of questions we ask ourselves as we move forward carving canoes and guiding our clients on the wild and wonderful Mississippi River. 

I guess philosophy helps me see the big picture. My father always told me to look at the big picture. “Don’t worry about the little things,” he said, which almost always ended with a follow-up: “it’s all little things!”

My Clarksdale mentor “Mr. Johnnie” Johnnie Billington (Master Folk Artist) always told me that “it’s all about love, it’s all about health & happiness.”  He was referring to music but was thinking about life in general. Mr. Johnnie’s method of teaching kids to play music became my example of a successful apprenticeship program.

My own personal business philosophy is to do what you can, and don’t worry abut the rest. Do good work, and keep moving forward. Most things on the big pile of obligations, sitting on the edge of an overcrowded desk, in a cluttered office, will solve themselves. It’s all about time. Time takes care of everything. We might get overinflated by our egos. We might be made overzealous in our ambitions. But ultimately our time on this earth has a clear beginning and a clear ending. We enter with nothing, we can’t take anything with us. It’s all about our experiences during these short lives, what we do and say with all of those around us, and making the most of it.

What do you do when you’re not running your business?

My daughter is a junior at the Mississippi School of the Arts in Brookhaven, in the track of a dancer. Her performances cause me the greatest joy I’ve ever felt. 

I also like reading and painting and making river music around the campfire. I’m an amateur sketch artist, mostly in watercolor. My sketchbooks and paint supplies go on every river trip, as well as my muddy water “gee-tar.” 

My fiancée Heather Crosse is the longtime leader of a soul blues band called “Heavy Suga and the Sweetones.”  Recently, she went through our Mighty Quapaw Apprenticeship Program and has become one of our essential river guides. She overflows with talent, which makes me so proud, and brings a lot of earthy fun on our trips for our clients.

What advice would you give to anyone starting their own business?

Success depends on the value of your service or product to other people, to your neighbors, and to your community. Find something you love doing, day in and day out, and make it replicable.

Grow slowly and organically and think horizontally. It is a blessing to be able to make a living doing something you love doing!

About the Author(s)
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Phil Hardwick

Phil Hardwick is an award-winning business columnist and semi-retired economic developer. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at the Millsaps College Else School of Management for many years. He has taught over 1,000 students, written over 800 columns, written 11 books and assisted over 100 communities and organizations with strategic planning. In February 2016 he was inducted as a Lifetime Member of the Mississippi Economic Development Council.