With 2014 in the rear view mirror, most Universal Unilink Members are thinking about the future—as well they should. But it may be helpful to take a moment and reflect on successes and disappointments to get a better idea of the direction to steer business efforts in the coming year.

In December we asked Members to comment on how their businesses did in 2014 and their thoughts about the future. We also followed up with a few of the members with additional questions to gain some clarity behind the numbers.

It was a Good Year2014 results

One trend that we were delighted to see was that most of our members had a good year. Almost two thirds of survey respondents indicated that they were up by single or double digits from the previous year.

Reasons given for the growth fit into these categories:

  • Better Economy
  • New Markets
  • Customer Service
  • Referrals

Many taking the survey left comments indicating improved economic conditions had a positive effect on their bottom line. National financial news sources agree that employment is growing slowly and businesses are spending more than in the recent past. These trends are expected to continue into 2015 for the national economy. However, every Member will experience a different economic forecast for the immediate area that they serve. If you are in the workwear and FR business in North Dakota, you will likely post double digit growth in 2015. But, if your immediate area is struggling economically, you will need to take extra steps to counter your local trend.

New Markets

Members frequently credited targeting new markets or expanding current product offering to better penetrate and retain an existing customer base as reasons for growth in 2014. Member Jim McNeill of J&E Uniforms successfully added promotional products to the mix of services offered and sees additional opportunity in the future. Other Members pushed up current customer revenue by adding towels, tissue, soap, etc. The jan/san and first aid categories are seen as logical add-ons for the RSRs. Other Members are considering offering restroom cleaning services in 2015.

A great piece of advice came from Terry Southern of LogoBranders, a promotional products Member who achieved substantial growth by seeking out industries that others overlook. She gave a shout out to laundry Members who may be missing opportunities by not asking for the promotional products business in their industrial accounts. As an example, she described high six figure sales to a paper manufacturer; a business that she typically would have overlooked in favor of a bank, hospital, government agency, etc. “IL Members are in industrial accounts every day, but they don’t think to ask who buys employee awards, customer gifts or promotional products.” In fact, Terry feels so strongly about the opportunity, she has offered to work with laundries who do not feel comfortable entering the promotional product market, but who would like a knowledgeable, reliable resource for these products.

Customer Service

When times are tough it’s always a good idea to treat the customers that you have with excellent customer service to keep them happy. Member Jerry Oldham of Apparel Embroidery mentioned that losing some key employees and unexpected large purchases had a negative impact on their business this year but they were able to regain some lost momentum by focusing more attentions on their customer base. Jerry spent many hours checking in with customers and traveling to see them. Jerry says that “you can’t just talk to someone on the phone to see if everything is OK. You need to see them face to face so they know you are still in business and that you still want their business.”
For more about the impact customer retention has on a business, see the article from Performance Matters.

Referrals

Exceptional customer service creates referrals—another reason Members gave for growth in 2014. Providing great service makes it easy for your clients to recommend your business to their network. This has certainly been the case for J&E Uniforms. Jim can’t recall the last time he has made a cold call as his business is built on long standing clients that continue to order year after year. Many of his clients are in the government sector and recommend J&E Uniforms to their coworkers and colleagues which keeps the J&E prospect funnel full.
Bill Muske of Mid City Services reports that referrals feed his growing base of customers for mats and towel rental. He has specifically focused on building a business to serve mom-and pop restaurant owners. They are happy with the service they receive and refer Mid City to other restaurant owners in their circles that would enjoy the same package of services and reliable service.

Turning the Flywheel

While interviewing Members about their year, we discovered a factor that was not mentioned specifically by respondents to the survey. In discussing the prior year, it was readily apparent that successful Members had each found a specific formula that worked for them and they continued to repeat the formula over and over again to great effect. Jim Collins, author of the business strategy book Good to Great, calls this the “Flywheel Effect.” When companies find a product, service or niche that works, it’s like starting to turn a giant flywheel. Progress may seem slow at first but as the flywheel speeds up, inertia takes over and it takes less energy to keep the momentum going.

Member Bill Muske has been turning the flywheel of his business for many years now and is reaping the rewards. Previous articles have described Bill’s continued use of Google AdWords to generate inexpensive leads, a large number of which become long term customers. By continually working the system, Bill has seen double digit growth for the last several years.

Member Jim McNeill’s flywheel is his large group of customers that buy from him on a regular basis and his knowledge of the government bid system that his customers are required to use. Eric Anderson of Apparelmaster Blue Ribbon Linen and Mat credits his continued success to a focus on expenses and maintaining great service.

Although each has a unique business model, they all have found success by continuing to turn “the flywheel” that works for them. As the momentum increases, less effort is required to keep it moving forward.

It may come as no surprise that those reporting good years in the survey are also past conference attendees. While meeting with other members once a year is not a guarantee of success, it does indicate that those that are willing to explore new methods and best practices are likely to have the resourcefulness to make corrections in their own businesses.

A Tough Road

While it’s good to look at the habits of the successful in our survey, it may also be instructive to see what didn’t go well for Members in 2014. Respondents reporting flat or negative growth attributed it to these factors:

  • Slow local economy
  • Loss of key employees
  • Changes in customer buying habits

These diverse reasons for poor performance have one common attribute—they were all unexpected. How can Members guard against the unknown? Jerry Oldman says that his company, Apparel Embroidery, has only had three down years in its 24 year history and, in each case, a track record of success led to complacency. His renewed focus and the effort of the entire team to generate new business turned the tide resulting in just a dip in growth for 2014 and a great start for 2015.

member outlook for 2015Flexibility is the key to bouncing back or avoiding a downturn altogether and many of the habits for growth can also be remedies against the unexpected. Bill Muske relates that despite many years of experience in the rental laundry business, the early years of his ownership of Mid City Services were marked by one setback after another. He relates that it took a great deal of trial and effort to find what worked and what didn’t. Now that the business is on a steady growth track, he is kept busy with all the problems that growth brings: hiring more staff and keeping up with equipment and facilities.

The Future Looks Bright

No matter what 2014 brought their way, the vast majority of Members indicate that they are looking forward to a great year in 2015. That was true for the Members who participated in follow up interviews as well. Applying the lessons learned from setbacks as well as continuing the best practices that have always provided good results is a great start to a prosperous year. Our Members indicate that keeping an eye on all aspects of the business while testing new markets and products are key to success in 2015. Whatever the strategy, we wish all Members a prosperous year and remain committed to supplying each Member with resources and tools for their continued success.