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Entrepreneurs
Business Observer Thursday, Jan. 7, 2010 10 years ago

A Sales Hug

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An Amish furniture entrepreneur hopes he has the solution to flat sales. He is using a unique approach to marketing based on passion.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Like most Gulf Coast small business owners, Jim Miller is eager to get back to the days of 20% annual growth, the kind of success his company enjoyed earlier this decade.

And Miller, co-founder of a $1.3 million online Amish-made furniture and accessories business, has a plan to do just that. It's an experiment, says Miller, that's wrapped in love.

That is Miller is trying to find people with a deep affection and passion for marketing and selling his company's products. “You can train a lot of things,” says Miller, “but you can't train motivation and you can't train heart.”

It's a new twist on an old entrepreneurial conundrum: Finding employees that share the owner's zeal and enthusiasm. Miller believes that at his company, JMX International, one key to ending its sales funk — revenue growth was flat for the second straight year in 2009 — is to put what he calls these “portfolio managers” in charge of underperforming divisions that are in need of a sales hug.

Miller hired three such managers in the last few months. The trio lives outside Florida, as the work is done mostly online.

One manager was put in charge of the firm's wooden toys division, a small but once profitable unit that Miller thinks is ripe for a comeback given consumers' fear of foreign-made products. “We've seen some growth there before,” says Miller.

The company's nautical products division, which can be found at www.oceanfare.com, was the second unit to get a portfolio manager. Miller also hired someone to be in charge of the company's outdoor furniture unit, www.gardentones.com.

Outdoor furniture holds some of JMX's greatest potential, says Miller. The site sells hundreds of products, from $30 wind chimes to a seven-piece outdoor living set that goes for $3,800. The latter is made of Poly Wood, a wood substitute made from recycled materials that is a JMX specialty.

“I think we could be doing $1 million a year alone in outdoor furniture,” says Miller. “But we need someone who could really love that niche.”

Miller himself didn't have a passion for Amish furniture in 2003, when he launched an Internet retail business with Miao Xue, a friend and fellow graduate of a Master's program in organizational management at USF. The pair had several ideas about how to set up a customer-friendly retail Web site, with lots of portals to sell products.

“But we needed products to sell,” says Miller. “We were experts in nothing.”

Miller, who at one time served as the associate pastor for the Bahia Vista Mennonite Church in Sarasota, spoke with several friends who recommended he sell Amish goods and wares.

Miller nearly balked at first, thinking the business would be too logistically challenged given that most Amish furniture is made 1,000 miles away in Ohio and Pennsylvania. “I was never crazy about the products,” says Miller, “but I gave it a whirl.”

Success came quickly. Within six weeks, Miller had enough confidence in the company, named after the initials of Miller and Xue, that he quit his job as director of the Sarasota satellite office of Indiana-based Goshen College. Eight months later, the company hired Miller's wife and a few other employees. And by 2004, it had sold $500,000 worth of homemade Amish furniture online.

The company peaked in annual sales at $1.3 million in 2007, the same results it had in 2008 and is projecting for 2009. It now has six full-time employees and 12 part-time workers, including its portfolio managers. It sells its portfolio of 6,000 products nationwide, with about 25% going to West Coast customers, primarily in California. An average JMX customer spends about $1,200 per order.

But Miller is confident JMX's average ticket can be pushed up, even in the down economy. He is counting on his portfolio managers for help in that regard.

Miller says one challenge in the experiment, so far, is deciding on a pay structure for his portfolio managers. He started out heavy on the commission side, but he might alter that at some point. He also realizes he needs to make sure his trio of portfolio managers, located in New Hampshire, New York and North Carolina, have enough guidance and support to succeed.

Miller says his biggest goal for 2010 is to continue to tweak the experiment. Says Miller: “What's important for us is to find the model that works.”

— Mark Gordon

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