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Business Observer Friday, May 21, 2010 10 years ago

Vine Ripened

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One Gulf Coast marketing and branding firm took a tough stance against the downturn. The results have been a 69% growth in annual revenues.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

The principals at Grapevine Communications realized they were on the verge of a small crisis when 2008 came to an end.

One major client filed for bankruptcy and stiffed the Lakewood Ranch-based marketing, branding and public relations firm on a $120,000 bill. Not only that, but the client, a commercial and residential developer with properties on the Gulf Coast and several states in the Northeast and Midwest, had been billed up to $160,000 a month during the boom.

Other issues began to creep up. For example, at least one-fourth of the company's client base was connected to the real estate industry in some way. Then, in early 2009, a second client filed for bankruptcy.

That's when Grapevine decided to attack the recession with blunt force.

The core of the plan was to sign up 50 new clients by the end of 2009 — clients in a wide range of industries, from accountants and dentists to golf cart suppliers and plumbers. The company's 12 employees thoroughly researched hundreds of Gulf Coast businesses. It found leads anywhere from the Internet to the Business Review's annual list of the region's top 500 companies based on revenue.

“It had to be really mixed up,” says Angela Massaro-Fain, who runs the 11-year-old company with her husband, John Fain. “We had to get more diverse.”

The Get 50 plan was a success.

Throughout 2009 Grapevine cold-called its way into a sales pitch for 42 of the top 50 companies on its wish list.

Out of those, 35 firms became new Grapevine clients. The list included some building industry-related customers but in total it was more diverse than the company's client roster had ever been.

Moreover, the company's new base of clients resulted in a significant revenue boost. In fact, Grapevine grew revenues 69% in 2009, from $6.1 million in 2008 to $10.3 million. Says Fain: “We probably worked as hard as we have ever worked last year.”

One key lesson learned in the execution of the Get 50 plan was persistence pays off. “It's not the first call that gets you in the door,” says Massaro-Fain. “It could be the fourth or the fifth.”

Massaro-Fain and Fain took some other big steps last year to continue attacking the recession. For example, it increased its budget for the amount of pro-bono work it does for local nonprofit groups by 66%, from $125,000 in 2008 to $207,000 last year.

The increase was both charitable and practical. “These groups were desperate for the help and we thought we could help,” says Fain. “We got a lot of exposure from it too.”

One aspect of Grapevine that Fain and Massaro-Fain didn't change was the business model. The company kept its commitment to work on a per-project basis, not a retainer system like some competitors were doing.

The firm also followed the successful retailer's handbook: It didn't cut its rates, for fear of having to maintain the lower price when the economy comes back.

Massaro-Fain founded her own marketing and branding firm in New Jersey in 1988 after she ran the art department for another agency. She later did consulting and contract work for Intertape Polymer Group, a manufacturing and packaging firm with offices in Montreal and Bradenton. That's how Massaro-Fain met Fain, who was a marketing executive at Intertape.

The pair eventually left Intertape, relocated to Sarasota and founded the current version of Grapevine. The company started with clients in Manatee and Sarasota counties but has since grown to other parts of the Gulf Coast and Florida.

Meanwhile, Massaro-Fain, while proud of Grapevine's bold and successful approach to the downturn, refuses to rest easy.

“This year we made another list of 50,” says Massaro-Fain. “That's the only way we are going to grow and branch out.”

Click here to see Grapevine Communication's performance over the past three years.

A Clean Cut

Like many other small businesses on the Gulf Coast, Lakewood Ranch-based marketing and branding firm Grapevine Communications has struggled with how and where to cut costs during the recession.

In general, the 12-employee firm sought to cut 10% of its monthly expenses beginning early last year. For starters it cut the salaries of every employee, including principals Angela Massaro-Fain and John Fain.

It also found savings in an unusual place: The staff decided it would clean the office on its own instead of paying an outside service to do it. Now the firm has a weekly dusting party/happy hour, where employees clean and unwind at the same time.

Fain calls it a “great example of turning a difficult time into a positive event.”

—Mark Gordon

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