Move over Donald Trump – local entrepreneur poised for takeover

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Alex Tooke could sell ice to Eskimos. In his rather short but lucrative career, Tooke has sold rocks, tomato plants, lettuce leaves, lawn-mowing services and handmade pens to anyone with whom he comes into contact.

Anything and everything is for sale in the eyes of this budding entrepreneur.

Tooke launched his first business – polishing and shaping rocks into marketable items such as paperweights and bookends – when he was 5.

Now 15, Tooke aspires to be the next Donald Trump. He is on the library’s waiting list for the business mogul’s new book, “Trump: How to Get Rich.”

It may not be long before Trump is forced to step back in the wake of a Tooke takeover. If youthful prosperity is an indicator, future generations may be reading the life story of a native Coloradoan-turned-billionaire at age 21. Young Tooke is on his way. His pen-making business, Pen by Alex, is already the envy of many wannabe entrepreneurs.

When most teenage boys are hanging out at the mall or the video arcades or working at McDonald’s during the summer months, Tooke prefers staying home and thinking up ways to gain enough financial security to own the malls, the video arcades and several restaurants. “I love thinking of things,” Tooke said. “I’d rather be sitting here at home thinking up new ideas rather than playing video games somewhere. I am trying to figure out right now how I can get my business name on a couple of bus benches.”

A year ago, Tooke formed Pen by Alex. This month, he registered his sole proprietorship with the state of Colorado. “Notice that I don’t use the plural of pen in the name of my company because I make each pen individually,” he said.

That comment is one of many marketing insights that make Tooke a prodigy.

Tooke exhibits the innate sense of business and marketing know-how of any seasoned businessperson. “I knew there would be lots of people at the business expo (the May 27 Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce exposition) at Phil Long Ford,” Tooke said. “I took my little brother with me and gave him a percentage of what he sold. Who can resist buying from an 8 year old? I knew that other business people couldn’t sell if they didn’t have a booth, but I heard somewhere that the rule doesn’t apply to someone my age.” Tooke and his brother sold six pens that day, which means, at $15 to $25 a pen, they brought in at least $100 – more than a day’s pay flipping burgers.

Tooke’s interest in pens started when he was visiting an antique shop with his uncle while vacationing in Wisconsin. He was 13 when he began collecting antique pens from stores, flea markets and garage sales. He now has 150 antique pens elegantly displayed in a designer case at his centrally located Springs-based home/studio/office that he shares with his father, Steve Tooke.

Handcrafting pens came about when the elder Tooke told his son that he could recreate the kinds of pens he collected with a lathe. Enough said. With money earned from his lawn mowing business, The Lawn Patrol, young Tooke had enough to pay for half the lathe; his dad invested the other half. Tooke has since repaid his dad, and purchased a band saw, a scroll saw, a sander and an elaborate dust collection system with his Pen by Alex profits.

Tooke said that no two of his “exquisite pens” are alike. Using a variety of “exotic” dried woods – not green wood, he said – purchased through the Internet or specialty wood stores, he creates the pens from a squared chunk of wood. From a band saw to a drill press to a special Tooke technique, which by hand “scuffs up” the tubes that are inserted into the pens, to the scroll saw to the sander, which sands and waxes, the wood piece is prepared for the lathe, which shapes the pen. “This is where the real creativity begins,” Tooke said. After the pen is molded to perfection, Tooke inserts the ink cartridge with a press. The pen-making process takes about 20 minutes, and the finished products include a myriad of styles and beautiful colors, from tan to purple.

Tooke also creates wood key chains, magnifying glasses, mechanical pencils and letter openers. Potential clients are welcome to custom order their pens. Tooke repairs old pens as well.

As a savvy sales person, Tooke never leaves home without his pens, whether he is going to an orthodontic appointment, a 200-member family reunion or school.

Teachers, parents and peers purchase the pens for personal use or as birthday, graduation and Christmas gifts. “The pens make great matching gifts for a bride and groom,” Tooke said. Although the teachers frown on classroom solicitation, Tooke grinned sheepishly and said, “I am usually doing a few money exchanges in the back of the classroom.” He also wholesales his pens to Depot Office, a retail store in the old depot railroad station in downtown Colorado Springs. “I have no idea how she got my phone number,” he said. He has sold pens to his dad’s co-workers, too. “My pens make great corporate and employee gifts,” Tooke said.

Tooke will be in the ninth grade at Wasson High School this fall, and he said he is the first freshman accepted into DECA, a school-based business-oriented program. Tooke also purchased a Web site software program this summer, and plans to be up and running on the Internet in the near future.

“I really like getting people to buy stuff, even though they might not be interested,” Tooke said. His sales approach is simple: “You just ask people how their day is going, have some conversation with them, and then you say, ‘You look like you could use a nice pen.'”

Tooke just gets it. When he was 12, at the beginning of planting season, Tooke lined his dining room table with 200, foot-high tomato plants rooted in Pepsi cups he bought from a dollar store. He put up an outdoor sign advertising the tomato plants, and, in one day, he sold all 200 for $1 each. A business he set up for his younger brother involved the same concept, different product. Sibling Sean sold lettuce leaves covered in cold water for a buck to drive-by, time-conscious customers who wanted quick fixings for a “fresh dinner salad.”

Is Tooke’s penchant for selling nature or nurture? Adorning bookcases and tables in the Tooke household are woodcarvings of an elephant, a squirrel and a letter opener, compliments of his father’s artistic endeavors. Tooke said that when he was a toddler, he saw his dad handcrafting the wood pieces. Perhaps he inherited his creative genius, but Steve Tooke is not sure where his son got his passion for sales.

“I think his first word was ‘money,'” joked Steve Tooke, the manager of Goodwill Industry’s staffing services program. “I remember one time when Alex and I were camping at Turquoise Lake in Leadville. We noticed a lot of driftwood that had washed ashore because of the drought, and Alex decided he could sell it, so we had to load up all of this driftwood in my car.

“He gets good grades, and he is constantly thinking of ideas. He has always been a sponge for learning.” His son’s ability to interest adults has surprised Tooke. He said that at the Springs Spree festival, the police officers who were operating the department’s booth were intrigued with the younger Tooke’s inquisitive nature and mature questions.

“When Alex was 10 years old, I told him about a work presentation that I had to give,” Tooke said. “Alex looked at me and said, ‘Dad, make sure that you make eye contact with the audience and don’t use the word “and.'” His son’s business drive is, however, costly. “We went to the mall the other day, and Alex was looking at business suits,” Tooke said. “He wanted a pink tie, too, like Donald Trump’s.”

If young Tooke stays focused, and he has since age 5, there will be plenty of pink ties.

The teenager believes he has the gift of selling. More accurately, he
was born to sell. During the interview for this story, Tooke asked: “Don’t you think you could write better if you had a really nice pen?” Sure!

Tooke’s next marketing plan: He is sending one of his Pen by Alex pens to Donald Trump. Alex Tooke has a big-picture attitude, ideas galore and the gift to sell the ideas – the makings of a true entrepreneur. Selling ice to Eskimos and pens to Donald Trump is a formidable task, but none too daunting for Alex Tooke.

For a Pen by Alex pen, call Tooke’s studio at 635-3824.

- Editorial@csbj.com