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Business Observer Friday, Sep. 14, 2018 2 months ago

A storm-worthy business model

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Brian Rist built Storm Smart on helping clients weather storms. Now he is taking measures to ensure his company will, too.
by: Andrew Warfield Lee-Collier Editor

Some companies are built to weather a storm. Others are built to take advantage of them.

Twenty-five years after founding Fort Myers-based Storm Smart, owner Brian Rist is taking measures to ensure his company continues to do both.

Despite a few year-over-year dips, Storm Smart has grown significantly in the past half-decade or so, with revenue increasing 135% since 2011, from $14 million to $33 million in 2017. Yet the 64-year-old Rist knows continued success relies on a strategy that relieves him of the day-to-day operational responsibilities and allows him to focus on even more growth initiatives.

To accomplish both, Rist initiated a succession plan by naming John Boland his replacement as CEO this past February — making permanent a relationship that began in a consulting role. Boland, 54, a retired U.S. Marine, was recruited to the area by car rental giant Hertz Equipment Rental unit. After working for five CEOs in 15 months, Boland joined the Lee County Economic Development Office, where he met Rist.

In addition to running the company, Boland is tasked with implementing systems and procedures that increase efficiencies, improve quality and empower the company’s 220 employees to make decisions rather than, as had been the case, relying on Rist. (The latter sometimes caused decision-making bottlenecks.)

The company's plan is also to transition from a company with generalists to specialists, and prepare for more demand for its hurricane protection products, such as heat-repelling screens, without overpromising and exceeding capacity. These are common business challenges, which Rist, who recently went back to school to pursue master’s degree in entrepreneurship at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, aims to sidestep and overcome with uncommon curiosity and youthful drive. 

"We've really been concentrating on moving away from more of a family-run organization to a real corporation," says Rist, "and instilling some of the cultures that are more indicative of running a big corporation.”

'Perfect Storm'

Just as Rist began to fully execute on his transition plan, a perfect storm of events converged on Storm Smart. The list includes:

• An increase in orders in the wake of Hurricane Irma;

• Hiring 70 new employees to help meet the demand;

• Filling leadership positions in a chief information officer and a chief financial officer, in addition to naming Boland CEO;

• Implementing responsibility and accountability measures among staff; and 

• Moving the company headquarters from the manufacturing facility to allow room for expansion.

That’s quite a bit of change at one time, particularly for a company that had, successfully, followed one business model for its entire existence.

The most critical change, though, was Rist replacing himself with Boland.

“It was important to get me out of the firing line,” says Rist. “John has done a good job getting the employees to become more accountable and start to make decisions. They may not be the best decisions, but you have to let them because that’s how they learn and grow. It doesn’t help to let John make the decisions. You can’t just replace me with John and do it the same way. We want to empower our people so we can grow even bigger.”

By bigger, predicts Rist, that includes potentially exceeding $50 million in sales this year. 

“When you go though rapid growth, you have a lot to learn,” says Rist. “And this is where John comes into play because a lot of things you do when you are a $20 million company simply don't work when you're a $40 million or $50 million a year company."

That heft also requires more leadership. In addition to Boland, Rist added CIO Danny Borndal and CFO Greg Smalley. Rist also moved the corporate office from a three-building facility on Idlewild Street between Metro Parkway and Plantation Drive to a nearby location on Winkler Avenue, where he moved all nonmanufacturing related departments.

With an eye toward contiguous expansion, from North Port in south Sarasota County to West Palm Beach on the state's east coast, even those three buildings may not be enough.

“One of things I've been doing is looking at a building in the area to put everybody under one roof,” Rist says. “Being under four rooftops is not an ideal situation. (But) buying a building big enough to house 220 employees for manufacturing is a pretty big challenge.”

Crisis management

Properly managing rapid growth is also a challenge. Storm Smart manufacturers for its own retail and installation operations as well as for installers and some 300 dealers in every state — except Alaska. It makes 16 products used for a variety of severe weather conditions beyond hurricanes. Its Storm Catcher screens, Rist says, have gained popularity for their heat-repelling properties and “put us on the map.”

Rist says Hurricane Irma was good for business, and the impact of the orders that followed the storm in late 2017 began to materialize this year. Boland came on board with the business at a crossroads: how to scale up production without oversizing the staff.

“A crisis is a horrible thing to waste,” says Boland. “We are taking advantage of the opportunity to strengthen the core of the business while Brian is laying some green shoots, and from there we can accelerate the business. We're putting in processes like daily management, upgrading our performance review process that features feedback, and we are putting in place an operating plan that is deeper.”

Rist first had to convince his staff of the necessity to make changes, particularly at a time the company was experiencing unsurpassed success. Everything changed, from software to facilities to new faces. 

Storm Smart manufacturers its products in a three-building complex off Plantation Road in Fort Myers. The new corporate headquarters is located about a mile away. JimJett.com photo

“We had to explain that in order to go from a company of our size to one of the size we want to be, and we can continue to employ everybody and they make more money, we had to change,” says Rist. “We really worked hard to get people to start doing things differently than we used to do."

Previously, Rist addressed a growing workload by simply hiring more people. Boland, instead, brings expertise in systems efficiencies and streamlining operations.

The pair also addressed employee loyalty by investing increased revenue in its staff. Storm Smart recently doubled its paid time-off policy, for example, and offers to pay for employee education, among other benefits.

Rist considers it a personal obligation to strengthen the core of the company for his employees — some of whom have been with Storm Smart for more than two decades.

“There are now 220 people here who count on a paycheck from Storm Smart, and if we don’t make a plan how to make this sustainable, if something happens to me, what happens to those people and their families?” Rist says. “It shouldn’t be just about me. It’s about this machine we have built. This company now runs a lot better without me in some cases than it did with me, and that makes me even more proud of what we’ve done.”

Growth and succession

Unlike publicly traded companies, family-owned businesses often suffer from the absence of a succession plan. And with a strong owner at the top, middle managers with advancement potential are more difficult to identify as they hesitate to distinguish themselves. Boland recognizes the value of that talent.

“That’s the lifeblood of the company,” says Boland. “That’s where all the institutional knowledge is. As Brian thinks about what he wants to do next, he wants to leave a legacy behind, he doesn’t want to see his 25 years of investment just drift away. But he was no different than 85% of the people I know around here who are running a business who have not thought about what is the next step for them.”

Rist, on the other hand, has been engaged in deep succession thought. Earlier this year, for example, he asked his entrepreneurship college adviser what course he should take next. The answer? A class in managing organizational change. That was about the same time Boland came on board.

“It sounds easy to start with, but getting people to change from how they have been doing things for 10 or 15 years is a huge task,” says Rist. “For most of us in my position this is the biggest company we've ever worked for. And a lot of people here have been together for more than 20 years, so we don’t know what we don’t know.”

What Rist does know is he wants to grow the company to ensure its longevity and his legacy. He recently opened a showroom in Collier County, where sales quickly outpaced the Lee County home base. He expects a newly opened showroom in North Port to yield similar results as that area grows.

Rist sees contiguous market growth up both coasts as the most logistically feasible. Boland thinks bigger.

“We have not even exploited outside our region,” he says. “There are at least 13 states up the coast and around the Gulf that experience hurricanes. Our market is wide open.”

 

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