Who I Went to When I Needed Help
Often the best lessons in business come from challenges that require collaboration with experts. Four Alabama businesses share their go-to experiences.
Rich Scott, president of Quality Filters, turned to the Alabama Technology Network to diversify with a product for the residential market — a filter with a Lysol license.
Photo by Matthew Coughlin
Whether they realize it or not, many businesses — even big, healthy ones — reach a point where they could stand some help from outside resources. It could come from a state agency, a 93-year-old accounting firm or a much smaller independent advisor. If there is a strong focus on working with an outside resource to find the right solution for a particular need, the result just might be better than expected. Here are a few examples from across Alabama where different businesses asked for and got a little help from their friends.
ATN Helps Quality Filters Find a Broader Business Base
For most of its three decades in business, Robertsdale-based Quality Filters Inc. sold almost exclusively in the commercial market. But that changed in a big way a few years ago, when the company’s relationship with Alabama Technology Network (ATN) drove home this thought: Thirty to 40 percent of a company’s product or customer base needs to be renewed every three years.
“ATN brought that to us, and our response led to a new market — residential — and made us more efficient, effective and relevant in our existing commercial markets,” says Rich Scott, president of Quality Filters.
Begun in the early 1980s, Quality Filters has 110 employees and sells indoor air filters for heating, ventilating and air-conditioning applications throughout the nation. It has had a relationship since 2001 with ATN, which was established by the Alabama Legislature in 1995 with the mission of providing industry and businesses the tools, training and resources to excel.
Although Quality Filters built its business on the commercial side, residential sales (retail and Internet) essentially came out of nowhere in the past five years and now make up 30 percent of the company’s business. Residential sales also offer the greatest opportunity for growth.
Scott attributes the residential work largely to the ATN connection, which in turn led to a relationship with the British multinational Reckitt Benckiser, which owns Lysol.
Quality Filters is now providing a triple-protection air filter under the Lysol brand, and the filter is selling in retail outlets and on the Internet. It’s currently the only filter certified by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
Scott notes that a Nielson industry survey showed the Lysol brand received 100-percent recognition in the United States and Canada. “With a name like Lysol, there is such historical credibility, brand loyalty and brand trust,” Scott says. “Our relationship with Reckitt Benckiser has brought growth that is not only significant but exponential in potential.”
The Lysol-branded filter is being sold by Wisconsin-based Menards in 260 outlets, mostly in the Midwest. It’s also available online at buyfilters.com. “The commercial market has become commoditized, and overseas companies have made it less profitable,” Scott says. “It’s more difficult to maintain profit margins in the commercial market, but in the residential market, people are willing to pay for value. The margins are better at retail, and retail offers large distribution with fewer players in the chain. We wouldn’t have had this opportunity were it not for our relationship with ATN.
“ATN has different groups of people with expertise in different areas,” Scott says. “They have a vast pool of resources — all the resources we need. They offer cutting-edge information and programs, and working with them is cost-effective. They have networked very well, and they have databases to pull from.
“We started working with them as a way for Quality Filters to be leaner, and we’ve become more efficient and more effective in our manufacturing and transactional processes,” Scott says. “In addition to our growth in the residential market, we’ve also developed a new filter for the commercial market. Although I can’t say that new filter is the direct result of our work with ATN, it was certainly influenced by it.”
ATN and Quality Filters currently are in a year-long program in conjunction with the Eureka Ranch in Newton, Ohio. The Eureka Ranch’s philosophy is based on the teachings of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, the father of the Total Quality movement, which stresses improvement through innovation.
In the current program, two Quality Filters management team members, including Scott, are being provided Innovation Engineering Black Belt training. The two team members are learning how to facilitate and coach innovations within Quality Filters to sustain the innovation effort and system after ATN’s work through the program concludes.
Participants spend two sets of three days at the Eureka Ranch in Ohio, covering a methodology of creating ideas, communicating ideas effectively to potential customers and commercializing ideas by identifying and addressing “death threats” that could kill the idea from being a reality.
“Quality Filters is truly a beacon of light for American manufacturing,” says David Mixson, a marketing/management scientist at ATN’s Auburn University center. “The company desires to demonstrate that innovative filtration products can be developed and manufactured within the United States. They are a great company to work with and active participants within the Baldwin County economic development area.” — Charlie Ingram
When the Lawyer Needs an Accountant:
JamisonMoneyFarmer Helps Cunningham Bounds
Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil settlement was reached in the spring of 2012, it was obvious that the amount of work necessary to file the claims by the April 2014 deadline would be overwhelming. And since part of the settlement agreement required accounting expertise, extensive networking and referrals among plaintiff law firms and accounting firms would be necessary.
The Mobile-based law firm of Cunningham Bounds has been a leading player at the center of BP-related issues since the spill. One of a number of accounting firms Cunningham Bounds contacted on behalf of its clients was JamisonMoneyFarmer of Tuscaloosa, founded in 1920 and staffed with more than 90 employees. “I don’t want to single out a particular accounting firm, because we’ve worked with a number of them,” according to one attorney at Cunningham Bounds. “But JMF has done an outstanding job.”
“We understood from the beginning that (the settlement) would affect our firm and our clients throughout the state and not just the coastal region,” says Joel Lake, a CPA with JamisonMoneyFarmer and a shareholder in the firm. “But at the beginning, I don’t think anyone envisioned the size and scope of this project with Cunningham Bounds. But we’ve been able to do it with our regular work load, even during tax season.”
Lake, who heads the BP claims team for JMF, notes that JMF’s initial strategy was to form a small core team that would work on the settlement claims until reaching a comfortable point on the learning curve. The idea was for a few team members to learn the correct process and then impart that experience to new members of the team, which has grown from five to 14 people over the past 12 months.
Given the complexity of the agreement, that has not been easy. The part of the settlement that determines who is eligible for damages and how to calculate the damages is 17 pages long. The claims calculation process has two parts: revenue analysis, which determines if a business qualifies for a claim, and the profit analysis, which calculates the amount of the claim. The revenue analysis portion, including preparation and review time, can be less than two hours. But it can take considerably more time if a business has claims for multiple locations, according to Lake.
“The profit analysis, which is only done after the attorneys confirm that the business qualifies under the terms of the settlement agreement and agree with our calculation basis, is a much deeper dive,” Lake says. “The more complex claim calculations can take weeks.”
Lake says all claims are reviewed by BP, its attorneys and accountants. That review process can lead to questions or requests for more information, and BP has the right to appeal the compensation calculation of the claim. In light of this review process, it is critical that the claims are accurate and properly documented.
“That is really important to us — for BP to go through everything with a minimum of questions,” says Bryan Chandler, another CPA and shareholder at JMF. “We have to make sure we have everything documented and that it’s easy to follow.”
“We’ve found that there is no typical claim,” Lake says. “Each business and its accompanying accounting records, tax returns and supporting documentation are different depending on the complexity of their operations and the size of the business. The documentation can be in the hundreds of pages. Thankfully, with today’s technology, we have been able to process the claims electronically, by using an array of software programs. That allows us to quickly analyze massive amounts of data.”
Although CPAs are known for being buttoned-up and numbers-oriented, communication skills also are very important for members of Lake’s team. “Initially, we needed to communicate our process internally and educate business owners and our referral network about the settlement and related eligibility requirements,” Lake says. “We are still talking frequently with business owners who aren’t aware of the extent of the settlement or that they may be eligible.
“In performing the settlement calculations, we communicate with the attorneys multiple times a day, are continually gathering information from businesses and other CPA firms and are constantly communicating internally within our team to ensure the calculations are performed correctly and efficiently. It has been quite a lesson from a team mobilization, management and communication standpoint.” — Charlie Ingram
SaVvy Helps Shine It Polish its Image
Brian Peterson is one of those guys with a working man’s Ph.D. But when he needed advice about his business late last year, he turned to a woman who holds a bona fide Ph.D. The result — a review of Peterson’s sales process and the anticipation of a significant new piece of business.
An Andalusia native, the 47-year-old Peterson attended college for a year before working seven years on more than two dozen oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. There, he learned how to clean equipment and machinery, and he took that experience with him. Subsequently unfulfilled as the manager of a tire store, Peterson started a cleaning business on the side.
In 1996, he went full time with his Cecil-based Shine It Co., which focuses on cleaning “external customer contact points” — things like bank ATMs, teller windows, kiosks, tubes and night drops. The company also does pressure washing and provides other cleaning services.
His company’s first customer was a Colonial bank branch — the same branch that gave him a loan to start his business. After Peterson cleaned that branch’s ATM, “It was only a few more steps up the ladder, and I was cleaning all of Colonial’s ATMs,” he says. “That was ATMs at 380 locations in four states.”
Shine It Co. has done business with several major banks and other customers the past 17 years, and it weathered the recession of 2008. But last fall, when the company suddenly lost a third of its sales, Peterson contacted Jackie DiPofi, Ph.D., of SaVvy Business Services in Auburn.
DiPofi had just left the position of director at the Small Business Development Center, an outreach unit at Auburn University partially funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration. DiPofi held that position for 11 years and had known Peterson for much longer than that. Peterson, stung by Shine It Co.’s loss of revenues, felt comfortable looking to DePofi for direction.
“Brian had survived this terrible, terrible economy, but when he contacted me, Shine It had excess capacity,” DiPofi says. “He has limited resources, no extra cash and no extra time. He is really good at what he does, but he came to me for advice on the business side, and asked, ‘How do I grow my business?’ And I said, ‘Let’s start by looking at your sales process.’”
The two worked together to simplify Peterson’s selling efforts, develop a better way to contact customers and improve efficiency and effectiveness. “We started with a simplified form that has information about the services that Shine-It offers, pricing and contact information,” DiPofi says. “It’s a simplified form that the customer can sign on the spot.
“Then we looked at his process for contacting customers, and we made sure that past customers were included along with new prospects, because it costs less to do repeat business than it does to get new customers. We looked at efficiency — doing more with less — and effectiveness — achieving a defined goal. We’ve done a lot of things, and now I’m helping Brian close his first sale since we started working together back in October.”
According to Peterson, “I had always done the sales myself, but Jackie has more technical skills and communication skills than I do.
“She has a more professional approach with customers,” he says, adding, “I’m much more comfortable in the country on a job site than I am in a boardroom meeting.”
Peterson now looks at DiPofi as his marketing director, and at times she makes sales presentations on his behalf. “I’m not as technically savvy as I could be, and that was a possible reason we lost a third of our business,” Peterson says. “That’s why I asked Jackie for her help. I don’t want my lack of technical expertise to be a factor” in the business’ performance.
For DiPofi, SaVvy Business Services is a scary yet exciting venture. “When I was at Auburn University, I worked with businesses in an eight-county area,” she says.
“Now, I’m working with companies all over the nation. I’m in discussion with one company headquartered in France. It’s much more of national-global world for me now.”
If DiPofi and Peterson successfully wrap up their first new piece of business, that could create a nice problem for Shine It. “If we got a major deal, I would have to add more people,” Peterson says. — Charlie Ingram
Alabama SEO Makes Levy’s Jewelry a Go-To Worldwide Authority
Levy’s Jewelers has been a landmark retailer in Birmingham since the 1920s, but now they are a key corner worldwide, on the Internet.
Todd Denaburg’s grandfather started the company after returning from World War I, borrowing $2,500 from his mother-in-law to start a jewelry store. In her honor, he named the store after her. Denaburg and his cousin Jared Nadler are the co-managers and heirs apparent to the business, which has been in the same location since its opening.
Over the years, Levy’s has seen major changes in their business — none more important than the advent of the Internet. Denaburg spent some money building a website, but he needed more traffic. So he hired young Jake Johnston, owner of Birmingham-based Alabama SEO, to help Levy’s Jewelers show up in more search engines. That’s SEO for search engine optimization — the tech savvy term for getting the most from your Internet presence.
“Their pitch made a lot of sense, and they have done a great job,” says Denaburg. “I get calls and emails all the time now from the added exposure.”
Johnston and Denaburg worked together, basing the program around what key words were most important to Denaburg. Johnston’s goal was to drive traffic to the site by using Levy’s knowledge of jewelry and gemstones. First, Johnston determined that the demographic Levy’s needed to reach was buyers and sellers of jewelry. Then, he created a strategy to capture the largest pool of that share. Levy’s has a large inventory of estate jewelry and other inventory, so Johnston leveraged that by photographing unique pieces and writing content for the website. The results have been so good that Levy’s has been able to cut out the other advertising they were doing and turn it all over to Johnston. Many websites now link to Levy’s Jewelers, showing confidence in the brand and their authority on the subject of jewelry.
“It’s like the difference between a general practitioner and a specialist,” Denaburg says. “Whoever you deal with should understand what your business needs.”
For Johnston, the situation with each business is unique. Levy’s brand was already well established in the Birmingham area. Johnston’s job was to expand the store’s reach and make it the expert that customers around the country wanted to turn to for information on jewelry and gemstones. When Johnston started working with Levy’s about one year ago, 95 percent of online searches for Levy’s were from Alabama. Now, more than 50 people in every state every month are searching for Levy’s specifically. According to Johnston, this was accomplished by making the Levy’s website an authority on gemstones. By adding content every day, Google and Bing receive the message that Levy’s website has something important to say and is the authority on their subject matter.
“Each business is different,” says Johnston. “Levy’s is well established and has a strong brand. We were able to successfully improve brand recognition nationwide.” He says he learned how easy it could be to get burned by ineffective search engine optimization when he hired an outside firm to handle the SEO for the company where he worked. When they failed to deliver on their promises, Johnston studied what was involved in search engine optimization and started handling that part of the business himself. He was so successful that the SEO firm replaced their existing SEO specialist with him.
According to Johnston, there are certain red flags to watch for when hiring an SEO consultant. First, if someone claims to be able to rank your website, they should be able to rank their own. Second, real SEO companies don’t have to send email spam to get results. Instead, like Alabama SEO, they focus on content marketing, rather than trying to manipulate the search engines. This has been the key to their success.
“If someone pushes a one-size-fits-all solution, they probably don’t know what they’re talking about,” Johnston says. “It shouldn’t sound too easy or like magic.”
Johnston, a recent graduate of the University of Alabama, has been interested in computers since, at age 11, he would modify software and games for fun. His SEO company now employs eight full-time employees and another 12 contract employees who work remotely. He says he is planning the opening of a second office in one of the epicenters of SEO, Portland, Oregon. — Laura Stakelum
Charlie Ingram and Laura Stakelum are freelance writers for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham and she lives in Dothan.