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Business Observer Thursday, Feb. 4, 2010 12 years ago

Political office

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Joe Gammons uses his political savvy to sell office furniture in the Fort Myers area, one of the hardest-hit areas of the Gulf Coast. His management style has paid off.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

AT A GLANCE
Company:
Office Furniture & Design Concepts
Headquarters: Fort Myers
President: Joe Gammons
Annual revenues
2007: $12 million
2008: $10 million
2009: $10 million

Politics and business are a good mix. Just ask Joe Gammons.

When he moved to Fort Myers in 2003, Gammons was an accomplished 28-year-old campaign manager and political staffer for the Republican Party in Michigan. Most recently, he was director of external relations for Terri Lynn Land, Michigan's secretary of state.

Gammons had never run a business, but when Michigan State Sen. Glenn Steil asked him to take over a struggling office-furniture store he'd bought in Fort Myers, Gammons took the chance.

Steil, a successful office-furniture-store entrepreneur himself, had a home on Marco Island but didn't want to rebuild the Fort Myers store. “He gave me sweat equity,” says Gammons with a smile.

Gammons grew weary of being on the political road seven days a week. “It's 24/7,” he says. “We circled the state in a Suburban.” Through his work as executive director of Michigan's Kent County Republican Committee, one of the top fundraising counties in the country, Gammons met plenty of successful entrepreneurs.
“I've always admired people who are willing to walk out there and sign both sides of the check,” Gammons says.

Despite the fact he had no business background, Gammons was a pro at organizing successful campaigns. So instead of writing a business plan for the Fort Myers furniture store, he wrote a campaign a campaign plan. “I've written 100 of them,” he says.

Gammons rebranded the store as Office Furniture & Design Concepts, changed the logo and opened a showroom so customers could touch and feel the furniture. The store's reputation had suffered because the prior owners were absent, so Gammons set about to rebuild its image.

For example, the store had lost Collier County as a customer because of the prior owners' management, so Gammons visited the facilities manager and offered to install the furniture himself. Gammons, who seems more at ease in a corner office than building cubicles, rolled up his sleeves and learned to install office furniture from the beginning. “It garnered respect from everyone,” he says.

Because of that effort, Gammons earned back Collier County's business. What businesses and government want, Gammons says, is “somebody who does what they say they're going to do.”

Gammons runs his operation like the dozens of successful election campaigns he's managed, hiring the best people and stepping aside to let them do their jobs.

“If you have to micromanage people, you don't need them,” says Gammons. He's witnessed plenty of election campaigns fail because the manager got too wrapped up in the minutiae. “I don't even know where everyone is,” he laughs, looking around his offices.

“My role is to be in the community and drive business,” Gammons says. Indeed, you can find the 35-year-old entrepreneur at many business events, shaking hands and chatting with prospective customers like a seasoned politician.

Gammons says one of the biggest epiphanies he's had as a business owner is that he's more dependent on his employees for success than he ever thought.
“The business is easy,” he says. “The people management is hard.”

Finding good sales people is one of the biggest challenges. “They're incredibly hard to find,” Gammons says. As it turns out, former bankers are among the best job candidates because of the extensive training they've received. In fact, bankers are among the savviest networkers and are comfortable speaking with decision-makers.

Gammons says his best recruiters are his own employees and he involves at least three of them in the interview process. “I ask people here who to hire,” he says. “I can't hire by myself.”

Managing his business like a campaign has paid off. When he took over the store in 2003, it posted annual sales of $2.3 million. By 2007, annual sales hit $12 million. When 2009 matched 2008 revenues of $10 million, Gammons says he was “ecstatic” considering the severe downturn in the economy.

During the good years, Gammons built a large and diverse group of customers that split evenly between the public and private sectors. Last year, the store had 485 active customers.

“The more customers you have, the more recession-resistant you become,” Gammons reasons.

No wonder he's one of the last independent furniture dealers left standing.

—Jean Gruss

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