Boutique amp maker Steve Carr's first shop: a barn in the woods, no plumbing. How Gina Schaefer's husband responded when she announced plans to open a hardware store: "Are you smoking crack?" One of nursery owner Marlin Cram's indelible memories from his last corporate job: the sudden impulse to jump out the window, if only the window would open.
Remodelers, it turns out, haven't cornered the market on small-business stories characterized by humble beginnings, difficult odds, and the ultimately irresistible call to entrepreneurship. And, like remodelers whose businesses have survived ups and downs — and stiff competition — plenty of owners from other sectors have also adapted to change and assembled the people, systems, and cultures to make their companies vital and admired within their communities.Here's a look at a few such entrepreneurs. Their experiences might jibe with yours, and their insights, we hope, will inspire new thinking that helps to sustain your company as well.
9 employees, 1 location
Price of amps: $1,750–$3,500
Gross sales in 2007: $900,000
Competition: bigger manufacturers including Fender, Peavey, MarshallWhat sets his amps apart: handmade in America, limited production, customizable, uniquely rich tone, systems-tested, highly reliable
Longtime guitar player Steve Carr says he moved to North Carolina "to be in bands and become a rock star," but his lasting claim to fame is handmade amplifiers whose legendary acoustic purity and reliability have created a cult following among serious musicians all over the world. A craftsman first and a businessman by necessity, he studied aerospace engineering and physics in college, later taking up electronics in his quest for the perfect sound. In the next leg of his colorful career, Carr is overseeing the renovation of a 100-year-old store that will soon host several businesses, including City Tap, Pittsboro's only bar and live music venue. Amp mentor: I had a lot of guitar gear that would break down, so I got to know Rich Bogard, who had a little repair shop in Chapel Hill. He got me really interested in electronics and how things work. I asked if I could be his apprentice, but he didn't have time and suggested that I build a Fender amp. It was pretty hard to find parts then, and a bit of a challenge to figure out how to read the schematics, but I learned so much through the process.
First handmade amp: My favorite two amps had very different sounds, and I decided to try to create an amp that combined them both. I became obsessed with tube electronics. Once you learn the basics, the rest is like being a chef, tweaking the flavor. I would read everything I could, including old textbooks from the 1920s, '40s, '50s. I spent a few years building the amp, testing it live in bands, and finally got it to the point where I thought it could be a product.
Going into business: I took my amp to a shop in Raleigh that was then called the Music Loft [now Indoor Storm]. They liked it and went out on a limb, buying two and giving me a little education in retail. I had a price in mind based on my ballpark sense of how much I put into it and how much Matchless [another boutique amp maker] was getting, only less. They ended up setting the price based on what they felt they could sell it for, which was about $2,100. For a while, I kept my job waiting tables at a nice restaurant.
First shop: We were renting a barn in the woods, with no plumbing, myself and a friend. We were probably losing money because we weren't selling many amps, maybe one a month, but at the same time I was contacting music magazines, getting them to review the amps, and looking for dealers.
Gaining traction: We were lucky that the magazines were fairly receptive to reviewing our amps, but I had to learn how to ship them (they weighed about 45 pounds). Reviews were very helpful because we didn't have any money for advertising.
It was hard to get dealers at first. To find them, I would look at the dealers listed on the Web sites of other small amp makers and see if they had enough interest to warrant my visiting them. Not all music stores have the clientele to buy handmade stuff, or the space for a new line, or the money to invest in something new.
Then I would set up driving tours. I put amps in the back of a van and did two loops, weeks at a time, around the Southeast and Midwest. I think I got four dealers on my second tour, and with each one I picked up a little more authority and credibility.
Timing: Something else was going on that was also fortunate for us. Matchless, which had created this idea of paying more for boutique amps, went out of business in the mid-'90s. So there was a little bit of a hole to fill, making the market more receptive to us.
Inspiration: I go to bed and wake up thinking about amp design. I particularly like old amps, and we try to mix old and new components and designs. Some components we use come from satellites — stuff you could have gotten in the 1950s. There's a standard recipe for amps, but the details keep evolving.
Shoestring marketing: My brother is a professional photographer, and between him and some friends in advertising, we were able to pull off some beautiful ads on a tight budget. From the very beginning, our Web site [www.carramps.com] was also very helpful. We've always kept it current with new reviews, links to dealers, and all kinds of product information, including MP3 downloads and user's manuals for each of the five models.
Employees: Most are tinkerers and pretty much all are guitar players — musician types who are sort of mavericks, all with a good ear and great attention to details. Luckily, there hasn't been much turnover. But the last guy took a while to hire. A number of people applied, but the guy I hired, I just saw him playing and thought: "Man, he would be great." He seemed to be meticulous.
Systems: Our amps are incredibly reliable — in fact, our Japanese distributor never tires of telling us how the quality is so great. It's a point of pride.
We use a lot of systems tests. One of my guys learned some of them from engineers at a big hi-fi company where he used to work. Some of them are written, but it's more of an oral tradition — check the solder joints, check the values, slowly bring the voltage up, a whole host of tests to ensure that everything is right.
Once the chassis is built, we'll leave it on, "cooking," for 24 to 48 hours. After the "burn in," we perform the whole set of tests again. Then, if everything is OK, it goes into the cabinets, which are dovetailed pine, also handmade in-house. Then the assembled amp goes into a sound-sealed room for more testing.
Finally, the builder, assembler, and listening tester write their initials with a Sharpie on the tube chart in the cabinet. The builder initials the amp on the inside of the chassis, too. We do all of this with every amp we ship.
Competition: Part of what we sell is fashion — the made-in-America thing. Most of the big manufacturers make their amps in China or other countries. Being made in America is especially important to musicians overseas. A lot of people really respect American craftsmanship.
I think another reason a lot of pros use our amps is their dimensionality. We feel our amps offer something we haven't heard elsewhere — a dimension and beauty and interactive quality with the user that the others don't have.
BIG CITY, SMALL HARDWARE
Gina Schaefer and Marc Friedman
A Few Cool Hardware Stores
Washington, D.C., and Baltimore
85 employees, 5 stores
Average price per sale: $16; varies by store
Projected revenue in 2008: $10 million
Competition: big-box hardware retailers, other local hardware storesWhat sets their business apart: convenient urban locations, helpful and knowledgeable customer service
In hindsight, it was a great idea to open a small but well-stocked hardware store in Logan Circle, which was then a gentrifying but retail-starved neighborhood of Washington, D.C. At the time, however, the idea seemed risky to Ace Hardware Corp., one of two companies that Gina Schaefer and husband Marc Friedman approached with the idea.
"Ace was hesitant," Schaefer says. Of its 4,800 stores, only a few hundred were urban, and most hadn't done well. "Plus, we were unseasoned retailers, and there was no parking, and three levels, and no elevator!"
Ace is convinced now, "big time," Schaefer says. "We were cash flow positive by month two" and sales were $1.1 million in their first year, "almost double what Ace expected us to do."
Two years after opening Logan Hardware, the couple opened a second store in another residential D.C. neighborhood. Today, five years after opening their flagship store, the couple has three D.C. stores and a fourth about to open, along with a fifth store in Baltimore.
Entrepreneurism: We were both in the IT world — Marc was a consultant and I was in investor relations with a biotech company. I always wanted to own my own business, and one day, after learning that the CEO had squandered millions of dollars, I came home and told Marc I was going to open a hardware store. He said, 'Are you smoking crack?' City life: Our stores are strong because we put them in the middle of neighborhoods, where people are. Most customers walk or take public transportation.
About six months after we opened our first store, we realized that we had caught onto a good thing. People started e-mailing us to open in their neighborhoods. We didn't have to find space; it found us.
Now people joke about us being the poster children for successful urban retailing, and Ace sends new investors to learn from us.
Big boxes: I think Lowe's and The Home Depot are just now realizing their missed opportunity in serving homeowners who need window screens or to have their keys cut. These are little things that require training and service. The big boxes seemed to focus on the contractor business, and some of that business has died out.
Small spaces: Ace has figured that you need about 6,000 square feet of space to carry the core hardware products. Most suburban stores average 12,000 to 15,000 square feet and have a huge parking lot. None of our stores are more than 8,000 square feet of retail.
Ace helps us use the space we do have and gives us a lot of flexibility. For example, we sell a crazy amount of light bulbs, so we can allot more space for them than Ace typically recommends.
Being neighborly: We adored being at the Logan store. We got to know families, hung out with their dogs. Marc and I can't do that at every store, but we always want to appeal to the personality of the neighborhood.
All the stores are very independent. We take a close look at neighborhood demographics and think about the product mix. For all the condos around the Logan store, we stock a lot of closet organizers. Glover Park is a very garden-friendly neighborhood, with lots of families, so that store has a little outdoor gardening area and more things geared toward children. Two employees also went to a neighborhood gardening event and gave out coupons and recyclable bags.
Our Tenleytown store has a popcorn machine, and kids love it. We brought it in for atmosphere — the store is in a basement, and several customers told us it felt dead. But it works really well, and now Tenley is our busiest store.
Employees: We've always hired for attitude, not product knowledge. Ace's motto is 'The Helpful Place,' and it's extremely important to use. People still have options in the city.
We carry about 25,000 items, but almost all requests are for the same 100 things — How do I hang a 50-pound mirror? What kind of weather-stripping should I get? If staff can't answer a question, we encourage them to read the packaging with the customers or go to the manufacturer's Web site or call customer service.
Most of our staff have come through Craigslist or word-of-mouth referrals. A lot of part-time employees are college and high school students who come back every summer. One of my favorites started when he was 14 as an intern at our first store.
Training: New-employee orientation takes four hours, and managers and assistant managers hold on-the-job training for things like cutting screens and keys. Vendors come in once a month to do training on seasonal issues, like weather stripping or grass seed.
Marc and I also have monthly managers' meetings with some kind of HR component, borrowing from Ace's best practices. And we send folks to outside training seminars sponsored by Ace.
Best practices: Ace has been perfecting 'the Ace way of retailing,' culling best practices from other great retailers. It's really useful. But we have all the flexibility we want. If a manager wants to implement a new cash-handling procedure, we see what Ace recommends.
Promoting from within: As long as we keep growing, our employees can grow. We don't want them to continue making $10 or $12 an hour if they have the work ethic and everything else to do more. Our four managers started out stocking shelves and quickly moved through the ranks. Another former clerk runs the inventory of the entire company, and another is a buyer, among other things.
Being online: A lot of small retailers don't realize how important the Internet can be. It's huge to our business. You go to acehardware.com in your pajamas and type in the ZIP code and order what you want and go pick it up or have it sent. Our stores are among the highest recipients of these ZIP searches.
Or Google 'Rubbermaid shed' and find we carry it. Or go to www.acehardwaredc.com and learn about our stores and services, newsletter, recycling program, events; it's all there.
Plus, city kids like to shop online. We get about 20 orders a week off the Internet without putting any effort to it.
E-mailing the owner: I probably get about 10 e-mails a week from our Web site, and I take them very seriously. I have a 24-hour response policy, and I get lots of 'Wow, I'm impressed you responded!' About a third are just compliments or thanks for being in the neighborhood. Pretty much all these e-mails turn into purchases of some kind.
Marketing: We don't do a lot of advertising, but when we do pay for marketing, it's specifically for local things, like community newspapers, which are a great, targeted way to reach our customers. We also support causes that are relevant to the neighborhood. In Baltimore, for example, we sponsor a neighborhood Little League team. The Logan Circle store has always sponsored the Gay Men's Chorus.
We have a great newsletter that we stuff into customers' bags. It has a lot of good product tips and useful seasonal info. It also encourages readers to sign up to receive it via e-mail, to save paper.
Corporate philanthropy: Some friends and I wanted do something as women business owners. Habitat for Humanity builds in D.C., and we knew that most of its homeowners are single mothers, so we created Ms. Manor to raise enough money to build a Habitat house in D.C. Other businesses and friends have helped us with happy hours and raffles, and several customers asked if they could help us sell raffle tickets. We've raised about $40,000 toward our goal of $150,000, but the cost of building materials keeps going up!
Competing on price: We would go out of business if we had a low-price guarantee. We pay city rents and taxes! We have to focus on service: helping customers find what they need, special orders, taking items back when warranted, going that extra mile. We've added a delivery program, and we're always adding new services, like cutting mirrors.
People think it's a compliment to say, 'You're more expensive, but I love shopping here.' I don't really like to hear that they think we cost more, but I appreciate that even though they could save a dollar they come here because we're convenient and we're nice to them.
But our prices are still very fair. Ace subscribes to a service that monitors prices, and we'll be notified if any prices drop drastically at a big box. Even on small items — it seems crazy to get a price change on something like a 30 cent O-ring, but it adds up, especially when materials prices are so volatile.
Scott and Heather Bobbitt
Dr. Scott Bobbitt, DMD, FAGD
Projected revenue in 2008: $1.2 million
Competition: other dentistry practices in 5- to 10-mile radius.
What sets their business apart: complete dental services, modern office space, consultative relationship with clients
Patients don't just get their teeth cleaned at the dental practice of Dr. Scott Bobbitt, which he runs with wife and business manager Heather. They build lasting partnerships that enhance and improve their health, self-esteem, and quality of life.
Combining advanced technologies and a client-centric approach to business, the Bobbitts purchased their practice in 1994 from Dr. Raymond Sirois, who had established it 32 years before. Their long-term growth and modernization plan involved a major office remodel to accommodate new services, a more comfortable design, and a smaller but highly efficient staff — from two doctors and 14 employees, to one doctor and six employees. Heather explains.
Ownership transition: I think business buyers often don't get to know the people they're buying from. Our transition was relatively calm because Scott worked for Dr. Sirois for a year before buying the practice. He practiced as a hygienist three days a week and a dentist two days to build up that relationship with patients.
After the sale, Dr. Sirois remained an employee of the practice until retiring in 2000. Whole-mouth remodeling: Dentistry has not changed a lot. In most practices, it is still mainly tooth-by-tooth patches, an approach that doesn't need a lot of talking things through. That works for most dentists, who tend to be introverted.
Scott sees it differently than 95% of other practices, in that he practices quadrant and preemptive dentistry, which is a different philosophy and requires more forethought and discussion about larger areas of the mouth. We also offer specialty services in-house, including implants, laser and cosmetic dentistry, surgical procedures, and treatment for snoring and sleep apnea.
Personality: Scott is also gregarious by nature, with a theatrical and music background. He's very verbal and talks things through. And he sings! We don't have Muzak, but we have a CD shuffler that plays anything from jazz to country. People laugh and relax when he sings. We also provide people with headsets, so they can bring their own music if they like.
Why remodel? Scott wanted a number of features that Dr. Sirois did not have. One was a consultation room — not a clinical space, and not his office, but really a consultation room, where he could display his credentials and talk with patients about their options. A full-mouth treatment can cost $25,000 to $60,000, and that's not a conversation you want to have at the front desk!
We also use the consultation room for the first appointment with every new patient. It lasts at least an hour; Scott reviews their dental concerns and wishes and their health and dental history before a very thorough dental examination.
Anticipating change: We knew that HIPAA [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996] was coming into play, and there would be issues involving patient confidentiality. So that drove some of the changes as well, including giving every room complete privacy, to keep others from overhearing conversation.
New era: We also just needed to change our environment. It was dated. The condo is in a classical brick Colonial building, last renovated in the 1970s, so the décor was pretty much the light blue/pink/gray model. We had to create a very professional environment to be able to practice the kind of dentistry we wanted to do and to establish and convey a culture of simple elegance.
Smart design: Pat Crowley and his team [the remodelers, of Crowley Medical Office Interiors] were instrumental in developing a classic and timeless look that we, our patients, and our staff still enjoy eight years later. We went from seven operatories to five, moved the labs, added a sterilization center, and shrunk the reception area. The overall space has a more open, airy feeling.
Since we're on a corner, we wanted to use the natural light. All the windows are in patient rooms. Patients can recline and look out the window.
The renovation also incorporated the logo we had done around that time. The entire office has the navy blue, cream and gold color scheme and sort of an S-wave, which is shaped like dental floss and is Scott's first initial. The S also symbolizes the chaos curve that every business goes through when developing and changing, as dentistry is a very dynamic profession.
Time management: Workflow is critical to us, and the office is now very efficient. Assistants and hygienists used to have to walk to the other end of the hall for supplies. Patrick suggested two supply areas: one for hygienists and one for assistants, so they can each have a little supply and work area and a minilab.
Employees: There's generally a lot of turnover in dentistry, but we've had pretty good tenure. Having an up-to-date, high-tech facility helps to attract valuable staff. To find people, I've gone away from advertising in the newspaper. I mainly use Craigslist, temp agencies, and networking. I'll ask vendors or supply reps if they know of a good dental assistant who might be looking.
Walking the walk: Benefits also matter. I have a banking and retail background, and I knew what benefits bigger companies were offering, so ours are broader than most dentists'.
We also have unlimited dental coverage for our employees and our families. If an employee needs $20,000 worth of full dental reconstruction, we'll do it for them. This also reflects our philosophy of taking care of things properly the first time, for longevity and function. We practice what we teach.
Educating clients: We try to create a very patient-centered partnership. We give patients care, but we also educate them and give them responsibilities. We coach them, help them understand what they want to achieve. We have a lot of discussions about their options, including their financial options.
Follow-up: One reason Scott connects so well with patients is because of his post-surgical calls. Follow-up is extremely critical in this type of dentistry; you don't want patients left there wondering, worrying.
It's unusual not to delegate these calls, and it takes a lot of time, but it's part of our philosophy of making sure patients know we really care about them. Scott often stays at the office late to make sure he reaches those patients.
Kept appointments: Between visits, we stay in touch with note cards, postcard reminders, and phone calls. We've recently started giving patients reminder calls; this dropped our broken appointments significantly!
Generations of clients: Our business cards list adult restorative, implant, and laser dentistry, but our office also sees the children of our patient base. They've seen us take care of their parents and grandparents, and they in turn bring their growing families to us.
We've made it comfortable and inviting for kids. We try to bring them in starting at the age of 1, not necessarily for cleaning but for the experience, and to help parents learn how to take care of their kids' teeth. By the time they're 3, going to the dentist is no big deal!
We don't have a 'kiddie' environment like a pediatric dentist, but we have a play section in the reception area with kids' books and some toys. It's more like a living room than a waiting room. There's even a couch where families can cuddle up and read together.
Web savvy: This is a high-tech area, and people are very computer-savvy. If they hear about us through a referral, they usually check us out on the Web [www.drbobbitt.com]. Having a Web site is expected, not optional, especially since we're working with things like lasers and digital images. A high-tech person is going to appreciate that.
More office comforts: We also have a 'Web café' in the reception room — a computer on which patients can go online to check e-mail or browse, or for kids to go to PBS.org and play games and the like. It's a nice convenience for patients, but it's not connected to our network as a virus could be devastating.
I highly recommend that any company with a Web café have 'nanny' software. It's amazing how quickly some of those 'tweens and teens can get into areas where they shouldn't be — even when they're within eyesight of our front desk!
Real smiles: Our Web site has lots of testimonials, including some pretty dramatic before-and-after photos. Our Web designer said, 'There's nothing like real people talking about their experience.' I keep all client letters in an 'I need a pick up' folder, and we have clients sign photo and written release forms before using anything.
Drilling down: We're developing customer surveys for the first time. We're not just looking for positive feedback but suggestions on how we can improve. It's a struggle, figuring out how to ask the right questions!
Beyond skin-deep: Our objective is to help patients achieve an excellent state of dental health, where function is just as important as aesthetics. That's another major distinction: A lot of cosmetic dentistry out there is a 'quick fix' that doesn't take function or longevity into account. People need to be educated about their options, so they can understand how the value of their decision impacts its longevity.
Mom-and-pop caveats: A woman I consider a mentor gave me some advice about working with my husband. She said to draw some very clear lines in the sand, and one is that when I'm in the office, I'm Heather, the business manager, not the doctor's wife.
I've had employees tell me they didn't know I was Dr. Bobbitt's wife until they worked here for a few weeks. I try really hard to be one of the employees. Many people in this industry have mixed feelings about working in the office with the doctor's wife! I need to earn their respect, and I want them to know that I'm working with them.
Patients also are more frank with me as 'the business manager' vs. 'the doctor's wife.' However, we live and work in the same town, so after 15 years of working together, patients do see us together at dinner or in the grocery store. Once it's discovered, a nice smile or little wink often follows.
Gig Harbor, Wash.
Revenue in 2007: $2.5 million
Competition: other local gardening centers, big-box hardware retailers
What sets his business apart: knowledgeable staff, emphasis on customer service, upscale marketing, free workshops, extensive selection
With thousands of plants, year-round classes and events, a gift shop and coffee shop, and one of the best selections of high-quality patio furniture in the area, Peninsula Gardens is more shopping destination than plant store. Founder and owner Marlin Cram has embraced constant evolution to keep the garden center at the forefront of an increasingly competitive industry.
Frontier fugitive: I was a building materials broker in Alaska during the construction of the pipeline. Product was flowing fast and furious in one direction, and dollars were flowing fast and furious in another. Bonuses were wonderful, and it was a tremendous frontier, but I was not destined to live in a cold climate.
Green epiphany: I always enjoyed plants and working outdoors, and I got the call to work on my own. I had a marketing degree under my belt and had had enough of working for other entrepreneurs. I was ready to go, and just plunged into this new world.
Nursery evolution: When I started, the industry was just one generation out of the field, and there was just one other small nursery in this area. Before that, you had to go to a farm to buy plants. The industry has become much more sophisticated, especially since the big box stores came along. Outshining the big box: I think we're the only true traditional garden center. A box store might have low prices and some quality material, but you have to know what you want. You won't get much service. Service is our strong point; it's an old rag that really bears out. People ask us for unique things they can't find elsewhere, and advice they can't get elsewhere.
Employees: Turnover is relatively high in entry-level positions. Everybody thinks they want to work with flowers. When I hear that, it's a red flag that often means they don't know a thing about working in a nursery.
But we're always looking for seasoned employees — people who are truly horticulturally minded, with a good knowledge base and a desire to learn more.
It's important that we find local people. These jobs are not high-paying, so people are not going to move far to work here.
Attitude or aptitude? I would love to hire just spirited people, but I don't have that many choices. The industry is so technically oriented; there are tens of thousands of kinds of plants and different things to know about each one. We generally hire for knowledge and develop the attitude.
Staff cultivation: A third of our employees are part-time. Women make up much of our client base and our employee base as well.
We have three black-out months — generally, no vacation during parts of spring and around Christmas — but otherwise employees have a great deal of flexibility, especially since so many are parents. Having lots of part-time staff allows us to bring in additional people when that happens.
All employees have two days off in a row, which is unusual in retail. It seems very important to them, and we think it helps build their families and keep their relationships intact. We also try to limit everybody to 40 hours a week. Not only is overtime expensive, but it burns people out.
Some employees have been here as long as 13 years. The average age is around 40 — it's good to have a more mature staff. The younger employees, including high school and college kids, tend to do the heavier work.
Boss behavior: I try to greet each employee every day. The most important contact here is with the customer, but I'm rarely the one who has that contact. So I have to set an example for those who will. I try to demonstrate the customer-service orientation I want them to have.
Greening the community: We have classes and workshops just about every weekend. They're taught by outside experts or our own staff, and they tend to go on for hours. People really want to know how to do things —there's a tremendous thirst for knowledge about gardening. I think that's why we survive — we help meet that need.
The classes are usually free, and we try to engineer them so customers will have time afterward to shop. Sometimes we'll give them a 10% coupon for the day, and it's often for products related to the class.
Sprouting anew: Our office technologies don't change that much, but a tremendous number of new chemicals and plants come online each year, mainly among the perennials. We try to offer staff training every month, mostly in-house, and often sponsored by companies whose products we sell.
Sustainable operations: We've been organic for many, many years. We still carry a few items like Miracle-Gro, but we're probably 90% organic at this point. And within our own company we're also sustainable. We've been sustaining ourselves 30 years, in part by treating our employees well and retaining them.
Service-rich: We don't try to compete on price. There's low price, high service, and high quality. A company can choose two of the three, but not all three. We choose high service and high quality. And you can't give that away. We have to charge the market value of that information and expertise.
Public image: Our clientele is definitely upper-middle to upper-income. We're in a pretty wealthy location, so we try to maintain a classy image. Our Web site [www.peninsulagardens.com] is very upscale, with a lot of information and gardening advice. You can also sign up for our e-mail club and receive coupons, gardening tips, and notices of upcoming events.
We appear quite a bit at public events like garden and home shows. These are a nice way to meet homeowners and always drum up great publicity within community publications.
We advertise on targeted cable TV stations, on a local radio station's Saturday morning gardening show, and in local home and garden magazines and newspapers. We also provide media with content and images that they can use as editorial.
Delegation: I used to have a sign over my desk that read, 'Don't accept responsibility; usurp it.' I like that about being an entrepreneur — if you take on all the responsibility you can, you end up with the power.
But if you don't delegate, you die. I need my management to think like I think and to have the same goals I have. These attitudes will transfer down to the other employees and eventually out to the customer. We have a managers meeting every week, and I'm talking with my five managers pretty much daily.
New products, higher profits: Furniture is another big thing that distinguishes us. We sell almost specifically wicker furniture. We bring in several containers from Hong Kong each year and sell them through the summer.Outdoor wicker furniture has exploded in the last five years. There are other sellers in this area, but we seem to have cornered this market.
Furniture has higher profit margins than plants. Trees also have very high margins.
Guaranteed growth: Warranty is really critical. We guarantee customer satisfaction for at least a year. The box stores also have a one-year guarantee, but they don't tell the customer why a plant died or how to prevent it from dying again. They just give you your money back.
We're on the side of the plant. We want to know why it died, if it can be replaced and put in that same place, how they took care of it. We get involved.
Young gardeners: We try to get people interested in gardening when they're young. We have a kids' club that meets once a month. One month they made a terrarium, another a bird feeder. The fee is typically $5, and their parents can shop during that time.
Our biggest children's activity is the pumpkin patch. For the full month of October there's a straw bale maze, hayrides, activities, a pirate ship, and we sell tons of pumpkins. Classes of kids come from local schools and daycares. It's $5 per child, and they all get a gift bag, but it's a money-making function during a time that is usually quiet.
Downtime: We have a very busy Christmas store during November and December. Come the first of January, we put away the Christmas items, completely re-fixture the store, and hopefully, by the time the sun comes out in March, we'll be ready for spring.