Breeding success Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Success breeds success. The tenet is far from revolutionary, but Denny Gerdeman still spreads it among his 50 employees with vigor.

“When you have a successful project and a happy client, guess what? More business,” says the principal and co-founder of Chute Gerdeman Inc., a retail design firm.

To create this snowball effect, Gerdeman grants his employees the autonomy to flex their creative muscles and maintains a constant channel of communication with clients.

That old adage has paid off for Gerdeman, whose company posted 2007 revenue of $7 million, up from 2003 revenue of $3.4 million.

Smart Business spoke with Gerdeman about the importance of establishing a strategic plan and how to determine how much growth your business can accommodate.

Q. How important is it to establish a strategic plan?

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. We draw a very clear chart of the direction for the design, based upon what the brand attributes are. Once we’ve established those attributes, those then help define what the design is going to be. It really eliminates a tremendous amount of guesswork.

It’s a very surgically done approach. Certainly, there’s design applied and art to it, but it’s very much a business strategy that we use as we start developing that design strategy. Otherwise, you’re throwing darts at a big wall.

We start out every year with a game plan of what we want to end up with by the end of the year. And the same way with our clients — we can’t be successful with ourselves unless we know how we’re going to do it for our clients.

Q. How do you determine how much growth you can handle?

I have found, as a rule of thumb, that growing 15 percent has always been my target because it’s a creative service, and it’s all driven by people.

You can’t do quality work on every single project if you’re growing too fast. It’s about how you teach the new individuals that you bring into a company. How you find the right individuals to bring into a company. That puts a bit of a limit on how fast we can grow, but it’s a self-imposed limit. We’re much more about quality than we are quantity.

Our ambition has never been to be the biggest.

What I want to do is be well-known for the kind of work that we do, the quality of work that we put out. We can make a good enough margin doing that versus just having to have a high-volume place that just pushes projects through the doors.

We’d make more money overall if we did it that way, possibly, but it’s just not what is my motivation.

Q. Once you have the right people at your company, how do you keep them?

We’ve made it a policy that we would treat everyone like they were family. It sounds hokey, but we really did make it warm and friendly. It’s just our culture of being open-minded.

We don’t have strict discipline. (Employees) know they have to get their jobs done and the projects completed within schedules and budgets.

Could I run it tighter and make more money? I’m sure we could, but you’re not going to get the best results. You have to allow them the flexibility and the opportunity to flex their design muscles. That’s how we get the best work, and that’s how we get the best talent.

Q. How important is constant communication with clients during a project?

If clients don’t hear from you, they don’t know what’s going on, they start to wonder what’s happening. On active projects, we’re communicating every day with our clients, letting them know what’s going on, what the status is, when they’re going to see something. There’s always constant dialog; that way, there aren’t surprises.

We make them a partner in the whole process so they’re working with us as we make design decisions.

We allow them to be involved in the choices and have a voice.

That’s very important, and when they have that voice, they become part of the process and they take ownership. Once they have ownership, they’re absolutely less apt at the end of the day to say, ‘I don’t care for this; this is not what I thought I was going to get.’

It really does increase the likelihood of having a successful project.

Q. How do you keep going in tougher economic times?

It’s really giving it the best effort every day and being extremely persistent. Nobody wins every day. It doesn’t happen. But if you can win three out of five days of the week, four out of five days of the week, you’re going to be very successful.

I believe in being persistent, always being positive, doing your best and getting the best people you can find and supporting them.

HOW TO REACH: Chute Gerdeman Inc., (614) 469-1001 or