By Annette Hinkle
For over 15 years, business partners Greg Kirwan and Mike Hartman have worked diligently to build their pool construction and maintenance company. While not the largest name in pools and spas on the East End, their Bridgehampton based Casual Water has enjoyed a loyal following and always provided Kirwan and Hartman with plenty to keep them busy.
But then, about a year and a half ago, the phones stopped ringing, and Kirwan and Hartman, like countless other business owners large and small across this country, found themselves victims of the economic meltdown. Suddenly, everything they had come to understand about their business since it opened in 1994 was turned upside down.
Kirwan admits that in good times when money was coming in, he and Hartman didn’t really think about things like business plans and effective marketing. But once the recession hit, it quickly became obvious that the skills they had always relied on in the past weren’t going to carry them through to the future.
“Mike and I are tradesmen,” explains Kirwan. “The business end is not something that comes so naturally. You get very busy running the business, and it’s hard to do management when you’re chasing leads.”
“We’re also typical men. We don’t ask for directions,” he laughs. “We were really out of options, but we’re stubborn and we weren’t closing it down.”
So last October, Kirwan and Hartman brought in Gabriele Lehr, an outside business manager and consultant, to help get Casual Water back on track. Through the government’s Small Business Administration (SBA), Gabriele heard of a program called SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) and attended a seminar on the program at the Riverhead Library to learn more.
SCORE, a division of the SBA, is an organization made up of retired business executives from around the country who volunteer their time to help new or struggling small businesses thrive in a competitive world. From giving online advice to taking part in face-to-face mentoring sessions, SCORE volunteers offer their services free of charge — and businesses that use SCORE pay nothing for the mentoring they receive.
“It’s a present from the government,” says Lehr. “What a nice gift. Thank you.”
As a result of her initial meeting with SCORE in Riverhead, Casual Water was soon paired with Jim Posner, a SCORE volunteer who lives in Noyac. Posner explains that while most people come to SCORE looking to start new businesses, the organization can also be extremely beneficial to people like Kirwan and Hartman who feel they just need some direction in getting their business on more solid footing.
“SCORE’s big on the creation of business plans,” explains Posner, who goes by the name JP. “Usually people don’t know anything about business plans, but we make them deal with sales, margins, expenses, competitiveness and the bottom line. They just didn’t think of it that way and there is a fear of it when you ask someone to do one. They’re afraid they’ll hear that with these sales, this margin and this expense you can’t make it.
“What happens in my consulting career is people know the product, but not the marketing, strategy and potential,” adds Posner. “They need to make the next big leap and bring someone in who’s savvy in selling and marketing techniques.”
For Kirwan and Hartman, once they started meeting with Posner regularly, much of what he told them in his “tough love” manner became less scary, and their business model came back into focus.
“When we met JP, we were kind of down on our luck,” admits Kirwan. “We were working hard all winter, then JP came in here and told us we’re not working hard enough, doing things wrong and missing the basics. We were bogged down in all the problems we thought were specific to our job. But he said, ‘No. In any company, the principles are the same wherever you go.’”
“Having done it for a thousand companies, from small to big, it functions the same in any size,” adds Posner. “You’ve got to go through the process.”
“The light bulbs started flashing,” remarks Kirwan. “Now we won’t let him out the door and are constantly having the eureka moments.”
“It’s obvious in hindsight,” adds Hartman.
In addition to failing to create a business plan, Posner notes that other typical business mistakes include things like unclear management direction, underestimating the competition, poor sales approach and ineffective marketing.
That last of these came into play quickly during Casual Water’s mentoring sessions with Posner. Having spent the off-season designing and printing a glossy marketing brochure full of stunning imagery, the team at Casual Water proudly showed it to Posner. But instead of praising their efforts, he let them know in a few choice words that it was useless.
“It was ego and not marketing,” explains Posner bluntly. “This is about principles. A designer made it soft and pretty — words we don’t use in business. This is a piece of machinery and they needed to get the ego out of it.”
“He said, ‘Where are the five reasons why your company is good?” recalls Hartman.
“He also said, ‘What are the five things that make your company special?” adds Kirwan.
These are the types of questions the business partners had never pondered before, but now know, and more importantly, understand, inside and out.
“JP has only been with us for four or five weeks, but the energy and enthusiasm he’s built is amazing,” says Kirwan. “I’m feeling kind of fearless and I know that comes from JP. Now Mike and I recognize that we’re not the problem, and our issues are not unique to us.”
In fact, since Posner has been working with Casual Water, sales that weren’t expected to come through have, and issues that may have not been resolved in the past are being settled quickly and effectively.
“It’s the energy,” says Kirwan. “When you have this confidence and background and knowledge to tap into, the confidence level rubs off on the people you sell to.”
“We’ve also learned to delegate better,” admits Hartman.
“It’s not something that came easy to me,” says Kirwan. “I like to have my nose in everything.”
And while it’s always good to know your competition, SCORE has also taught the team at Casual Water to focus not on what others are doing, but the quality of their own work.
“We’re making a splash,” laughs Lehr. “The only company that can matter is this one. We strive for excellence, so everything else doesn’t matter.
“And we’re having fun,” she says. “It’s been an adventure.”
To learn more about SCORE call 1-800-634-0245 or visit www.score.org.