Article from the Lewiston-Auburn
Bad times? Says who.
Churchill Barton, left, goes through some pieces of leather with customer Tobey, who came from Bristol, N.H.,
to visit the store that is only open a few hours each week. The majority of business is done online. Russ Dillgham photo
By Kathryn Skelton , Staff Writer
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Local businesses say it's possible to buck the trend and do great in a down economy.
"Expect to find bullet holes, arrow holes, scratches, cuts, and even tire tread marks, we kid you not."
His online store, BrettunsVillage.com, offers deer, elk, goat, sheep, cow and fish hides, all with a side of humor. ("What is this type of leather good for? You tell us and then we'll all know.")
Barton, who runs the company from a Lewiston warehouse, seems to have hit on something of a secret formula: Keep the customer entertained and keep the price right, and that will keep products moving. He sells to Cub Scout den mothers, costumed pirates and the Coast Guard.
Business is, in fact, growing.
"We're way ahead of last year; it's huge," Barton said.
Perhaps surprisingly, he isn't alone. All over Western Maine, companies say they're having a great year, even expanding, as gloomy headlines warn they should be doing anything but.
"I was talking to my accountant - I thought maybe I was a weird bird doing well in tough economic times," said Don Grant, vice president of Grant's Bakery in Lewiston. "He says, 'No, I've got two or three restaurants doing as well as you are.'"
Some have tweaked their strategies. Barton is marketing more aggressively.
Betsy Dorr is stocking a wider price range on her Quilt Essential shelves in Auburn.
A few are benefiting from others' downturns: Heather Rideout suspects some of her file-shredding business used to be done in-house at companies that have since cut jobs. Now her File-Busters in Lisbon is looking for a bigger space.
Some had expansion plans in the works before the economy started to sour last fall and decided to go for it anyway.
"We never turned back. I think the economy's helping us without a doubt," said Kristen Glazier, who with husband, Jim, opened the Roaring Brook Farm & Garden Market in Sabattus in mid-April, a roadside stop for local produce and grow-your-own fans. It complements their Roaring Brook Nurseries.
There is a lot of "back to the basics in this economy," Glazier said. "We're really gearing up for gardeners."
A sign of the times? Now hiring
Barton credits his success to old-school business advice. Listen to the customer. Pay attention to (and try to outdo) the competition. Watch your money.
"When it started turning bad last fall, then we started paying attention to how we spend our advertising dollars," he said. He also "dramatically increased" that budget.
The company sells dog supplies, antique keys and restored trunks in addition to the odd stock of industrial leather.
He said he's close to adding a sixth person to the payroll.
Jen McEntee, director of customer care for Barclaycard U.S. in Wilton, anticipates hiring 20 throughout 2009, bringing staff up to 105. The contact center opened last May with just 10 people.
Barclaycard issues credit cards for companies like L.L.Bean, Jo-Ann Fabric and Travelocity. Wilton answers in-bound customer calls.
Corporate spokesman Kevin Sullivan said that sort of growth has been possible through business partnerships and getting a larger slice of the millions of new credit cards issued each year in the U.S.
Another call center in an upswing: NotifyMD.
Its Winthrop branch will open in early May creating 16 jobs. At the Farmington branch, employment is up to 76 from 16 in 2007. Employees take mostly non-urgent daytime calls for hospitals and doctors' offices.
General Manager Sharon Cullenberg said NotifyMD has shown it can save time and money - an enticing pitch.
Dorr, the owner of Quilt Essentials in Auburn, said she's grown with a mix of approaches, like a recent Open House and new, less expensive stock. Clientele seem younger lately. Knitting and quilting classes are filling up faster. It helps that people can do both from home and make small purchases to keep a project going, she said.
"I've heard lots more people saying, 'I want to make sure I'm supporting local business' after seeing others close," said Dorr. "People seem to be more conscious of that."
Several business owners credited solid reputations - there's hardly a better time when reputations come in handy as when the economy is down.
"In this kind of a market, people may not be thinking about building a new home, they might not be thinking of moving up, but needs go on," said Dan Allen, owner of Allen & Co. in South Paris, a building and remodeling company. "Trees falling on houses happen, fires happen, roofs still need to be reroofed. Changes continue to be made."
On his backlog: a repeat customer who needs work on a barn and a surgeon, new to the area, who wants a remodel and an addition and had several people recommend Allen.
"That's the way it goes, I'm wicked established," Allen said.
All the same, he said: "Anybody that's prospering in an economy like this should say, 'Wow.'"
'Right project, right time'
Glazier said her business hadn't seen a serious capital upgrade in about 15 years. The new retail shop on Route 126 features garden supplies, two greenhouses and will stock local produce. She and her husband have big plans for their 150 acres: a pumpkin playland, new fields of pick-your-own fruit, opening the farm to school tours.
"It was just the right thing for us to do at the right time. It's a big undertaking," she said.
The business will soon go from four employees to eight.
Agren Appliance & Television in Auburn debuted a new Sit & Sleep Showroom in February with 10 beds and 20-plus recliners. Marketing Manager Paul Baribault said that second floor had been warehouse space.
"We were well into the renovation when things started to get bad," he said. "This was looked upon as a means of broadening our appeal to customers. It seems to be a good decision and we don't regret it."
International Door Corp. in Lewiston is putting the final touches on its $100,000 upgrade, a project that added a showroom and conference space where there used to be parking lot.
The old show space? An oversized bookcase.
"You had the phone ringing, contractors coming in and out, and you'd be trying to sell something big using hand samples," said President Paul Baril.
"We'd say, 'Use your imagination,'" added his son, Manager Jason Baril.
The new, long room has seven to 10 full-sized garage doors on movable tracks, better to showcase the thickness, energy rating and styles, Jason said.
It's been about a 60-40 split, he said, between customers upgrading an existing door and buying one for new construction. Even now, new homes are going up.
"When we can bring people in and show them, when they can touch and feel the product, we probably close 90 percent of the sales," Paul said.
He believes 2009 volume will match 2008 - a figure he would be happy with.
"If you're good at what you do, good times, bad times, it'll work out," Paul said.