On Aug. 20, 1986, a young man matriculated to VMI courtesy of the Floyd D. Gottwald Sr. Merit Scholarship, which had been established in Mr. Gottwald’s honor by his two sons, Floyd ’43 and Bruce ’54, and their families. The investment was a wise one.
The young man, Christian Larlee ’90, was an exemplary student both academically, earning the honor of distinguished graduate, and in his military training, where he earned top national honors and was awarded the Hughes Trophy – presented to the nation’s top Army ROTC cadet by the Secretary of the Army. Larlee came to VMI an enlisted soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve, but left with a commission in the regular Army infantry and, after four more years, became a special forces officer. In this first career he served his country nearly 29 years, with combat and other operational deployments around the world.
With military retirement on the horizon, Larlee and his wife, Kathy, looked around the country for a new place to call home. They settled on Rockbridge County, Virginia, and soon joined a new type of ranks: That of entrepreneurs.
The Larlees decided to build their new house and drew their own plans, acted as the general contractors and did much of the work themselves. While Larlee was finishing up his military service at Fort Bragg, Kathy moved to Rockbridge County to manage construction of the house. Through the home building process, she got to know local service providers. So well, in fact, that Kathy “would receive phone calls from people she didn’t even know – asking for recommendations,” Larlee said. After several of these phone calls, the Larlees realized the area had a need and a market for a new type of business: Concierge services. They launched their concierge service, The Front Desk Belle, LLC, five years ago.
Personal assistance services are popping up all over the country but vary widely in shape, size and the quality of service provided. Even web giant Amazon has tried to cash in on the trend. Internet and app-based giants typically have higher prices, lower standards and rarely offer services outside of major cities, Larlee noted. In contrast, The Front Desk Belle offers high-quality service at reasonable rates and serves clients in cities and rural areas. The Front Desk Belle’s concierges can run errands, clean homes or offices, walk dogs, schedule appointments, manage home projects, assist with events or even find last-minute lodging for out-of-town visitors.
“Every problem is different,” Larlee said, “but our approach is the same.” The Front Desk Belle provides efficient and quality services tailored to the unique needs of each private or business client. More than a web-based replacement for the Yellow Pages, The Front Desk Belle helps people and businesses regain one of their most important resources: Time. Their personalized service gives clients more time for the important things in life.
“The Larlees and Front Desk Belle have been nothing less than amazing, and we are thrilled to be working with them,” said Charles V. “Van” Hardenbergh ’93 who, along with his wife, Mari, uses the firm to care for their second home in Lexington. “We have been more than happy with everything they have done. As a rat, Christian was one of my biggest inspirations because he embodied everything that an officer should be. He encouraged me to go to Airborne School and helped me out when I got there, so it was great to work with him in this new capacity and we look forward to more excellent results with them in the future.”
The Front Desk Belle makes other impacts on its surrounding communities. It offers better than average pay and great flexibility for its employees and sub-contractors, Kathy said. And, for many other business owners and service providers in its markets, The Front Desk Belle helps match needs to resources and customers to businesses.
Even as they expanded their concierge services beyond Rockbridge County and into the states of Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Tennessee, the Larlees began working on a second business idea. This time, their new idea was to help a specific audience: Small businesses.
In providing concierge services, the Larlees got to know many small-business owners, while becoming aware of two other factors. First, small-business owners face stiff competition from internet sales, big box stores and prepaid gift cards. Second, there is still a large market of people who want to support small businesses – but want to do so conveniently.
“Everybody likes to shop online nowadays. This is closing shopping malls, but at the same time, towns everywhere are renovating their main streets,” Larlee said. “People are realizing that they like their local town. And so, there is a market of people out there who want to support local small businesses, but they want to be able to do it at home, online, in their bathrobe.”
The Larlees conceived a way to offer customers the convenience of online shopping and the flexibility of giving prepaid gift cards, all while supporting local small-business owners and service providers. This inspiration, combined with several years of development and hard work, emerged two years ago with the launch of the couple’s second business, GifTicket, Inc.
The GifTicket website, through a proprietary system the Larlees developed, allows online shoppers to search for participating small businesses nationwide and find unique gift ideas from local businesses near friends or loved ones. For a small service fee on their chosen denomination, the shopper can then purchase a virtual gift card, called a GifTicket, for that specific business. The shopper can then customize the GifTicket with both a theme for any occasion and a personalized message, and then email it to that friend or loved one. The recipient can walk through the door of their local small business and spend it like cash.
Meanwhile, small-business owners and service providers can take advantage of the free tools and marketing that GifTicket offers by visiting the website and creating an account for their business. Business owners gain nationwide exposure, an enhanced web presence, a gift card mechanism for their own use and receive feedback through their merchant dashboard. When a GifTicket walks through their door, they redeem the transaction through their merchant dashboard and receive the full amount via direct deposit within two business days. GifTicket is absolutely free to participating businesses, Larlee said, charging no enrollment or subscription fees and even absorbing the cost of GifTicket transactions.
“Everybody likes to shop online nowadays. This is closing shopping malls, but at the same time, towns everywhere are renovating their main streets, people are realizing that they like their local town. And so, there is a market of people out there who want to support local small businesses, but they want to be able to do it at home, online, in their bathrobe.”Christian Larlee ’90
The website has been “amazing” said Anna-Lisa Fitzgerald, owner of downtown Lexington’s Books & Co…Toys, too! To provide the best customer service, Fitzgerald sold paper gift certificates for almost 20 years and maintained carbon copies. If the paper got lost, she could look up the recipient in her files and replace the lost certificate. Plastic gift cards were expensive for her, and she had no recourse to help customers who had lost cards. GifTicket keeps track of the gift certificates and brings in new customers. “They thought of everything … they covered every single aspect. It’s no cost to the merchant. The purchaser can be anywhere, and I don’t have to manage it,” said Fitzgerald, who added that she receives reimbursements quickly through a fellow small business, Cornerstone Bank in Lexington.
The Larlees added a few extras not normally found in gift cards. Aside from the option to personalize them for any occasion, GifTickets are good for five years. During that time, the recipient receives periodic reminders by email of the amount and time remaining. Unlike typical prepaid gift cards, GifTickets lose no value to swipe, dormant or replacement card fees. And, security is assured by a code unique to each GifTicket, while an email verifies each transaction with the recipient, and business owners can authenticate GifTickets from their merchant dashboard, Larlee explained.
“In addition, GifTicket can help a wide variety of small businesses while providing that variety of choice to online shoppers,” Larlee pointed out. “When the term ‘small business’ comes up, many people automatically think of brick-and-mortar shops on Main Street, but it also includes service providers like plumbers, accountants or even a local community theater. These businesses often don’t have websites or gift cards of their own, and unique ideas like home improvement services make wonderful gifts for a new homeowner or a newlywed couple just starting out.”
Neither of the couple’s two businesses would have been possible when Larlee graduated from VMI. Technology – from the many options available via the internet to the constant, instant access provided by cellphone coverage – has made many small businesses a reality.
“We’ve been able to do this with the tools and technology that are available to pretty much anybody,” Larlee said. Neither he nor Kathy has a business or technology background. Kathy trained in criminal justice, while Larlee majored in history and international studies at the Institute. It was his military experience, starting with his schooling at VMI, which taught Larlee the necessary skills to both start and run a business.
“Everything you learn at VMI and in the military is about problem-solving. You identify a problem or need, develop a course of action to solve or fill it, and organize the team and resources necessary to execute,” he said. “Then you have to be able to self-motivate, manage your time and prioritize your efforts. All of those things I learned at VMI and in the Army.”
Larlee’s experience and background, beginning with his experiences at the Institute, to build two successful, profitable businesses serving diverse markets regionally and nationwide. For more information about either business, visit www.frontdeskbelle.com or www.gifticketinc.com.
In addition to their “day jobs” – Kathy works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, while Larlee works at VMI and does some independent contracting of his own – and running their two businesses, the couple volunteers in many activities and supports numerous charities. Similarly, their businesses actively support the local communities in which they operate. In their spare time, the Larlees travel and pursue a variety of adventurous hobbies, including motorcycling, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, scuba and sky diving – and Larlee recently began training as an airplane pilot.
Molly Rolon Editorial Specialist