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Calderon keeps awning business going through tough times

July 1st, 2009 / By: / Awnings & Shades, Feature, Perspective

Motivated for success, Paula Calderon sets protocols for an awning business in St. Lucia.

“The management system of ISO [International Organization for Standardization] is sound, efficient and effective. It enhances productivity and customer service, and consequently the bottom line of the company,” says Paula Calderon, managing director of Caribbean Awning Production Co. in Castries, St. Lucia. Calderon and her late husband, Lawson, started the company in 1997 after having successfully embarked on two other business ventures: a chain of pizzerias, and later Beautiful Windows—an awning company they started in the back of the pizzeria. Given their aptitude for business and organizational skills, and taking into consideration the needs of the area created by a climate of heat and rain, the couple expanded on Beautiful Windows to create what is now Caribbean Awning Production Co. Ltd.

Sink or swim

In 2003, when Calderon’s husband died unexpectedly, she was faced with the decision of whether to sell the business or continue to run it without her husband. “I actually hated the business at that point, but it was a matter of sink or swim. I chose to swim—and learned to love the business,” she says. Her particular strength at that point was in marketing, but she lacked knowledge about the more technical aspects of fabricating awnings. Consequently, she turned to her suppliers in the United States. “We had sent staff to them for training in the past and I needed to learn more about the process to run the company,” Calderon says. So she sent herself.

Once she increased her knowledge of awning production, and regained her equilibrium after the devastating loss of her husband and business partner, Calderon focused on improving the way she ran the business. Her penchant for organizing and streamlining processes for optimum efficiency led her to pursue achieving ISO status for the company. “With ISO you’re able to understand workflow from beginning to end,” she says. “It helps you look at lean production practices, leadership and people-related practices, health and safety, finance, and fabrication issues.” Since becoming ISO9001:2000-certified, the company has reduced waste by 5 percent, and increased both ontime delivery and customer satisfaction to 98 percent.

Staff input

“Our staff was involved from beginning to end,” she says. “That involvement gave them a better understanding of the business and how it runs.” The staff determined company objectives, including percentage of waste, delivery times, material logistics practices, and environmental health and safety practices. And the staff decided on the consequences of nonperformance, increasing their sense of ownership in the success of the business even further. “As a result [of their involvement in ISO] the staff has become very, very efficient—and once they became involved in the decision-making, I found that they also became better at dealing with customers,” Calderon says.

Calderon keeps the momentum going for her employees by focusing on continued staff training. “Training is a key component. We spend a lot of money on it,” she says. Each member of the staff is trained in his or her particular area of responsibility, with the teaching being conducted by Caribbean Awning’s staff as well as outside sources. Employees must pass exams following the training.

Chasing the sale

In addition, all employees, whether they work in fabrication or in an administrative capacity, are trained in sales. And sales in St. Lucia comes with its own set of challenges. “We are not a sales-oriented country. We are not a commission-oriented country,” Calderon says. “Caribbean Awning is one of the few companies [in St. Lucia] that pay on commission.” Calderon has taken her understanding of the way the culture of business works in St. Lucia—a “let the customer come to you” mode of operation—and has merged it with a more ambitious approach that has boosted the company’s bottom line. “[This approach] has worked out very well for us, especially in these economic times, because when sales are low I use all the employees to go out and sell,” she says.

The sluggish economy has been a challenge for the company, but Calderon continually looks at new ways to keep the business competitive—and to keep her employees on the payroll. “We haven’t laid off anyone, which is important to me,” she says. “We continue to train and upgrade our staff.” In order to attract new business Calderon has diversified the company’s product line, increasing the number of marine projects the company fabricates, as well as van tarps and cushion covers for outdoor furniture. She is looking to add a fabric graphics and banners division to the company, is offering substantial discounts to customers, is using leftover materials to fabricate products when feasible, and is developing a service sector to offer maintenance of the products the company has fabricated and installed in the past.

Benchmarking for success

Calderon’s vision for manufacturing isn’t limited to her own company. She is currently 1st vice president of the St. Lucia Manufacturing Association, which is dedicated to encouraging and assisting manufacturing businesses. The association raises funds to help companies develop efficient and quality manufacturing processes, which currently includes efforts to source funding for performance benchmarking.

Caribbean Awning was one of 12 companies benchmarked in 2008 by CASSE Consultants Ltd. of Barbados through the office of Private Sector Relations. Calderon’s company was one of two of those companies to receive the status of “Contender to World Class.” According to the report, “[Caribbean Awning] is a well organized, well documented and well run company, which has exhibited significant strengths in manufacturing practice and several areas, including employee involvement, shared vision, customer service and orientation, equipment layout, plant and equipment maintenance and performance measurement.” Calderon credits the company’s ISO status with much of its success. “Now there is a process from the time the customer calls the office until the time the product is installed,” she says.

For Calderon and her company, it’s a practice that has led to good performance.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.

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