Business was bleak when Marilyn Stenten launched a golf carts accessories business in Sarasota in 1986.
So bleak that Stenten once pawned a diamond ring she inherited from her grandmother to pay for an order of wheel covers. (She eventually got the ring back.)
Bleak enough that she once ran the business out of the backroom of a barber shop, with dirt on the floor, one light bulb and no phone. She went home to make phone calls. Bleak enough that even when Stenten's son agreed to help run the business, she could only afford to pay him $100 a week, plus peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Says Stenten: “I know all about scratching.”
The company, Sarasota-based Stenten's Golf Cart Accessories, has since traded scratch-fed survival struggles for a new kind of struggle, one more welcomed: growing pains.
Annual revenues, for instance, surpassed $5 million in 2009, followed by $5.5 million in 2010. The 15-employee company also recently bought a new building, a 26,752-square-foot facility in North Port that's nearly three times larger than its current overcrowded space in Sarasota. The firm paid $997,000 for the building, which was owned at the time by Wells Fargo Bank. It hopes to move in by September.
Finally, Stenten plans to hire at least three more employees in the next few months.
The growth runs somewhat counter to the golf industry's current woes. Membership at golf and country clubs nationwide is down and golf course home developments, once a pillar of the industry, have struggled.
That slowdown eventually hit the golf cart industry and by extension, Stenten's business, which provides a slew of parts for carts, from wire beverage baskets to double-hinged windshields. The company sells products to golf cart dealers and manufacturers, not courses. “I had some dealers who said they were down as much as 75%,” in 2009 and 2010, says Stenten.
But Stenten, 76, fought the downturn with firepower.
For one, she expanded the company's product line. It added items such as overhead radios and dashboards. “Before we had 10 things to sell you,” says Stenten. “Now we have 100 things to sell you.”
Stenten then began to seek clients globally, in places like Australia, Singapore and Spain. She also increased the marketing budget. The company updated its glossy catalog, which cost $50,000, and has booked double-page ads in industry trade magazines.
One downside to the growth, says Stenten, is the extra expenses have squeezed profits.
Of course, thinner margins are better than the fate suffered by other companies in the industry. A few competitors and vendors have gone out of business entirely, Stenten says, while some of the firm's clients are delinquent on bills.
Stenten has actually earmarked $25,000 every quarter for the past year to cover clients' unpaid debt. “And it's getting worse than that,” adds Stenten.
Those kinds of rough times are reminiscent of the early years of Stenten's Golf Cart Accessories. Stenten founded the company after a golf cart firm she worked for closed. She thought she could fill a need for other companies that didn't have access to accessories.
Stenten grew mostly by learning on the job. A one-time real estate broker, she says the key to the company's growth has been top-line customer service.
“It sounds so Pollyannaish,” says Stenten, “but if you treat people the way you want to be treated, you will always have a large customer base.”