Although he doesn't work with bricks and mortar on a daily basis, Gregg Meisenhelter '00 of Decatur is most certainly a builder. It's just that, in his case, he's doing what he can to build up and create a successful business community in the campustown area near Millikin as well as in other pockets throughout Decatur.
It was a path that started when he was only 14.
"My dad took me to the local small town bank to get the dollars so I could buy a blue '66 Mustang," he says. "That was the first time I met my banker. I've worked with that bank ever since."
That boost of faith by his loan officer led to Meisenhelter taking out other loans a few years later. This time, he was a Millikin art major, and he wanted a loan to buy a house near the university to live in while he attended school. He became the proud owner of a home that "at one time or another, almost every soccer player on the team lived in," says the former player.
He says he didn't start out to be an entrepreneur.
"I just get a kick out of buying things and making them better," he says. "In fact, I still don't know what I want to do with my life."
A few years later came graduation and the next day he was working full time for his brother in the family garbage hauling service. It wasn't long before Meisenhelter, by now in the business of regularly investing and selling real estate, bought half of his parents' garbage business and started United Waste, which he still owns today with his mother.
Eventually, he turned his attention to retail establishments and purchased a large section of real estate on Oakland Avenue then owned by Eichenauer Services Inc. Since taking it over, he's leased storefronts in that block to two restaurants, a comics shop and a bakery. While doing some exterior painting on the property one day, he was approached by Jim Gresham, who along with his wife Kathy Farleigh Gresham '70, owned the iconic restaurant and bar Lock Stock & Barrel (LSB) directly across the street.
Gresham was thinking of retiring and liked the thought of Meisenhelter as the owner of the business he'd started in 1977.
For Meisenhelter, it was the closing of a loop. While attending Millikin with his future wife, Dana Descaro '01, his future mother-in-law, was a waitress at LSB. Her husband had laid the building's bricks and even carved his last name on one. Meisenhelter had joked: "I want to own this place."
And now he does, in addition to sharing ownership of the almost 80-year-old Winery around the corner to the northeast with his brother and one of the LSB managers. Recently, he turned his focus to downtown Decatur, picking up ownership of Katz, another restaurant and bar, in late 2011.
It's been a big leap for someone who admits he had no hands-on restaurant or food experience until purchasing LSB. He's grateful that Gresham has stayed on part-time to offer his expertise after the purchase, and rues that he doesn't have time to be the "guy out front greeting people every day like I would like to and should be doing."
"I see how it works now," he says. "But my phone is always ringing and people tell me I'm always in a hurry, always running."
Despite a schedule that rarely gives him a full night's sleep, Meisenhelter makes a point to give back to Millikin by sharing his business observations with students, speaking to classes once or twice a semester.
"I have asked Gregg to be a part of my classes because he is so entrepreneurial; he is almost a classic textbook example of the entrepreneurial attitude," says Professor Dennis Schwieger of the Tabor School of Business. "I find him inspirational for this topic. He comes across as very believable, partly because of his age, and partly because of his 'straight-from-the-shoulder' presentation. He is not pretentious - he is very real, and that goes well with my students."
Meisenhelter's realism extends to being pragmatic about the needs of MU's campustown to draw local residents, too.
"I'm very glad that Millikin is a neighbor, and a very good one at that," he says, "but these places can't survive on MU alone."
It's a lesson he's planning to teach his twin boys, 8, and his daughter, 4, as he thinks about how to encourage them to be their own bosses, too.
"I'm thinking a snow cone business in campustown for them would be a good start once they're old enough," he says. "And I feel it would teach them business skills that will help them further down the road.
"Plus, I like snow cones," he adds with a grin.