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Michael Ciferri Jr. gets tough to enhance profits

Feature, Management, Perspective | August 1, 2010 | By:

Michael Ciferri Jr. of Donovan Enterprises boosts truck cover and tarp sales despite the sluggish economy

“Don’t make excuses—in my family [as I was growing up] it wasn’t allowed,” says Michael Ciferri Jr., vice president of Donovan Enterprises in Stuart, Fla. “It doesn’t matter if you’re 10 minutes late to work because there was a bus that crashed and caught on fire and you were stopped by the train. Just apologize for being late and move on.” Ciferri began working for the family tarp business when he was 13, sweeping floors after school. By the time he was 15, he was sewing, folding and bagging for the company his father and grandfather started in 1977. “Basically whenever the shop was open and I wasn’t in school, I would come in and work,” he says.

“After graduating with a business management degree from the University of Florida, Ciferri opted to make his way outside his father’s company; he worked with considerable success in sales positions for two different companies that made truck bodies. “I didn’t really want to go back to work for my dad right away because Dad can be a tough guy to work for,” he says. “But after working for people who were less than fair, I went back to work at Donovan.”

As it turns out, Ciferri has taken his father’s tough, straightforward approach to business management, combined with his relationship-based sales approach, and made it work in a profitable way.

Face time

Ciferri started back with Donovan as an outside salesperson for the State of Florida. He doubled sales for the territory in the first year and again in the second year. “I’m a people person. I like being in front of people,” he says. “I went and visited all our clients. Every month I sat in front of every customer.” After three years he transferred inside to learn more about the various facets of the company. “In order to be able to run a company you have to work in the different areas so you can fully understand the challenges faced by the employees,” he says.

“At that time the tarps were kind of a bastard product,” Ciferri says. “The company was making truck tarps, but nobody paid much attention to them or put any effort into them.” Ciferri targeted the market, paying attention to what the company was charging in comparison to its competitors, which meant raising some prices and lowering others. Ciferri searched out suppliers that could provide materials at a reasonable price, with a reliable delivery time. The result of his efforts was that he more than doubled the revenue for the tarp division in two years.

As Donovan grew to be a worldwide tarp competitor, creating a face-to-face personal connection became more of a challenge, but Ciferri makes creating those connections a priority. “One of our company’s biggest assets is that we have approximately 30 outside sales reps that cover every part of the country,” he says. “They’re out there calling on clients on a regular basis so our company has a local face.”

Staffing decisions

Ciferri applied what he describes as an “A-, B-, C-student” philosophy to growing the business. “I’m actually a ‘B’ student,” he says. “But my theory in life is that even if I’m a ‘C’ student I just need to surround myself with ‘A’ students and do what they tell me to do—and I’ll be a success.” He’s strictly opposed to micromanaging his employees. “I’m a manager,” he says. “I manage talent. If you have a bunch of employees you need to micromanage, then you have a bad bunch of employees.”

In-house, Ciferri has managed to maintain a competent staff, though the economic challenges of the day have required difficult decisions. “We’ve all made sacrifices [during the recession],” Ciferri says. “We reduced inventory. We lowered the number of employees we had. We cut a lot of our people down to four days a week. We cut expenses. Management took a 10 percent pay cut.” He credits his father’s leadership and example for his ability to make the tough decisions that ultimately benefit the company and its employees. “As painful as it is and as hard as it is, everybody understands the situation,” he says. “You’ve got to cut [expenses] and you’ve got to cut early. You can’t wait too long.” Now, as business is picking up, Ciferri has been able to increase hours for staff and hire some people back. “We’ve seen a little bit of a rebound in the last few months,” he says. “The question is: Will the rebound continue, or is it temporary? Our debate now is whether or not to hire people back or use a temp agency. We don’t want to play with people’s lives.”

Risk and product development

As the economy struggles to gain ground, Ciferri looks for ways to market innovative products he developed, which were stalled by the recession—one of which is a hurricane protection system for high-rise condos. “We were at about the one-year point in developing the product when the housing market fell apart,” he says. “The product is fantastic; You push a button and the system deploys 50 feet, goes around a 90-degree corner and protects the house (or building) in a category-five-type hurricane. I have it installed on my own house.”

The product is probably 12 months from being ready for market, Ciferri estimates, and he’s considering whether or not to sell the concept with the inventory or finish the process and market it himself. The experience has caused him to look more closely at the types of risks that are worth taking. “This has been a huge lesson for me, having to do with market conditions. If there’s no market for a high-end product, you’re not going to be able to sell [the product] no matter how great it is.”

The bottom line for Ciferri—and Donovan—is that because of his balanced approach of tough decisions and people-oriented management, the company has the foundation to weather the economic storm and continue to expand its revenue. No excuses necessary.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine.

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