Business Consulting


S.E.A. Retirement & Investments LLP                                      "Steering a course to a better future...."

Superheroes usually wear capes.

J.D. Kirkman and his partners at S.E.A. Retirement & Investments don’t dress the part, but to the businesses they help, they sure do seem like caped crusaders.

Kirkman, 41, an investment counselor from rural Holcombe, began the business in November 2011 after nearly 20 years of coaching individuals in finance.

As a native of Holcombe, Kirkman not only saw that small businesses in the area needed a helping hand, but his heart was also attached to the community.

“One of the things I’m relatively good at is helping smaller companies help themselves,” he said. “I was tired of watching those companies fold. Holcombe is so heavily dependent on recreation and tourism. When we don’t get snow one winter it almost kills us.”

Before 2008, banks were willing to loan money freely. But after the economy soured, they pulled back the reigns. Kirkman said small businesses in the Holcombe area had a difficult time expanding. Some struggled just to survive.

First order of business

Paul Gilbertson, 58, president of Gilbertson Transit and service shop Lake Area Service, has known Kirkman since he was young. Gilbertson and Kirkman’s dad both moved to the Holcombe area in 1986 and became friends.

Gilbertson Transit takes care of the busing for Lake Holcombe School District. As an adult, Kirkman helped Gilbertson with business and personal finances year after year.

“He understands the finance thing a little more than I do,” he said.

Gilbertson spoke with Kirkman when he was trying to get things in order to purchase a larger property on Highway 27 to house his business in 2011.

“The impression I got … a few years ago I could walk into a bank and say I needed a couple hundred thousand and get it. Now you have to have a half million in the bank before you borrow $250,000,” Gilbertson said. “The mindset of people is that there are no options for us.”

Kirkman to the rescue — securing loans in a single bound.

“Paul (Gilbertson) has been a staple of the community for the better part of 30 years,” Kirkman said. “Paul has been able to keep the community’s cost down by running his operation at 60 percent of that of surrounding communities.”

In an effort to save the school district money, Gilbertson was working off of one-year contracts. Each year they would renegotiate. But when  getting a loan became more difficult, banks in the area didn’t want to lend to a business whose income might change from year to year.

“It was a big challenge,” Kirkman said. “We talked to 33 banks in the area. We had to go through the Trials of Job to find financing for them.”

Pioneer Bank came through. Gilbertson was able to purchase the Kuc property just off of Highway 27 for $300,000. The property is closer to the school and will save the district money, and it’s a great fit for Gilbertson’s business, Kirkman said.

Had the men failed to find a way to make the financing work, it would have been devastating for Gilbertson’s business, Kirkman said.

“In short, it would have meant that the investment — the prospects of Paul (Gilbertson) adding on would have forced him down the road. It would have forced a really bad situation. It would have likely eventually put him in a position where he would have to close shop.

“It would have been a real mess.”

Investment counselors to the rescue

Kirkman and his three partners at S.E.A. Retirement & Investments want to make sure that the Lake Holcombe area businesses stay viable. That’s why they take on these types of projects for whatever the small business is able to afford.

“We don’t have a lot of industry up here,” Kirkman said. “We are not in a position where we can let any of them go.”

Kirkman’s company works to find “a special bank” that will accept the risk.

To begin the process, a client will come to Kirkman and explain what needs to be done. Kirkman and his partners are uniquely suited to deal with all aspects of a small business’ issue. One partner has a background in unions and school districts. Another was a chief human resources specialist. When it comes to disclosure, coordination of benefits that companies deal with, her skill set is unmatched.

The third partner is versed in small business integration. He cuts the fat and makes businesses viable.

Kirkman built his business over the years with insurance annuities and investments. He’s good at handing individuals 401k and other investments.

He wanted to use his skills in a different way.

“I knew what to do and what I wanted to do … I wanted to help,” he said.

Small businesses are in a catch-22, Kirkman said. They either get someone to manage their funds for them or they do it themselves. It gets expensive, he said.

“When we founded the business, the idea was to build a skeleton that would be able to handle the day-to-day operational challenges that small businesses face without passing on the cost,” he said. “My partners and I go in, consult and then figure out what it is that we are going to do first.”

Kirkman said a major advantage his company has is highly-educated retired people in the community who also want to help businesses in the area.

“We don’t ask these people to do something outside of their skill set,” Kirkman said. “These people are anxious and willing to help … and they have a great work ethic.”

Help is on the way

Corey Grape, president of GBM Inc., is glad he reconnected with Kirkman. The two went to high school together. They went their separate ways and became reacquainted when Grape moved back to take over his parents’ maple syrup business.

“I’ve known this business my whole life,” Grape said. “I know the business side of things. I just don’t know the finance side of things.”

A year ago it was clear that the maple syrup business was outgrowing its current facility. Grape wanted to purchase a place in Holcombe but he had no knowledge of how to approach the banks.

“It’s a big leap,” he said. “(Kirkman) took the bull by the horns and got things rolling for us. I would ask him questions and he would take care of it. It was a one-stop shop. As a small business owner I need to run my business, not (deal with) all the meetings.”

Grape said he and Kirkman have the same mindset when it comes to the Holcombe area.

“We’re dedicated and hooked to this community,” he said. “It’s a passion for (Kirkman) and not a financial thing.”

As S.E.A. Retirement & Investments moves forward, Kirkman hopes to help more businesses in northern Chippewa and southwestern Rusk counties. His goal is to continue to help those businesses in commercial buildings on Highway 27 from Highways W to D. Many of the commercial buildings in that stretch are either empty or on the verge of foreclosure, he said.

Implementation has been challenging, Kirkman said. Four more companies are coming on board for assistance. Kirkman said he and his partners don’t want to try to run before they can walk.

“We’re just taking our first few steps,” he said.

Alyssa Waters is a freelance writer from Lake Hallie.