05-08 Sandra Cleary

Sandra Cleary, founder of CruCon Cruise Outlet, is forming a new company to invest in fledgling entrepreneurs. (Courtesy photo)

MOULTONBOROUGH — When Sandra Cleary was starting CruCon Cruise Outlet, which has grown into one of the largest private employers in the Lakes Region, her biggest challenge was getting banks to loan her money.

Now that CruCon, founded in 1997, is selling more than $135 million in cruises each year, she is in a position to do for others what she wanted banks to do for her.

Cleary has launched SLC Group Holdings, based in Nashua, to invest in promising entrepreneurs and small businesses.

“I think that, knock on wood, I’ve done pretty well for myself. You always evaluate, at one point in your life, what kind of legacy you’re leaving and what you can do to give back,” Cleary said. “One of the challenges I had when I started was accessing capital from the banks. And now at this stage of my career, I am in the position to help others grow their business.”

She’s planning to operate SLC Group Holdings similarly to the ABC television show, “Shark Tank,” where the investors make their choice because of the individuals behind the business, not based solely on the business plan.

“What I want to be able to do is help the young entrepreneurs,” Cleary said.

If she had been able to leverage such an investment, “It would have propelled our growth totally quicker.”

Cleary said she will be joined by a couple of trusted advisors, whose counsel helped her to navigate CruCon’s challenging early days.

“We’re at a point right now that we’re looking at investing a few million dollars a year on fledgling companies,” she said.

She was initially thinking about businesses in New Hampshire, but has since decided to consider proposals from anywhere in the country.

“But obviously, my heart is in New Hampshire,” Cleary said.

CruCon is a full-service travel agency that books more than 100,000 guests, from around the world, on cruises. The business is located in a 30,000-square-foot campus. But, 20 years ago, she was operating in her mother’s basement, trying to scrape together enough cash to make the investments her young enterprise needed. The banks weren’t interested, though, and she worries what that means for the economy.

“The future is built on entrepreneurs,” she said. “Even Steve Jobs started [Apple Computers] in his garage.”

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