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Belli relies on relationships

January 1st, 2010 / By: / Feature, Management, Perspective

Joe Belli drives business by making the most of relationships.

“Relationship selling is absolutely where it’s at,” says Joe Belli, design and estimating department manager and part owner of Eide Industries Inc. in Cerritos, Calif. “Sometimes people think it’s the lowest price or the best design that’s going to get the job; but no, great relationships produce great sales.” Of course Belli would be the first to acknowledge that you have to deliver a great product at a fair price or that relationship isn’t going to last, but he believes it is the basis for building and conducting a business—both internally and externally.

It was the relationship Belli had built with Jack and Jim Eide, founders of Eide Industries, a company that designs and manufactures a variety of fabric structures, that landed him a sales job there in 1981. At that time, Belli’s company was folding after eight years of business. Eide Industries had been doing some sewing for Belli since 1975, and over the course of their six-year business relationship, Jack Eide repeatedly told Belli that if he ever closed his company he should come to work for Eide. “So [when my company folded] I called Jack,” Belli says. “We didn’t talk about money. We didn’t talk about position. We didn’t talk about any details. He just said: ‘Fine, I’ll see you tomorrow at 7 a.m.’ That was the end of the interview.”

Opportunity knocks

When Belli joined Eide Industries, the company had a strong local presence and a solid business producing canvas products, including tent tarps, bags and awnings in southern California. George Ochs, who co-owned the business with Don Araiza and the Eide brothers, was just putting the finishing touches on his design and development of a slip-fit awning. Belli recognized the opportunity this innovative design could offer the company on a national level if they did two things: increase advertising and write a catalog. “Eide was doing some advertising through the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) but I pushed the company to increase our advertising because now we had a product that would repeat,” Belli says. “And there weren’t many awning companies at that time that could bend steel tubing.” The product took off, and Eide established itself as a company with a nationwide customer base.

It was around that same time that Belli wrote another catalog to promote a party tent line for the company. When he tried to make an impromptu sales call to what turned out to be a non-existent address—brochure in hand—he found himself facing a pivotal business opportunity for Eide Industries. “I was in downtown L.A. looking for an address that didn’t exist, so I walked into some business intending to ask where this address was,” Belli says. “I walked into [a room occupied by] the entire design team for the 1984 Olympic Games.” Belli struck up a conversation with one of the designers and ended up showing him the brochure for their party tent hardware. “The guy looked at it, banged his forehead with his hand and yelled to about ten other guys to get over here and take a look at this stuff,” Belli says. That conversation resulted in a contract with the Olympic Committee, and for the next year-and-a-half Eide built products for the Olympic Games.

Virtual connections

Eide Industries still relies heavily on developing high-quality literature, but they no longer go to press with them. “It was very expensive to publish literature. Now we just put our information on the Internet,” Belli says. “That doesn’t mean we got out of spending dollars, though; the money we used to spend on printing we now spend on IT employees to ensure that Eide ends up on page one of all the search engines.”

Belli credits the company’s successful Web presence to its top-notch IT department, which has identified more than 21,000 key words that drive traffic to the company’s site, and to the fact that the company owns, among others, two desirable domain names—www.awnings.com and www.tensionstructures.com. “I’m not an expert on what drives traffic to a site, but we’ve hired great people who are,” Belli says. “One of my philosophies is: You hire great people, give them some guidance, some rules and regulations and then get out of the way” —a philosophy Belli gleaned from his mentor, Don Araiza, current president of Eide Industries.

Turn and type

“Getting out of the way” for Belli doesn’t mean being disconnected, however. “In [manufacturing] custom products there’s a phenomenal amount of communication that goes on,” he says. “And documentation becomes very critical.” Every single order is touched by at least 18 people in the company, Belli says, so everything needs to be in writing. “We have a saying: ‘Don’t walk and talk, turn and type!’ There are just so many details; you’ve got to write them down.”

The documentation process starts with the salespeople, who submit a summary of the communication that occurs between himself or herself and the client. Then the estimators allocate labor and materials costs for seven different departments within the company. “Eide is very accounting driven. We want to know where every penny is being spent,” Belli says.

In order to make accurate estimates, the estimators need to have a handle on the hours required to build a product as well as the expenses to buy and bring in all the materials, which often sends Belli out to the factory floor to gather more information. “You really have to understand every aspect and element of costs for your company to be successful,” Belli says. “When I send a project out to the factory and my frame shop manager feels that he was cheated of hours, he’ll let me know.” The manager will show Belli why that portion of the project requires more hours, and Belli will make the change for future estimates.

It’s the communication that occurs between the clients and the company, and among the employees at Eide, that is at the center of Eide’s—and Belli’s—success. “Eide Industries helped develop Joe Belli, not the other way around. I was in the right place, surrounded by the right people.”

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

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