Andy Morse uses opportunities other companies overlook.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“The business atmosphere right now demands change,” says Andy Morse, IFM, owner and president of Ohio Awning and Manufacturing Co. in Cleveland, Ohio. “You’ve got to constantly be looking for alternatives, innovations and growth opportunities in order to keep an edge.” Keeping that edge is risky at times, Morse admits, but he maintains that if your foundation is stable, you can have the freedom to branch out into new areas.
It was the desire to branch out and seize a ripe opportunity that brought Morse into the awning business in the first place. In 1993, Morse, who was practicing law advising small corporations and business owners, was helping a client purchase Ohio Awning. The client made the purchase, “turned the company around,” Morse says, and decided to sell in 1995. Morse decided to buy. “It was just such a great opportunity to get into small business,” he says. “Sure, there was a significant learning curve, but it really complemented what I was already doing on the legal side, advising companies.”
Since then it seems that Morse has hardly taken a breath as he’s expanded the company’s product lines and strategies, and even added two separate but related businesses to his portfolio. “We’ve probably doubled sales since we took over the company in ’95,” Morse says. “There are several reasons for this, but one is that we’ve changed the mix of customers to include significant growth on the commercial side.” The main strategy for this growth was finding inroads to and building relationships with shopping mall tenants and developers.
As Ohio Awning secures a job to install awnings for mall tenants, Morse reaches out to other tenants to offer an awning maintenance package, even if the existing awnings have been installed by another company. He offers a package that includes cleaning and maintenance each spring and fall, which boosts income, but more importantly keeps his company on clients’ radar. “That way we’re in touch with clients again and again,” he says. “So when another need comes up it’s natural for them to contact us.”
Morse also uses those connections with chain retailers and restaurants to expand geographically. “I felt like we’d tapped the market in northeast Ohio,” he says. “So I thought: If I’m going to try to grow sales, I’m going to have to expand geographically.” In 2003, Ohio Awning had just completed some work locally with a general contractor based in Florida. Morse began to explore expansion opportunities by asking the contractor questions: “How can we do more for you? We delivered products to you at a fair price. Can we have the opportunity to do more?” The answer to that question was “yes.”
Morse also contacted a franchise owner who had restaurants throughout New England, asking if they could do their recovers. “We continued to grow relationships with the franchise owner, general contractor and even the parent chain,” Morse says. “That’s led to expansion in more geographic areas.”
Expansion into other locations also brings expanded concerns. Becoming attuned to different codes and regulations, and finding ways to do long-distance jobs without wasting resources that cut into profit margins are two of the biggest challenges Morse identifies. “We have our engineer try to work with local contractors who already know the codes and who may be able to measure the job for us,” Morse says. “At times we also subcontract with local companies that are also members of PAMA [Professional Awning Manufacturers Association].”
Developing relationships with architects is another avenue Morse uses to garner business and grow the awning industry at large. Morse touts the benefits of awnings before building design begins, to the people designing the buildings, using a continuing education tool available to PAMA members at a nominal price. The tool comes in the form of a CD and pamphlets, highlighting the benefits of awnings and how architects can incorporate them into their designs; the architects receive one hour of certification credit. “We usually give lunch to the architects—that’s the carrot,” Morse says. “It takes time. It takes a little bit of money. And you’re not going to get an immediate reward, but six months down the road you could be spec’d into some of the drawings or work with the architect to be the supplier.”
Morse has further branched out by starting what are now sister companies to Ohio Awning: Western Reserve Sewing Co. and The Reed Awning Co. Morse began Western Reserve Sewing Co. after visiting another sewing company on a mission to buy a long-armed two-needle sewing machine. The company was dissolving, and Morse not only bought the sewing machine, he bought all the machines, hired several of the company’s employees and inherited some of the product contracts.
The company, a production sewing company that specializes in helping other companies find solutions to soft goods problems, has had its share of hits and misses. Sewing period costumes for Renaissance festivals and burial gowns were two of the “misses.” “I’ve learned a lot from this company,” Morse says. “I’ve learned that just because people are active on their sewing machines and people are buying the products doesn’t mean you’re making money.” Morse trimmed the unprofitable products from the line and is focusing on more viable contracts such as mobile laser covers and gel mattress pad covers. “One of the things I learned was how to say: This isn’t working. Stop.”
The most recent company Morse has taken on is Reed Awning Co., which imports materials from Stobag sun and weather protection systems in Muri, Switzerland, and in turn manufactures awnings for other dealers. “It’s been a challenge to set up a wholesale distribution channel, manufacturing channel and sales emphasis different from what we’re used to,” Morse says. “But there’s synergy too. We know the manufacturing side of things and we know what kinds of challenges other dealers face since we’ve been on both sides of the fence. We use that knowledge as a sales tool.”
Morse likes to look at the big picture and segment large goals into a series of small goals—much like he does when he’s running a marathon. “It’s the same concept in business as in a marathon,” he says. “You don’t have to be fast. You just focus, take on a little at a time, and you’ll get there.”