Michael Small
November 30, 1987 12:00 PM

Bernard Tenenbaum, of the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School, calls it “the Alex Keaton syndrome,” after the avaricious under-grad played by Michael J. Fox on TV’s Family Ties. Whether or not it’s a case of life imitating sitcom, there’s no question that at high schools and colleges across the country, capitalism is out of the closet. Scrapping sports, dating and other traditional activities, an increasing number of American teens are making their marks as investment counselors, shop owners and computer salesmen. “These kids have a whole new agenda,” says Tenenbaum, who runs courses at Wharton for young entrepreneurs.

Don’t get the idea that these new tycoons are just running mom-and-pop businesses without mom and pop. Teenagers have made from a couple of thousand dollars each in one year up to nearly half a million dollars in a few years; a million teens belong to the business-oriented Junior Achievement organization, which has quadrupled in size since 1975. “I don’t think they’re motivated mainly by money,” says Jane DuBovy, who operates a Dallas-based education-and-placement firm for high school entrepreneurs. “By being in charge of your own business, you can diminish the fear and insecurity of being a teenager.”

Sometimes, of course, teens can show bad judgment, just like grownups. Barry Minkow, 21, started ZZZZ Best Carpet in his garage at 15 and expected to gross $50 million this year; last July, under investigation on suspicion of laundering money linked to organized crime and charged with theft and fraud by his company’s directors, he resigned. Dana Stibolt, 19, and Joe Catterino, 21, grossed $2 million last year with their Maryland mail-order and storefront computer-sales companies. Bickering led to Catterino’s departure; Stibolt later had to close shop after failing to make deliveries. Stibolt’s advice: Keep better books. “If I had to do it all over again,” he says ruefully, “I’d file away every piece of paper.”

But the 1,200 entrepreneurs, age 8 to 28, who gathered in Chicago for a convention sponsored by the Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs last March hardly seemed concerned about pitfalls. They pressed business cards upon each other, asked how their respective products were moving and sat raptly through seminars. Natty Peter Alexopoulos, all of 17, related how he grossed $75,000 last year from his Chicago rent-a-disc-jockey business. “You’re the only person who stops you from making money,” Alexopoulos told them. Solemnly the students applauded. Alex Keaton would have loved every one of them, not to mention the four representatives of the new capitalist class profiled here.

A California kid puts his money where his mouth is

If Gary Goralnick had been born with straight teeth, he’d have fewer financial assets today. “I had this retainer and nothing to clean it with,” says Gary, 19, of Westwood, Calif. “You take it out, and all this bacteria and other stuff gets on it. It’s awful. You don’t want to wear it.” So in 1985 Gary paid a chemist $2,000 to invent a retainer cleaner, and in 1986 the FDA approved the result, which Goralnick called Teen Clean Ortho-Retainer Cleaner. Gary handed out samples to orthodontists, hoping to win their patients as buyers, and begged pharmacies for orders. “It’s such a good product,” he says. “I kept bugging them until they took it.”

His faith in his product paid off. Gary refuses to divulge sales figures, but one market expert estimates that he grossed $500,000 in 1986. Goralnick’s income really soared in August when he sold Teen Clean to a division of Colgate-Palmolive; he still owns Teen Care Inc., the parent company, and hopes to develop a teen-oriented shampoo and other health products. So Gary, whose father sells commercial real estate and whose mother is a housewife, is really hooked on business now. A dropout from San Diego State University, where he spent one semester while Teen Clean was in development, he wears double-breasted suits, drives a 1987 black Corvette and works only six or seven hours a day at the office that his father lends him rent-free. He finds his new way of life congenial. “To my friends I’m just a normal person,” he insists. “I relax. I don’t talk about business. But once I get into my suit, it snaps right back.” Then, mogul-like, he snaps his fingers for emphasis. “When you have money,” he says, “you can do whatever you want. Money’s everything.”

A teenage dollmaker markets legions of Googlies and Tia’s Tots

Tia Hunnicutt, 16, never liked to play with dolls; selling them is another story. Since 1984, when she was 13, Tia’s Doll Emporium has grossed $34,500 selling more than 1,000 of her handcrafted dolls to individuals and stores. A full-time student, she works weekends and evenings, designs all the dolls’ clothing, fires their porcelain faces in a kiln in her bathroom and assembles the pieces in her rumpus room.

Tia got started with a $10,000 loan arranged by her divorced mother, Veronica, and her grandmother Bertha. Now the entire first floor of the Hunnicutts’ two-story house in San Francisco’s Ingleside district is given over to making the dolls. She has hired three seamstresses and a business consultant, and her mother, a college English teacher, helps figure her taxes. Last year Mayor Dianne Feinstein set aside a day for the city to honor Tia’s achievements, and last spring Noxzema Skin Cream and Teen Magazine named her the All-American Girl of the Year.

Tia has studied belly dancing since she was 7 years old, and she wears black nail polish and miniskirts, but don’t be deceived: Frivolous, she’s not. A devout member of the Assemblies of God, she maintains a 3.3 average at the private Lick-Wilmerding High School, lectures on her success all over the Bay area and hopes to study astrophysics at MIT. “There are no limits to what we can do,” says Tia, “if we trust in God, believe in ourselves and work very, very hard.”

A young Kansan finds an alternative to watching the grass grow

Last year a busy executive whom Chris Moore was trying to sign up for his lawn-mowing service told him bluntly, “My time is too valuable for me to meet you.” Unabashed, Moore delivered five $100 bills and a note inquiring, “Can I buy five minutes?” “It worked,” says Chris, 19. “He gave me his business and returned the money.”

A lot of kids mow lawns, to be sure, but few do it with Chris Moore’s panache. At 17, he started his Augusta, Kans., lawn service with two small power mowers his family owned. This year, with only one full-time employee and three part-timers, he will gross about $15,000 serving both homeowners and businesses. Everyone who works with him (including John Scobee, left, and Vincent Pray, who flank him in the photo) puts in long hours. “Once we mowed till 4:30 in the morning,” the boss says. “Between jobs we quizzed each other for a history exam.” Chris, whose father is regional manager of an oil company and whose mother is a homemaker, attributes his success to efficiency. “At school I didn’t take breaks,” he says. “I eliminated half my homework that way.” He also narrowed his esteem for the remaining half pretty far. “I found one book, The Prince, by Machiavelli,” he says. “I could throw away everything else.” Now he’s branching out by buying and selling old railroad ties. “To an older person, a lot of my ideas seem kinda crazy,” he admits. “But to me they seem like I can make ’em work.”

A college dropout scores a ringing success working the phones

Two years ago a Dallas telemarketing firm hired Bill Cunningham, then 17, as a phone salesman. Five months later the company made a critical mistake and let him resign. Fed up with the way the office was run, Cunningham used $700 in savings to open his own phone-marketing firm, DIAL USA, in a dingy little office on the wrong side of town. “My family thought I was crazy,” he says. Now they know better. Today, Cunningham has 4,000 square feet of space in a gleaming high rise(“probably the nicest office a 19-year-old has in Dallas,” he says), where he keeps 15 full-time workers and 25 part-timers busy on his phones—pitching products and services, raising funds and carrying on assorted other businesses such as market research and direct-mail follow-up. “Bill has the maturity to ask questions,” says client Elissa Powell, office manager at the accounting firm of Maddox, Spencer and Co. “That’s a quality a lot of older businessmen don’t have.” Demonstrating his savvy, he grossed more than $300,000 in 1986 and expects to gross $1 million this year. As a reward he just moved into a 3,000-square-foot house with pool and wet bar.

Cunningham, who works 60 to 80 hours a week, talks and acts like a man born to do business. He fared dismally as a part-time freshman last year at SMU (“I’m in Chapter 11 as far as my education is concerned”), but he doesn’t mind. For Cunningham, whose father owns an insurance agency where his mother works part-time, the future is bright. “Money’s not a real motivation for me,” he says. “It’s just a way of keeping score. I enjoy working, and,” he adds pointedly, “I’ve never once dreaded coming into the office.”

—Written by Michael Small, reported by Michael Alexander, Magda Krance, Denise Murphy and Andrea Pawlyna

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