Business survival of the fittest

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The small-business owner is usually the first to settle in a sparsely populated area – some services are needed no matter how transitional the setting. As more people flock to the area, more businesses follow, including the corporate types. In the beginning – an independent pizza joint; later – a Pizza Hut.

Thirty years ago, Colorado Springs’ Academy Boulevard was a business startup Mecca. Because of fast-paced development, the area was ripe for new businesses.

Residential growth in Falcon has spawned a flourishing commercial area – the eastern plains town is no longer home to only one small diner and one combined gas station/grocery store.

As Academy Boulevard once was, Falcon is now an entrepreneur’s dreamland.

Staying alive in any business community is about survival of the fittest. Two of the fittest businesses in the Springs were built customer service and quality products.

Richard Forward, owner of Out West Awning Co., providers of customized awnings, has survived, he said, because “I insist on good customer service – you are only as good as your last warranty problem and how you deal with it.”

Forward’s parents bought Out West Tent & Awning Co. in 1977 – the outfitting and awning store had been an icon in the Springs since 1903. The awning business outgrew the tent division in 1978, and the Forwards changed the name to Out West Awning Co. Forward worked as an installer for his parents, and, when they retired in 1989, he bought the business. “I funded their retirement,” Forward said.

The big-box stores, like Home Depot, have never been too much competition, Forward said. The corporate stores sell do-it-yourself awnings, and Forward offers awnings tailored to the customers’ needs. Out West Awning manufactures its own products, designing them for quality and the Colorado climate.

“The key to staying in business is don’t cut corners and continue offering quality,” Forward said. “No matter how tough the times get, people look for quality – they want the best for their dollar.”

Surviving a sluggish economy has been a challenge, but Forward said he always keeps a good reserve “handy for the lean times.” Survival is common sense, Forward said. “Don’t spend more than you take in.”

Forward also said sticking with his tried-and-true marketing avenue – print media – has been a key survival tool as well.

“Based on my business, I think the economy is getting better as the troops come home – the mood is much better in the region,” Forward said. “The most fun I have is trying to get the customer’s ideas down on paper and satisfying them. It’s about offering quality and value and backing it up with excellent customer service.”

Customer service is also the No. 1 survival tool for new Runners Roost owners, Gary and Linda Staines.

The Staineses bought the long-standing downtown runners haven in January. Prior to the purchase, Gary Staines worked at the store for two years under the previous owner, Dennis Giannangeli, who owned the business for 22 of the 27 years Runners Roost has been a landmark in downtown Springs.

The Staineses have never owned a retail operation, but they bring miles of running expertise to the business. Both are former Great Britain Olympians: Linda Staines competed in the 400-meter run and Gary Staines in the 5,000-meter run in the 1988 Olympics. Before moving to the Springs in 1986, the Staineses spent many years training in the area because of the high altitude.

The Pikes Peak region’s quality of outdoor life, which harbors a solid group of runners, and the downtown location has been a strong survival tool for Runners Roost, Gary Staines said. However, customer service, unparalleled elsewhere, and quality products are what keep the running and walking enthusiasts coming through the doors, he said. “Many people are not educated about running apparel and running shoes,” he said. “We are not just shoe-sales people – we are a shoulder to lean on and a specialty business that is in our hearts. We have a background in running and biomechanical knowledge that allows us to custom fit the shoe to the runner. Running is my life; it is all I know.”

Besides a strong niche, another of Staines’ survival tools is word-of-mouth advertising and high visibility in the community. Runners Roost is a sponsor of many area races, including the renown Pikes Peak Marathon – the “Grand Prix of running,” Staines said. On April 1, Staines sponsored a 6 a.m. training run at Garden of the Gods and 70 people showed up. He also works with high school children, teaching them about running techniques and hosting their cross-country meets. Survival, Staines said, is about “getting and staying involved.”

The U.S. Small Business Administration reported that two thirds of new-employer firms survive two years and half of the startups with employees stay in business four years. The SBA says that major survival factors are ample capital, size in relation to the number of employees, the owner’s education level and the owner’s reason for starting the business.

The financially fittest businesses, according to Internet-based “Money,” adhere to the following five money-management survival tips:

n Turn debt into cash – stay on top of the accounts receivables.

n Manage the cash flow – Rob Bastian of the Australian-based Coalition of Small Business Organizations said, “Just because you call it income in your account doesn’t mean that money is actually coming in the door.”

n Be liquid. In tough times, do not tie up money in inventory or “work in progress.”

n Match debt to capital: Do not use short-term “debt facilities” like credit cards or overdrafts for long-term capital items; instead, make sure there is a nest egg to cover expenses during hard times.

n Act early: Cut staff or sell excess stock early when signs of an economic downturn surface.

Money-management is paramount to business survival; however, Leslie Lewis, the executive director of the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce, said, “Unless the product is quality and the service is customer-oriented, all the capital in the world won’t help a business survive.” Lewis said service and product is what keeps the customer coming back to that first-on-the-scene individually owned pizza joint.

- Editorial@csbj.com