Robbie & Katherine Morris
When he was an engineering student at Virginia Tech, Robbie Morris began making decals for his brother’s racing cars in 1996. As demand grew, he began running a business out of his dorm room until he decided to leave college and give it his full attention. Today Performance Signs, owned by his wife Katherine, designs, builds and installs exterior and interior signage, temporary and portable signs, and vehicle signage – now on corporate and municipal fleets instead of race cars. The company is thriving now despite a slowdown during the recession. They just wish they’d known earlier about the resources available through the SBDC.
Robbie admits he had a “misconception that the SBDC was only for start-ups or for companies that were struggling to survive.” He credits their SBDC counselor with helping their business bound to new levels because she “has broad experience and helps us see what we’re missing.”
In the summer of 2009, the company was renting a three-bay facility and considering cutting back their space because of concern about the deepening recession. Then they spotted a building being sold by another company. It seemed ideal for their purposes and they began to dream of new possibilities. They contacted the SBDC to explore taking advantage of a Small Business Administration loan program funded through the Recovery Act. Their SBDC counselor “cut through the weeds and helped direct us through the process,” Robbie explains. Previously, they had taken loans only in the $20,000 to $30,000 range to finance new printers and Katherine recalls, “With the recession going on, we never thought we could do a $600,000 loan for this beautiful building.” Their SBDC counselor helped them organize their financial information so that they not only met the loan criteria, but had their paperwork in good order and she even helped them find a lender.
With funding in hand, Robbie and Katherine were able to buy the building. With the additional space, they were able to build an extra large bay that makes it possible to increase their volume and meet customer deadlines over the winter months, especially for auto fleet clients. And, as Katherine points out, “This building makes a better customer impression and enhances our credibility.”
One of the advantages of going through the loan process has been their increased appreciation for financial reporting – it helps them understand how the banks see them and they can track trends such as the cost of goods or labor relative to their percent of profit. They can also better foresee potential problems. The bank wanted to know who their biggest customers were and what percent of the business they represented. At the time, their business was spread across multiple clients so the loss of any one would have been sustainable, but the question made Katherine and Robbie mindful of not relying too heavily on too few customers.
Robbie and some employees have taken advantage of SBDC classes in social networking and QuickBooks and their counselor has helped with human resources questions. She has also pointed them to other pockets of available resources such as state funding for solar panels. When they installed solar panels on their roof, the couple was thinking primarily of potential utility savings, but to their surprise the move has also proven to have marketing “green appeal” for clients sensitive to environmental issues.
Sensitivity to customer service has been a hallmark of their business and Katherine believes she absorbed that value when she worked in her parents’ convenience store as she was growing up. She also learned about other business realities, including fluctuating economic cycles. When the recession began, Performance Signs was a bit insulated, riding the waves of contracts already in place, but “we stretched ourselves thin,” as she recalls. Even as business picked up, they were wary so their three new employees were people who had been unemployed because they didn’t want to hire anybody away from a secure job. “There were multiple times that were a real test of faith,” Katherine acknowledges.
Today the company is busy and planning to hire two more employees. Customers who survived the recession, partly by delaying purchase of new vehicles, are now replacing aging fleets. The company is poised for fresh growth with a strong team and the building they moved into in 2010. Katherine chuckles that while that space first seemed so large, they’re now considering buying nearby land for a warehouse. Their advice to other small businesses is simple: “Find your niche and be really good at one thing” and “start looking for the SBDC resources at the beginning.”