Running the gamut of U.S. Marine to firefighter to paramedic to police officer to safety director for MGM in Hollywood, Hoffman has sampled seemingly every childhood dream but that of cowboy in a career riddled with danger and excitement. What's next for the man who has made sure actors, such as Bruce Willis in Striking Distance and Titanic's cast, didn't get hurt amid explosive special effects? Bringing safety to Pittsburgh.
Hoffman last winter launched The Safety Store, a Bridgeville-based consulting firm that aims to teach and sell fire safety to both the business and residential communities in Pittsburgh.
Public safety is certainly Hoffman's area of expertise, but sales isn't all that foreign to him, either. After all, as a salesman for Thom McCann in the early 1980s, he got the "shoe-tree award" for selling the most shoe-trees of any associate. It was a time in men's fashion history when glove-leather shoes were the big style. The shoes were notoriously prone to creases, so the young salesman told his customers that the shoe-trees would slow the creasing process.
Flash forward to the present (leaving shoe sales long behind him), a more mature Hoffman is using those marketing skills, though a little more finely tuned, to sell people peace of mind.
The Safety Store banks on Hoffman's experiences to offer safety consultations and educational services, as well as to sell fire extinguishers and other safety equipment. Hoffman says he holds a strong and very personal interest in safety. As a firefighter seven years ago, he says, he listened helplessly as a 12-year-old child and her grandmother burned to death in a fire.
"I started this company so that I could end my own nightmares," he says.
Hoffman says the concept came to him years ago, but he thought he lacked the education necessary to see the concept through to fruition. His hands-on education came to him gradually from his varied public-safety career.
"At MGM, in particular, I gained a lot of insight in business," he says. "I worked with talented people who weren't afraid to teach and who took the time to mesh that with my own ideas. The Safety Store has risen out of that."
The Safety Store officially opened for business in December of last year. Since then it has, true to its name, been selling safety in a variety of forms. The foundation of the business at this point is Hoffman's fire-safety assessments of residential and commercial buildings. All residential assessments are free. He does charge businesses for assessments, but he stresses that a safety evaluation is a valuable investment for every business.
"What's it worth to you as a business owner to lose your entire client file?" Hoffman asks. "The ones who get it have had a fire. We live in a society that is almost entirely reactive instead of proactive."
Hoffman says most individuals and businesses are not nearly as prepared as they should be. Even those who have installed an adequate number of fire detectors are not as prepared as they could be. According to Hoffman, the failure rate of supposedly working fire/smoke detectors in homes is roughly 60 percent.
Pushing the test button on the smoke detector isn't enough, he claims, to know that it's working. The eardrum-piercing scream it emits only means that the batteries are working. Hoffman cautions that the old-style smoke detectors are prone to "stuffy noses," meaning that dust and other debris have accumulated on its sensors, rendering many devices useless. The newer-style fire detectors that "see" smoke are also prone to failure. Hoffman says many of them get "goopy eyes."
"You buy a car you know won't last forever, we get into relationships we think won't last forever, but many people buy these things thinking they'll work forever," he says.
Such is the basis of his pitch to potential clients.
In addition to fire-safety assessments and equipment sales, The Safety Store offers safety training and provides Safe Haven Childproofing, a service that makes homes safe for babies and small children.
As the fire extinguisher side of the business grows, Hoffman says, he is all too aware that the business's customer-success rate must run at 100 percent.
"If we make a mistake, there is a very real potential that someone could get hurt," Hoffman says.
At this point, Hoffman has only one full-time employee, Teri Black, who does everything from public relations to sales, and two outside consultants. He stresses the importance of finding the right people for the job. It took him four months to find and recruit Black, but he's glad he waited. He says Black takes care of all the business functions that he's not good at, freeing him to do the things he excels at. She takes care of promoting the company, while he concentrates on safety and loss prevention.
"I must have read through a million press releases at MGM, but it's not my forte to write them," says Hoffman, who has turned over such duties to Black.
Sales and marketing strategies
Because of the limited life of the products and services he provides, Hoffman says he believes in forging lasting relationships with his customers by simply doing the job right the first time.
"At the end of the day, I have to go to sleep knowing that I, and everyone I work with, have done everything we could to protect a business owner or family," he says. "The byproduct of that is that we have very happy customers."
To help get an advantage over established competitors in the fire extinguisher business, and to show his customers that they are often being overcharged, Hoffman asks his customers to produce invoices for their previous purchases and service visits. Then his discounts his prices to 20 percent less than they previously paid.
To add a little drama to his sales pitch-and to emphasize the need for fire safety equipment-Hoffman always lights a fire in a metal dish on the dining room table of every house he enters. He sets a metal pie plate in the center of the table, squirts in lighter fluid, and throws in a match. While the plate is aflame, he calmly sprays a quick burst from one of his halon-gas extinguishers into a glass and prevents the gas from escaping by covering his hand over the glass. Then, while holding the glass near the flame, he moves his hand and lets a small amount of gas escape. The fire is completely out in a matter of seconds, thanks to the oxygen-sucking halon.
"People seem to respond to the way we do business," Hoffman says. "A sign that we're on the right track is how often we are referred."
Hoffman says The Safety Store doesn't advertise at all and instead relies on customer referrals and networking for most new business. In fact, he says, he spends 20 percent to 25 percent of his time at networking functions (such as trade shows), trying to get The Safety Store's name and message out.
"Our goal is to grow one house at a time, one business at a time," he says.
Hoffman says he financed much of his start-up costs out of his own pocket, using his savings, severance pay from his voluntary departure from MGM, and by "maxing out" his credit cards. He also tried to run things on a very lean budget in the beginning of his operations. Hoffman says he didn't even pre-buy inventory.
"I went out and sold products I didn't have and wasn't even sure I could get," Hoffman says. "That kept a lot of start-up costs down."
To save on overhead, he first opened shop in a small rental office in Bethel Park. He has since moved operations to a small storefront at 500 Bower Hill Road in Bridgeville.
Hoffman acknowledges, though, that to grow the way he wants and in the somewhat diversified areas he has targeted, he may have to seek outside financial assistance at some point soon.
Sales to date
Hoffman won't quote an exact amount, but he says sales have been "above average," and "above track for the first year." He adds that, money-wise, the company's growth w ill exceed his business plan, which set a $75,000 goal for the year. The revenue breakdown is about 70 percent/30 percent, commercial to residential customers.
Hoffman says he thinks market potential for The Safety Store is great and almost unlimited because of the sheer number of houses and businesses in the region. He concedes that The Safety Store hasn't even reached 1 percent of the market yet.
"That's partly because we're new and partly because, no matter how good your research is, you spend your first six months chasing your tail, trying to figure out what you do for a living," Hoffman says.
His goal for next year will be to top $1 million, a big jump from the goal he had set for this year.
The Safety Store offers such an extensive list of services that, while capable of drawing a large base of customers, Hoffman is trying not to become over-diversified.
Paul Petrovich, a technology consultant for the Small Business Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh's Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business, cautions that one of the most important things when starting a business is to define a focus, or a core business strategy. If a business owner blindly jumps at every apparent opportunity, Petrovich says, he risks being pulled away from the original plan, which takes him off track and confuses the customer.
Petrovich does acknowledge, however, that a little wavering from the original business plan early on in the start-up is common. Being flexible, he says, is sometimes necessary so the business can find its market niche. Petrovich stresses that ultimately "you want to define that and deliver."