No easy businesses

Nov 10, 2008

There are no easy businesses in this economy. And if you think there are— still— watch out. You’ll probably learn soon that I am right about this one. Everyone— no matter what they do— has to struggle a little (or a lot) to make a buck today. Yet, that said, when I look around our little town of Fayetteville, Arkansas (well— not that little), I see businesses that somehow manage to survive and prosper. I think they all provide lessons to our readers in the A/E/P and environmental business— lessons in differentiation, responsiveness, and personal service— among others. Here are just a few of our local “stars” and what I see them doing that is making them succeed today: Baba Boudan’s Coffee Shop. This is a tiny little place that is located 100 feet from my living room. Owned by long-time locals, Stan and Jennifer, they are only open Monday through Friday and never on the weekends (who can get away with that?). What they do best is serve a really, really good cup of coffee. They roast and grind all their own beans on-site. They also, along with their sole employee, Brad (a local rocker) provide incredibly personal service. They know their customers and have an account system where you pay them money in advance or go in the hole for your daily fix, all recorded on three-by-five notecards. The eclectic mix of customers could easily provide all the characters one would need for a really good sitcom. Signature Bank of Arkansas. Founded and still led by Gary Head, former CEO of Arvest Bank, these people simply run the best bank anywhere. It is the fastest-growing bank in Arkansas and one of the fastest-growing in the country, quite an achievement in what has to be one of the most crowded bank markets anywhere (it seems like every other new building going up is a bank!). They do it with incredibly friendly service. From the moment you walk in, someone greets you by name, offers you a drink, and tries to help you. They are ALL helpful people— not just some— from the tellers to the secretaries to the lending officers. Employees wear jeans and hand out free Dum-Dum suckers. They know who they are lending to and have one of the lowest bad debt rates anywhere. And the bankers make themselves available to you 24 hours a day by carrying PDAs and using them— novel idea, huh? Lewis Ford. Matt Lewis is the general manager of a Ford dealership started by his father. While the car business stinks— as everyone knows— Lewis Ford is chugging along by not only offering fabulous customer service (their phones are answered by someone who says, “It’s a great day at Lewis Ford.”), they are also one of the leading high-performance Ford dealers in the country. They sell more Roush Mustangs, Shelby Mustangs, Ford GTs, and other hot Fords than just about anyone. That has allowed them to have a booming Internet business that transcends our local economy, something few car dealers can claim anywhere. When I bought a new Ford F-150 from Matt and it was five days late coming in on the truck, he wrote me a check for $350 for my inconvenience. That’s nice. Carlton Realty. Dale Carlton is my realtor and also my real estate attorney. He struck out on his own from the largest real estate agency in our town a couple years back and landed in the middle of a historic downturn. Undaunted by his vast personal overhead of rental and resale properties, Dale went to work, using a skill he learned in college and the equipment of his wife (a professional photographer) and differentiated himself from other local realtors through really good photography (you can check out a couple of my houses he’s shot at and He is also supplementing his commission income by teaching realty courses throughout the U.S.— but stays in touch continuously through very active use of his PDA! Tim Cooper, architect (and developer). Tim’s a neat guy who is very low-key and operates under the radar as a developer. What he has managed to do so well is have the right product in the right place at the right time. His Lakewood development is a neo-urbanesque row house project that is continuing to sell in a market where little else can. He is doing it all— design, development, construction— and doing it very well. Noodles Italian Kitchen. This is a high-volume Italian concept restaurant that competes directly with Olive Garden and will celebrate its 10th anniversary this year. My pal, Kirby Walker, is the founder and primary owner. What he has done well is combine the best aspects of a chain restaurant with the best aspects of an independent. Kirby studied every chain Italian restaurant to copy the best recipes and tactics of each. They greet you at the door, write their names on the paper tablecloths, serve homemade bread with special olive oil, have an open kitchen, and move like lightning to get anything you want. They never argue with a request but instead just try to grant it! Their managers schedule their own shifts and are all paid incentive pay— each night— based on volume— so they don’t have to take pay cuts from being servers. Walker Brothers Outfitters. John Cole is another guy who is kind of like me. He teaches marketing at the Sam M. Walton College of Business (he’s been doing it 21 years!) but also runs his own business, Walker Brothers Outfitters, a high-end men’s clothing store located in an off-the-path office/retail area that you’d never be able to find if you weren’t looking for it. What they do well is they have the best stuff, all hand-picked by John— who happens to have great taste. It’s classy without being stodgy. I cannot go in there without running into one or more of my past/present students who is buying an expensive pair of jeans or sweater or interviewing suit. John’s prices are high— but the selection and service makes his store unique and worth it. And John knows how to sell— he gave me a new pair of shoes to try on with the suit he was modifying for me and they were so comfortable I bought them. I really like hanging out with John and would more often if not for the fact I don’t want to go broke buying his clothes! Nope— no easy businesses. But that does not excuse failure! Failure is not an option. Work harder, be smarter, and you can still be successful today. Originally published 11/10/2008

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.