Strategies: Winning Formulas in a Slower Economy

Yes, the softer economy has affected all businesses, but some Gulf Coast firms have carved a niche in an industry in demand and have continued to grow.

Tony DiBenedetto has felt the pinch of the economy at his Tampa IT and management services firm, Tribridge.

So has Jane Mason, chief executive officer of eMason, a Clearwater software and business process automation firm.

Debra Curtiss, general manager at Peak 10 in Tampa, tells a similar story.

All three Gulf Coast business executives are among a swath of companies that have found ways to beat the slower economy and continue to grow.

According to these companies, the winning formula includes:
• Finding a strong niche in an industry in demand;
• Helping customers be more efficient;
• Using technology to reduce customers’ costs;
• Managing your own company well;
• Leading, motivating and empowering your people to tap into their brainpower;
• Delivering what you say you’ll deliver to customers.

 Size, although not a requirement, can help when a customer needs a range of products and services and quick availability. The Internet has shrunk geographical distances.

Still, at the heart of the Gulf Coast companies bucking the trend are strong, visionary, entrepreneurial CEOs that manage people well.

For example, a medical products company may seem well-positioned to grow, with the aging U.S. population and the constant need for health care products and services.

But if mismanaged, with a bloated inventory, disorganized workforce and high production cost, it could stumble and slide.

“I found the key to succeeding today in this economy is being able to manage, to address the changing times and concerns that people have and to let them know you care,” Curtiss says. “That equals leadership. If you’re managing today, it’s one thing to manage the business. But you also have to lead the people.”

The Tribridge story
Tribridge uses a lot of Microsoft products in its IT solutions for companies, but CEO Benedetto does not like that as a definition for his company.

“Are we a Microsoft shop? It’s hard to label us,” Benedetto says. “Our style has always been to help other companies improve their business. Microsoft has brand recognition, but we think of our core business as helping them become more profitable.”

Since its beginning 11 years ago in Tampa, Tribridge has grown through acquisition and the opening of a dozen new offices across the country. It now has 300 employees. But not much else has changed.

“There’s size, and maybe thinking over what we do, to see if there are better ways to do things,” DiBenedetto says.

Tribridge has seen revenues rise an average of 53% a year for the past 11 years. Part of the explanation is that Tribridge helps companies cut costs, in part by using technology to automate processes or coming up with a new
sales strategy and implementing it with the company.

CRM (customer relationship management) is even more crucial in a tighter economy. CRM business at Tribridge has jumped 100% this year.

But what about Tribridge itself? How does it compete against hundreds of competitors, large and small?

Some have cut back and shrunk their staffs, DiBenedetto says. Some Tribridge has bought. Some aren’t large enough to compete for certain customers.

“When the competition shrinks, we pick up market share,” he says. “IT spending is so large.”

Strategy shift
Tribridge’s strategy is tapping into businesses that want to cut costs and grow revenues and picking up business from its competition. Even though it is widely seen as purely a technology services company, Tribridge actually does about a quarter of its work with production and management issues to reduce costs and boost net income for companies.

“In 24 months, we’ve more than doubled our number of customers,” DiBenedetto says. “We have a reputation for having results. Our reputation has allowed us to grow.”

While most of its competitors serve customers by focusing on projects, Tribridge tries to be more holistic, focusing on the customer on an ongoing basis. For example, it created an Internet portal so its clients can share best practices. It also has a library of intellectual property information it shares with customers.

“We want to make sure the customers gets the most return they can,” DiBenedetto says.

Some of Tribridge’s clients are also growing. They are in industries such as health care, medical equipment, consumer products and oil industry vendors.

IT spending has dropped in this economy, so Tribridge has not had an easy time growing revenues. It did it by working to be better than its competition and tapping into the brainpower of its staff.

“At the end of the day, we have to demonstrate more value,” DiBenedetto says. “Our people change our company frequently. We don’t have a big formal process. We have servant leadership. It promotes a higher level of productivity.”

Peak 10 protects
Like Tribridge, Peak 10 is also a company that saves other businesses money.

Companies outsource some of their IT operations to Peak 10, which can manage servers and data security for companies quietly and remotely.

“We can keep them running and keep their lights on, unharmed,” Curtiss says. “It’s a 7/24 business, and that means added value. This is a more proactive than a reactive tool.”

Because of its size and nine offices offering backup storage and protection, Peak 10 offers a safe alternative to data storage and processing, especially during Florida’s hurricane season. Peak 10 also has several IT specialists.

“Some of our customers aren’t able to hire the team of IT professionals we have, so we can offer that to them,” Curtiss says.

eMason’s careful growth
Like Peak 10 and Tribridge, eMason uses technology to help companies be more efficient. eMason specifically helps customers through a Web-based business automation process.

For example, if a bank customer is seeking loan or financial workout options, eMason’s process can get back to the customer in as little as five minutes.

“Banks hire us to handle more volume and reduce cost,” Mason says.

Part of the eMason winning formula has been slow, careful expansion. It developed its own technology solutions.

“We got more work than we ever anticipated, but that pipeline was managed very carefully,” Mason says. “We didn’t buy a building. The carefully planned expansion allowed us to succeed.”

Customer service is a term all businesses throw around, but eMason uses training and workshops to continually educate and inspire its staff to help customers.

The team is inspired and passionate on efficiencies,” Mason says. “The team is motivated by itself. If you go to a convention, in the crowd, you can spot other eMason people.”

Besides being animated and polite, good customer service at eMason means that all the staff are familiar with the company’s products and can offer realistic solutions to customers.

“We deliver what we say we’ll deliver,” Mason says.