Taking a chance on a new home, a new job, and a new lifestyle, all while embracing that change has earned Tommy Summage recognition as this year’s Entrepreneur of the Year by the Westminster Economic Development Initiative (WEDI).
Change can be scary, but, Summage says, with passion and faith backing it up, it can lead to lasting impacts. In his case, change came when he was having trouble finding a job. The Mississippi native chose to leave his hometown and move to Buffalo, where his uncle lived, to find work.
As Summage worked, he noticed how fellow employees were being treated. He decided he wanted to create an environment where workers felt appreciated. As it turns out, his uncle is an entrepreneur, and helped him realize that you can create your own opportunity.
“Being around people who own their own business helped me know early on that it would be possible for me,” Summage says during a phone interview with UpstartNY. “I wanted to create something where I knew I would always have a job; it’s something I have a passion for, so I decided to go on this adventure.”
It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, he spent 15 years investing in himself and his future business. “I had to be serious and really budget my finances,” he notes. He soon realized saving money wasn’t enough. “There were bills I didn’t even think to factor in. That’s when I went to the Excelsior Growth Fund for help.”
His new adventure officially began in 2013. He combined his passion, experience, and hope to start A1 Express Inc (716-563-3556). Through his business, Summage provides Medicaid-covered patients with non-emergency transportation to doctor appointments throughout Western New York.
“Once you go on your own, it’s never what you think it will be like,” Summage says. “It’s like having a newborn baby. The business consumes you, and you have to be there, but you also need to take the weight off of yourself. There’s constantly work, but you need to be strong and find a balance.”
That balance comes with finding a team of likeminded individuals who are as invested and passionate as you are towards your cause. Summage has been able to grow to over 10 employees since A1 Express Inc. began, and says they’re all happy to be doing what they’re doing.
“I make sure we communicate all the time,” he explained. “That’s really important to me.”
“Tommy needed to increase the number of drivers he had,” shares Yanush Sanmugaraja, WEDI economic development director. WEDI provided Summage with a microloan; over a year later they sent him to Excelsior Growth Fund for another business expansion loan.
“I recall some of our first meetings with Tommy,” Sanmugaraja says. “His phone was constantly going off; his drivers were trying to reach him for various things. It was impressive hearing how he handled his employees; answering their questions and also empowering them to use their best judgement. He’s truly committed to bettering his business to better serve both his clients and employees. I’m ecstatic that Tommy is receiving this award and looking forward to seeing what his next steps are.”
When asked what the WEDI recognition means to him, Summage refers to his appreciation. “This has been eye-opening,” he says. “I appreciate that someone sees a light in me; awards are given to people who are doing great things. I didn’t see that in me until they said it. It helps me know I’m doing the right thing. With determination, you can make things better for yourself.”
Summage has had a lot of help to reach this point; he expressed his gratitude this way: “My mother is amazing and played a major part in this journey. I also thank God. I was raised with a spiritual background and truly believe this is part of God’s plan.”
Giving to others is a large part of his daily routine; it comes through in his desire to leave an impact on his community simply by living out his passion and helping others. He hopes to continue growing and, one day, be one of the area’s largest companies.
Part of his motivation is to inspire other entrepreneurs. His advice to someone aspiring to create their own business is to do as much research as possible. “Be sure of what you want to do and do proper research,” he says. “See if you can piggyback off of another company that is doing what you do—or something close to it—and help one another. Get experience and be hands on.”
He also encouraged entrepreneurial hopefuls to step out of their comfort zones. “Risk-taking is a form of an experience,” he offers.