Bassett Sprinkler Learns to Forge Its Own Path with Help from BGC

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Over the past six months, most of us have probably read a magazine or newspaper article about America’s growing habit of living paycheck-to-paycheck. With household debt levels at an all-time high and personal savings rates hovering between zero and one percent, pundits predict that millions of Americans are one deep recession away from bankruptcy. What’s interesting is that so few voices were sounding the alarm back in the late 1990s, when credit cards gorged on the scattered bones of passbook savings accounts. Times were good, right? Eat, drink, be merry, and let the future take care of itself.

How different is the view from this side of the millennium! Why, then, do so many business owners still float on the waves of circumstance? The contracting industry is a prime example. Anyone who has ever built or remodeled a home understands why contractors have a reputation for lousy management. The majority live project-to-project, perfecting their trades without ever developing their business. This haphazard approach may work during times of plenty … but as we in Northeast Ohio know all too well, the good times aren’t built to last.

Mark Bassett, president of Bassett Sprinkler Protection, Inc., isn’t a typical contractor. With a college degree in business, he has always been receptive to education and new ideas, but until his customer base eroded he mostly let his company grow itself. Founded by Bassett’s father in 1977 and based in Cleveland, BSPI is a full fire-protection sprinkler contractor with in-house design capability and a reputation for quality, responsiveness, and completing projects on time and on budget. The company’s focus on service and delivery (and neglect of marketing) worked fine until Ohio industry, which accounted for nearly three-quarters of BSPI’s business, began to falter. “We were losing jobs,” recalled Mark Bassett, who joined the company in 1978 and has led it since 1990. Ironically, his 25-plus years of experience slowed his ability to seek help. “I had to work through some initial resistance,” he said ruefully, “which showed up in a couple of ways. First it was the attitude of ‘I know what I’m doing and don’t need anybody’s help.’ Then it moved into ‘The economy’s bad and no one can fix it.’” Bassett continued the status quo, advertising in trade magazines and relying on positive word-of-mouth, but sales flagged along with the region’s economy. “I got to the point of realizing I needed a fresh approach,” he said, “and then I hired Andy.”

Andy Birol views Bassett as a “role model” for all contractors and subcontractors. “So many of them are terrible managers,” he said, “even though they excel at very complex and critical tasks. Mark really wanted to be taught how to create new opportunities for himself and his company.”

At their first meeting, Andy and Mark Bassett clarified the major objectives of their work together—to increase sales 25-30% by 2006 and get the business growing again. Bassett’s first task was to discover his company’s and his own Best and Highest Use. “Andy made me think deeply about what I’m best at doing, what I enjoy doing, and what our customers value about us,” he said. “He helped us move past the status quo into creative possibility thinking.” According to Bassett, the most “instrumental” step in this process involved speaking with BSPI’s customers. “Andy had me call up both general contractors and direct-to-industry customers and ask them what they like about us,” he said. While the details varied, both customer segments placed a high level of trust in the company. “Contractors know we will do what we say we’ll do, and that helps them close projects and make sales,” he noted. The dialogues he established with customers also gave Bassett a vision of the company’s future. When he asked customers to rate BSPI on a scale of one to ten, he consistently heard ratings of eight or nine. “This opened up the next question, which was critical,” he said. “What do we need to do to rate a ten?”

Andy next led Mark Bassett through a detailed analysis of the company’s last three years of business. The two set out to answer four basic questions as a basis for organizing sales into categories of customer type and industry segment:

  • Who buys from us?
  • What is the person’s title within his or her company?
  • How did we sell and negotiate the project?
  • Where do we earn our highest margins?
The data confirmed that BSPI’s best margins are in the declining industrial manufacturing segment, in turn confirming Bassett’s commitment to a more proactive way of doing business. “We can’t afford to miss opportunities,” he said. “We have to go out and make them happen.” Though reluctant to share sales data with employees, he followed Andy’s suggestion to get his team on board. He met with his staff, presenting the past sales data, his goals for 2006, and the sales forecasts he and Andy had developed for each segment. “The reaction was mostly positive,” he recalled, “but I don’t think my staff felt confident until after Andy led the second meeting. His credibility made everyone realize they needed to pick up the pace.”

Mark Bassett is enthusiastic about the direction of his company and his own role in leading it. The sales forecasts Andy developed now guide the company in choosing tactics and tracking results. “We are working toward different aspects of revenue and prospecting,” Bassett said. For example, he is working with a new marketing firm, Felber & Felber Marketing, to sell more inspection and service-related work to industry. “Now when I go out and see someone, if it’s not in the category of a job I might sell an interpretation of code issues or some other piece of our expertise that falls under the service category,” Bassett said. “I get paid for the service, and I’m also gaining a potential customer for larger add-on projects, including insurance recommendations, changes in occupancy, classifications, and storage, as well as remodeling and building projects.”

In addition, Andy encouraged Bassett to capitalize on his personal BHU by marketing his knowledge and expertise through publishing articles in trade magazines and seeking out guest speaking opportunities. The low-cost, high-recognition nature of “expert marketing” allows Bassett to deepen relationships with existing customers while looking for new ones. And, by asking each new customer how they heard about Bassett Sprinkler, the company is able to track leads, thus adjusting its tactics to reach a broad customer base cost-effectively.

Andy Birol summed up his work with Bassett Sprinkler Protection, Inc., by calling Mark Bassett a “true exception to the vast lot of contractors feeling hostage to external events.” Armed with specific objectives, performance data, forecasts, and tactics, Bassett feels a new sense of control. “We’ve always done well at filling our customers’ needs,” he said, “but now we know how to get our name out there. No more settling for leftovers. We can start leading the way.”

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