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Seven steps to take your fabrics business to the next level

Features | March 1, 2020 | By:

by Sigrid Tornquist

Building a business takes more than a good idea and an interested customer base. It takes planning, investment, a skilled workforce—and a healthy dose of industry knowledge. Got a plan? 

Rick Ludolph, founder and president of boutique specialty fabrics consulting firm Productive Solutions LLC in Marietta, Ga., has spent more than 40 years in the industry—and has worked across the supply chain to develop a comprehensive understanding of which things specialty fabrics businesses need to consider to grow and prosper. “In 2019, we had a strong economy overall, certainly in comparison to previous years, and that’s given people opportunities for growth,” he says. “But seizing those opportunities isn’t easy. In fact, it’s become more difficult. There’s nothing anymore that’s not highly competitive, and the segments we work in are full of challenges and disruption.”

Challenging as it may be, Ludolph says the time is ripe for growth—for those willing to take the following steps.

Write a growth plan

French journalist Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Most business owners wish their businesses would grow; but it’s the ones who make a plan and follow it up with time and money who have a better shot of making that wish come true. 

“The development of a fact-based plan is the first step in the journey,” says Edward J. Silva, vice president of business development, E Squared Technical Textiles, Hillside, N.J. “But you need to make sure you’re not basing your decision on false information—it’s a death sentence if you do.”

To avoid basing your decisions on false information, Ludolph advises putting the plan in writing—and then asking probing questions to narrow goals, determine if they’re feasible and identify what will need to happen to achieve those goals. “People are so challenged for time these days that they don’t always take the time to draft a thorough plan. But if you haven’t really thought it through, it’s an area where you can run off in a lot of different directions,” he adds. 

Silva suggests including people in the planning process who will challenge the process, the data and the thinking. “If your strategy meetings are short and quiet, then you have the wrong people in the room,” he says.

Budget time and money

A successful growth strategy requires a budget, and that budget should include time as well as money. “Money is always a challenge, but time is perhaps even more important, because it takes time to sit down, develop a strategy and poke holes in it,” Ludolph says. “And then it takes time to execute.”

Silva points out that it takes more than one planning session to develop a viable plan for growth. “Too many companies have one meeting a year to create a plan, but then put it on the shelf and wait a year to see how they did. Your plan is a dynamic, living, breathing part of your business,” he says. “The commitment to your strategy needs to be something you eat, breathe and sleep every day. It also needs to be communicated to your entire organization to be sure they understand it and have the tools required to implement the strategy.”

Embrace technology

Including technology in a business that manufactures specialty fabrics products means different things to different people. Often when people think about technology, they think about investing in digital printing, computerized cutting and design, or inventory tracking software. While those can be an important part of embracing technology, they’re not the only things to consider. “Those are really silos of operation,” Ludolph says. “We help companies digitally transform their operations—to provide supply chain transparency—which has become essential.

“Customers expect that all components of the supply chain should be visible,” Ludolph continues. “In other words, they want to be able to track where their order is; and if the company is going to be able to deliver as expected, or if there are any hiccups in the supply chain.” 

Foster innovation and expertise

Whether a company is expanding its core products or developing new products for new markets, it’s important to have the expertise to back up what you’re trying to do, Ludolph advises. “If you’ve exhausted all the possibilities, you really have to be able to commit to acquiring that expertise,” he says. “And then don’t forget you’re going to have significant marketing requirements to try to go into areas where nobody knows you. That’s why it’s more expensive to go outside of your comfort zone.”

For South Haven, Minn.-based Legacy Building Solutions Inc., product innovation is at the root of its core values. The company’s patented attachment system for integrating fabric cladding with a steel frame is a natural starting point for continued product development. “Innovation is what got us started; innovation is what has promoted our continual growth to this point; and it will continue to be the case going forward,” says Ellie Fox, COO, Legacy Building Solutions.

Steven F. Perry, senior vice president, Darlington Fabrics (a division of the Moore Co.), Westerly, R.I., says it’s often the company’s customers who challenge them with ideas for growth. “Generally speaking, the days of doing a lot of R&D without significant input from our customers are gone,” he says. “Now our approach is more often joint development, where you’re working closely with customers to achieve very specific attributes in a particular substrate.”

Fox agrees. “We have been able to provide our clients options that most competitors are not able to offer,” she says. “This has allowed our customers to ‘think outside the box’ and create a solution that is customized to their needs.”

Not only is it wise to stay close to your customers as a source for growth, Perry says, it’s a good idea to stay close to your supply chain as well. “Sometimes it might seem like that investment isn’t necessarily money well spent, but at Darlington we find the value in staying close to our supply chain,” he says. “Of course, suppliers visit us, but we also find it beneficial to make visits to suppliers to seek their input, to probe them. Don’t wait for your supplier to tell you what’s new. Ask them what new things they’ve got in their pipeline and what you should be looking at.”

Prioritize marketing

Much like real estate’s mantra is “Location. Location. Location,” perhaps manufacturers’ mantra should be “Marketing. Marketing. Marketing.” “You always have to be marketing,” Ludolph emphasizes. “This is the opportunity for fabricators to create brands to differentiate themselves.”

Jason Gardner, vice president of global marketing and advertising for SeaDek® Marine Products in Rockledge, Fla., knows firsthand the power of good marketing for growth. When SeaDek’s OEM (original equipment manufacturer) orders for boat decking tanked during the recession of 2008, the company expanded its products to serve the aftermarket—and focused hard on marketing. “We worked for free for the better part of a year, but during that time, we changed our marketing message, and instead of cutting our marketing budget, we doubled it,” Gardner says. “We’ve been in double-digit growth every year for eight years now.”

Stay the course

Business growth is a long game—and keeping everyone on track can be a big challenge. “On the management side, a lot of times staying on track is a matter of focus, and we suggest that companies employ some outside help, to have that extra set of eyes on how they’re proceeding,” Ludolph says. “But for those who can’t employ outside help, they really have to dedicate themselves to setting aside time on a regular basis. We recommend setting a once-a-month management meeting to focus on growth goals—and not be derailed by talking about unrelated things that might have happened that afternoon.”

Meetings should be used to review what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to be changed to achieve growth goals—in the short term and long term. “Learn from your mistakes,” Silva says. “Become a great listener, internally and externally. Ask questions until exhaustion. Do your research and avoid group think at all costs.”

Increase the workforce

When growth does occur, it requires more skilled staff to meet the increased demand—and everyone in the industry knows that hiring and retaining a skilled workforce is the challenge of the day. “The shortage of a skilled workforce is hurting a lot of companies,” Ludolph says. “You have to do a lot of training. Let’s face it. It’s currently unlikely that you will find someone with experience in the job you want them for.”

To find trained or untrained employees, “you have to pull out all the stops,” Ludolph says. “Leverage anything you can. First of all, make your company an interesting place to work. That’s very important. Young people want an environment where they see themselves as a part of the team that produces something of value. 

“And develop partnerships, if you can find them in your local area,” he continues. “Not enough people have executed on that yet, but there are some good training programs out there.”

SeaDek works with some of the colleges in central Florida, as well as with the Melbourne High School Academy of Business and Finance in Melbourne, Fla., to help tailor and create the company’s CAD programs—and to create future employees for SeaDek. “That’s a big strategy for us—to create a work force and attract people to the company,” Gardner says.  

The bottom line: planning and executing business growth is simply a part of running a business. “Regardless of the size of your business, you need a strategy for growth,” Silva says. “If you are a for-profit business, if you are not growing, you are shrinking. There is no such thing as holding your ground.

“Isn’t that capitalism?” 

Sigrid Tornquist is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, and a frequent contributor to the Review.

SIDEBAR: Trade shows as a growth tool

Trade shows are one way to drive innovation and stay connected to the supply chain. “There’s nothing like a trade show from a perspective of pressing the flesh,” says Rick Ludolph, president of consulting firm Productive Solutions LLC. “How many other places can you go and see as many people in one day?”

Steven Perry, senior vice president of Darlington Fabrics, advises walking show floors with clients to see what interests them. “It’s not uncommon for us to walk a trade show with our customers, looking at new capabilities,” he says. “I would say that our customers also come educated and prepared. They want to make sure their supply chain is exploring all options.”

Ludolph agrees that making the most of trade shows requires preparation. “It’s no longer a case of just setting up your tent and people will come to see you,” Ludolph says. “That model doesn’t work. The model today is marketing up front to attract people into your booth. What you did before the show even starts is probably the most valuable thing you’re going to do. 

“You have to be on the visitors’ agenda.” 

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