The Secret of Their Success

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2008

Business news of late resembles the Monty Python sketch where the starving man in the lifeboat stands up and hollers, “We’re done for! We’re done for!” The local business scene feels a bit like this now. Lots of doom and gloom and panic. But we found a stockpile of success stories, four local businesspeople who actually had one of their best years in 2007. Here’s why:

Take Nothing for Granted

Geoffrey Michel, The Met

The Met is many things. It’s a high-end men’s and women’s specialty-clothing boutique on St. Armands Circle. It’s also a posh day spa offering luxe treatments in 5,000 square feet of marbled, perfumed luxury. Whatever you call it, The Met had a very good year in 2007.

Geoffrey Michel and his wife, Brenda, are its owners. He runs the fashion side of the business. She runs the spa.

What’s the secret of The Met’s success? Well, for starters, Michel doesn’t like to assume that he has succeeded.

“I’m superstitious,” he says. “To me, it’s arrogant to say, ‘We’ve made it. We’ve arrived.’ In this business, you never arrive. If you think you have, you haven’t. Wherever you are, you’ll wind up stuck there.”

As he sees it, the way to avoid being stuck is easy to see and hard to do. Don’t be arrogant. Be vigilant. Raise the bar constantly. Treat your employees well and they’ll treat your customers right. Keep the customer in focus. Make sure his or her experience is supreme.

“We cater to the luxury market,” Michel says. “We need to constantly improve the quality of our clients’ experience. That’s a consistent trend in our business. An economic downturn doesn’t change that.”

He admits that things got tougher in 2007. Costs went up across the board. The Michels responded by keeping quality standards high and avoiding price mark-ups. Their customers responded with continued loyalty.

“We earned that loyalty,” he says. “We don’t take it for granted. At our employee Christmas party, I let them know that Brenda and I are grateful to all of them—and we all need to extend our gratitude to our clients. They’re the reason we’re having this nice party.”

Whenever you get into an economic slow time like this, you need to do an attitude check, he says. “Find that sense of humility and appreciation for who you serve.”

The Michels choose their employees carefully. They think of their business as a family, all working toward a common goal. Where others have lowered standards, they’ve decided to keep improving them.

“Success is never given,” he says. “You have to earn it every day.”

Do Your Homework

Linda A. Page, Prudential Palms Realty

Linda A. Page is a real estate agent at Prudential Palms Realty who specializes in the upscale homes and condominiums of Sarasota’s downtown and waterfront. These days, that’s a tough sell. Even so, she was her firm’s top performer in 2007, with just under $30 million in sales. “It was my best year ever,” she says.

What’s the secret of her success? “I know what I’m doing,” she says. “Simultaneously, I recognize that I can always know more. I’m constantly doing my homework—making myself the expert on every detail of the listings I represent, from the floor plan to the use of materials to the architects, builders and craftspeople responsible. It’s much more than memorizing a list of facts—it’s knowing the facts that matter to your clients, in terms of their needs, from their point of view.”

Page learned this approach when she started in the real estate industry in 1976. She wasn’t an agent, but a go-to person for several major developers, including a six-year stint as the broker and director of sales for Pat Neal’s University Park Country Club.

Developers and real estate agents take different tacks when marketing their properties, she says. Developers assume they have to sell all their properties, so they devise sales plans targeting a specific client base with lots of specific information. Their marketing strategies are creative, and labor and time intensive.

When Page began working as a Prudential Palms Realty agent in 2003, she adapted this research-heavy sales approach and positioned herself as a specialist in the downtown and waterfront niche.

Other real estate agents can easily drop a key in a lock box and let another agent show the property; Page demands that she be there in person. She’s the expert, after all.

“I show my properties because I know my properties inside and out. I can point out a hidden feature another agent couldn’t. I make a point of being the expert, just as I did when I worked for developers. That’s the reason I did so well in 2007,” she explains.

Page’s encouraging final words? “I’m a firm believer that people will continue to buy and sell in all markets. People will still get married, still have babies, still retire, still have job transfers and still get divorced,” she says. “These life passages all create reasons to move. There will always be lots of people buying and selling, no matter what the market is.”

Stay Positive

Michael Bush, Home Resource

Home Resource offers hip, stylish, contemporary furniture and design services in Sarasota’s Rosemary District.

The store’s original owner initially hired Michael Bush as a consultant in 2002. He became a co-owner in 2003 and a full owner, along with his wife, Kathy, in 2005.

Bush changed the things that didn’t work and kept the things that did. He kept the high-end furniture lines from America and Europe. He stuck with Home Resource’s original core of dedicated professionals and expanded the talent pool to area designers.

“I’ve got the right team,” Bush says. “Part of my job is knowing everyone’s strengths and knowing where to put people in relationship to each other.”

The Home Resource team never forgets who they’re working for: the customers. “Word of mouth is our strength,” he says. “Our customers know they don’t have to go to Miami to find a phenomenal line of furniture. We’ve got it, they know it and they keep coming back.”

As Bush describes it, Home Resource is more than a place to shop. It’s a place to get ideas, a place to network. Clients come in, hang out and socialize.

Bush shares another success secret: a lack of preconceived ideas. “From a furniture industry point of view, I’m a rookie,” he says. “I don’t come from that background.”

Bush started out in Mobil Oil as the lead finance person [PROPER TITLE?] as it expanded its scope from a national to a global petrochemical company. Next, he functioned as acting president of Domino’s Pizza in the UK—and turned the company around in a year and a half. While visiting his wife’s parents in Florida, Bush investigated the job prospects in Sarasota. After two years as chief operating officer of Epicurean Life, a fine wine, culinary and catering group, he decided that the food service industry wasn’t what interested him. Finding a business with unused potential and helping it reach that potential—especially a business that allowed him to spend more time with his family—fit his goals. And that’s when he found Home Resource.

In Bush’s view, his independent attitude meant the difference between a good year and a bad year.

“If you want to put that in the context of 2007, we were bombarded with so much negative news. It’s easy to take that to heart,” he says. “But negative thinking leads to negative results. It’s like saying, ‘We don’t expect a lot of business in the summer.’ If you believe that, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I refused to let the negativity be a part of my thinking. I think that’s why 2007 was a great year, and why 2008 will be, too. I wake up every morning knowing there’s a person with a dollar in their hand who wants to spend it on furniture. It’s my objective to let them find what they want in my store.”

It’s All About Marketing

Sean Murphy, Beach Bistro

Sean Murphy is the chef-owner of Beach Bistro, a landmark Anna Maria Island restaurant that combines award-winning cuisine with New Orleans flair and a stunning Gulf view. His wife, Susan, is in charge of quality control and finances. Her assessment of 2007? “Business was great,” she says, “Our summer was our greatest ever”—up 15 percent over the last calendar year.

According to Murphy, the secret is his team. “Everybody’s important,” he says. “Each individual does a great job, but it’s more than that. Every day, we all get together and brainstorm. We evaluate the plan, the product, what we’re doing right and what we could do better. We put a bunch of ideas in a pile and pull out the ones that work. It’s management by committee, every day.”

This flexible thinking is the opposite of a top-down approach. “We try to see things from the point of view of the customer,” Murphy says.

The Beach Bistro team noted two major trends in 2007: growing customer concern for both the waistline and the wallet.

“Historically, we’ve offered large, full-portion entrées,” Murphy says. “We noticed that people were eating and spending in smaller portions, so we shifted to more small-plate presentations. We gave our customers the opportunity to try more things at a lighter focus point.”

Keeping customers happy is a chef’s art, after all. It makes them come back. That’s especially important at Beach Bistro. “We’re off the beaten path,” Murphy explains. “We don’t have a street corner location. We’ve never done a lot of walk-in business. Ninety percent of our customers are repeat customers.”

But responding to consumers and offering a quality product aren’t enough. “If your customers don’t know about your product, it’s like a tree falling in the forest when there’s no one around,” Murphy says. “If you’ve got something new, something great, you’ve got to tell them.”

Obviously, Murphy got the word out in 2007. How? “We expanded our niche advertising in every unconventional, creative way we could think of.”

Murphy incorporated a customer-courtesy van that also functions as a billboard on wheels with Beach Bistro’s name and image on the side. “Our main motive is to allow our customers to enjoy great wine and make sure they get home all right,” he notes.

He also started an e-newsletter in addition to Beach Bistro’s snail-mail newsletter. Because customers had to ask for it to get it, its target audience was clearly hungry for Beach Bistro fare. “We send out four a year,” says Murphy. “We know it’s being read by people who have been patrons in the past and might again be in the future.”

Murphy also started subtle-but-effective in-house advertising to reinforce the company image. This includes a Beach Bistro brochure and an application for the e-newsletter delivered along with the check.

Finally, he commissioned a Web site makeover. “Before, our Web site was very slick but didn’t say much,” says Murphy. “It was image-based advertising. In 2007, we gave it a makeover. It still looks good, but we made sure to provide more useful information.”

The busy restaurateur smiles, remembering a valuable life lesson from the wise Mel Brooks. “In The History of the World: Part I, my favorite scene is the one where the pilgrim is climbing to the top of the mountain,” he says. “He finally gets there, and lies prostrate before the guru. “What’s the secret of the universe?’ he says. And the guru says, ‘Marketing.’

“That’s our ultimate secret weapon—and it worked in 2007.”

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