Andrea Lampson and her husband Mark join with employees to retool a struggling business into a solid and vibrant enterprise.
By Sigrid Tornquist
“I remember the first time I walked onto the production floor and thought: ‘Oh, my.’ There was no water cooler, no refrigerator and no air conditioning,” says Andrea Lampson, executive vice president of Dorchester Awning Co. in Kingston, Mass. “I walked up to the lead stitcher and asked if they had health insurance—and they did not.” The business was struggling due to the untimely death of the previous owner, and had lost focus on both employees and customers.
That was in 2006, when Andrea and Mark moved from New Jersey to New England looking to buy and run their own business. Among their criteria: a business with an established customer base and good employees. After considering several different types of businesses, they purchased Dorchester Awning, which now makes commercial and residential awnings and canopies and related products. At the time, providing health insurance was not mandatory, and Andrea set out to find a way to provide it for their employees—along with long- and short-term disability, life insurance, a 401K program, bonuses, and improved working conditions.
Work culture cues
“A very significant factor when we purchased the company were three key employees,” Andrea says “We relied on, and continue to rely on, Joe White, head of installation; Ray Spink, head of fabric manufacturing; and Charles Dion, who runs the warehouse and schedules all field work and generally coordinates just about everything.”
“Those employees had multiple years of experience, and they are one of the main reasons we decided to acquire this company as opposed to others,” Mark adds. “They were—and continue to be—pivotal to the company’s success.”
Since then, the company has added several employees to its staff, some from local awning companies that went out of business. “We have a really great team of people now who work very hard, and we have staff with overlaps in expertise, which takes the pressure off if someone is on vacation or happens to be ill,” Mark says.
Andrea and Mark spend time strategizing how to make everyone at the company successful and productive, and to feel valued. “One of the biggest challenges for any small business is HR-related—keeping people happy and productive, and that means more than just their pay and the occasional bonus. It’s about being a team and helping each other and, in turn, ourselves,” Mark says.
The couple points out that it’s important that some of the benefits be based more as rewards than as part of the broad benefit package. “We give yearly bonuses based on how well the business does, but also during the year when we can see that employees are working really hard, we give additional bonuses,” Andrea says. “As an example, when we moved to a new building this spring—on top of our normal spring rush—everyone worked seven days a week for many weeks. You can bet we gave bonuses after that.”
Andrea and Mark also stock the refrigerator with beverages, often buy breakfast and occasionally lunch for employees, and try to highlight, praise and reward for jobs well done. They credit the employees for making the company what it is. “It is the teamwork across all areas of expertise that make for the successes,” Andrea says. “We can’t thank them enough.”
“The other side of the coin, in terms of our company’s strengths, is paying attention to the customers’ needs,” Mark says. “Andrea is phenomenal with the customers, making sure they’re satisfied and that we deliver quality.”
As with most small businesses, there’s a certain amount of cross-over with responsibilities, but for the most part Andrea leads the “people-focused” side of sales and customer service, and Mark works in operations and the technical side of projects. “Sales is my forte,” Andrea says. “I won’t stop until I’m told no—and until I’m told no, I operate as if I’ve been told yes.” She also spends time during the down season cold calling. And the day after an installation, she calls the client to be sure they’re satisfied and to express appreciation. On the rare occasion that a customer is unhappy with the installation, Andrea works with them until they’re satisfied.
The ratio of commercial to residential products has shifted since Andrea and Mark purchased the company. They have discontinued tent rental, and increased the company’s revenue and staff—but the growth and changes happened gradually and carefully. “When you’re trying to grow a business, you’ve got to be careful not to grow too fast,” Mark says. “If you’re going to add another person and make that commitment to them for a year, you’d better be able to have the business that can support them for that year.”
When residential awning sales dipped during the recession, Andrea and Mark decided to focus on increasing commercial sales. The company has multiple divisions, one of which is commercial awnings for resorts, country clubs and restaurants. “We have some phenomenal commercial clients, and some of them, such as the resorts and restaurants on Cape Cod, run a very seasonal business. They need awnings but they have a real cash flow problem right when they should be purchasing,” Andrea says. “So we had this great idea—let’s offer financing terms to them to match their cash flow.”
“Most people who need commercial awnings in the area have a cash flow problem in the winter,” Mark says. “They make most of their income in the summer, so we suggest that they might put a big patio covering that will extend their season in the spring and fall. They put a little good-faith money up front, we build it, and we arrange a payment plan that works for them. It’s just one example of how we can keep our people working on something useful during our off season.”
Two years ago, Dorchester Awning also began pursuing national and/or wholesale accounts in an effort to broaden their client base. Andrea and Mark began by contacting chains that operated in strip malls, first concentrating on those in New England and Massachusetts. Among the results of that effort was one account for which they’ve shipped hundreds of awnings to all 50 states and Puerto Rico. “It takes a long time to cultivate those relationships, because you might do 10 or 12 prototypes and only one of them ends up getting to the stores,” Mark says. “It was another strategy that helped us get through the economic slump.”
At times the work finds them—and challenges them—as was the case when a large industrial manufacturer contacted them to make hermetically sealed bags for transporting nuclear reactor parts. “They found us on the website,” Andrea says. “I took that call and gave it to Mark and when he got off the phone he said: ‘How are we going to build this?’ And I said: ‘You know what? We just are.’” So they sat down with some of the team … and figured it out.