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Boldly genuine

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

Bob Jacquart uses the “power of pluck” to expand his company and build a strong brand identity.

“If you’re going to really ramp up your business you have to have that world of brand strategy experts look you over,” says Bob Jacquart, CEO of Jacquart Fabric Products Inc. (JFP) in Ironwood, Mich. “You have to be open-minded enough to allow somebody to criticize your brand—what your story is, the way your stationary looks, the way your website looks—and help you tie it all together in a way that reflects who you are.”

One might ask, “Wait a minute. Doesn’t he mean your company’s brand?” Of course he does. But, for Bob Jacquart, the company brand is an extension of who he is, what his values are and what he’s trying to create for his business and his community. The commitment goes that deep, as it does for many entrepreneurs. Unlike some others in business, Jacquart has figured out that sort of branding doesn’t happen on its own. It takes work, strategy, investment and a healthy dose of self-evaluation.

Jacquart grew up in Ironwood in an entrepreneurial family where dinner conversations often included his uncle’s, father’s and grandfather’s concerns regarding their small businesses. His father ran a sewing shop in addition to being a firefighter, and his grandfather owned a grocery store. Jacquart remembers how appalled his grandfather was when one of the big brand cereal companies began putting 14 ounces of cereal in the same size box that previously held 16 ounces. “To deceive the public in your packaging practices was unthinkable to him,” Jacquart says. “I grew up hearing those kinds of stories and I was always fascinated by them.”

Good at math, Jacquart received a full-ride scholarship to Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., to study mechanical engineering. But after one year, he decided it wasn’t the right path for him and returned home. “I was doing well in school, but I just couldn’t find a vision for it,” he says. “Looking back, I realize I was filled with this entrepreneurial spirit and didn’t even know it. And at that time I don’t think school counselors knew how to nurture it either.”

Expert input

In 1972 when Jacquart took over his father’s small boat cover and canvas repair shop, his marketing strategy was simply to do a good job and let his reputation spread by word of mouth. “For the most part that was my strategy for almost the first 30 years,” he says. “But I also always made sure to have somebody around who could help pull me up to the next level. It’s important to have someone who can criticize and challenge you.”

In addition to always having a mentor, teacher or consultant in his life, Jacquart has made it a practice to ask questions of people he’s observed to be successful in some way, whether he knows them or not. “I’ll just go up to someone and ask them a question or I’ll offer to buy them lunch so I can ask them several questions,” he says. “I’ve easily done this 100 times and have never been turned down. People take it as a compliment and usually think more of me after I’ve asked than they did before—and I always learn something.”

The power of pluck

That habit of seeking out information so he can better his business also includes being open to opportunities that he may not have even considered before the opportunity crossed his path. Jacquart refers to the phenomenon as “the power of pluck,” something he credits for the acquisition his company made in 2001, and which has broadened his company’s reach and business practices to places beyond his imagination.

When a Stormy Kromer® dealer came to Jacquart out of the blue and said, “Stormy Kromer is for sale. You should do something about it,” Jacquart didn’t hesitate. He replied, “Get me the owner’s number and I’ll buy the darn company.” An hour later he had the number and negotiations began, which in a short time led to JFP owning Stormy Kromer—a company that manufactures hand-stitched caps that somehow warm the heart as well as the head. “Buying this company was a bit out of my custom cut-and-sew world, but I saw potential there that no one else saw,” he says. “The previous owner was open-minded and willing to work with me, and I had a sense that I could really make something of this on a bigger scale, and we have. We’ve taken the brand from 18 dealers to 900. That’s the power of pluck. People have lucky things going by them all the time—and some grab it on the way by and make something of it.”

Brand building

Grabbing luck on the way by is only the beginning of the process. The “making something of it” is where the real work comes in. Jacquart enlisted marketing and branding help to push the brand’s success. He admits he knew very little about how to go about marketing at the time and took advantage of the free first hour of consultation that most marketing and branding companies offer.

Jacquart offers two pieces of advice for companies who are looking to hire a marketing and branding firm. First, he looks for a company that will take your opinion into account. “We worked with companies in the past that didn’t do that, and it was hard to work that way,” he says. “Obviously they’re the experts (it’s why you hired them), but they need to remember that you’ve got the company that’s driving the efforts and you’re the one investing in it. They’re there to help you.”

The second thing Jacquart advises is to select an agency that uses your products, or at least has a strong understanding of and connection to them. The agency Jacquart currently works with—Wingnut Advertising out of Minneapolis, Minn.—is the third he and his daughter Gina Thorsen (president of Stormy Kromer) hired, and the relationship began with the CEO (John Arms) walking into the meeting wearing a worn-out Stormy Kromer shirt. (Stormy Kromer fabricates shirts, vests, jackets and a variety of other products in addition to its iconic hats.) “I don’t think he bought it the week before and washed it 100 times to make it look worn,” Jacquart says. “He was a user of our product, and that’s what you ultimately want, because working with a branding agency is almost as intimate as working with an accountant.”

Wingnut and Jacquart recently settled on the new Stormy Kromer tag line—“Made like you”—after months of market research and many conversations. “It sounds simple, but it took a lot of work to come up with just the right phrase that captures the company,” he says. “We had already created a strong brand loyalty and we wanted a tagline that reflected that.”

Viral networking

Among the many things Jacquart has learned regarding marketing has to do with the power of social media—beyond simply launching a Facebook page or tweeting a brief message. He’s learned how to actively engage with potential clients in a way that creates a relationship and deepens brand loyalty. “We’ve learned how viral social networking can go,” he says. “Part of that is that we use contests to generate interest in our products.”

Stormy Kromer often conducts a contest to give away a hat. It posts an invitation for its Facebook followers to enter. If they comment on or share the post, their name is entered in a drawing to win a Stormy Kromer hat. “We had more than 50,000 impressions in 18 hours the first time we tried it,” Jacquart says. “That’s a lot of advertising.”

From its start as a small cut-and-sew fabrication shop (something they still do), JFP has expanded exponentially, and it’s still growing. “All of this gave us confidence,” Jacquart says. “We thought if we can take Stormy Kromer from 18 dealers to 900 dealers, why can’t we do that again? We’re thinking that that’s probably what’s going to happen next. And the same could hold true for anybody that owns an awning or marine shop or whatever. You find a company you want to acquire, find a great helpful accountant that can help you understand acquisitions, and go for it.”

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