Surviving 9/11 drives entrepreneur

Clayton Park Daytona Beach News Journal

NEW SMYRNA BEACH – Bob Jenkins and three colleagues were just starting to make a sales pitch to executives of Lehman Brothers on the 39th floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center the morning of September 11, 2001, when they heard a loud explosion several [sic] floors above them.

 Bob Jenkins shows a copy of his 1 World Trade Center visitor pass from September 11, 2001 on the screen of his laptop computer. Jenkins was on the 39th floor of the north tower for a business meeting the morning of the terrorist attack.

Jenkins, a former Marine, said he knew something terrible had happened when the building began “convulsing violently” a moment later. Looking out the window as the building rocked back and forth, he recalled thinking to himself, “So this is where I die.”

But Jenkins escaped, managing to walk down 39 flights of stairs to safety. 

“God brought me out of that room for a reason,” he said.

On Wednesday, Jenkins, who moved to New Smyrna Beach in January, will give a talk on how 9/11 affected him and ultimately gave him the impetus to become an entrepreneur. His latest venture is Get Bent, a business he created that sells fishing apparel and bumper stickers.

Jenkins – the featured speaker at this week’s 1 Million Cups entrepreneurs forum from 9 to 10 a.m. at Cinematique Theater in downtown Daytona Beach – is pledging to donate a portion of his proceeds each month to charitable causes, including those dedicated to helping veterans, first responders and cancer research.

His new company is a spinoff of a previous business he ran in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, called Local Hooker Rods, which made high-end fishing rods. The slogan for that previous business was “Get bent with a local hooker” – a reference to the sport of fishing. “To me, it means bend a fishing rod,” he said.

Jenkins said Local Hooker was poised to take off after a team using his product won the 2011 International Game Fish Association’s world championship, but his hopes were dashed when the financial backer he lined up pulled out because of the still-struggling economy.

While he still owns the rights to his fishing rod business, Jenkins said he chose to start over with fishing apparel because he recalled the popularity of the clothing items and bumper stickers bearing his old company’s slogan.

“Everybody loved Local Hooker rods, but unanimously people loved the tagline,” he said. “At trade shows I would constantly sell out of apparel.”

Getting people to buy clothing and bumper stickers bearing the Get Bent brand is also a way to build public awareness, said Jenkins, who turns 60 on Tuesday and has a degree in communications from Northeastern University. “As I understand it, that’s how Salt Life started off,” he said.

Greg Noel, a co-owner of Lagoon Bait & Tackle in Edgewater, said his shop quickly sold out of its initial order of Get Bent bumper stickers that also included the words “Mosquito Lagoon.”

“It’s a great idea and we’ve sold quite a few of them since he brought them to us,” he said. “People mostly use them for their trucks.”

Van Canada, manager of the Small Business Development Center at Daytona State College who has been advising Jenkins, said the fact that Jenkins has already been through “the school of hard knocks” can be a good thing.

“He’s already planning for potential setbacks,” Canada said, adding that the idea of creating brand awareness by selling bumper stickers at independent bait and tackle shops before approaching larger retailers is a textbook example of “guerrilla marketing. … It’s perfectly legitimate as a business plan.”

“Florida, in general, is very high in fishing product sales because of where we are,” Canada said, adding that the decision by Jenkins to move to the Sunshine State to launch Get Bent was a smart one. “He’s in a pretty good time (to be launching a fishing apparel business). Money is starting to flow again. People are buying more boats, which means more people will be fishing. I think he’s really in a good place to have a run at this.”

Jenkins was a regional sales manager for a videoconferencing technology company called VCON and also worked as a sales executive at American Express and Polaroid before starting Local Hooker Rods in 2006.

He moved to New Smyrna Beach at the start of the year from Arizona, where he owned a learning and training business, to take a job as director of sales of a company that laid him off after just 10 weeks.

Jenkins incorporated Get Bent in January with the idea of working on his fledgling business on weekends and weeknights. He said he took the loss of his day job as a sign that he should devote all his time to the new venture.

Jenkins said he will never forget the events of 9/11, including the horror of witnessing people jumping off the upper floors of the World Trade Center towers. He also remembers the incredible calmness of those he was with as everyone proceeded down the stairs in orderly fashion, the difficulty of breathing in the smoke-filled stairwell, and the heartbreak of seeing a quadriplegic man in a wheelchair on one of the stairway landings who had no way of descending.

It wasn’t until he was almost out of the building that he learned the explosion was caused by a plane crashing into the building more than 50 stories above where he had his meeting.

Jenkins said all three of his colleagues also survived.

He said 9/11 changed his life, not only in making him determined to help others, but also to not get discouraged by setbacks, which are inevitable when running a business. “I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore,” he said.

Jenkins said he’ll never forget the bravery he saw of the first responders, including the fire department chief and lieutenant who brushed by him on the 30th floor as they were ascending to investigate the damage.

“The look in their eyes was both terror and determination,” he recalled. “May God bless them, their families, and every firefighter, police and emergency worker who intentionally put themselves in harm’s way to help others.”

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