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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 9 months ago

How to win a big contract

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Even small businesses can run with the big companies.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

It's not like Sandy Cohen's Sarasota ad agency and communications firm was floundering in 2015.

Founded in 1992, Cohen had built the seven-employee firm, Design Marketing Group, into a MacGyver-like company that survived two recessions. Clients asked, and often relied, on DMG to do things that went far beyond collateral and media kits. That includes designing, setting up and taking down trade show booths for companies worldwide — an unusual niche. “We do so many things,” says Cohen. “I want to be the company where people call and say, 'We can't figure it out, so we want you guys to figure it out.'”

But then in 2015, he got another kind of call: An executive with FedEx, the person in charge of the Memphis-based shipping giant's Corporate Event Solutions department (trade shows and job fairs) heard Cohen and his team were good at setting up trade shows. The executive had previously chatted with a company DMG bought trade show equipment from in Oregon, North American Display, and had mentioned FedEx wasn't satisfied with its trade show vendor. North American suggested Cohen and DMG.

The FedEx official, Ron Conti, told Cohen he wanted to come down to Sarasota, check out DMG's facilities and operation. Cohen thought it was a joke at first, a prank from a friend.

But Conti did come to Sarasota. And after a grueling year of checks and re-checks, Fed-Ex, in September 2016, hired DMG to handle set ups for trade shows and job fairs. Says Cohen: “This was our big break.”

It wasn't easy. While Conti did a walk-through of DMG's 6,500-square-foot facility, the real exam was yet to come. That, says Cohen, involved a year of looking into DMG's finances, insurance, legal documents and other data. FedEx's legal team, he says, is extremely “liability conscious.” The team of lawyers didn't want to just know about bonding and insurance limits, but the reinsurance behind the insurance and any other policies.

“I was beginning to feel like I was being investigated — because I was,” quips Cohen. “But it made us up our game. It made our company so much better than it was.”

The next part of the how-to story, Cohen says, is how to maintain the success with Fed-Ex. The company grades all its vendors on metrics from timeliness to efficiency to how clean the products (or booths) are. Cohen says DMG, so far, has earned all A's, mostly by taking the same get-it-done approach it does with all its clients.

While FedEx is DMG's big break — and a big revenue boost — it also presents the company with another challenge: Not overloading on one client at the expense of others, current or future. “I'm conscious of trying to get business that's not FedEx,” says Cohen, to have a diversified customer base.

Remembering the pain of the late 2000s recession, Cohen adds he didn't want to quickly hire a bunch of people as soon as DMG landed FedEx. Instead, with someone internally overseeing everything, DMG uses crews of long-trusted subcontractors for a chunk of the work.

Back to his roots as a do-whatever-it-takes entrepreneur, Cohen also gets into the mix on the FedEx work. On a Sunday night in late January, for example, Cohen got a call, around 10 p.m., from a FedEx employee with a problem at a trade show in Orlando. Cohen drove to the trade show from his Sarasota home, getting to the lobby of the Gaylord Palms Resort by 6 a.m. the next day, to solve the issue.

That kind of work ethic, says Cohen, is why he thinks the business contact in Oregon connected him to FedEx in the first place. “It's such a cliche,” says Cohen, “but the only thing we have to sell clients is customer service. You have to be all-in.”

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