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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 8, 2010 10 years ago

'Herding Cats'

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Networking groups are one of the oldest ways around to snare business. A Gulf Coast entrepreneur, however, hopes to add a new wrinkle to the concept.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Gary Huston once thought running an $18 million sales division for a global paper company would be the pinnacle challenge of his career.


But that was before he founded Renovate Sarasota. The organization, a business Huston founded in March, is a network of business owners in a variety of building and design professions.


“Trying to get subcontractors to get together is like herding cats,” says Huston. “They can be very independent.”


The mission of Renovate Sarasota, however is to harness that independence into a referral and marketing machine. The group is currently made up of a dozen Sarasota and Bradenton businesses, from a closet installer and a plumber to an interior designer and a cleaning service.


The group shares referrals and business leads and through Huston, gets access to trade shows and local business events. “Everybody who hears about this says it's unique,” says Huston. “I'm not going to get rich off this, but I'd like to see it work into a good business model.”


In fact, Huston hopes to expand the model throughout the Gulf Coast by partnering with other entrepreneurs to launch similar business networks in Clearwater, Fort Myers and Naples, among other locales. He doesn't plan to franchise the concept, but by early 2011 he hopes to have new branches in place.


There is a $200 entry fee to join Renovate Sarasota, plus $175 a month after that. Huston also charges a 3% fee from the labor on a job that was picked up through a referral from the group.


But more than the raw costs, Huston set up a membership structure to attract the best in a given industry. Membership requirements, for example, include full licensure for the respective field; at least $1 million per occurrence of general liability insurance and $500,000 in worker's compensation insurance; no negative claims with state offices or local chambers of commerce; and a minimum of 10 years experience in commercial and residential remolding projects.


Members must also adhere to the Renovate Sarasota Code of Ethics, a 10-step guide that includes a dress code and rules on pricing, billing and equipment.


Features like the Code of Ethics and the licensure requirements have been a key component in recruiting businesses to the group, say several Renovate Sarasota members. “Sometimes it's hard for small businesses to recommend other small businesses for work,” says Daryl Snyder, who runs One Stop Cleaning Service, which specializes in water-damage restoration. “But we are all facing the same problems.”


The us against the world theme resonates with Renovate Sarasota member Jesse Balaity, who recently founded his own project management and design firm, Balaity Property Enhancement. Balaity was formerly with the ADP Group in Sarasota, an architecture and planning firm that shut down due to the recession. He now helps Huston with the Web site for Renovate Sarasota.


Huston, 63, is confident the Renovate Sarasota concept will take off on the Gulf Coast. But at a minimum he has found something to bridge the gap between being laid off and fully retired.


Soon after he was laid off from Smurfit-Stone, Huston moved fulltime to Longboat Key, where he attempted to follow a lifelong passion for real estate. Renovate Sarasota is his vehicle for that passion.

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