Bob Campbell ignores the competition and focuses on his best small business strategies.
By Sigrid Tornquist
I don’t worry about the competition. They can do whatever they want to do,” says Bob Campbell, MFC, president of Mt. Lebanon Awning in Presto, Pa. “They can be more expensive than we are. They can be less expensive than we are. We just do what we do, which is make sure we provide a quality product for our customer.” Though providing a quality product is the cornerstone of Campbell’s approach to the business, it’s only a part of the philosophy he applies to heading the company in the direction of success.
From the ground up
Campbell began working for the awning company, which was owned by his uncle, in 1969—during the summer months when he was off from college. The first day he walked onto the job his uncle handed him a screwdriver and sent him to the third floor of the building to start taking apart storage racks in preparation for a move. Though his first day on the job was literally spent on the top floor, Campbell values the fact that he learned the business from the ground up. “Those first four years I learned the outside part of the business as far as measuring and installing,” he says. “At first I was an installer’s helper, and eventually became one of the lead installers and was mostly on my own when I would go out [on jobs].”
After achieving his degree in music education from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pa., he took a position teaching elementary school band, which left his summers open to continue working for the awning company. Within a couple of years Campbell decided that he wanted to work at the awning company full time, so in 1977 he resigned his teaching position. His uncle was looking for someone to groom to take over the business, and the two agreed that if Campbell came on board full time, his uncle would teach him the “inside” portion of running the business, such as cutting, sewing and selling. In 1980 Campbell bought the company. “Basically he gave me the opportunity to run the business for a year without his input before I actually purchased it,” he says. “It was a good transition because he left it up to me to make my mistakes before I was the owner.”
At the time Campbell took over, the company employed about a dozen people during the busy season. Now the company employs twice that number. Campbell made a conscious decision to limit the company’s growth and remain a small business. “There was a point at which I wanted the company to become the world’s biggest awning company,” he says. “Early on we were making awnings and sending them all over—doing one large shopping center job over here, another large job over there. It seemed like all I was doing was waiting for the mail to come with a big check and if it didn’t come—then things weren’t going too well.” Now the company focuses mostly on providing residential awnings within a 15-mile radius of the shop. And when the company does commercial awnings, “that’s gravy,” he says.
“It’s been quite a while since I backed off and decided we’re going to stay about this size to be manageable and able to provide people with a quality product,” he says. Campbell identifies some of the benefits of that decision as the ability to stay intimately involved in design and production, to evaluate new techniques and their possibilities for the company, and to maintain relationships with clients.
“When we go out to homes, we’re often told that we were called because another company came out and told the client they couldn’t do the job—and the bidder told them to call Mt. Lebanon,” Campbell says. “We have some design capabilities that other companies don’t, and we’re willing to take on jobs that are a little more complicated. Sometimes I think the other companies just don’t want to be bothered with the challenge.” That can-do attitude and attention to customer needs has earned the company a reputation that attracts new clients and keeps existing clients coming back.
Once the awnings are installed, Campbell’s company offers annual put-up and take-down service in addition to the product guarantee that comes with the awning. About one-third of the company’s clients take advantage of the service, which includes annual inspection of the awnings. “As we inspect them and get ready to put them into storage if anything needs fixing and the awnings are under the guarantee period, we just go ahead and fix them,” he says. “We don’t even call the client first because we already know the awnings need to be fixed, and they’re under guarantee.” The company also tracks wear and tear and provides the clients with an annual evaluation so they won’t be surprised when several years down the line it’s time to think about new awnings.
In a time when the economy is rough and many small—and large—businesses are struggling to stay afloat, this past year was one of Campbell’s busiest. “We had really bad winter weather last year and had a lot of damage, so we really had to pick up the slack in the summer. It’s not like you can grab people off the street and train them in two days to make and install awnings—so we just all worked harder. It would have been nice to have three or four more people around, but then when things slow down to normal, that’s three or four people too many.”
Finding the perfect work-to-employee ratio is an ongoing challenge—as is keeping the company at the “right” size. “When you’re making a profit providing a good product, when you’re comfortable with what’s going on at your shop and you can leave satisfied every day—that’s when you’re at the right size,” Campbell says.