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MarionMade!: The Forge enters fifth year of sparking small businesses – Marion Star

Each week, this series shares MarionMade! stories of our many wonderful people, places, products and programs in the greater Marion community. To read more positive stories of Marion, or to share some of your own, visit us at or on social media.

What started as an idea to create more small businesses has paid huge dividends for the community. The Leadership Marion Class of 2017 started The Forge, which includes free business classes and a “Shark Tank”-style competition.

Chris Rennick, owner of Attaboys and Harding Harbor Seafood, and Robert Turner, owner of A Taste of Memphis, stand with Rachel McCall after her win in The Forge competition in 2018. Rennick and Turner were finalists of The Forge in 2017. Rennick served as a judge in the 2020 competition.

Participants have started or expanded a number of businesses, including Ability Vending, Attaboys, A Taste of Memphis, the Explore-It-Torium Children’s Museum, Harding Harbor Seafood, Jordan Energy Alternative, Leading Ladies, Painless Fleet Maintenance, Presidential Cleaning Services, Sights Unseen Travel and the Sweada Mae Art Café.

Entrepreneurs can enter The Forge now. Marion Technical College business classes start Aug. 24. The top entrants will compete $3,500 in prizes on Oct. 12.

“The Forge exceeded our expectations. It’s encouraging to see small businesses pop up. I’m excited to see what the new Forge class will bring to Marion!” said Lars Olson, one of the founders of The Forge.

These businesses bring new attractions, new services and new jobs. Cindy Binns won the 2017 competition.

“The Forge was truly the beginning for the Explore-It-Torium becoming a reality. It is a great program that gave me the confidence to pursue this adventure with confidence,” Binns said. “We are open and building our business again. Look for great things this fall and winter.”

Cindy Binns, front, receives a check from Lars Olson for winning The Forge 2017 competition. In the second row are competitors Chris Rennick, Robert Turner, Danny Drew, Todd Filliator, Matt Carbary, president of the Marion Area Chamber of Commerce, and Professor Scott Hughes of Marion Technical College.

Drake Tulloh, owner of Painless Fleet Maintenance, won the for-profit prize in 2020.

“The Forge was a great way to help fast-track my business and avoid some pitfalls that would be easy to fall into as a new business owner. Everyone is extremely helpful and only wants you to succeed,” Tulloh said. “It was great to win last year, but my biggest takeaway was the knowledge gained. Even if you don’t win the competition, it’s still an incredibly valuable resource. I highly recommend it.”

Despite the pandemic, Tulloh says business is booming.

“Since The Forge, revenue is on track to be about 700% higher this year. I’ve also hired two part-time positions,” Tulloh shared.

Jill Chitwood of Sights Unseen Travel Agency also recommends this program.

“After attending The Forge and adjusting our business plan, our business has more than doubled. We are hoping to hit $400,000 in sales this year, up from $160,000 two years ago,” said Chitwood. “The Forge is a great place to begin if you are wanting to start a business. They have great ideas and resources to help you with many aspects of the business world, from making your business plan to bookkeeping, marketing and more. Come and get an edge on building your business for free at Marion Technical College.”

Jessica Coleman held a leadership event for 30 local girls at Harding High School this July. She won The Forge in 2019 and found the classes were helpful in growing her Leading Ladies mentoring program.

Jessica Coleman won the nonprofit prize in 2019 for her Leading Ladies mentoring program, which recently held a leadership day for 30 girls at Harding High School.

“The Forge helped me take my business seriously. Leading Ladies has almost been like hobby, doing it while also parenting and working,” Coleman said. “The Forge showed me not just Leading Ladies’ worth but that it’s needed and can be utilized everywhere and I should take the necessary steps so that it can be.”

Rachel McCall, 2018 winner, echoed that sentiment.

“The Forge has been instrumental in helping me take an idea and move it to fruition. Thanks to the guidance and resources provided by the program, I will be opening The Sweada Mae Art Café studio in the fall!” McCall said.

Dale Simpkins took part in The Forge in 2018. His company, Presidential Cleaning Service, is growing.

“The Forge was helpful for me. I got a lot of good info there,” Simpkins said. “Business is picking up! We’re hiring.”

Sponsors include Alluvial Private Wealth, Sakamura, the Marion Community Foundation, the Marion Area Chamber of Commerce and Nuova Heat.

“We value this support,” said Mike Augenstein, director of Workforce Solutions at Marion Tech. “When small businesses thrive, our community wins.”

For more on The Forge, or to sign up, go to or visit The Forge Facebook page