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How one forward thinking business applied innovative thinking and techniques to their business and is prospering during the recession.

How one company navigated dangerous waters to make their business recession proof.These days it’s impossible to watch the evening news, read a newspaper or go on the Internet without being inundated by stories of how the current recession has destroyed the economy.   One doesn’t have to be a pessimist to get the impression that there are very few successful small businesses left!  While many small businesses have suffered greatly, some are not only surviving, but thriving. Is it luck that enables these companies to do well in tough economic times, or smart decision-making that enables these businesses to navigate through the downward economic spiral?  Such recession-proof businesses can be called “Recession Busters.”

EEI: Example of Recession-Busting
One recession-busting company is Enviro Equipment Inc. (or EEI) of Charlotte, NC which sells and rents equipment used in environmental assessment and remediation. Despite the fact that recession has caused many of its competitors to close up shop, 2011 was EEI’s most profitable year since it opened in 1993. Nonetheless, EEI barely made it out of the early part of the recession. “Not only were sales down between 2008 and 2009, but customers were not paying us; collections were our biggest problem,” said Enviro Equipment Inc. President Denise Chew, who operates the business with her husband, Brian. “As owners, we did not take salaries for months to help cash flow, and we made loans to the business out of our personal funds.”

Recession-Busting Technique #1:  Good Employees = Good Business.
What did EEI do that not only enabled them to stay in business but laid the groundwork for the success they enjoy today?  They did something surprising if not revolutionary: they increased labor expenses.

“We added employees to make sure we maintained our high level of service,” said EEI’s cofounder Brian Chew, a licensed geologist. “In addition, we continued to reward our employees’ good performance even when our industry as a whole was not. Most of our employees are professionals (i.e., biologists, geologists, physicists, etc.), which means they’re well trained and difficult to replace.  Most of them have been with us many years.”

Recession-Busting Technique #2: Using Credit Wisely.
But not cutting back on labor was quite expensive.  With a few of their largest customers taking longer and longer to pay their bills, EEI decided to avoid banks (which had stopped making loans or opening lines of credit to small businesses at that time) altogether while using their good credit history to their advantage. “We got rid of the big banks and started using credit unions which stood by us and even gave us a credit line sufficient to cover Accounts Receivable while we waited.  Getting paid for large State jobs took months, sometimes over a year,” said Brian Chew.

The Chews had to make some sacrifices in order to keep EEI solvent during the most difficult months of the recession, including not taking salaries and loaning the business money from their personal accounts.

Recession-Busting Technique #3: Customer Service Pays Dividends.
Every company claims to be committed to customer service, but EEI’s commitment paid off by 2010 when new and bigger accounts were added to the client roster.

Much larger companies began giving EEI their business after their field personnel complained about their competitors.  These companies had negotiated lower rates with some of the Chews’ competitors, only to discover later that low rates resulted in substandard (i.e., dirty and malfunctioning) equipment. This meant higher project costs because precious field time was lost waiting – sometimes for a full day – for a replacement part to arrive or to clean dirty instruments before they could be properly used.

Not all techniques aimed at improving customer service are so matter-of-fact.  Sometimes they can be fun, too. “We did a survey two years ago asking our customers what would be a good tag line for us to use in our marketing efforts,” offered Denise Chew. “The one that we picked as the winner was ‘Enviro Equipment Inc. – When It Has to Work’ which we still use to this day!”

Recession-Busting Technique #4: Involvement-Marketing, EEI Style.
A company’s marketing efforts can be compared to a jet plane taking off:  much more fuel is required to achieve a certain altitude than to maintain it. During the dark days of the recession, EEI took advantage of their downtime to market their business by way of sharing their time, money and expertise with organizations in a position to refer them to potential clients down the road.

“We stepped up our free equipment training workshops for our customers at our North Carolina facility, as well as our donations of rental equipment to non-profit professional organizations or universities for their use in their training seminars,” said Denise Chew. “We sponsored more of these professional organizations in our industry and exhibited at their tradeshows and meetings.”

Nevertheless, this community outreach approach wasn’t just a marketing ploy but rather a genuine effort at building relationships with like-minded professionals. “Because my husband Brian is a licensed professional Geologist in six States and was an environmental consultant, the nonprofit organizations we donated to mean a lot to us,” explained Denise.

Recession-Busting Technique #5: Moving Forward via Customer Service.
The consensus among many economists is that the current recession will last for several more years. Nevertheless, EEI is prepared to continue using the decision-busting techniques that have proven successful for them so far. “The big companies are finding out what the smaller ones already know; you save time and money by using a top quality firm who is not necessarily the cheapest,” explained Brian Chew. “We even helped them fix a competitor’s equipment in the field when no one at the competitor’s office knew how the equipment worked when a problem occurred. This meant spending time helping a competitor’s customer but, hopefully, the next time they get [their services] from us instead of from our competitor.”

Won’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow
With (hopefully) the darkest days of the recession behind us, the Chews are not letting up on their efforts to grow their company. Not only have Denise and Brian Chew hired their two eldest sons Eric and Evan as full-time employees, but like any smart business EEI has ventured into the realm of social media via Facebook and Twitter and by maintaining a regular newsletter and blog. “Our plan is working,” said President Denise Chew. “Do your best all the time and every time, no matter whether it’s servicing our customers or promoting our business on the Web.”