Resorts, bars and restaurants throughout the lakes area have an abundance of glass bottles, something in which Jeff Helland and Beth Shires see worlds of potential.
Helland and Shires started Ursa Enterprises as a wholesale custom glass work business in 2011. This spring they opened up the front of their workshop for retail sales in Jenkins.
Ursa Enterprises is a glasswork business. It offers custom glass items made from wholesale wine glasses and mirrors, recycled alcohol bottles from local resorts, and glass work paired with metal work from local artists.
“We work with different craftsmen and I’m able to go out and sell their items. What we like to do with them, we try to enhance it with something we can do here, especially with the laser etcher,” Shires said.
Among the grownup toys in their back workshop are a laser engraver, glass slumping kiln, circle glass saw and bottle washer. They use this sophisticated gear to create custom etched commemorative wine bottles and glasses for special events, drinking glasses and hummingbird feeders.
Perhaps their most unique item is a cheese tray, which they make by softening colorful glass bottles at about 1,700 degrees until they slump into a flat tray with a bottle neck handle.
“It’s fun, I think. If people buy these they can put their dips, salsas, crackers and cheese on them. It’s just a fun way to recycle,” Shires said.
Helland and Shires develop most of their artistic creations through simple imagination exercises. They look at different bottle shapes rather than what was inside the bottles.
“We kind of played a game where we would say, ‘What could you make from this type of bottle?’” Shires said.
They are always experimenting with new ideas given to them by friends and customers.
Before they began Ursa Enterprises, Helland owned a St. Cloud software company ARS Solutions, and Shires worked in the medical field. In 2004, they bought a condo in Breezy Point when Helland began selling his business. He stayed on for a year before they moved into their condo for good. They did lawn mowing and odd jobs to pass the time for a few years before they decided to start a business.
“We had been tossing around different ideas and businesses and we had seen the cheese trays (with wine bottle labels on the back). We’d seen that process done,” Shires said. “I thought about doing just craft shows, He said, ‘Do a business plan and we’ll look it over’.”
They began by taking classes to learn to slump glass in a kiln, use a laser engraver and many other skills.
From there, the business grew.
“We don’t do a lot of advertising. We are very area oriented with our advertising. So, we look at me going to these different places as part of our advertising,” Shires said. “The UPS guy, the Speedy guy, the FedEx guy won’t show them our new product. If I come in and I show them what we have now, they can see it, touch it and feel it.”
It is for this reason that Ursa Enterprises offers free delivery and other uncommon practices.
“We decided on free delivery because I’m traveling and calling on these customers,” Shires said. “We also decided there will be no minimums on how much someone had to purchase. I guess our focus was going for the small resorts, and big ones and small gift shops.”
Ursa Enterprises does not charge for setup fees, either. That, combined with no minimum purchases, is virtually unheard of in similar businesses.
Altogether, they are learning from their experiences and constantly adding new products.
“As we progress I think our work gets better,” Shires said.
Shires and Helland also built their company around a few simple principles. Reuse of materials, buying local and supporting charity are a few of them.
As a nearly six-year breast cancer survivor, Shires says they wanted to use their business to give back. As a result, she joined the Brainerd Lakes Susan G. Komen Committee and began to offer special charity deals through their company.
At some local charities there are Ursa Enterprise flyers. If someone brings one of those flyers to the store to have a custom engraved item made, part of the money they pay for that item will go to the charity.
“It’s us giving back. It’s me feeling I’ve been wanting to do something, but there’s a limit cash wise for what you can do,” Shires said.