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World Wide Transformations

How three very different companies used the Internet to transform their businesses.

Mitch Claborn, founder of Cornerstone Detention Products, launched a website in 2003 that took his sales into Canada, Latin America and the Middle East.

Mitch Claborn, founder of Cornerstone Detention Products, launched a website in 2003 that took his sales into Canada, Latin America and the Middle East.

Photo by Dennis Keim

Need to sell a valve in Singapore? A prison mattress in the Middle East? A faux floral arrangement direct to a homeowner trying a new décor?

Today, any school child could tell you that the Web is the answer. But when Raymond McCaffrey founded Quality Valve in Mobile in 1994, the suggestion was next to outlandish. Just one year after he founded the company, however, it was one of 10 companies across the country chosen by AT&T for its Internet pilot program. And that decision has made all the difference. From his roots as a local distributor, he’s become an international player, doing business in 40 countries and winning the Governor’s Trade Excellence Award in 2008.

Up in Tanner, Cornerstone Detention Products Inc. has seen its sales move into Canada, Latin America and the Middle East since launching its website in 2003. The company has revamped its web presence twice—the most recent redesign increasing site visits by 22 percent—and is working on another version to help direct varied clients to the right portion of the company’s business.

And over in Brewton, NDI—an acronym from Natural Decorations Inc.—took to the web two years ago to reach retail consumers, as well as its network of wholesale traders.

In each case, a great web presence changed the business.

Consider Cornerstone. The detention equipment contractor has two distinct lines of business. Cornerstone Detention Products offers detention consulting and design/build services for jail and prison construction and renovation. Cornerstone Institutional Sales and Services provides jail equipment for local and federal detention centers, police departments, juvenile detention centers, courthouses and other institutions.

The company currently operates with one website, but is now creating a second to better serve its distinctly different sectors.

“Each website has a specific customer,” notes Cornerstone Marketing Director Kara Huff. “A person looking for prison uniforms is going to be different from a person who is designing a prison.”

Visitors to the detention products site will primarily be architects, engineers and others involved in building and overhauling corrections facilities. People responsible for daily operation of detention complexes visit the institutional sales and services site. Until the second site is available this summer, all existing and potential customers navigate a single site.

Mitch Claborn founded Cornerstone Detention Products in 1998, and in 2003 developed a website simply as an informative channel for his customers. The company redesigned the site in 2007 and introduced the current platform. Since that time, Cornerstone has been able to watch its customers’ behavior through web analytics, which has provided the data necessary to develop their website for long-term effectiveness. The company has grown internationally with customers in Canada, Latin America and the Middle East.

“Our website has become an integral part of our business over the past several years,” Claborn says. “We know it is no longer a marketing channel, rather a living embodiment of our company, where we interact with our customers.” 

Red Sage Communications in Decatur is working with Cornerstone to design the new sites. Cornerstone has added in-house marketing, led by Huff, to work with Red Sage so information is accurate and up-to-date, explains Red Sage President Ellen Didier. The redesign will make information accessible to smart phones and tablets and integrate social media, adds Didier.

When Red Sage rebuilt Cornerstone’s website, they conducted keyword research to identify top search phrases for their industry, then incorporated those words into the site’s navigation structure.

“Cornerstone is lucky to be in an industry that does not include as many online competitors as other industry types,” Didier notes. “The approach we took for Cornerstone, which combined clean code with keyboard rich content, worked beautifully for them because of the lower level of industry competition for these key phrases.”

Using search engine optimization, says Huff, means that Cornerstone comes up first when someone uses Google to search for one of the company’s products, such as “prison uniforms.”

“Ninety-five percent of the time Cornerstone will be listed first because of our SEO,” Huff says.

The percentage of direct visits to Cornerstone.com is relatively small, adds Huff, and most new customers come from a search engine or a referral from another site. “It’s a big investment updating and maintaining the site, and hosting fees. But a website is the most cost effective way to communicate with your customers. You have to keep up with your customers, and a website is the best way to do so.”

Internet Pioneer

The year 1995—when Mobile-based Quality Valve introduced its website—was practically the Dark Ages for the five-year-old World Wide Web.

“We got our first overseas order in a couple of months,” recalls President Raymond McCaffrey, who started Quality Valve in December 1994. “That’s when I realized how important websites were going to be for business.”

Quality Valve is growing at a rate of 18 percent a year, owing, in large part, to its ever-increasing presence in the global market. Today, Quality Valve does business with 40 countries and its vast customer base includes Canada, Latin America, China, Singapore, Ireland, England and Australia. In 2008, the company received the Governor’s Trade Excellence Award, one of eight Alabama companies recognized for international export sales.

The company operates as a valve and valve parts supplier for repair companies and manufacturers. Adjacent to its office building in Mobile is a large, temperature-controlled warehouse where parts are shipped 24/7 to customers worldwide.

For the past 11 years, the company has attended trade missions to find a liaison for each country it supplies.

“Even though we work through a representative in a particular country, we still need a website to communicate what we sell and to educate our customers about our products,” McCaffrey says.

Quality Valve maintains two websites, which recently have been redesigned. Its primary website, qualityvalves.com, now includes more detailed information about the parts they supply and how the parts relate to each other. The improved primary site includes a diagram, with each part keyed to numbers.

It is critical that the right parts are shipped, and the new site will help eliminate confusion in the ordering process, McCaffrey says. A plant might have to shut down until the valves are repaired, and having to ship a second time is problematic, particularly with the time it takes to reach an international destination. The improved site also provides an easier to use path and is built to be easily translated into multiple languages, explains Michelle Ritter of E-worc Web and New Media Development in Mobile, who redesigned the website.

The purpose of the company’s secondary site, keytite.com, is to sell a single product called KeyTite, which is used to seal and lubricate joints. Setting up accounts and using invoices are unnecessary on this credit card-based site. Orders are placed in a shopping cart, unlike the main website, where customers typically pay using wire transfers. Although KeyTite is not yet ready to be sold internationally, the site has been redesigned to allow for it, says Ritter, who will be closely monitoring both sites.

Information gleaned from website use can help the company plan its next steps, she says.

Decorations Direct

For nearly 50 years, NDI has provided high-end floral and botanical reproductions primarily to the trade. Their creations have adorned the White House, the Academy Awards, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade, upscale department stores, movie and television studio sets and celebrity homes.

Consistent advertising in national publications, such as Architectural Digest and Elle Décor, has resulted in growing interest from the retail sector. So the Brewton-based company decided to sell retail directly to consumers through the new website, which launched two years ago. 

Since the company was the only luxury faux floral line participating in national advertising, it had built a brand following for its product category, says Vice President Kelly Billingsley. NDI was inundated with calls from consumers asking where they could purchase NDI products from the company’s local dealers (its trade customers). Retail callers would be referred to NDI dealers in their area, who, having only a sampling of NDI’s inventory, often did not have what the customer was looking for.

“We were not going to leave consumers wanting NDI products with no means to acquire them,” Billingsley adds. “This led us to the decision to develop our new website and sell retail directly to the consumer. The retail sector is our fastest growing segment. However, our trade customers remain our largest and most consistent segment, particularly our interior designers.”

NDI’s 10-year-old website, ndi.com, serves both retail customers and wholesalers, who log into the site. NDI also reaches retail customers through targeted e-blasts and social networks. The company also connects with both retailers and wholesalers through a new iPad app.

Before NDI had a presence online, it communicated with customers via a printed catalog and at trade shows. A new design couldn’t be shared until the next trade show, usually about four months later. Now new products are introduced daily with no limits on the number that can be presented.

“If we tried to print a catalog with everything we are able to feature online, the size of the book would be unmanageable,” observes Billingsley. “In addition to the benefit of infinite introduction of new product online, we are also able to control what is not seen online, as well. If an item sells out, with the web we have control to immediately remove the item.”

NDI’s interior design clientele especially like the iPad app because they can compose portfolios or catalogs specific to each client. They can then e-mail a PDF spec sheet of the items in each catalog as a reference, either to themselves or their clients. “It provides them with an additional way to shop in lieu of sitting in front of their laptop, surfing the web,” notes Billingsley.

Jessica Armstrong is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Auburn.

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