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"Listening" to His Business Key to Success for CEO of Award-Winning S.C. Business
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.