Al, a Centerville native, spent 20 years in the Navy before sustaining a combat-related injury that forced him into early retirement. Shortly after, Christy became disabled in a car accident and could no longer work either
“I had a really bad fall and went through 53 surgeries,” Kroell said. “When I retired, my wife also got badly injured in a near-fatal car accident and became disabled as well.”
The Kroells had no choice but to move out of their home on base near San Diego. They packed up and moved to Squaw Valley – close enough to Al’s hometown, but far enough from city living that they could focus on rest and recuperation.
As the credit card bills stacked up, Christy and Al found solace in something that brought them joy: making custom laser engraved plaques for military service members. Al said he started making plaques over 30 years ago when he was in the military as a way to honor service men and women departing military bases. He used an engraving machine to produce custom plaques from wood, metal and glass.
It didn’t occur to the Kroells that they could make a living doing it, until they caught wind of Reedley College’s entrepreneurship program two years ago. They each took a few business classes, and Al joined the Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE) Club. He was inspired.
Once they decided to go full-force into the engraving business, Al took classes all over the educational spectrum. He learned to operate heavy machinery in manufacturing class, design computer graphics in art class, and master public speaking in communication class. He said the biggest skill he learned was how to give an effective “elevator pitch,” or pitching his business to a potential investor in under a minute.
“They don’t teach you that in the military,” Al Kroell said. “Everything that we’ve done here at the college has helped us to get this business off the ground. It’s all been trial and error and a lot of hard work, but I know we wouldn’t be where we are today without it.”
Where they are today is a pretty good spot. Nine months ago, the Kroells officially started ChristyAl Engraving. They wrote a compelling business plan that nabbed them a $100,000 loan from a small business investing company, and purchased a highly accurate computerized laser engraving machine.
They now make signs from marble, glass, wood, metal, ceramics and just about anything imaginable, as small as a dime to as large as 4 by 8 feet. Their first love is still military plaques, but the Kroells have also branched out into commercial business signs, memorial plaques, and wood cut-outs.
Their joy in creating custom work is apparent. Even the back of Al’s iPad is etched with their company’s logo. He said he once etched his fingernails, just to see if the machine was capable of doing it. (It was.)
As they’ve built up a solid portfolio and clientele, Christy and Al recently got some more good news. They received a grant from the Sam’s Club Giving Program to attend a lecture in Dallas, Texas earlier this spring, where they listened to nationally recognized speakers in the world of small business. Click on their website careel-tech for more information.