"I'm part of an entrepreneurial mentoring group now," Nagengast says, referring to her position as interim executive director of Anderson University's Business Development Center. "We encourage participants to stay in a familiar industry."
She had no experience, says Nagengast, but what she did have was her husband, Bill, a designer, and a promising market for his services. Bill Nagengast's former employer outsourced its design work to him, so Continental Design and Engineering launched with its first client already on board. Over the years, Nagengast diversified both the company's client base and its services.
Today, the firm offers an array of services that includes assistance in lean manufacturing, and technical and executive staffing. Nagengast says in the past, the company relied a little too heavily on local, large manufacturers, but that has changed.
"Manufacturers used to employ about 20,000 people in the area," Nagengast says. "Now I'd say there are only about 3,000 manufacturing jobs here."
To counter this huge drop in the company's market, Continental is targeting companies that, in the past, it didn't approach.
"We are looking at small and mid-sized companies and at companies in service industries," Nagengast says.
And Continental is relying more on its Web site, which Nagengast says is attracting more business than any other marketing tool the company uses.
"People that never knocked on our door are finding us on our Internet store front," Nagengast says.
Smart Business spoke with Nagengast about the challenges of running her firm and how the business has changed since she began.
What were your biggest challenges when you started the company and how did you handle them?
There were so many challenges. I was doing something I'd never done before, so I went through a real learning curve. I had always been in marketing and sales.
I think in the early days, raising the money to start the business was a challenge. We did it the traditional way -- through friends and family. Also, back then, there was no computer design. We did everything by hand.
One of the first things I did was get computers. I had to drive to Muncie to find a computer store. My husband was a designer, but I had to learn the financial and business side rather quickly. We were lucky we had a market. And the company my husband worked for desperately needed more design work, so we had our first customer.
Then we worked to diversify our customer base. A lot of businesses start with a product but don't have a market. We had the opposite. We saw an opportunity, and we jumped on it. We had to learn how to price and market our services.
It took us several years to get another customer. Now we have, at any given time, between 30 and 50 customers, with a handful of large clients. We are not in the situation that if one client leaves we'd be in trouble.
We were successful because I turned to anyone that would help me. We hired a part-time CFO that helped with the budget and administrative processes. He helped us track key statistics, and we know when a particular profit center goes up or down. That has been a great help. Having those key numbers at your fingertips, like how many new projects started and the billable hours, weekly and monthly, so you can see a trend when it starts, is so important. It helps you manage your business and keeps you in charge instead of the business being in charge of you.
Have you faced different challenges as a woman-owned business?
Surprisingly, there was only one person that treated me differently since I started the business; everyone else treated me well. I didn't find that there were any particular challenges for me in the business world because I was a woman. I was treated with respect and integrity.
The biggest challenge as a woman was on the personal side -- raising two small children and running the company was demanding. Most people starting a company work a lot of hours, and with the children, I couldn't do that.
I am incredibly organized and have the ability to stay focused; that's how I am able to do both. And I had help at home. I didn't try to do everything myself. I'm good at delegating. You can't do everything and keep balanced and focused.
What makes your company successful?
We're very customer-oriented. We provide what the customer needs quickly, and we're very responsive. The competition is right there; if we're not responsive, someone else will be.
We also don't get complacent; we feel we have to win our customers' business every day. The attitude our associates have is that everyone goes the extra mile -- that's our culture. One of the best things about having your own business is that you can have anyone work for you that you want.
Our staff stays for a long time. But if a person isn't customer-focused, I let them go. We have an unwritten policy that we turn around a request in 24 hours. We have weekly sales meetings, and the management reinforces that culture. And we have our statistics. If a stat goes down, we immediately ask why and how we can get it back up.
Which aspect of the business is most profitable?
Our bread and butter is our technical staffing service. We provide our clients with designers and engineers. Some of our projects take three weeks, others, three years. We've had some that have taken up to 10 years. But the bulk of them are about one year in duration.
We provide expertise in project design and development. We are a one-stop shop for technical help. It started out that way, and we've stayed with that. Along the way, we found other services, and we are always looking for new quality-related work.
Some companies were having quality problems and wanted to develop a foreign niche. We can help them implement quality improvements and lean manufacturing techniques. Our engineers have a wide range of expertise.
We work mostly with larger companies, although some are leaving the area, so we are working with smaller companies, too. Small orders, if you get enough, are a good thing.
What are the biggest changes you've seen in your industry since starting the business, and how have they affected operations?
I've seen a lot of manufacturers leave the area, which has been a huge challenge for us. It makes it very difficult for us. We have to find new services or new customers. We really do need to foster entrepreneurship in the area and foster new businesses.
In the meantime, we are looking for different types of services for our existing customers and for smaller customers.
What are your biggest operational challenges?
The Internet has wrought huge changes, both good and bad. It's good because it is easier for us to find resources. Product research that would've taken weeks to do before, we can now do almost instantly. It's easier for us, but customers that relied on us in the past can now do that work themselves.
When it comes to short-term and long-term permanent staffing, the customers can find employees on the Internet, and they don't need us unless they are looking for that guy who isn't looking for new work.
What areas/processes are you working to improve?
Our main goal is marketing and sales -- finding new customers. And we are doing that differently now. We redid our Web site and we are doing e-mail marketing.
We can't buy ads on television; it is tougher to market our company. We had an office in Detroit and it did well, but it is hard to manage remote office locations. With the Internet, I can service companies in Detroit, and even with design work, we can send files to the customer.
The location of an office is not as key as it used to be. We get a lot of customers now from our Web site, which is why we threw money into it. We are launching an e-mail newsletter and beefing up our Web site, telling our story.
What are your biggest personal challenges in managing the company?
Balancing my professional and personal life is still an issue. With two teen-agers, it is different, but they still need my time and guidance. You still need your balance between home and work, your marriage, and making time for fun, too.
It feels like I have two full-time jobs. But I'm getting good at getting enough sleep.
How to reach: Continental Design and Engineering, (800) 875-4557 or www.continental-design.com