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Entrepreneur in action

Features, Management, Perspective | September 1, 2014 | By:

Steve Frost advances his company by standardizing processes—and being willing to change.

We try to develop best practices and focus on repeating them, which includes making lists and standardizing problems,” says Steve Frost, president of Stamford Tent & Event Services, Stamford, Conn. “But you can write all the forms you want—they’re not going to cover every problem, because every job is different.”

When Frost took the helm of the family tent and event rental business in 1972, he was 19 years old. His father had died and his mother was trying to sell the company. “I told her: ‘Before you close the doors, let me give it a shot,’” he says. “Up until that time I’d worked on installation crews. I was the guy who showed up in the morning and the manager would tell me what to do and I would do it. There was a big learning curve in the beginning—but it turns out I really enjoy being an entrepreneur.” At the time he took over, the company had five employees and two used trucks. Today it has two locations, between 160 and 180 employees during peak season, and more than 50 vehicles.

Problems solved

The problem-solving aspect of the business is one of the things Frost excels at, from designing projects for challenging installation sites to preparing solutions in advance for issues that might arise during an event. Sometimes design solutions come from surprising places. When Frost was asked to provide tenting for a fundraiser at a private yacht club in Greenwich, Conn., he initially said no—the project was to fit an 80-by-70-foot tent into what was essentially an 80-by-50-foot space on a seawall. “I told the client there’s no way to do what you want us to do,” Frost says. “But he persisted, saying money was no object, so we decided to try to find a way.”

Frost’s inspiration for the solution came from a yacht moored just beyond the installation site. “I was standing at the yacht club trying to figure it out,” Stamford says. “I looked out at one of the yacht’s masts with the outriggers coming off of it and thought—‘What if we did that? What if we cantilevered the tent over the seawall?’” (For more on this project, see “Making the impossible possible.”)

For advance solutions to problems that might occur during an event, Frost has trained his staff to think in terms of possible scenarios. He has also developed forms to address those possibilities, which the sales staff fill out with the clients. “One of the things we’ve trained our team to do is go through the what-ifs: What if it rains? What if the power goes out? What if there are strong winds?” he says. “Clients all have sunny day dreams. It’s our job to help them think about those things—and prepare solutions.”

Unite and conquer

Because Stamford has grown to have more than 160 employees, Frost’s primary focus regarding employee management is on the senior and departmental managers and sales team. He finds that the most successful way to manage sales and senior staff is to gain consensus. “You can’t dictate changes because if you just tell someone what to do and they don’t agree with you, they’re bound to fight you on it,” Frost says. “We let everybody have input so they’re more likely to buy into the process. Even if the solution the group comes up with wasn’t what one of us proposed, if everyone feels they’re part of the process they’re much more likely to buy in and work hard at making the solution successful.”

One such decision the company’s leadership made was to sell the party rental portion of the business, which included renting tables, chairs, glasses and dishes and focus on the core business, which includes renting tents, flooring and climate control. “I think at some point, companies reach a level where the best move is to specialize,” he says. “Though it was contrary to where the industry seemed to be going—to be a one-stop shop—about five years ago we decided to focus on our core business. That’s the direction we took and continue to take.”

From a business perspective, the management team agreed that specializing was the right course to take. From a personal perspective, the decision for Frost was more difficult—the party rental portion of the company was the part that his mother had been the most involved with. Frost and the management team spent a couple of years discussing whether or not they should make that transition. The turning point in finalizing the decision came one day after Frost spent about 15 minutes on the phone booking a $15,000 to $20,000 job. He finished the transaction, hung up and walked out to the showroom to spend 90 minutes helping another client select china patterns for a $150 order. “I thought, ‘hmmm, I can make $15,000 in 15 minutes or spend an hour and a half for $150,’” he says. “I think the decision’s made.”

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