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Entrepreneurs get creative
Bartering, Facebook are part of their strategies
By Jamie Sotonoff | Daily Herald Staff

Gene Diaz of South Elgin, owner of the face-painting and art business JusFaceIt, says he negotiates and sometimes barters to make his services affordable.

 

Daily Herald File Photo by CHRISTOPHER HANKINS

Kathryn Hudson, owner of Knickers in Glen Ellyn, added more personal service and keeps in close contact with customers via Facebook.

 

Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

Banner Plumbing vice-president Gene Hara, left, and owner Lee Greenspon in the demonstration shower of their Buffalo Grove location. Customers can arrange to come in after hours to test showers an whirlpool tubs for themselves.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

Banner Plumbing owner Lee Greenspon, left, and vice-president Gene Hara in the showroom of their Buffalo Grove location.

 

Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

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Published: 7/17/2009 6:52 AM

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The recession forced many small businesses to cut back on inventory, lay off employees, or just close up shop altogether.

Yet, many small businesses across the suburbs are managing to thrive in this economic turmoil. How are they doing it?

Each business has a different set of circumstances, but those interviewed for this story stuck to one basic belief: they refused to cut back on quality and service.

"If we start cutting back on service, we will inevitably upset people and let people down ... and it's a domino effect," said Gene Hara, vice president of Banner Plumbing & Heating Supply, a Buffalo Grove business which employs roughly 90 people.

Banner's sales had risen steadily until the recession hit. Then the numbers plateaued. Company executives quickly tightened their overtime and overhead costs and continued to think long-term, proceeding to renovate their second floor into a new 15,000 square foot showroom.

"Our bottom line isn't growing now ... but that's OK. Our goal (during the recession) is to maintain what we've built up over the years," Hara said.

Banner refused to cut back on staffing, pay or company perks, such as the annual summer picnic and holiday party. That has helped keep the employees happy and loyal, which translates to good customer service.

"I wanted to treat (the employees) like I would want to be treated myself. That's been my philosophy, and it works," said Banner owner Lee Greenspon.

When you don't have a large staff, like Kathryn Hudson, owner of Knickers, a 1,000-square foot lingerie boutique in downtown Glen Ellyn, the key to survival is knowing - and catering to - your customers.

After Knickers' business slowed last fall, Hudson started using social media like Twitter, Facebook and a blog (knickersofglenellyn.blogspot.com) to help communicate little details about what's new at the store to her customers.

Hudson also upped the level of service - holding more in-home bra fittings and parties - and made careful choices about the merchandise she stocked. She also made sure to keep her prices competitive with the department stores.

"I definitely look for more options in price now. There's a challenge in trying to find it in the quality our customers expect. You don't want to start filling the store with products based on price only," Hudson said.

After doing some research, Hudson found a new, high-quality summer sleepwear line called, coincidentally, Kathryn, in which everything is priced at $40 or under.

Business is now picking up again, so much so that Hudson jokes there could be a baby boom in Glen Ellyn next year.

Maintaining top-notch service is something Gene Diaz, of South Elgin, has done to keep business booming at his face painting and art company, JusFaceIt.

Diaz makes it a point to keep in touch with customers, so he remains top-of-mind. Since face painting is a family-friendly activity and the recession has prompted family bonding, the demand for his service is strong, he says. Yet, he still hears customers say they want to hire him but can't afford to. When that happens, he negotiates until they can figure out a plan.

Sometimes, it means he'll lower the price but bring two artists instead of three or he'll stay for an hour less. But he's also bartered with customers, including sporting venues and hotels, to provide his service in exchange for something. He's given discounts to regular customers in exchange for referrals, and once in a while will do a party for free.

"Wherever I paint, I need people to say, 'Wow! I need to get your card!' And I make up the difference there," he said. "It is so, so important to keep catering to the customer. They have to know you're in it for the long haul."