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The structure of success

Feature, Management, Perspective | May 1, 2014 | By:

Jeremy Calhoun builds strong dealer networks to support customer service.

Our strength is in our structure,” says Jeremy Calhoun, president of Calhoun Super Structure Ltd., Tara, Ont., Canada. “And that structure includes our diligent pursuit of excellence in product design, manufacture and supply—and also our ability to build long-term, long-standing relationships with our customers and dealers to ensure that there is a local presence to service our products. Probably the most critical factor in our success is our dealer network approach.”

A strong foundation

Calhoun learned the business from the ground up. After graduating from university and working in risk management in the insurance industry, he returned home to work for his father’s company Calhoun Agri Services Ltd. in Chesley, Ontario. The company sold 30-by-70-foot fabric-covered steel structures for agricultural storage, and Calhoun’s assignment was to work on the foundation crew. “My dad said, ‘You’re not going to be able to manage this company unless you start from the ground up,’” Calhoun says. “I didn’t even get to run the crew—I was an employee.”

From foundation crew, Calhoun transitioned to building crew, then sales and project management, and finally company management, a process that took several years. “That was the only way for me to understand all the aspects of the business,” he says. “Because of my hands-on experience with the structures and where the problems occurred, I was able to trouble-shoot those issues quickly once I got into management.”

In 2000, shortly after taking on management responsibilities, Calhoun and his brother Sean launched their own company, Calhoun Super Structure, designing and manufacturing 32-, 42-, 52- and 62-foot wide storage structures for agricultural products. The semi-cylindrical structures are reminiscent of Quonset huts, often used to store agricultural products such as hay, straw and cattle, except that Calhoun’s roofs are fabric instead of steel. As the company grew, it expanded its product line to include larger structures for commercial applications such as grain, fertilizer and road salt. “But some of the commercial clients didn’t like the hoop structure; they were used to conventional steel-framed buildings,” Calhoun says. “So we designed a larger-span structure with a fabric top that looks very much like a conventional steel frame, which can be used for things like large-scale riding arenas, hockey arenas and soccer facilities.” The company uses a three-tier review for its structures to ensure quality: Structures are reviewed by the designer, an independent engineering firm and the final stamping engineer.

Team building

Adding structures to its product line was the result of being closely connected to customers and listening to what they said they needed and wanted, Calhoun says. That approach of building long-term relationships is also how he builds and maintains the company’s dealer network. “I spend a lot of time researching people, to find who can help me develop the business—putting together what I call the stars of my team. Sometimes it takes years,” he says. “And once they’ve become dealers I spend a lot of time developing those relationships.”

Calhoun’s strategy for maintaining a strong connection with his dealers includes weekly phone calls, quarterly on-site meetings between the dealers and dealer development managers, and annual dealer conferences. He schedules the annual dealer conferences to take place at various conference centers, most recently at the Hard Rock Resort on the Riviera Maya in Mexico. The conferences typically last two to three days, and provide presentations on new products, sales and installation strategies in the morning; and team-building activities in the afternoon. “A lot of times I find that the time spent outside of the actual meetings are when the most relationship building happens,” Calhoun says. “It lets the dealers sit together and casually discuss problems they’ve had, solutions they’ve come up with, and also talk about their personal lives.”

Official team-building activities vary, but can include volleyball games and “Olympics” building exercises. “Two years ago at the conference we did an on-site build of one of our redesigned VP structures,” Calhoun says. “It allowed everyone to take part in the installation, meet with the engineers to discuss why they made the changes they made, and to use some of the new tools. It was very, very useful, and we got great feedback on it from the dealers.”

Quality control

Throughout the year the company also collects installation reports, including digital photographs, which the company requires for its warranty registrations. “A lot of times we can see issues with the installation from the photos,” Calhoun says. “We’ll use them to give feedback to the dealer and help them correct any issues they’ve had.”

Calhoun also uses the reports to track quality incidents and analyze them for process improvement. The reports are divided into sections—installation or manufacturing—and are reviewed quarterly by Calhoun, the sourcing manager and the two dealer development managers. At the end of the year the group graphs the issues and determines how to correct them. “Prior to 2010, one of the major issues was related to outsourcing the manufacturing of our fabric covers,” Calhoun says. “We wanted to improve the fit and finish, so in 2011 we started manufacturing our own fabric covers.”

Vertically integrating the manufacturing resulted in Sean Calhoun launching Blue Mountain Covers, which produces covers not only for Calhoun Super Structure, but also for its competitors. Like Calhoun Super Structure, the brothers co-own Blue Mountain Covers; Sean is in charge of the everyday operations of Blue Mountain and Jeremy leads Calhoun Super Structure. “When we took this product out into the marketplace, we wanted to diversify so it wasn’t only producing product for Calhoun Super Structure,” he says. “We also knew we could learn a lot from working with our competitors.”

Calhoun approaches running his business much like he coaches hockey. “A good team is critical in coaching hockey. Everyone wins together and loses together,” he says. “If you have great wins, you celebrate. If you have losses, you pick each other up and get back to the next game. If you build great team members and work with them and let them do their job as an integral part of the team, you can all win together.”

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

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