Illinois Avenue Partners LLC has three partners – Gray Gifford, Mike Winton and Tucker Twitmyer, and we own & operate a commercial sign and graphics company with about 90 employees, operations in Florida and Georgia and nationwide customers. This blog has been launched as a way to share stories from the small business front lines in the COVID-19 crisis. We hope you enjoy them, because the last several weeks have been pretty bizarre.
“The executives who ignited the transformation from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus… and then figured out where to drive it.” – Jim Collins, “Good to Great”
We are now online retailers of COVID-19 signs and PPE products (shttps://bit.ly/2UtQXL9). It’s pretty amazing how much 6 motivated people can accomplish in a 72-hour window. We designed 100+ SKUs and built an ecommerce store on our webpage to sell them. Then we looked at each other and said “now what?” Though it wasn’t exactly a Field of Dreams, “if you build it they will come” sort of thing, after a few phone calls, things got pretty crazy.
One of our young salespeople has a college buddy who works in the corporate office at a national discount grocery chain. We had already been prototyping and selling a free-standing polycarbonate ‘sneeze guard’ product to local 7-11’s, but when the senior purchasing manager from the grocery chain reached out and asked for a custom, albeit simple, cashier protection shield for each checkout aisle in ~100 stores, we got really excited. Like really excited. It was go time.
We fulfilled the first order in 2 days, working through a weekend to cut, assemble, pack and ship the product (never been so happy to pay a chunk of OT…). In the likely event that you have not heard our pitch, we have historically steered clear of national account work – retail and restaurant chains where the sign work is more about widget manufacturing and logistics than custom product design. We historically avoided this work because it’s highly competitive and low margin. After completing the first ~100 discount grocery stores, we were awarded several hundred more, and placed firmly into the ‘national account’ arena of the commercial sign industry.
In a matter of 5 days, we became an entirely different company.
While a personal relationship got us in the door, in a matter of days our employees designed, priced, built and shipped a product we’ve never sold. And it’s not like we shipped it all in bulk – we fulfilled orders to hundreds of individual stores. The customer was pleased, and we couldn’t have done it without several quality people stepping up.
However, the reality for us and several other small companies – while this sale feels like winning the World Series, we need to become a New York Yankees dynasty to make it to the other side unscathed. But it starts with the right people, and it seems we have them.
Epilogue: the grocery store purchasing manager called Gray at 11pm tonight asking what other products can we make…
Quick background on IAP:
We’ve built our sign company through four acquisitions with capital from 10 private investors. Our investment focus resides firmly on what we call the lower middle market – companies with <$3mm in EBITDA. It is worth noting that most of these companies and their brokers don’t know what EBITDA is – the lower middle market is a strange place that the institutional investment community pays little attention to. However, for investors willing to roll up their sleeves, these companies can present enormous value. Additionally, the COVID-19 outbreak and related government efforts have shined a bright spotlight on businesses with less than 500 employees. Amid the turmoil, we are scratching and clawing to find opportunities.