CAROGA LAKE - When Ralph Ottuso went looking for a gas fireplace for the house he was building in Pine Lake, he was surprised at how far he had to go to find one and how little the salesmen seemed to know about the equipment.
"I thought, 'I can sell these,'" he said Tuesday. "It just takes some common sense."
That was in 1991, when he established Pine Lake Stoves. He was a sheriff's deputy then and was working part time developing the stove business.
The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
Ralph Ottuso looks out to the living area in one of the new cabins he built in Caroga along Route 10.
The Leader-Herald/Richard Nilsen
Lake Country Self Storage, also owned by Ottuso, along
Route 29A in Caroga.
"I was a deputy for three years with Montgomery County and seven years with Fulton County," he said. "When the business got too busy, I resigned and went full time with the store."
The store prospered selling home heating equipment, eventually employing six full-time workers.
Ottuso said he had been warned the store location wasn't ideal for business, but he liked the beauty of the area and wasn't held back by the location.
Since selling the business to Tim Willard in 2006, Ottuso has branched out into commercial real estate and other ventures.
Willard said he appreciated Ottuso's efforts.
"It's a great success story, starting from nothing in a questionable location and then growing the business," Willard said.
Willard said Ottuso won many business awards from the companies he worked with in sales of heating units and expects Ottuso will do as well in the new areas he has taken on.
"He's a worker," Willard said of Ottuso. "Anything he works with he jumps in 100 percent. As a small business owner, that's what you have to do."
Store Manager Bob Ward said Ottuso seems to have a knack for business.
"Everything he touches turns to gold," Ward said. "He's definitely an entrepreneur."
Ottuso named his new business Lake Country Marketing, after the area he loves.
The 44-year-old former Gloversville resident - who loves the outdoors and had many hunting trophies at his former store - said local people don't realize what a great area it is.
"People want to be up here," he said of the Adirondacks.
After selling Pine Lake Stoves in 2006, Ottuso purchased about seven acres of commercial property in Johnstown, which includes the WIZR radio tower and land in front of the Johnstown Moose Club.
Ottuso also built four log cabins - called Lake Country Cabins - on the site of the former Iron Kettle Motel, next to the Caroga Town Hall on Route 10.
Ottuso attributes some of his success to how he does business.
"There is no bank in this," he said of his self-financed endeavors.
Sometimes things fell in his lap, he said. Ottuso tried to buy the property at the Iron Kettle Motel two years ago and the owner didn't want to sell. He wound up buying the property at a tax sale instead for $33,000 - much less than he had expected to pay.
He also has purchased self-storage units along Route 29A and created Lake Country Self Storage. Ottuso is building a 10,000-square-foot warehouse for storage next to Pine Lake Stoves (property he still owns and leases to Willard).
Other planned projects include building more storage units and an eight-unit, two-story Adirondack-style motel next to the four cabins he rents to people on Route 10.
"There's potential everywhere you look," Ottuso said. "You just have to be able to see it."
Ottuso found the time to run for supervisor in the town of Caroga last fall.
Ottuso said one reason he ran for the position was to see if a way could be found to encourage people to improve their property.
"If you improve your property, you should be rewarded, not penalized," Ottuso said. "Once assessed, a property should receive a 20 percent discount [on its tax bill] if it is improved enough to help draw people into the area. If property is run down until it looks like 'Tobacco Road' it should be penalized."
While his campaign ended when he lost the Republican primary, Ottuso said he wants to help create a better economy in the area by promoting its natural resources.
"I want to keep our town growing, just like you want a business to grow," he said.
Ottuso has housed seven wedding parties at his Lake Country Cabins since opening last year, and said he has received nothing but compliments about the structures.
Town resident Doreen Ford said she rented all four cabins for out-of-town guests when her daughter Corey was married.
"It was wonderful," Ford said. "Everybody loved the cabins."
Ottuso continues to look for new opportunities. "I'm looking at other pieces of property," he said.
Richard Nilsen is a general assignment reporter and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org