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Small-business lessons from Missouri entreprenuer Fielding Staton

Rae McClelland, Fielding Staton and Darla Staton

Pictured, from left at a charity function in 2016: Rae McClelland, Fielding Staton and Darla Staton. McClelland has partnered with Fielding and Darla Staton on several business ventures. (Submitted photo)

Fielding Staton was in the seventh grade when his mother approached him one day in the yard outside their home in Carrolton, a town of 3,000 in the middle of Missouri, and handed him a checkbook.

It wasn’t so his parents, who had five children, could teach him the value of saving.

“She said, ‘Could you help us figure out — we don’t know where the money is going,’” Staton, now 55, said. “I guess maybe my mom saw something in me.”

It turned out, his mom, who died in 2017, was correct in sensing that her middle son had good instincts when it came to making money.

Staton, who now lives in Liberty, outside of Kansas City, owns some 20 businesses around Missouri, in industries ranging from exterior design to food to funeral homes.

While Staton appears to have a knack for entrepreneurship, he admits that he has made mistakes, but he has benefited from mentorship, from having reliable business partners and from doing business in Missouri.

His wife, Darla, said Staton “has more drive than 10 people put together,” which she attributes to his childhood.

“He never wanted to struggle, and so he just has no fear,” said Darla, who also partners with Staton in business.

In spite of his family’s financial struggles, Staton still describes his mother, Diana, as a “fantastic entrepreneur.”

While working as a teacher, Diana started side businesses selling candles and ceramics. She was able to save enough to open a dance disco in Carrolton called Oscillator Dance Club, and after the family moved to Watertown, S.D., another disco called The Café. She later opened a gym outside of St. Louis called LifeFit.

“She is probably where I get it. She was always trying to start something and was very energetic,” Staton said.

He and Darla, who also spent part of her childhood in Carrolton, in 1983 went on their “first official date, one month before I turned 16,” recalls Darla, who, like Staton, had parents who divorced.

For the date, Staton, who lived in a house with no heat and showered at school, borrowed clothes from a friend — who told him Darla was out of his league.

Staton and Darla would break up and get back together a number of times, but once they got married, they agreed “that divorce was not an option… We are not putting our kids through that,” recalls Darla, a mother of two.

Staton attributes much of his success to his wife.

“Behind every great guy is a better woman — believe that. You got to have that spousal support, and my wife is a warrior,” said Staton, who is named for an ancestor, Fielding Lewis, a Revolutionary War colonel who was married to President George Washington’s only sister, Betty.

A few years after Fielding and Darla began dating, they and another couple started their first venture: Design Concepts, a personalized condom business targeted at fraternities and sororities. The condoms would have customized copy printed on them, such as “Sigma Phi Epsilon” and “Grape Squash Party.”

Their business managed to arouse interest. Living in the Kansas City suburb of Gladstone, the couple would sit on the floor, “fold condoms, and watch TV all night long,” Staton said.

The couple moved around the country and worked various jobs. They started a carpet cleaning business in Phoenix.

But they kept coming back to Missouri. Staton said he has concluded that “you can’t beat the business climate here,” in part because “it’s cheap to do business.”

“My first hair salon building was $7,000. Things aren’t that cheap now, but they are still nothing compared to other places in the country,” Staton said.

He also purchased a fish market in Liberty for $30,000 and in 2013, converted it into a seafood restaurant — aptly named The Fish Market — which Darla now runs. Not only was the building cheap, but “everything we put in there was something we either begged, borrowed or stole,” joked Rae McClelland, who, along with her late husband, Jeff, partnered with Staton on the condom business, the restaurant and a number of other ventures.

McClelland, who calls Staton “Grandma” because of how much he worries, attributes Staton’s success to the fact that “he won’t cheat anybody. He treats every customer like they are his family.”

Staton said he learned that unselfish approach from a mentor in California, who advised him to “leave something on the table for someone else.”

“Whenever you do a deal, it has to be a win-win deal in order for things to prosper,” Staton said.

Fielding Staton, with daughter Sheridan, wife Darla and son Turner

Fielding Staton (left) shown with (left to right) daughter Sheridan, wife Darla and son Turner, says to aspiring entrepreneurs, “Whenever you do a deal, it has to be a win-win deal in order for things to prosper.” (Submitted photo)

In spite of a successful track record, Staton had a business flounder. Around 1987, he and a sister, Pleasants, started Future Shape, a toning and tanning salon “that was before it’s time…and it wasn’t a big moneymaker,” Staton said.

He rented space in a Liberty strip mall and then had trouble getting out of the lease. It was the only time Staton didn’t own the building containing his business, a mistake he has not made since, he said.

“Find a little commercial property so you can have those two legs of wealth. You can have a business and hopefully the business can carry itself, but at the same time you are paying off a piece of real estate,” Staton explained.

His other piece of advice to entrepreneurs?

“Startup businesses are just like little babies,” he said. “Keep a job. Make money doing something else and get a business to get on its feet. “

These days, in addition to The Fish Market, Staton owns Missouri businesses such as Hidden Valley Funeral Homes, La Bella Casa Event Center, La Bella Motel, and the advertising agency Darlyn Signs, among others.

His babies come from Windgo, a research and development technology company based in Columbia. Their products include LumiDoor, an illuminated storm door; smart windows that use Newtonoid technology to reduce sound and physical impacts on glass; and the Advantive holoflective gun scope, which provides a cleaner image than other scopes, Staton explained.

The company has 70 patents granted and at least as many pending, he said. But Staton did not invent all the products.

“I’m a hillbilly; I’m not an engineer,” he said.

That acknowledgment doesn’t mean he is downplaying hillbillies. Just the opposite.

“I don’t have a college degree,” said Staton, whose daughter is a dermatology physician assistant and whose son is an opera singer. “Anybody can do this. Don’t get paralysis from analysis. Just go do it.”


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