One of the customers my branding iron company had while I was running it was a company that made heavy-duty leather gloves for firefighters. It purchased branding irons from us to brand its logo into the gloves. It wasn’t a huge account, but it was what some people call a “bread and butter” one. We could depend on it for a fairly nice order on a more or less regular basis.
Over the years, we had developed a lot of similar small accounts, and when you added them all up, they represented a very nice percentage of our yearly sales.
There is much to be said for this sort of situation as opposed to being dependent on just a few large customers. What happens when you lose a customer who represents an 85 percent share of your sales? The answer is obvious: You’re in trouble.
But that’s not the point I’m trying to make in this column. Several years after I sold the company, I happened to call there again by accidentally misdialing one day. My former office manager was still there, and we chit-chatted briefly. Eventually I asked him the standard business question: “How’s business?”
He replied that because of the 2008-2009 recession, things were quite a bit slower. Then he happened to mention, “Oh, yeah. We lost the glove company account. They went out of business.”
I waited a moment to hear what had happened then, but he had nothing to add. Then I asked, “So who is making fireman’s gloves now?”
After a long moment of silence, he said, “Oh gosh. Why didn’t I think of that?”
What was obvious to me — that someone else still must be making firefighters’ gloves and that its gloves needed to be branded also, and that it could be the “replacement” customer — was clearly not so obvious to him or to the new owner.
I can’t help wondering how many opportunities are lost every day by not thinking just a little outside the box when it comes to running a business. Lost a customer? Can you sell to his competition? Has one of your customers gone out of business? Can you sell your product to the competing companies that survived him?
Dependent on an industry that has become obsolete? Can we sell our products — perhaps modified — to the new industry that replaced it? Have you just found out that the leather buggy whips you make are no longer needed by the people who are driving those newfangled things called automobiles? How about converting over to making leather driving gloves for those same people?
But what do I know?