June 1, 2012

Community ties and relationship building


As you build your business, you should also build ties with your community. Community is a set of expanding circles. The smallest one is your block, followed by your neighbourhood, your city, and so on. Your expanded community should also include those from the trade in your region and other parts of Canada; but for the most part, the closer to home, the tighter your ties should be.

If you are not involved in your community at some level, then you are missing out on many opportunities. Take a look around and you will observe that the most successful people are involved at many different levels.

I would suggest to anyone who is starting out that you introduce yourself to your business neighbours. Keep it short and don’t overstay your welcome. Don’t spend an hour pitching your talents and abilities to them. A simple ‘I am here,’ will suffice for a start.

Ask around your neighbourhood: What needs to be done? Where do I fit in? What can I do to be a good neighbour? From those answers, take your lead. In 1995, armed with a new snow blower, I began to clear my block of the freshly fallen snow. It soon expanded into a route that includes four city blocks. I have kept that route, as a volunteer, to this day. The benefit is that I have met every one of my neighbours in all directions.

Some entrepreneurs have found it beneficial to join a service organization such as Rotary. Others have found connections in breakfast clubs or the Chamber of Commerce. When you join these organizations, you not only have access to a network of successful men and women, you also have the door opened to people who can guide your career. Many a mentorship has begun within these types of organizations.

A cross-promotion can prove to be beneficial to both parties within a community. I participated in different ones during my business tenure. One year, I organized the local members of the Saskatchewan Nursery Landscape Association to take out a joint Yellow Pages advertisement. I also convinced one of my greenhouse friends, on the other side of town, to share ads with me. The top portion of the ads pitched plants, while the bottom directed the reader to his place on the eastside and mine on the west. Not only did we share in the costs, we benefited from the buzz it created. Two independents were sharing one newspaper ad. Not headline news perhaps, but chat worthy nonetheless.

Cross-promotions can work with complementary businesses as well. I would often run half-page ads and reserve a small block within my ad to promote a company that sold soils and gravels. These situations are win/win and something I would encourage.

I found it beneficial to hook up with different cultural communities within my city. I organized parties at my garden centre that featured different ethnic communities. I contacted the local consulates and they assisted, as did the various ethnic communities themselves.

Fun now, sales later
The parties at my garden centre became a sought-after ticket. They took a bit of work but they built relationships. Good food, good music and, most importantly, no cash registers in sight. My parties and other hosted events were never taken as an opportunity to sell — well, at least not that night. The parties were straight up, good old-fashioned, community socials.

I also hosted events for the Horticultural Society and the Lily Association. These organizations welcomed the opportunity to meet in a greenhouse rather than a school or a church hall. Again, they take a little work and you should donate a door prize, but your support will be rewarded.

Building relationships with your suppliers is also of utmost importance. Your suppliers, if they are good ones, will assist you in ways not readily apparent. They understand the different marketplaces and what is working within each of them. They should be able to advise you as to directions, products and services. Good suppliers will warn you of roads not to go down, and they can tell you stories of those who ignored their advice.

One of my suppliers asked me if I had ever been to Mill Creek Nursery, near Edmonton. I told him I had not. He told me I should go, as he was certain the owner and I would get along. He said, “Both of you march to the beat of a different drummer, and I am certain you will click.” He was right. Ken Riske, who owns Mill Creek, and I do get along and I am grateful that we were introduced.

Suppliers can also be of great assistance in promotions. A supplier might not have a program that fits your needs but, with the right pitch, you can often get them to come on board and get involved. I have asked suppliers to host a Saturday, filled with seminars and additional sales people for their product line. They have not only provided the sales people, they have assisted with advertising and promotional material. I have always believed that suppliers should be treated by independents with the greatest of respect. I have seen how the box stores beat up on their sales reps and suppliers. It is not a pretty picture. There is much to be gained by treating wholesalers, growers and reps with dignity.

Involvement with the various trade and professional associations is also very important. It connects you with a larger group of people with shared concerns and a wealth of experience. Through contacts made at trade association functions, I had the opportunity to learn what I needed. Back in the late 70s, starting out, I would call Wade Hartwell at Golden Acres in Calgary for supplier advice. He would growl, “Why are you buying from him? He’s a supplier of last resort!” Then, Wade would provide me with the name and number of a better supplier. All it took was a call to that new number, with a mention that Wade had sent me, and I was in. Wade introduced me to Adrian Byland in 1981. I am still a Byland’s Nursery customer, more than 30 years later.

Success over time
Long-term relationships are beneficial to both parties. The supplier knows how you operate and you learn the product line. I cannot stress how important it is to build strong, long-term alliances with suppliers.

Sadly, every community is filled with a few businesses that will drop a supplier for a nickel. Those types of business people pride themselves on being hardnosed. In reality, their attitude costs them in many ways. Price is only one factor in a business relationship. The other equally important parts are quality, service and selection. What does it matter how good a price you secure if the shipments are always late?

I had a greenhouse grower who brought me a large order of gorgeous tomato plants, a week after my season had peaked. What did his price or quality matter when his service was lacking? At the same time, another grower would deliver product anytime I needed it, including 7 a.m. on a Sunday. Keeping me well stocked was her priority. I always placed much bigger orders with her than with the other fellow.

This story repeats itself in every city, large or small. There is a well-known house builder in my community. The company subs most of its work out to contractors. It is always on the prowl for lower prices. In addition, the builder is always demanding extras from his contractors. He once insisted that a contract painter repaint a room because the customer did not like the colour, even though the customer had chosen the colour. A sod contractor was made to repair, at no charge, damage caused by a trencher to sod that had been installed earlier. And the list goes on. This house builder never has the same subs for more than two years in a row. More times than not, the company’s subs are inexperienced. As one contractor put it, “Working for them is almost a rite of passage. If you survive that experience, you get to stay in the trade.” You do not want to be that house builder or his equivalent. You do not want to work for him either.

You want healthy, long-term relationships and beneficial ties to your community. Those are the things that will give you a better life and allow you to feel good about yourself. And as always, those connections will keep you on the road to success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.