Jo Judy

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:56

Entrepreneurial Success Award

The seven years entrepreneur Jim Wallace spent in corporate America prior to starting his first business provided him valuable learning experiences.

“I often see entrepreneurs who tend to put down large corporations,” he notes. “But working for a large corporation taught me some good things — in terms of business, discipline and getting along with people — that I otherwise would have had to learn the hard way.”

In 1970, Wallace founded his first business, Cascade Data, to provide computing equipment for businesses too small to require a mainframe. Four years later, he sold it and founded a second company, Representative Electronic Products, or REP Associates, a manufacturer’s representative firm in the electronic components business. Within eight years, he merged it into a Columbus company he’d acquired called Microtech.

By the time Wallace got around to selling that company in December 1986, he was a year and a half into his current venture: Cranel Inc., named for his son and daughter, Craig and Janel.

Wallace admits he wrestled with the decision to sell Microtech. “I had reached the point in those years where I was ready to do something different, but with that I carried a heavy moral obligation to make sure the people were OK,” he says. “After all, I did not build the business alone, and I felt a heavy obligation to make sure those people were taken care of.”

When Cranel was formed in June 1985, Wallace says the initial focus was on distributing mass storage and document imaging products. In time, he began to sense a need in the marketplace for post-sale services, so in 1988, the support and maintenance division of Cranel emerged.

This trend of adding new pieces to the company — rather than starting new ventures — continued in the early ’90s when “severe margin pressure” in the distribution area and customer concerns about the inability find people to implement mass storage pushed Wallace to once again change Cranel’s focus. This time, he was after “a solutions concept,” which he continues to build upon today with the recent addition of another business segment — the professional services or consulting component.

“We now have a solutions sales force that initiates a customer contact,” Wallace said. “Once the solution is sold to the customer, we have a consulting group that makes it work in the customer’s site. And then we have the support and maintenance side of the business, which supports the customer after the sale.”

Cranel has provided the massive storage systems that Time uses to digitize and archive all its photographs — more than 25 million. Cranel also provided the equipment and teamed with a reseller in Costa Rica for a project in which all land ownership records in the country’s history were digitized and stored on computer systems. With offices in Boston, Denver, Atlanta, Chicago, Aliso Viejo, Calif., and Princeton, N.J., the company will surpass 200 employees in 1999. Revenues in 1998 approached $100 million.

Diane Allen, senior loan officer at Columbus Countywide Development Corp. and Wallace’s SBA award nominator, notes that although Cranel is growing at very rapidly, that growth has been carried out thoughtfully and carefully.

“I think that is the heart of this award — not just a successful small business person, but someone who has really expanded very capably,” she says. “In order to better serve their market, which is truly a national market, they have been able to establish and successfully manage satellite locations, and that can be very tough, particularly for a young company.”

Allen attributes much of Cranel’s success to Wallace’s leadership.

“He has an incredible ability to maintain control down to a detailed level, but he also has done a good job of hiring capable people and delegating, which is very important,” she said.

Wallace’s business philosophy is simple: “I drill into my people that what we deliver to our customers may be a product or a service, but what we sell to them is our integrity, and if we ever give up our integrity, we have nothing left to sell.”

His personal philosophy is just as simple: “We all get out of life what we give of ourselves. If we give of ourselves to others, we’re going to be very well rewarded.”

In keeping with that, Wallace sits on the board of advisers for the Entrepreneurial Institute at the University of North Dakota and the School of Engineering at North Dakota State University. In 1998, his home state honored him as the North Dakota Entrepreneur of the Year.

Although baffled by the trend of holding entrepreneurs in such high regard, Wallace says, “I admire anyone who can stand on a street corner and sell hot dogs and make money at it. I admire anyone who has a business, regardless of size, and can make it go. So there are many people in this world that I admire.”

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:43

When petting at work is OK

Sandy Fekete doesn’t worry when pressure builds at her marketing communications firm, Fekete + Co. She has a CEO — chief emotional officer, that is — to ease the tension.

“She has a very calming influence,” explains Fekete, speaking of her 3-year-old golden retriever, Colby, who accompanies her to her offices in the Busch Corporate Center each day. “She knows when stress levels are high, and she’ll just come and put her chin on your leg, even in the middle of a meeting.”

Having a pet around the office, while perhaps a bit nontraditional, helps Fekete in other ways, too.

“If Colby is uncomfortable around somebody, then we would think twice about even doing business with that person,” says Fekete, who quickly adds, “but all of my clients have very much accepted her.”

Colby has a nose for good job candidates, too.

“When we hire new employees, she’s the first test they have to pass,” Fekete says. “Some people just aren’t comfortable around dogs, and she’s part of the staff here.”

Allowing pets in the workplace may seem simple enough, but it requires careful planning. Some issues to consider before bringing a pet to the office include:

Customer reaction. April Volpe, who knows 5-year-old Luigi is the top cat at April’s Flowers & Gifts on West Fifth Avenue, says she occasionally encounters a customer who is afraid of animals. To remedy this, she simply puts Luigi in the back room while that customer is in the shop.

But she points out that most customers are very receptive to Luigi, even asking about him when they call to place orders.

Volpe’s sister, Mindy Bates, has had a similar experience with the two pets she keeps at Gracie’s Flower Market in the Brewery District. Daff, a 5-year-old cat, has actually developed his own little “following” in the area, Bates says.

“People come in just to see him, and when I have to put something together for customers, they can visit with the cat or the bird [a 12-year-old parrot named Garbanzo] while they wait,” she says.

Safety — for the animal and the customer. Volpe displays a sign on the front door of her shop cautioning customers not to let the cat out. She also says she would hesitate to allow other pets in the workplace, fearing it would upset Luigi.

And because Volpe’s primary concern is for her cat’s safety, she often will keep Luigi in the back room when small children are in the shop, because they might play too roughly with him.

Bates concedes that having pets at work might create some liability issues, but she considers them minimal.

“The bird is in a cage behind the counter, so he’s not sitting or flying around the shop, but I do tell people that he’ll bite if he doesn’t know you,” she says. “And the cat still has his claws, so if people are rough with him, he could scratch them.”

Because of these risks, Bates is careful to keep her pets’ shots up to date.

Employee health. Volpe’s desire to keep her cat at the gift shop nearly cost her an employee.

“My driver is allergic to Luigi and was going to quit,” she explains, “but she became incredibly attached to him, and now when she comes in, she puts on a mask and gloves just so she can pet him.”

Fekete’s art director also initially had problems with pet allergies; however, Fekete reports that “she quickly became acclimated to Colby, and now she even has two dogs of her own.”

Volpe, Bates and Fekete enthusiastically recommend pets in the workplace. In fact, aside from a bit of lunchtime begging, Fekete calls Colby a perfect employee with an excellent work ethic.

“She is the only employee who bounds into work every morning,” Fekete says.

Jo Ann Judy (JJudy@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN Columbus.

Monday, 31 December 2001 07:07

Joe Lorenz

When Joe Lorenz joined his father, Jim, in the family-owned business in 1990, he admits he did so with some reluctance.

"I resisted a bit because I didn't know what the environmental sales group was about, but I came on board and said I'd give it a try," says Lorenz, who came from a marketing and advertising background. Eight years later, he took over as president of PRO-TERRA Environmental Contracting Co., a growing environmental contracting business, as his father prepared for retirement.

"We transferred the reins in 1998, but we had been working on the plan for about five years," the younger Lorenz says. "We spent a lot of time talking to employees about what would happen when Jim retired."

As part of that preparation, Lorenz returned to school, earning an MBA from Franklin University, and began developing his leadership skills and taking on more leadership responsibilities. Early on, he became a key member of The Executive Committee (TEC), and after becoming president of PRO-TERRA, joined The Executive Group, an organization of CEOs.

"We've tried to set up some support mechanisms outside of the family to help me develop my abilities as president, and that has been very helpful," says Lorenz. "It has challenged me to work at a higher level and to be more prepared, more planned and more structured."

Part of that structure involved establishing a board of directors, which includes Jim Wyland, president of Professional Planning Consultants, a company that helps entrepreneurs manage both the financial and business succession sides of their business.

"Joe has a nice balance of strengths," says Wyland. "He knows how to sell. He knows how to motivate people. He knows how to do all the things that are necessary to run that business from an operational, bidding and performance standpoint. He has grown a lot and has become a very successful leader and manager."

Lorenz says his vision is for the company to be Ohio's preferred environmental contractor in the services it provides, among them landfill closures, emergency spill response services and hazardous and nonhazardous site remediation services, which makes up 60 percent of PRO-TERRA's projects.

"We work closely with the engineers on these different technologies and solutions," says Lorenz. "We work really hard to build trust with the engineers who, in turn, can say to the owners, 'This is our preferred contractor. Because of the relationship we've had over the years, we know they will do a good job and will stand behind the work they do.'"

Under Lorenz's leadership, the company has grown from five employees to between 45 and 50, and from a first-year revenue of between $500,000 and $1 million to a 2001 estimate of between $7 million and $8 million. In 2000, PRO-TERRA also moved into its new headquarters at 2000 Integrity Drive South, which offers plenty of room for growth and expansion.

The company works primarily in Ohio for customers including Ashland Chemical, Honda, General Motors, United Parcel Services and The Scotts Co. Its central location in the state is a tremendous benefit because it allows the company to work anywhere throughout the state without lengthy travel times.

"There's something to be said for being able to get in the car and drive a couple of hours to be home for a family occasion," says Lorenz, the father of a 9- and 7-year-old.

In addition to his involvement at St. Timothy's Catholic Church, Lorenz coaches soccer and baseball and was named 2001-2002 Cub Master for Pack 324 of the Boy Scouts of America.

Lorenz says he greatly admires his father, Jim, for his ability to step away from the company he founded to allow others to grow within the company.

"It's definitely an accomplishment to be able to build that confidence and to know that Jim is willing to step away and that he is happy with the results. That's sort of the ongoing success of being able to build the business-controlled growth, but also building people's lives and having them be successful and having an impact on their lives and their families' lives," he says.

Since becoming president of PRO-TERRA, Lorenz and the company have received numerous awards and recognitions. In 2001, both Joe and Jim Lorenz were finalists for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year Award in the Construction/Real Estate category.

Wyland calls Joe Lorenz a classic entrepreneur.

"He's one of those entrepreneurs who is striving to learn and to make his organization a continuous learning, growing group," he says. "I have watched him build an excellent team where there wasn't one before. He has done the things it takes to bring on the right people and teach them and let them grow and make mistakes somewhat to lead the business to the level of success it has had."

But Lorenz insists the company's focus is simply on providing good service to its customers.

"We want to be considered all the time as being able to offer up solutions, to be honest, timely, and cost-effective, and to do what we say we're going to do," he says. "We try to keep a low profile. We just want to do good work for the customer, but we don't necessarily need to be in the limelight. We try to be as professional as we need to be and still be in the contracting business.

"We're not in the design service business. It's difficult to explain at times, but that has helped us in knowing our position in life and not going over to design services and to be very true to our word on that. And that has helped us build a lot of relationships over the years." How to reach: Joe Lorenz, PRO-TERRA Environmental Contracting Co., (614) 443-3737 or joe.lorenz@proterra-ec.com

Jo Ann Judy is a free-lance writer for SBN Magazine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:50

A driving commitment

A funny thing happened to Chris Cozad on her way to earning a degree in biology. She became an auto mechanic.

But to Cozad, it doesn't seem like such a remarkable tale.

"When I was in college, I had an old car that was always breaking down, and I had a friend who was a mechanic," she says. "He taught me a few things to keep the old car running, and for many years, it was kind of a hobby. I did it because I enjoyed it."

But several years after college graduation, during a brief period of unemployment, Cozad says friends began to call, requesting tune-ups and repair work.

"I think they were trying to help me out with work, but they also were trying to keep themselves from being ripped off. When it reached a point where I was doing two or three cars a week, I got some business cards printed, and I was in business," she says.

That was in 1986, and she's never looked back.

Operating out of her truck for the first six months, Cozad eventually settled her business, Alternative Auto Care, into its present location, a 3,300-square-foot space in the Harrison West area of Columbus. Annual revenue is approximately $200,000 and she employs three full-time mechanics -- all women.

"I'm very much committed as a woman in a nontraditional job to making this profession accessible to women because it's a very difficult field," she says. "We've come a long way over the years, but we're not there yet. Right now, less than 1 percent of working technicians are women, so there's still a lot of room for growth."

Cozad says the industry has changed significantly, and the vision of the "shade tree mechanic" or "grease monkey" is a thing of the past. Still, negative images persist.

"It used to be that the kids who were steered toward auto shop were those who were perceived as not being able to make it in college," she says. "And it's not an option that many young women even look at because it is somehow perceived as this dirty job that requires brute strength."

That, says Cozad, is a myth.

"With the electronics and computers that are on cars now, it's an extremely sophisticated technical field," she says. "I think there has been a little bit of a shift, but there needs to be a lot more."

While 85 to 90 percent of Alternative Auto Care's customers in the early days were women, Cozad says her customer base now is close to 50-50.

"I have found over the years that there are a lot of men who don't know anything about a car, don't want to know anything about a car and don't want to have to go into the male mechanic and do that macho male bonding, 'I think it's my alternator,' kind of thing," says Cozad. "They're much more comfortable coming to a woman and saying, 'I don't know what's wrong. Just fix it.'"

Cozad believes in delivering a different kind of customer experience.

"I focus on consumer education. It's your car, and you are going to purchase a service from me. You have the right to have your questions answered in a way that you can understand, to have your concerns taken seriously and to be treated with respect. I think a lot of people don't get that in this industry," she says.

Because of her unique approach, Cozad says she does very little advertising. Her repeat business is about 80 percent and her biggest source of new business is referrals and word-of-mouth.

One of her greatest challenges has been maintaining controlled growth.

"I have been very cautious and very mindful of choices in terms of buying equipment. This is the kind of industry where you can put yourself into a huge amount of debt buying state-of-the-art everything and you can get into a lot of trouble," she notes.

"I made that mistake very early on by buying an engine analyzer before I should have, and it taught me that incremental, small growth is much more sustainable than big leaps." How to reach: Alternative Auto Care, 294-0580, cozadc@aol.com

Editor's Note: This page is presented as a cooperative effort of National City Bank and SBN magazine; however all material prepared for this page was independently reported and edited by SBN and was not subject to prior review or approval by National City Bank representatives.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:48

Fun and profits

When Bonnie Segel left the corporate world in 1992 to start Baskets by Bonnie, a retail business specializing in gift baskets and corporate gifts, she had one primary goal in mind: To have fun and enjoy what she did for a living.

She says she has accomplished that goal and more.

"In the job I was in, I sat behind a computer screen all day and looked at numbers," she says. "There were so many parts of my personality that were being stifled, but I didn't realized how starved I was for creativity until after I quit."

After working at home for two years, Segel moved her growing business into a small retail space in the Short North. Two years later, the business expanded again into a larger, more visible Short North location on the corner of Buttles Avenue and High Street.

"Location was an important consideration, and the Short North business district appealed to me for several reasons," she says. "It is central to all of Columbus, convenient to many hotels and close to the convention center, and the creativity and diversity of the Short North community also fits my personality."

Her clientele also is diverse, says Segel, and includes several advertising/public relations firms, a few national retail chains, financial institutions and insurance companies, as well as a variety of sales reps, home builders and Realtors. She estimates that walk-in business accounts for 20 to 30 percent of total sales, but adds, "Our whole business is designed around the concept that our job is to make your job easier. So I have no way to quantify how many people who may have been in the store end up calling because they need a gift and don't have the time to go out and buy one.

"That's where we really excel. We get a description of the recipient, her personality and personal tastes, and create a gift basket specifically for that person."

To personalize the baskets, Segel's company carries thousands of items, from wine and gourmet food items to bath products and baby gifts.

"It has taken a long time to build up the knowledge of different sources to be able to offer this variety of products," she says. "We obviously didn't start out this way."

In addition to Segel, Baskets by Bonnie has one full-time and five part-time employees and adds temporary help during peak times, such as holiday seasons.

"My biggest challenge right now is trying to find balance in life: managing work and family and learning to train employees and delegate responsibility," Segel says. "As an owner, of course, you want everything to be perfect, but I have had to learn that the more people you have working for you and the larger the business grows, the more you have to learn to delegate. And if you make a mistake, you just admit it, fix it and move on."

Although Segel says she took quite a chance five years ago when she moved the company to its current location, the move has proved to be a good business decision.

"Our current location is on a very visible corner, across from a busy coffee shop," she says. "The move from a side street location to one that is front and center caused the business to more than double the first year after we moved."

Since then, the business -- for which Segel declines to release revenue figures -- has remained in a steady growth mode, she says. Reference USA's business database lists Baskets by Bonnie as having estimated annual sales of less than $500,000.

Segel says her biggest source of new business comes from referrals, and her best advertising is a job well done and a good-looking product.

"When people see it, they want to know where it came from, and of course, we guarantee what we do," she says.

Her three large, stage-like windows also have helped draw interest.

"As we became more established, we began to take more risks, and our No. 1 goal was to entertain -- ourselves as well as passersby," she says. "Our window displays draw people in to see what Baskets by Bonnie is all about. They also have earned us some free publicity, such as a photo (posted on a Columbus-related Web site) last fall of our holiday political window entitled 'The Fight Before Christmas,' which featured Al Gore, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in wrestling costumes and masks."

Through it all, Segel maintains that having fun is still the primary motivation.

"Now that the business is well established, I tend to take a 'Field of Dreams' approach -- if you build it, they will come," she says. "My strategy is to continue to have fun and enjoy what I'm doing. We try to constantly be creative, constantly bring in new products and constantly improve in whatever we do." How to reach: Bonnie Segel, Baskets By Bonnie, 228-8700 or www.basketsbybonnie.com

Editor's Note: This page is presented as a cooperative effort of National City Bank and SBN Magazine; however all material prepared for this page was independently reported and edited by SBN and was not subject to prior review or approval by National City Bank representatives.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:47

What a concept

A brochure that crossed her desk in 1988 planted a seed for Connie Simmons that seven years later grew into her own business, MapConcepts. That brochure described software capable of doing pinpoint mapping -- without the pins.

"At that time, whenever someone wanted to see where locations were on a map, they would get a large wall-size map and they would actually put pins in the locations," Simmons remembers. "But when you do that, it's hard to tell exactly where an address is. It's hard to tell where the block is, and it's hard to tell which side of the street to put the pin on. A computer can do it in seconds and be very accurate about it."

Simmons already appreciated the value of having accurate information and using that information for strategic planning.

"I had always been interested in strategic marketing, and I thought, 'What better way to understand location and your customers than to look at a map?'" she says. "And if you can do that with a computer, it's all the more efficient, plus it can handle much higher levels of complexity."

As vice president of marketing at Health Management Services in the late 1980s, Simmons learned to appreciate "rather profoundly," she says, the importance of location.

"We had five urgent care centers and, from Day One, three of the centers went like gangbusters because they were in fantastic locations," she says. "But the two locations that did not have good visibility and good traffic volumes around them totally tanked. That really brought home to me how important it is for any consumer-related business to be in a location where people drive by and see you."

Currently an authorized reseller for Environmental Systems Research Institute's geographic information systems -- or GIS -- software, Simmons offers a line of products such as ArcInfo for servers and ArcView for desktop computers. She also sells a handheld product, ArcPad. The company has annual revenue "in the six figures," and has been growing at a steady 10 percent to 20 percent per year since its inception in 1995.

"This software can give you a very sophisticated map," she says, noting it not only plots street lines, but converts aerial photographs of an area into digital images.

Although the public sector has been much more aggressive in adopting mapping software -- similar software is being used by the state of Ohio and several Ohio counties -- Simmons says the private sector is starting to catch on to the power of using such analysis for planning and development.

"A bank could use the software for placement of branch offices and for understanding where their customer base is," she says. "And insurance companies can use it for risk analysis."

One of MapConcepts' clients, a Cleveland-area law firm, uses the software for commercial real estate development.

"It allows them to use this software to analyze data from the auditor's office," she says.

Sales and marketing departments could use the software for target marketing, response tracking and competitive, demographic and distribution analyses. Governments could use it for zoning, redistricting and crime analysis.

Because the complexity of the software can intimidate users, Simmons provides training. And although training lasts just two days, most people need about three months to feel comfortable using the software, she says.

"Most people have had no exposure whatsoever to computer mapping, and even when you're talking to engineers, the sweat pops out on their brows when talking about this technology," she says. "I tell people that if they can understand this software, they can understand any software." How to reach: Connie Simmons, MapConcepts Inc., 424-6684 or consim@aol.com

Editor's Note: This page is presented as a cooperative effort of National City Bank and SBN Magazine, however all material prepared for this page was independently reported and edited by SBN and was not subject to prior review or approval by National City Bank representatives.

Monday, 22 July 2002 09:33

Finding a need and filling it

In 1988, with just $2,500 in start-up capital, Regina Duffey launched Noritech Inc. from a spare bedroom in her home.

In starting her own company -- which integrates, distributes and markets computer systems and services -- Duffey left behind a successful sales career at Digital Equipment Corp. She says she simply saw a need and filled it.

She worked alone for two years before she was able to hire her first full-time employee, and she estimates her first-year revenue at $60,000. Today, Noritech occupies 6,000 square feet of space and employs 15 associates. Revenue for 2000 is projected to reach $6 million.

So what's her secret to success? Personal attention and excellent customer service, she says.

"Larger corporations have a tendency to have so much volume that they cannot give individualized attention to their customers," she notes. "They are not able to get decisions made quickly and you have to go through a lot of bureaucratic exercises to get things done. I thought I could shorten that whole process by being available to my customers, delivering product on time and making sure all the details were taken care of, and I was right."

Noritech's goal is to deliver the best products at the best prices in the time required.

"Our customers want their systems on time. They want the services that go along with them, and they want us to be available," Duffey says. "When you call this office, you're not going to get a recording that channels your phone call through several menus. You're going to get a real person, and we're available to answer questions immediately. Because of that, our customers feel better taken care of."

Duffey acknowledges there have been many challenges in building her own business.

"While our smallness has been an asset in allowing us to provide excellent customer service, the perception of our smallness also has been a detriment," she says. "Corporations sometimes don't want to deal with small businesses because they have the perception that we can't ship all over the United States, or they think we are less financially able to fulfill business, and that's just not true."

Duffey also says the challenge of finding capital to operate and grow her business was ever-present.

"One individual who saw me struggling offered to write a letter to a supplier guaranteeing me for a credit line," she says. "That letter really helped me get started."

To help control costs and provide the best products, Noritech operates on a just-in-time delivery system. The company maintains no inventory, instead ordering computer systems from suppliers as needed to fill customer orders. This allows it to avoid the cost of warehousing equipment, while offering its customers the latest, most up-to-date computer hardware.

Although Noritech sells primarily to customers in the government sector, Duffey says the company is moving into the corporate sector. Additionally, "We have a level of retail, which is sold to our training center customers."

That retail product, which Duffey has dubbed the Chocolate Chip Computer, is manufactured locally for Noritech. The system is designed for home use and comes loaded with Internet access as well as K-12 educational software in areas such as math, language arts, reading and history.

Duffey is always looking for good people to help grow the business -- particularly computer trainers, sales reps and administrative personnel. And just as she believes listening to her customers and providing personal service is the key to continued business growth, she also believes listening to associates is necessary for any business to thrive.

"My employees are volunteering every day to come to work for me," she notes. "They could work other places, but every day they get out of bed, get in their cars and come out here and do a job for me, so they deserve to be heard when they have suggestions or concerns.

"It's important that I pay attention to my employees and help them feel like they are part of the team and that this is their company, too." How to reach: Regina Duffey, president, Noritech Inc., 861-1181 or www.noritech.com

Editor's Note: This page is presented as a cooperative effort of National City Bank and SBN magazine, however all material prepared for this page was independently reported and edited by SBN and was not subject to prior review or approval by National City Bank representatives.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:50

Starting over with style

These days, Suzanne Stilson Edgar says she feels like she is starting over in business -- and loving it.

For nine years, Edgar, owner of Surface Style, a distributor of medium- to high-end floor and wall tiles and stone products, had split her time between two companies, Surface Style and Epro Inc., a tile manufacturing business in Westerville. But in April 2000, Edgar sold Epro to Seneca Tile Co. of Attica, Ohio.

Since the sale, she has found concentrating on just one business to be much more manageable.

"I used to think that I could do it all, but suddenly I felt I didn't have control of my life anymore," admits Edgar. "The manufacturing plant ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. The decision to sell was spearheaded by my desire to spend more time with my 6-year-old son."

Edgar backed into the tile business in 1977 after the death of her father.

"The manufacturing company belonged to my father. I was in chemical engineering school at Purdue and I came home to take care of him when he became ill," Edgar remembers. "During that time, I would drive him to the tile factory, and I literally just fell in love with making tile."

After successfully operating Epro for a number of years, she began searching for a local distributor for her Epro products. When she wasn't able to find one that she felt was a good fit, she started her own distribution business in 1991 by launching Surface Style, with a showroom in the Short North.

Surface Style now offers tiles from 30 manufacturers, including Epro.

"Over time, we have taken on lines that are compatible with Epro but that don't necessarily compete with Epro, with the idea of being able to offer a wide array of products to our customers," notes Edgar.

Because her attention was divided for nine years between two companies, Edgar says she never felt able to give Surface Style the attention she wanted to. Since selling Epro and concentrating her full attention on Surface Style, however, she's seen sales increase by 34 percent in 2000.

The company also has moved from its 1,400-square-foot showroom in the Short North to a space on Busch Boulevard that, when completed this spring, will include a 3,500-square-foot showroom and a 3,500-square-foot warehouse.

"Our showroom in the Short North was beautiful, but parking was a problem and we had no room to expand," says Edgar. "We're now in a 7,000-square-foot facility, and our challenge now is to grow the business. It's like starting all over."

Plans for this year include concentrating on marketing efforts to increase name recognition.

"We're starting to do a lot more box luncheons, going to architects' offices and doing presentations," says Edgar. "And we're participating in trade groups and networking in an effort to be more prominent."

Through it all, Edgar says she has realized the value of having good employees.

"You can have the best products in the world or the best showroom in the world, but none of that will matter if you don't have the right people," she says. "I think the key is having good communication with your people so that if there is an issue that isn't working well, hopefully you can talk it out. I know that I lost some key individuals in the past simply because I wasn't available."

Having a significantly smaller staff now -- six employees vs. the more than 40 she supervised when running both businesses -- has helped.

"It really feels like I can get my arms around it now," she says. How to reach: Suzanne Stilson Edgar, Surface Style, 781-6990 or surfacestyle@yahoo.com

Editor's Note: This page is presented as a cooperative effort of National City Bank and SBN Magazine. However all material prepared for this page was independently reported and edited by SBN Magazine and was not subject to prior review or approval by National City Bank representatives.

Tuesday, 23 October 2001 10:48

Building a business without trying

In 1986, when Brenda Stier, president of Marketing Works Inc., found herself without a job after her then employer, Turner Communications, went out of business, she had no plans to start a business of her own.

"I was in the middle of some projects with several clients, and I just decided to continue those projects until I could find another job," Stier says. "I didn't really think I would do this permanently; it just came out of a need for a job. Then referrals kept coming in, and that's how it happened."

So many referrals came in, in fact, that Stier eventually gave up her job search to form Greencrest Marketing. She built that business with partner Kelly Borth until 1995 when the partnership dissolved, leaving Stier once again working on her own.

"When I began Marketing Works in 1995, I was by myself, working out of my home and consulting with my clients, some of whom I have had for 10 or 12 years," says Stier. "But over the last five or six years, we've had pretty consistent growth. In fact, we doubled our business in the second year and again in the third year."

Marketing Works now has five full-time employees and one intern. According to Stier, the company provides "relationship marketing services" for its clients.

"We like to say that public relations is managing an organization's relationship with all of its 'publics,'" she says. "And if you look at PR in those terms, a lot of things fall under PR -- internal relations, media relations and customer relations. We try to get clients to work through a plan.

"We help them do a strategic marketing plan and then we help them implement that plan."

Stier is proud of the fact that almost all of her company's business has come from referrals.

"Our clients have always been very loyal to us, so for the most part our growth has come about because our clients have passed our name along and helped us grow," she explains.

But Stier stresses it is important to have growth in the right places and with the right people.

"We have always been very picky about our clients because we get so intimately involved with them. We act as their outsourced marketing department, which means we work for them, so it's just like taking on a job. You have to be picky about it from both sides," she emphasizes. "When we take on new clients, it's important that they're a good part of the mix and that our other clients can also benefit from them."

In that regard, Marketing Works offers its clients a program called PRtnership, which is designed to encourage its clients to do business with each other.

"We have three formal events throughout the year that are networking events for our clients," Stier says. "For example, we have a golf outing, but it's not only to thank our clients. We specifically put them into foursomes with companies that we think make a nice fit for them."

The company also provides clients with a list of the services that its other clients offer and sends quarterly mailings to update clients on new PRtnerships that have taken place.

"We like to promote the fact that our clients are doing business with each other," says Stier.

Marketing Works clients include Gioffre Cos., Progressive Medical, Bell-Haun Systems, National Realty Services, Andrews Architects, Vaisala, Interactive Ink and Archer Meek Weiler.

Internal growth has been a challenge for Stier, as the company last year moved into a new, larger facility and has made other significant operational changes, which have allowed her to step back and let employees take ownership of some client projects from start to finish.

"I had to struggle with the decision to stay independent and small or take the next leap and really put company policies and programs into place," Stier says.

That leap resulted in increased employee benefits and more structured compensation and incentive programs, as well as a greater sharing of client responsibilities.

"That's a tough thing to let go of when you've always done it on your own, but I learned a good lesson about letting people take on more responsibilities," Stier says. "I can only do so much by myself, so growth is going to come if everybody participates, and we've made a conscious effort to do that."

How to reach: Brenda Stier, Marketing Works Inc., 540-5520 or www.marketing-works.net

Editor's Note: This page is presented as a cooperative effort of National City Bank and SBN Magazine; however all material prepared for this page was independently reported and edited by SBN and was not subject to prior review or approval by National City Bank representatives.

Monday, 22 July 2002 10:08

Worldwise women

When Linda Henry began designing and making original teddy bears and dolls from her Canal Winchester home in 1987, doing business overseas was the last thing on her mind.

But as Henry's reputation as an artist grew, her business, Bearloom Bears, took off. Her gross sales and royalties increased from less than $10,000 at the start of the business to nearly $100,000 in 1997. Her most popular handmade bear, which measures 22 inches high and is made of mohair, retails in the United States for about $325.

In 1991, Henry began exhibiting her dolls and bears in Germany and The Netherlands. Soon, more than a third of her business was being done overseas.

Henry says having an Internet site has brought her many inquiries from overseas companies and increased her sales in the international market. One such contact in 1997 put Henry in touch with the Japanese home shopping network, Fuji TV. The network contracted with her to create 200 limited-edition teddy bears.

"I really didn't think they would sell all 200 of the bears because the price [for each] was the equivalent of $900 U.S., but they sold out quickly and still had customers calling to buy them," she says.

That order helped push her percentage of overseas business last year to 80 percent. Other opportunities are on the horizon in Japan as well, including illustrating a book and designing a children's clothing line.

"My experiences in the overseas market have all been positive," Henry says. "Part of this is due to the fact that I have an agent in Japan and a representative in Germany who handle all arrangements, including marketing, shipping and distribution in those countries."

Henry's agent in Japan is a husband and wife team that represents her not only on television but also in catalogs and shows. Because the wife is a native of Japan, she handles most of the arrangements there. In Germany, Henry is represented by her largest client, a man who not only retails her products but also represents her at shows.

For many Central Ohio women, doing business overseas is no longer a foreign concept. In fact, it's a great way to boost sales and market share.

Still, some female business owners offering products and services internationally encounter occasional problems that call for creative solutions.

Take, for example, Laura M. Thieme, president of Business Research International, a Columbus firm that provides customized international market research for companies doing business in Russia, Latin America and India.

"Being a woman business owner as opposed to being a woman from a Fortune 500 company sometimes makes a difference in how I am perceived," Thieme says. "I now tell people I work for Business Research International instead of saying that it is my own company."

Thieme, whose first overseas experience was a 1995 internship in St. Petersburg, Russia, will travel to Novgorod, Russia for several weeks this summer to strengthen business contacts in that region. While there, she may provide Internet research training in coordination with a government agency.

"I conduct a lot of research on the Internet," says Thieme, who uses a creative approach to avoid gender bias online. "I find that when I post a request for information using my full name, I get a slower response and less complete information than when I post the request using only my initials. As L. M. Thieme, I usually get quick, detailed responses addressed to Mr. Thieme."

Judith Sriram, vice president of Srico Inc., a Columbus fiber optic engineering company, opts for a more aggressive approach when gender becomes an issue with overseas buyers.

"We're just starting to get into the international marketplace," Sriram says of her 8-year-old company. "But because many of our products are government-regulated for export, it is sometimes difficult to sell overseas." That leaves Sriram spending much of her time drumming up business with international buyers by telephone and at industry trade shows.

"In our industry, I have noticed that men, in general, hesitate to visit a trade show booth staffed by a woman," Sriram notes. "Rather than let them just walk past, I make it a point to stand in front of my booth and invite buyers in to learn more about our business."

Sharon Kay Doherty, president of Vellus Products Inc., a Columbus-based manufacturer of grooming products for pets and horses, relies on her positive attitude and professionalism to counter challenges she happens upon as a woman doing business internationally. A full 50 percent of Doherty's business is transacted in more than 20 overseas markets, including England, Finland, Iceland, Sweden, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

On those few occasions when Doherty has sensed a potential customer's hesitation to deal directly with her, she simply shrugs it off.

"I have chosen to ignore it," she explains. "I always conduct myself as a professional, and I feel that once you have earned a customer's respect, your gender doesn't matter."

Of course, to earn that respect, Doherty notes that she has to know as much about the pet grooming business in each overseas market as her potential customer does.

"If you are professional, prepared and knowledgeable about the industry and about your product, you don't have problems," she adds. "I am just so enthusiastic about my product and my business, and that's my focus."

Her enthusiasm and professional attitude appear to be paying off. In May 1997, Gov. George Voinovich presented Doherty with an Ohio Excellence in Exporting Award. In addition, since the Vellus line of products was introduced in 1993, it has been widely used on an impressive list of pet show winners and horses from the royal stables in England and the United Arab Emirates.

When marketing products or services overseas, it is important to know who you're dealing with. Sometimes that's a challenge in itself. Doherty suggests checking potential representatives of your products through the U.S. embassy in that country for possible complaints or through the U.S. Department of Commerce, Columbus Export Assistance Center. Thieme agrees, but adds that for whatever challenges it presents, "doing business overseas and having the opportunity to work with other cultures is definitely a worthwhile experience.

Page 1 of 2