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Know thyself. And in the small business world, know thy business. As Rich Hagins, CEO of Upstate firm US&S, Inc., has realized, that's the basis for business success.
A retired Navy commander, Rich started his business in 2003 as Universal Supplies and Services with an initial $25,000 investment and two unpaid employees based out of a two-room Greenville office. Its initial focus was on janitorial and various other services, like security and maintenance.
Two years later, in May 2005, the business was accepted into the SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program, designed to help small disadvantaged businesses better compete for procurement opportunities in the federal government arena.
Over the next few years, the business grew by diversifying into additional industries and adding qualified and experienced employees to the team. By 2008, with 15 employees, the company’s capabilities had grown from its janitorial roots to include services like minor construction, landscaping and environmental remediation. At the time, such a broad range of capabilities helped the company maximize its market share and therefore maximize its work opportunities.
“US&S, like any small business, started out being all things to all people,” Rich explains. “That’s what kept the lights on.”
Rich wanted to ensure the company’s leadership would be strong enough to support its continued growth. What that meant, he realized, was that as leader of the company, he needed a partnera co-leader whose strengths would complement his own. Rich found that partner in his cousin, Cleveland Christophe. Cleve’s four decades of business experience included leading a multi-million dollar small business investment company that invested in minority-owned companies. In January 2009, Cleve joined the company as president and chief financial officer. His financial and administrative abilities were the perfect match to Rich’s own operations management skills and entrepreneurial spirit.
Together, Cleve and Rich looked at how they could improve the business. To do this, they realized, they needed to listen to the business itself.
“Your business will tell you what direction it needs to go in,” Rich says. “You figure out what the business is doing best.”
In this case, what the business was doing best was providing contract management services that aligned neatly into two units: construction and facilities support services. All other fields, they decided, were simply extraneous.
To reflect the company’s more streamlined focus, Universal Supplies and Services took on a more streamlined name, becoming US&S in 2009 with a redesigned logo and renewed mission. Its two business lines became US&S Construction, which included pre-construction, general construction, management and renovation services, and US&S Facilities Support Services, including services ranging from staffing and security to janitorial and general maintenance.
To support and enhance each of the business unit’s capabilities, US&S sought partnerships with successful companies in related industries through the SBA’s Mentor-Protégé Program, which facilitates private-sector mentoring relationships for 8(a) firms. In the summer of 2010, US&S teamed up with McCrory Construction Company, a successful large business based in Columbia, SC. McCrory matched US&S staff with its own experts in pre-construction and construction processes, finance, and risk management. US&S is completing a $10.5 million Army Corps of Engineers project in Charleston, SC, through the teaming relationship with McCrory. Just over a year later, US&S teamed up with E2 Consulting Engineers--a relationship focused on facilities support, staffing and operations and maintenance services. Teamed together, US&S and E2 won a basic ordering agreement contract supporting Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, a large Department of Energy contractor. US&S later established legal joint venture entities with both mentor companies. Recently, the US&S and E2 joint venture won a major contract supporting Savannah River Remediation, another large Department of Energy contractor.
Although Cleve retired in 2013, he left a major legacy. "Cleve significantly contributed to monumental changes and improvements to the company overall," says Euleta Alston, manager of business development at US&S.
Today, US&S has over 70 employees and multiple facilities around the Southeast. Its client list features big-name companies like Lockheed Martin and federal entities like the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) and the Army Corps of Engineers, and its revenues are in the multi-millions.
In 2011, Lockheed Martin recognized US&S with an Outstanding Small Business award. And in 2012, the SBA South Carolina District Office selected Rich to be the state’s nominee for the 2012 Minority Small Business Person of the Year award.
In 2007, the housing market imploded. The real estate industry went into a tailspin. And Radha Herring – the 2012 South Carolina Small Business Person of the Year – started Watermark Real Estate Group in Myrtle Beach.
Radha had wanted to be an entrepreneur ever since she was a child growing up in Myrtle Beach. “I always wanted to have a successful business,” she says. “I think the concept of building something from scratch is exciting.”
And Radha had wanted to run a real estate company ever since she bought her first house in 1999. “Real estate is the only investment you can enjoy with your family while waiting for it to appreciate,” she explains.
After a ten-year corporate career in telecommunications, Radha was ready to make her small business goal a reality in her hometown of Myrtle Beach, part of South Carolina’s famous Grand Strand. One of the first steps she took was reaching out to SCORE. SCORE–an SBA resource partner that provides free, confidential business counseling–connected her to a counselor in Greenville who was a retired real estate broker. Radha’s SCORE counselor advised her on agent commission rates and told her to keep her overhead very low. He also reminded her not to sell herself short when she was growing her business.
“It’s always nice to have someone coach you,” Radha says.
Radha planned her business to be totally web-based with no physical office. Its virtual structure would not only keep overhead costs low, but would also give the business the flexibility to help clients from across the country buy residential and vacation properties throughout the 60-mile Grand Strand.
When Radha opened Watermark Real Estate Group, the housing bubble had just burst and the real estate industry was struggling. Undeterred, she decided to approach the industry’s struggles as business opportunities.
“Once the bubble burst, the writing was on the wall. Foreclosures and distressed sales were going to be a big part of the market,” she says.
Many realtors tried to avoid any involvement with distress properties, like foreclosures. But where they saw only the stigma, Radha saw a unique opportunity for people to buy coastal properties at much lower prices. Watermark quickly began offering potential buyers free access to lists of bank-owned properties. The company’s marketing message centered on the new affordability of vacation properties and second homes in the area.
“I do what all other realtors could do,” Radha says. “I just market it differently.”
Radha and the Watermark agents also worked on strengthening relationships with area lenders in order to match clients with the banks best equipped to handle their mortgages.
Radha’s optimistic approach to the housing crisis obstacles paid off. In 2009, Watermark’s sales were 15 times higher than the previous year, and sales have continued to grow every year since. Watermark has also grown from two agents in 2008 to nine agents today.
“I think people think I’m making it up when they ask, ‘How’s the market?’ and I tell them it’s great,” Radha says. “But I really do think it’s great.”
Another secret to Watermark’s success has been its focus on customer service.
Discussing what sets her business apart, Radha says, “It’s good old fashioned business 101. We answer the phone when it rings. If we’re in the office, our goal is to answer a question within an hour. When we’re out, it’s four hours.”
“Lots of times, callers say Watermark is the first agency to answer the phone.”
And Watermark agents are always reachable during evenings and weekends to better serve clients who work during the day.
Radha and her company have shared their success by getting involved in the community. Watermark is a member of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, where Radha serves on the Legislative Policy Council. A Clemson University graduate, she also serves on the Clemson Extension advisory board and is a member of the university’s Alumni National Council. In addition, Radha is active in her local Association of Realtors, where she serves on the board of directors and as vice-chair of the Real Estate Leadership Program.
In 2012, SBA named Radha the South Carolina Small Business Person of the Year based on her growth in sales, financial performance, response to adversity and community involvement.
Last October, Rhonda Jordan’s husband asked her what she wanted to do with her life. “Run a fabric store,” she answered. “Write a business plan,” he told her. So she did.
In March 2012, Rhonda’s plan became a reality when she opened Tabby Fabric and Studio in downtown Beaufort.
Fast forward to the summer, and bolts of fabrics line the shop’s left wall and sit in stacks on a cutting table. In an adjoining room that serves as the studio, a large table sits across from a row of sewing machines. Just months after starting, the business is already breaking even.
Rhonda credits three factors with Tabby Fabric’s successful start: the business plan, SBA financing and her own ingenuity.
Five years ago, instead of returning to her nursing career, Rhonda decided to enroll in the Savannah College of Art and Design. She had intended to study painting but soon found herself drawn to textiles instead and changed her focus to fabric design.
“I’m not really a plan kind of person,” Rhonda admits.
But when it came to starting and running a business, she knew the plan was essential.
When creating the plan, Rhonda considered how the fabric industry had been changing over the past decade. Quilting fabric had undergone a renaissance – a “soft revolution” in industry-speak. The 21st century designs and new materials were attracting both younger generations of quilters and, despite the historical barrier between quilting and garment fabrics, clothing makers.
With this knowledge, Rhonda wondered why quilting shops weren’t marketing to garment makers or even carrying modern fabrics.
“I looked at what other places were doing wrong instead of what they were doing right,” she says.
Rhonda also knew she wanted to get the community involved in her business. Sewing had become more and more popular over the past decade, and Rhonda wanted to give local sewists a place to not only buy fabric, but also to work on their creations and meet like-minded people. And, she wanted to teach more people how to sew.
“Sewing is very social and that’s the idea behind the sewing room,” Rhonda explains. “I had this, ‘If you build it, they will come’ philosophy.”
Through Rhonda’s plan, her business vision took shape: a shop serving the fabric, space and educational needs of both quilters and garment makers of all generations and all skill levels.
Rhonda’s husband, who had recently gotten his MBA, also got involved, helping out with the business’s financial projections.
When she finished her business plan draft, Rhonda made an appointment with Martin Goodman, area manager of the Beaufort Area Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to see if she was on the right track. The SBDC is part of the SBA’s team of resource partners, which provide free and confidential small business counseling. Martin reviewed the plan and was impressed.
Now that she had a strong business plan, Rhonda’s next step was securing the financing she needed to make the plan a reality.
Martin worked with Rhonda on the presentation aspect of the business plan, helping her streamline her own plan to successfully submit to lenders.
“I don’t know if I would have actually put my plan into a banker’s hands if it weren’t for Martin,” Rhonda says.
Despite the strong business plan and her own strong credit, Rhonda was turned down by three banks. To borrow cash, you have to have cash, the lenders told her. But with two young sons, Rhonda didn’t have thousands of dollars of her own to invest in the business.
Once again, she turned to the SBDC. Martin recommended that she apply for an SBA-backed loan from Borrego Springs Bank, a participant in SBA’s Preferred Lender Program. Rhonda was hesitant—Borrego Springs Bank was an out-of-state bank and she would have to submit an online application. But she took Martin’s advice and applied.
“The process was tedious and a little scary, but all in all it was a good process,” she says.
The process paid off – literally. On February 15, 2012, Borrego Springs approved Rhonda for the business loan.
Rhonda secured a location in downtown Beaufort, where her shop would share the block with two businesses in similarly creative industries: a knitting and yarn store and an art supply store. Not only would her shop appeal to existing customers of the two other businesses, but its downtown location would also appeal to tourists.
Rhonda budgeted the loan proceeds “down to the dollar,” she says.
To save money, Rhonda and her husband took on any task they felt they could do themselves. They did all their own painting and even performed some of their own construction. With her artistic flair, Rhonda was also able to design her business’s website, spending only a few hundred dollars for coding assistance instead of a few thousand to hire a web designer.
Today, Tabby Fabric and Studio counts clients from throughout the community and even from as far away as Atlanta and Kansas City. Customers come to shop, to sew, to chat and to learn.
“You can do this when the economy is the way it is,” Rhonda says. “This is a niche store in a small town, and we’re keeping our head above water. If you have a plan and keep a budget, anything’s possible.”