By Jenny Callison
Nicole Christian thinks that the economy is picking up and that brighter days are ahead for business. The vice president for business development of the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is basing her prediction not on the government's economic indicators or an observation of Wall Street's slow but steady climb. She's reading the performance of her group's "Emerging 30" award winners this year.
"The last two years, we had fewer than 30 winners," Christian said. "Not that many met our criteria. This year, for the first time, we had to turn down a lot of companies that qualified."
The competition is open to all companies that are based in Boone, Kenton or Campbell counties or that are chamber members. To qualify for consideration, applicant businesses must be at least 3 years old and employ fewer than 150 people. Their revenues must exceed $250,000 annually and demonstrate a minimum of 15 percent growth annually during the past three years.
Pointing to the figures for the 30 top candidates, Christian said, "This is the signal that times are changing. Numbers don't lie."
Service leads way
Perhaps another sign of the times is that the overwhelming majority of this year's winners are service companies. What makes them successful, year after year?
"The overwhelming theme for this year's Emerging 30 designees is customer service," said Adam Davey, a supervisor for VonLehman & Co. Inc. and chairman of the 2003 Emerging 30 program. "We found that the companies have been cautious of their expenditures while being careful not to sacrifice customer service. According to these firms, business is all about people and building relationships with your current and prospective customers."
According to the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, the 2003 Emerging 30 companies averaged a 91 percent growth in revenue for 2002; five companies experienced triple-digit growth rates and higher.
The companies also added an average of four employees over the last year and had a total of 549 people on their combined payrolls in 2002.
"The Emerging 30 anticipate continued but controlled growth and believe the boost they are getting from the improving economy is compounded by the advantages of our region," said Nicole Christian, the chamber's vice president for business development.
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David Schansberg said he does just that. "I spend about 50 percent of my time on sales and marketing," said the owner of Minuteman Press - Crescent Springs, a three-time Emerging 30 designee. "I try to spend every morning in direct contact with customers and prospects."
Schansberg thinks that small businesses are better-positioned than large ones to listen to customer feedback, to take care of problems and to respond quickly to opportunities and to requests.
"It's the essence of being able to grow quickly," he said.
Park Hills-based Capital Software calls its customer service function "providing love."
"I firmly believe the reason Capital has doubled its clientele in the past two years and has installed its programs in 15 different states is because our support team is dedicated to the end user," sales manager Jason Glass said. "A great success story this past year is when Capital formed an international partnership with the Tanzanian government. They needed someone that would provide around-the-clock service; we saw it as a challenge, and we delivered. Customer service is what ends up getting us the deal."
Focus on needs
"It's fine to develop products - but unless they're what the customer needs, they're not going to sell," said Dr. Cameron Durrant, president of PediaMed Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Florence. "We're very focused on meeting a specific need."
That need is medications for children, presented in a form that is child-friendly so that young patients will actually take their medicine. The company takes its mission even further, offering games and other entertainment that will amuse kids while they're ill.
Durrant said that while PediaMed doesn't have many direct competitors, it works constantly to offer better customer service.
Furniture Solutions in Wilder encourages its staff members to put themselves in the customer's place.
"When people walk into the store, we introduce ourselves to them and then let them explore," Brett Faulkner, general manager, said. "We don't pressure them or hang around, because they won't feel comfortable talking to each other. We're not here to hound, we're here to help."
This approach, Faulkner said, has led to steady double-digit growth and lots of word-of-mouth advertising. Strong sales for the company's ready-to-assemble furniture have prompted Furniture Solutions to expand into more traditional home furnishings; it will open its new Cold Spring store later this year.
J.R. Krzynowek concentrates on accommodating his customers, who are general contractors.
"We go the extra two steps," said the co-owner and project manager of Select Specialties Corp., a building specialties subcontractor in Newport. "We build trust. We may not make a lot of money on each job, but we are OK on profit because of the increase in volume.
"If that means we have to go in and finish up what another subcontractor didn't do, we do it. We like to make sure they like to work with us rather than someone else."
Larissa Hopkins echoes that philosophy. The co-owner and vice president of Cardinal Laboratories in Crescent Springs said that she and business partner Antoinette Ruschman have turned around the business they purchased in 1997 by providing extra services that make it easy for their customers to choose them over a competitor.
"We provide bottles for samples, and send staff members to pick up the samples from them," Hopkins said. "We also format our reports for ease of use by our clients; we ask them what form of report they would like and how they want it delivered: by e-mail, in print, or both."
Good customer service, to Cardinal, means providing scientific information in terms that the user can understand, rather than technical terms or in jargon. And staffers are ready to elaborate further if clients have questions.
"What does it hurt to take five minutes on the phone to explain something?" Hopkins said. "It comes down to basics: People like to be treated well."
The partners of Crestview Hills public accounting firm Bertke & Sparks believe that by treating employees well, they encourage their employees to take good care of clients.
"If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do and a good working environment," George Sparks said. "Everybody here has a great working relationship. Having quality people can lead to extra value. We've played a role in helping clients during down economic times."
The 30 firms that will be honored Tuesday as this year's Emerging 30 are:
AZA Construction, Hebron, a custom home design/build company
Bertke & Sparks, Crestview Hills, a CPA firm
Beverly International Inc., Campbell County, a sports nutrition company
Blue Star Inc., Florence, wholesale distributor of point-of-sale electronics
law firm Boggs & Colvin LLC, Edgewood
Business Communication Services Inc., Crescent Springs, supplier of business voice and data services
Capital Software, Park Hills, a developer of software for municipal governments
Cardinal Laboratories Inc., Crescent Springs, a laboratory specializing in environmental analysis of water and waste water
C-Forward, Covington, business-to-business computer network consultants
Chas. Wagner Enterprises LLC, Covington, wholesaler of packaging products
The Christopher Financial Group, Fort Mitchell, an investment services specialist serving retirees, pre-retirees and small businesses
Cindy B! Realtors, Fort Wright, real estate brokers
dbaDirect Inc., Florence, provider of data base administration services
Fabulous-Furs, Covington, designer and manufacturer of faux fur fashions and accessories
FocusMark Group LLC, Florence, integrated database marketing firm
Furniture Solutions, Wilder, retailer of Sauder ready-to-assemble furniture
K4 Architecture LLC, downtown Cincinnati, designer of medical and financial facilities
Minuteman Press-Crescent Springs, business printing and copying shop
Nielson & Sherry, PSC, Newport, law firm
Parsons & Associates LLC, Edgewood, insurance and financial services agency
PediaMed Pharmaceuticals Inc., Florence, a company that identifies, develops and markets pharmaceuticals for children
Pediatric Associates, PSC, Crestview Hills, medical practice focused on children and adolescents
J. Kurt Pohlgeers/Shelter Insurance Agency, Fort Mitchell, financial services center specializing in insurance and banking products
Regis Office Supply Co., Springdale, office supplies and furniture company
Seasongood Asset Management, downtown Cincinnati, SEC-registered investment adviser
Select Specialties Corp., Newport, distributor and installer of miscellaneous building specialties
Steinkamp Molding L.P., Boone County, designer and manufacturer of industrial molds
Vector Construction Co. Inc., Erlanger, a general commercial industrial contractor
Wealth Advisors< of Cincinnati, LLC, Fort Mitchell, an investment advisory firm.
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