Sunday, August 17, 2003

Furniture co. owner shapes small business

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

[IMAGE] Victoria Archable, owner of Creative Shapes, (front) and staffers (from left) Jillian Tillery, Jim Kleeman and Danny Gordon show off a desk manufactured in their Camp Washington workspace.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
In her years as a corporate sales and marketing manager, Victoria Archable grew accustomed to wearing one hat. Now that she is a small business owner, Archable has an entire closet full of them.

She swapped corporate life for a crash course in Small Business 101 last fall when she purchased Creative Shapes, a Camp Washington manufacturer of custom office furniture. Since 1986, the company has specialized in products made from laminated wood material.

"I had spent 20 successful years in corporate administration but felt I could do more," she said. "I went looking for opportunities, businesses that had a critical need for sales and marketing, which is my background. This really is a mom-and-pop business. I want to transform it into a viable, sustainable business."

The first step was to learn every aspect of the operation and to take on many of the functions herself.

"The biggest challenge is that you have a lot more responsibility," she said of her hat-juggling existence. "When I worked in corporate America, I knew each day that my job was to call on customers and market my product. I had resources I would go to for other matters. When you run a small business, you are all those things. In some ways, that's what I like best: no two days are the same."

One factor Archable hadn't really foreseen was the downturn in the commercial construction and renovation industry that would affect the office furnishings industry as a whole. Slow sales dictated a leaner organization: Creative Shapes now employs two rather than three craftsmen, and Archable handles all the administration, sales and marketing, although she took on an intern this summer.

"She's picked a very competitive industry with a number of well-established firms," said Brian Frank, Procter & Gamble's diversity supplier manager for Global Business Services. "It's unfortunate that we're not only suffering from a recession but also from an excess of building space. The industry she's trying to serve is not spending a lot in building upgrades and modernization projects."

The hats have gotten a workout as this new business owner learned her trade and vied for market share at the same time. But Archable has been very effective, according to Bruce Carter, project manager for Hunt Construction Group.

"Hat one is marketing," he said. "She got to so many people it wasn't even funny. She found names and phone numbers and got to people. She came and talked to me, and told me what her company had done. First thing you know, I'm hearing about her from three other people."

Carter said that Archable's second hat is estimating and bidding.

"After she got on board with us recognition-wise, she was a bidder on a project that I recently bid, and she ended up giving us the best-value number."

Archable said, "I've tried to get really active in the bid market. I'm now on the bid list of companies like D.A.G., Messer, Hunt and Turner, and become aware of projects as they are happening."

Learning to estimate has been a challenge. "It's the most difficult thing we do," she said. "Everything is custom; rarely do we make the same thing twice. The previous owner had her own system, but most of it was in her head."

So Archable puts on her administrative hat. She's trying to design systems so that Creative Shapes' operations are consistent, efficient and more predictable.

While getting her company name out, bidding on contracts and keeping things humming, Archable also must be Creative Shapes' strategic planner. She is pursuing several strategies for achieving her goal of making the company successful.

"I think there are ways of growing it: by reaching customers outside Cincinnati, by expanding the product line and by making some strategic acquisitions," she said.

Following a mentor's advice to never say no to a customer, the new owner is broadening her shop's capabilities to include solid surfaces (such as Corian) as well as veneers and solid wood as well as laminated wood.

Creative Shapes is also bidding to become the provider of specialty items - such as certain types of hardware - for projects, which the company purchases and installs.

"This allows Vickie to bid a scope of work that is less competitive, where the risk is less. She can grow herself in two directions: millwork and specialties," explained Carter.

Those expanded capabilities were key in winning a recent project through Hunt Construction for P&G. "Creative Shapes is a very lean organization, but very well managed, and can deliver on the contract requirements," Frank said. "Vickie understands customer needs, especially the importance of quick turnaround time. We view them as a candidate that can grow with us long term."

Carving a bigger niche

Victoria Archable believes that as the commercial construction market begins to rebound, Creative Shapes will be poised to win more market share and grow further.

When she's not actively engaged in running the company, she's out networking. She says she has met several people she considers to be trusted business advisers. Creative Shapes is a member of three chambers of commerce and the American Woodworking Institute (AWI).

Through attending workshops such as those offered by AWI and TechSolve, Archable has learned cost-effective ways of dealing with suppliers and processing company paperwork.

Creative Shapes is at 2861 Sidney Ave., Camp Washington. Information: 541-4425.


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