Gary Rabine has been trying to please people ever since his father questioned whether he was smart enough to go to college.
“He’s always been kind of envious of the college education or threatened by it,” Rabine says of his father. “He didn’t believe in it. The reason I started my business back in 1981 was the fact that I wanted to earn enough money to put myself through college.”
Rabine didn’t make it to college, but it wasn’t due to a lack of intelligence. He had that along with the drive and determination to succeed. Instead of going to school, he ultimately decided to focus on building his business paving driveways, along with the landscaping he did for his father and the patio work he did for a concrete guy he knew.
“I did whatever I could to make a buck,” Rabine says.
As time went on, Rabine’s business kept growing. There were moments when things didn’t go so well too, but Rabine persevered and his company, Rabine Group, began to earn a solid reputation for its paving skills.
“As you make mistakes and experience failure, it’s not a bad thing as long as you learn from those mistakes,” Rabine says. “Early on, I held grudges with my dad. But it’s a waste of time and energy to be teed off for more than a few minutes. It’s a waste to have envy.
“I had friends of mine that always envied the rich guy. Those friends of mine still envy the rich guy and they are not as good of friends with me anymore.”
Rabine didn’t worry about the past and he didn’t dwell on what he didn’t have. The positive attitude helped him take a company that he started with his own blood, sweat and tears and turn it into a $184 million business with about 350 employees.
But it was that idea of trying to please everyone that proved to be one of the biggest hurdles he had to overcome in order to achieve such a high level of success.
Focus your efforts
It was right around 2003 when Rabine took an honest look at his customer base and didn’t like what he was seeing. This was one of those low points for his company, and he wanted to figure out what had caused his business to drop off.
“The rewarding customers were those who owned property that had to maintain it on an annual basis,” Rabine says. “The non-rewarding customers, the ones I was losing money with, were the one-time shots. These were the general contractors who were doing a building in your market for the first time and the last time ever. Or the developers who were trying to nickel and dime you and at the end, only pay you 60 or 70 percent of the job because they didn’t care about the long-term relationship.”
What Rabine began to understand was that not all business was good business. Not all customers were good customers. The reward he got from all his effort wasn’t worth it with customers who didn’t value his strong work ethic and commitment to do the job right.
“Up until that point, I thought I had to work for everybody and anybody as long as they were breathing. I thought I had to do business with them,” Rabine says. “But I began to understand how to fire bad customers and service the heck out of the best customers.”
He gives a lot of credit for this revelation to Victoria Knudson, a facilities manager for a property management company he had done business with in Chicago called Trammel Crow Co.
“She was very tough to work with because she was very demanding,” Rabine says. “But she was very fair. She looks at every property like it’s her own and she cares about them a lot.”
It’s easy to look at a demanding client and see the headaches and stress that often arise in dealing with them. But look beyond that and you’ll probably find a customer who really values your service and is just pushing you to provide the best product or service you can.
When you return that passion, you’re likely to build a relationship that will benefit both you and your client for a long time.
“My thing was to rise to the occasion,” Rabine says. “If I can please this company and this person and I can market for that person with the programs and solutions we develop to make ourselves better for that person, now we can go after the pickiest, choosiest customers there are where there is going to be less competition.”
Knudson changed Rabine’s outlook on achieving success. Working hard had never been a problem. But now he realized that his best plan of action was to find customers who valued his hard work and desired a great result just as much as he did.
“I had to figure out ways to differentiate my business,” Rabine says. “We came up with the slogan, ‘Discover the Difference.’ It pushes our customers to ask the question, ‘What does that mean?’ Here’s how we differentiate with value-added solutions that you won’t find from anyone else.”
Step up your game
The slogan was just a start for Rabine. Now he had to go after those customers who value commitment and hard work and prove that it was more than just talk.
He decided one way he could do that was by guaranteeing not only the end product but the work that went into it.
“We’re the only company we know of in the country that not only warranties the product, the labor and the materials, but we also warranty the engineering specifications on the job at no extra cost,” Rabine says. “If there is a problem with engineering specifications, it’s on our back.”
Rabine hired engineers that had specific expertise in paving. He believes it gives him a crucial edge on his competition. The mindset of being the best and doing whatever it takes to satisfy customers and solve their problems is one that begins with him and has to become contagious to his workforce.
“My conversation with everybody on our team is we don’t accept complacency,” Rabine says. “We want you to challenge everybody around you. We want you to challenge yourself and challenge everybody around you to get better. If you care about the people and care about the company, you’re going to care about challenging old ways. You’re going to care about making a difference and being part of an improved business model.”
It was a dual process of selling his team on the idea of hard work and going after the customers who wanted a company that would apply that hard work toward their needs.
“Most often 20 percent of your customers deliver 80 percent of your revenue and your business,” Rabine says. “So you look at that 20 percent. Who are they? What are their expectations? Why do they like us? How come we are serving them? What do they look at? What do they read every day? How do we become their experts?”
Whatever industry you do business in, you can always do more to connect with your customers. Maybe it’s joining an industry association or becoming more active in one of which you are a member. Make an effort to get to trade shows and keep up with what’s happening out in the field.
“Give back to them and serve them and they are going to serve you,” Rabine says.
As for the customers who do more harm than good, that has a way of working itself out as you spend more time with your valuable customers.
“If you just say, ‘I have to raise my prices to serve this group,’ you’re going to lose a big chunk of those guys just by raising prices because they’re going to be price-driven and not relationship-driven,” Rabine says. “You’ve spun your wheels with these customers that you’re not making a profit with anyway. Take that same energy and use it to market to that target market that appreciates you. I believe that’s when we became much more successful.”
The results of Rabine’s commitment to excellence were crystallized when a friend who happened to see a patch job Rabine’s company was doing in the Chicago area told him about it. The friend didn’t know that Rabine’s company was doing the work, but once he found out, he had to tell Rabine about what he had seen.
“He called me all excited one day,” Rabine says. “One guy had left some pebbles in the curb and gutter. The other guy said, ‘Come on, that’s not world class.’ The first guy said, ‘The rain will wash it away.’ And the other guy said, ‘That’s not world class. Clean it up.’ And sure enough, they cleaned it up and left the job in impeccable shape.
“It’s fun when you get everybody on board and passionate enough to care. If that message doesn’t carry all the way through, we can’t be the same company we are.”
Rabine is realistic and doesn’t expect his employees to completely buy in to the ideals that he preaches every day.
“But if you have 75 to 90 percent buy-in across the board compared to one leader or a couple of leaders saying, ‘This is where we’re going,’ it’s a lot easier,” Rabine says. “Our growth in the last nine years has been about clarity of vision and hiring awesome people who will carry out that vision.”
He says the goal of continuous improvement and of finding a better way to serve those great customers that do business with you is one that should always be a target for you, your team and your business.
“We have strategic planning that goes on for a couple of weeks at the beginning of every year,” Rabine says. “We get feedback from everyone who has new ideas. We love when we have people on our team come up with, ‘Hey, you know what, this works, but this could work better. This really doesn’t work worth a darn. This could really work well if we do it.’
“Those are the people in our business who will continually grow in our company. They are the ones who are consistently thinking outside the box and the ones who are pushing the envelope to change things. That’s who we look for.”
When you find those people and bring them in on what your plan is, your odds of success become so much better.
“If you can get every employee to understand a good day from a bad day, you’re going to be successful because 98 percent of the population wants to go to work and they want to have a good day,” Rabine says. “They want to be successful and they want to create profits for the company they work for.” <<
How to reach: Rabine Group, (888) 722-4633 or
Gary Rabine, CEO, Rabine Group
The Rabine File
Born: North Chicago, Ill.
Rabine on the importance of metrics: Measurements are the key to success. The year I lost money, it was because I didn’t pay attention. When I first started my business and I did a driveway a day and four or five driveways a day, I knew every day, every job within minutes if I was profitable or not, if it was a good job or a bad job, a good day or a bad day.
As I grew, I got complacent. I kind of lost track. I wasn’t keeping track as well as I did early on. Instead of understanding in a couple hours of doing a job if I was successful or not, I wasn’t paying attention. So at the end of an 8-month season, I thought I made money and I lost money. I didn’t have the measurements in place and the dashboards in place that I had early on.
If I had continued to operate like that, today I’d be out of business. If you don’t have clear measurements and dashboards that everybody understands, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Rabine on challenging his people: You’re going to get some people who like being part of it and others who think it’s too much of a challenge. They want to be in a more relaxed environment. You create clarity in the vision and the people who are excited to be on board are passionate and excited and they know what’s coming. It’s a lot better than the alternative where you don’t know the direction, you don’t know what your job is or what your opportunity is and you lack direction.
Focus on people who want to help you.
Never stop looking at how you can exceed expectations.
Bring your employees in on your plan.