By Ed Brennen
Surrounded by poppers, cranks, spinners, spoons, jigs and shiners, Manning School of Business
senior Ben Kenney flips open his laptop and settles in for class.
Like most students, Kenney is taking his courses remotely this semester because of the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike most students, though, Kenney is taking his online courses while sitting behind the counter of his very own business: Ben’s Tackle Shack.
Located on the banks of the Quaboag River in the central Massachusetts town of Brookfield, just 15 minutes down the road from Kenney’s hometown of Leicester, Ben’s Tackle Shack is packed to the gills with all the fishing gear an angler needs: lures, live bait, reels and rods. There’s even a selection of shirts and hats with the store’s logo.
Kenney, who’s taking seven courses this semester to complete his bachelor’s degree in business administration, always wanted to start his own business. He just never imagined it would happen this soon — and during a global pandemic.
“Obviously, coronavirus is terrible and awful. But with school being online, I can work here and take classes at the same time. So I’m finding a silver lining in this situation,” Kenney says while giving a tour of the cozy and neatly arranged retail space, which opened in early May.
Kenney had a pretty good connection for starting the business: His dad, Daniel, has been running fishing expos across the Northeast for the past decade. When the pandemic shut down the trade show business in March, father and son sat down at the kitchen table and decided to launch the new venture.
A family friend, Patricia White Correia, offered to let the Kenneys convert part of her canoe and kayak rental location, White’s Landing, into their tackle shop.
“We wouldn’t be here if she didn’t allow us to use her building,” says Daniel, who had some products on hand to get started, but not enough to stock an entire store. So they racked up their credit card bill to fill out their inventory.
Their “leap of faith” — a phrase Ben has tattooed on his right leg — paid off. Thanks to a surge in outdoor activities like bicycling, camping and fishing during the pandemic, Ben’s Tackle Shack proved a hit with local anglers.
“It’s worked out so great,” says Kenney, who is able to apply what he’s learning in his business classes to a real-life entrepreneurial venture. He says Prof. Scott Latham
’s course on business strategy has been particularly relevant.
“How to differentiate yourself from the competition and identifying your value system directly applies to what I’m doing here,” says Kenney, whose concentrations are in marketing
. He is also minoring in climate change and sustainability
“He’s getting a leg up by actually working on invoicing, ordering, banking, inventory management and people skills — all of these intangibles that are taught by a professor but experienced in real life,” says his father, who worked in marketing at TJX Companies Inc. for more than a decade before shifting careers.
When choosing a college, Kenney wanted a quality education at an accessible price. “UMass Lowell was a perfect fit for me, right off the bat,” he says.
After attending an orientation session at the Manning School, his parents were sold, too.
“It was so well done. All the professors we met with were great,” Daniel says. “When my wife (Minerva) and I left that day, we both looked at each other and said, ‘This is where he should go.’ It was a really good feeling.”
Kenney is an active member of the Christian Student Fellowship
and had a music and talk show on the student-run radio station, WUML (91.5 FM)
, his junior year called “Reluctant Pass” — a reference to the tongue-in-cheek note written on the DJ test that he nearly failed.
While Kenney plans to run the Tackle Shack for the foreseeable future, he also wants to travel and pursue another lifelong dream: music. He started singing, rapping and recording songs in high school and now has almost 16,000 monthly listeners on Spotify, some from as far away as Australia.
“Running the shack gives me some stability, but music has always been my main dream,” he says.
Kenney knows he’s in a fortunate situation, which is one reason he’s intent on giving back. He has a selection of refurbished fishing rods that he gives away free to kids, and he helps his dad with a food pantry he runs for veterans. They even have free coffee brewing for customers throughout the day.
“Making a profit is great, but it’s a tough time right now and we want to give back any way we can,” says Kenney, who questioned if business was the right path for him early in his college career.
“After my second Business 101 class, I realized that I don’t want to work 9 to 5 and dress up in suits and shake hands at a corporate job. But I came to realize that there’s so much more to business than working in a cubicle — like being creative as an entrepreneur or in marketing,” he says while enjoying the view from the Tackle Shack’s back patio on a perfect fall afternoon.
“The fact that, if no one’s here, I can do homework and work on music, I can’t ask for anything better,” Kenney says. “I’m really blessed to be here.”