Small Business Makeovers in 2015: Advice taken to heart after makeovers of 3 Miami-Dade companies

In 2015, Miami Herald makeovers gave small business owners across Miami-Dade County the opportunity to work, free of charge, with retired business experts to make their companies better. The Herald partnered with certified counselors from the Miami-Dade Chapter of SCORE, a nonprofit organization of volunteers who have been successful entrepreneurs. SCORE volunteer counselors use their experience and expertise in business to offer free mentoring services that help small businesses grow, improve and succeed. For each makeover, SCORE put together a team to dispense advice and assistance that helped small businesses like AAA Million Auto Parts in Little Havana, A-KiD’s Party Express in Hialeah and C.S. Orchids in Miami to develop comprehensive business plans, embrace social media and find new ways to engage their customers.

Recently, the Herald sat down with Orlando Espinosa of SCORE to take a look back at how a few of these small businesses that received a makeover in 2015 are doing today.

A-KiD’s Party Expressemineo media A-Kid's party express Miami Herald

Back in March, SCORE counselors Doug Shavel, CEO of Galante Studio Distribution; Jorge Gonzalez, founder and principal of Vermis Analytics; and Senen Garcia, a Miami-based attorney, helped Daniel Guzmán and Isabel Arias, owners of A-KiD’s Party Express in Hialeah.

As often happens with small businesses, the owners do multiple jobs within the company. Guzmán and Arias were no different. They were so busy running the business day-to-day that marketing often fell by the wayside. They purchased the company from its previous owners in 2004 and never looked back. The SCORE team recommended that Guzmán and Arias use social media to market their business. The team advised Guzmán and Arias to create a Facebook page and to get a Twitter account. They showed Guzmán and Arias how easy it is to use these free options to reach out to customers. The team also suggested that Guzmán and Arias revamp their website and enable online payments.

Although the business had been around for over 25 years, Garcia also recommended a name change to take advantage of the history of the old name, A-KiD’s Party Express, while introducing a new one. Garcia recommended rolling out the name as a new division of the company as this would enable a slow transition out of the old name while building the brand of the new one. Guzmán and Arias were hesitant about changing the name and weren’t committed to doing it.

“This business is a great story of what you accomplish when you buy a company from someone else,” Espinosa said. “They have revenue between $500K to $1 million annually and that is due to their hard work. With the SCORE counselors as part of their team, Mr. Guzmán and Ms. Arias were able to get a clear picture of what they needed to do to grow their company and promote it using social media, which is relatively cheap to do.”

At their first meeting with SCORE, Guzmán and Arias admitted that they did almost everything related to their business, which was tough. After talking with the counselors, they both realized that social media would be a great way to get their business out there without incurring much cost.

As a result of working with SCORE, Guzmán and Arias created a Facebook page and integrated their existing website with PayPal to take online payments. They did not, however, change the name of the company.

AAA MILLION AUTO PARTSemineo media aaa million auto parts miami herald

In July, SCORE counselors spent three weeks working with Margarita Hernández and her daughter Cristina, owners of AAA Million Auto Parts in Little Havana. The SCORE team included Espinosa; Althea Harris, assistant district director for Marketing and Outreach for the Small Business Administration Area 1 in Miami; Julio Canas, business development director for Harbor Ithaka Wealth Management; and Raju Mohandas, senior business consultant for International Services Inc.

Hernández was tasked with accomplishing three key things to grow her business: revamp her website; create a business plan; and consider automating the manual processes that were consuming a great deal of her time.

“With Margarita, we were able to take someone who had an interesting business with a long history that began in Cuba and work with her to do the things that were needed to see real future growth in her company,” Espinosa said.

Today, nearly five months later, Hernández has taken the SCORE counselors’ advice and is working with the team to implement their suggestions.

“We are helping Margarita develop a new brand identity and a new business plan that serve as a road map for her in the future,” Espinosa said. “We are also working on a new logo, a new website and delegating the work that is involved with running the company day-to-day so that she can concentrate on marketing her business.”

“Working with SCORE has been an amazing experience,” Hernández said. “The caliber of experts that small business owners get to work with is excellent.”

C.S. ORCHIDSemineo media cs orchids Miami Herald

In September, SCORE worked with Carmen and Carlos Segrera, owners of C.S. Orchids in Miami. When they contacted the Miami Herald for a makeover, the Segreras were looking to expand their company, which offers a variety of services including custom arrangements that can be purchased or leased and maintenance of private orchid collections. They also wanted advice on how to develop a business plan, use social media to engage their customers on a consistent basis and apply for government grants and contracts.

The SCORE team for this makeover included Sandi Abbott, the owner of Xpresso Content Café, a digital marketing agency that specializes in helping small businesses grow their sales and referral network by using the latest online marketing tools; Lorinda Gonzalez, a grant writer and owner of Grant Ink, a firm that provides clients with access to quality grant-writing services; and Sam Shirley, an associate with Prudential who has worked in the financial sector for major banks including Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

“It was great working with the Segreras,” Espinosa said. “The SCORE team is working with them on improving their cash flow so that they can expand in the future. We’re also helping them apply for grants and identify opportunities for government contracting.”

Now, anyone interested in orchids can check out the company on Facebook. “The Segreras were able to get their Facebook page going quickly,” Espinosa said. “We helped them with a content strategy and they have been posting on a consistent basis, which has resulted in an increase in followers for them.”

WHAT’S AHEAD?

For his part, Espinosa is looking to seeing what the 2015 class of makeovers will accomplish in the future.

“It’s exciting to see these companies take the advice they’ve been given and run with it,” Espinosa said. “What’s great about SCORE is that businesses don’t just get advice, they get a partner. Our counselors are with the business owners every step of the way, offering guidance and support.”

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Miami Herald Makeover: Alex Electric Services

Alex Electric Services in Hialeah gets Small Business Makeover

A passion for tinkering with electronics as a young boy and a stint in the Marine Corps Reserve as a teen paved the way for Alex Varela to own a small business as an adult. Varela, who was born and raised in Miami Springs, always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he knew early on that it wasn’t going to be easy to accomplish.

“Being a small business owner really is a 24-hour job. It consumes all of you,” Varela said. “I saw that firsthand growing up when my dad, Emilio, had his own business working as an accountant,” he said. “There were definitely struggles along the way, but my dad worked hard and became successful in his business. He inspired me, and I knew that no matter how hard it was, I wanted to do it, too.”

When he was 19, Varela joined the Marine Corps Reserve and served for six years. During that time, he worked as a technician repairing small missiles. It was an intricate job that required discipline and attention to detail, both of which would serve Varela well on the road to owning a small business. But Varela didn’t jump right into entrepreneurship when he left the Marines. Instead, he started working on construction sites in Miami fixing computer equipment and machines. Varela knew that he loved electronics, but he wasn’t as confident about his skills as an entrepreneur.Miami Herald Makeover Emineo Media Alex Electric

“I needed to see what being an entrepreneur was like,” Varela said. “I wanted to know what running a business would entail and whether it was something I would really like doing before I made the leap to actually owning one.”

Varela wasn’t an employee for long. Just shy of a year of working for someone else, Varela decided to strike out on his own in 1991. He opened Alex Electric Services in Hialeah the same year. The company provides a range of services from repairing consumer products to installing and repairing electrical systems for buildings and homes.

“Back then, I really didn’t know how I was going to grow a business,” Varela said. “But I knew that I was good at what I did and that I was born and raised here.” He took a grassroots approach to getting the word out about his new company. “Early on, we got a lot of referrals through friends and family,” he said.

As a graduate of La Salle High School in Miami, he had quite a few friends in the area who eventually became his repeat customers. The clients at his father’s accounting firm were also good customers.

Business boomed for a long time, according to Varela. But in 2008, at the start of the economic downtown, Alex Electric Services took a hit financially. “It was a rough time,” he said. “But I didn’t want to lay people off.”

So Varela began pouring his own money into the business to keep it afloat. The economy improved, and the business eventually recovered, thanks in part to his decision to expand into commercial and industrial projects.

Today, he has 14 full-time employees and one who works part time. He owns five trucks that electricians take on service calls. And, according to Varela, the business is profitable.

While many small businesses need help with marketing or customer relations, Varela has an entirely different problem: His business can’t run without him.

Varela, who is married and has two children, wanted to be less hands-on with the day-to-day business and spend more time with his family and on increasing sales of commercial accounts. But to do that, he would need to structure a solid management team and streamline existing processes for things like invoicing and record-keeping.

To get help, Varela turned to the Miami Herald for a Small Business Makeover to help him find the best way to achieve his goals. The Herald, in turn, brought in SCORE Miami, a chapter of the national nonprofit organization of retired volunteers who have been successful entrepreneurs and built thriving businesses. SCORE volunteers use their entrepreneurial skills and offer mentoring services to small-business owners for free.

The SCORE team included Rosa Arboleya, owner of Perpetual Message, a Miami-based design studio. Arboleya has more than 20 years of experience in marketing, Web and graphic design. Alvin Hayes is SCORE Miami’s director of development and has built a long career in sales with companies like Robert Half International and the Kelley Law Registry. He recently was chairman of the 2015 SCORE Miami Business Leadership Awards. Raju Mohandas owns BridgePoint Financial Group. For the past decade, he has worked with small-business owners to obtain financing. He helps businesses restructure and obtain working capital. He recently was named SCORE Miami’s volunteer of the year.

After working with Alex Electric Services for about three weeks, the counselors put the company on the road to running efficiently without Varela at the helm day-to-day. The counselors agreed that Varela had to focus on finding ways to get things running more efficiently by identifying staff members who could manage the process. To accomplish these goals, the counselors recommended the following:

▪ Delegate nonessential administrative tasks: “In this business, Mr. Varela is very hands-on,” Hayes said. “He needs to delete some of his nonessential tasks that are administrative in nature. I suggest that he create a list of the things he does in a day and determine what can be delegated to someone else.”

Varela agreed. “I’ve been so involved in the day-to-day running of this business that it’s difficult to transition away from it,” he said. “But I need to do it because I need to be focused on the bigger picture in terms of sales and on quality time with my wife and two great kids.”

“To increase sales, the company needs to focus on developing a solid sales team,” Hayes said. “Mr. Varela can’t do it on his own. He needs to identify the people in the company that can lead by taking on core managerial tasks.”

To further streamline sales-related processes, Hayes recommended that the company create a contract or estimate agreement for both commercial and residential customers. “Because the company services two distinct sectors, there needs to be agreements in place that take into account the specific needs of each type of customer,” Hayes said.

Mohandas agreed. “When you’re looking at how to improve efficiency, it’s important to examine where you are today,” he said. “Mr. Varela has two key goals in mind, but he needs to put the procedures into place to support what he’s trying to do.”

Hayes recommends developing a procedure manual for office staff and electricians. “Every employee should have input into what goes into the manual,” he said. “The company’s staff does the work every day and have valuable insight into what can be done to improve the system.”

Mohandas recommends making improvements to the system for collecting payment from customers. “Right now, residential clients are on the same billing cycle as commercial customers,” he said. “The company needs to collect payment on residential jobs as soon as the work is complete. Otherwise, they’re waiting three to four weeks to collect on residential jobs. The business reported that their average residential sale is around $600.”

Varela noted that he spent a lot of time doing things the old-fashioned way. After working with the SCORE counselors, he recognized that one aspect of the business he could improve right away is the way he collected invoices.

“I have five trucks,” Varela said. “Each truck does about five calls or so per day, which means five invoices to process per truck. We don’t take credit cards out in the field, so my staff is spending time manually producing invoices. Or if a customer wants to use a credit card, the electricians have to call the office to process a transaction over the phone.”

Hayes recommended using a mobile service like Square to process credit-card transactions in the field.

▪ Implement procedures and protocols to improve inventory control: Mohandas recommended that the company take a hard look at its inventory control procedures to reduce loss.

“Right now, Mr. Varela doesn’t know about every item that goes into each one of his five trucks,” Mohandas said. “He needs to review and manage the inventory by standardizing and limiting the inventory that goes into the truck.”

Mohandas also encouraged Varela to stop using debit cards to make purchases while on a job.

“They need to plan ahead of time the possible parts needed before a job is going out to be executed,” Mohandas said. “This would reduce and possible eliminate the use of debit cards for the purchase of parts and equipment. I would recommend getting some job costing software in place to help the company plan purchases ahead of time.”

Mohandas was confident that by making the recommended changes, it would help the company streamline the purchasing process: “Presently he needs to get control of his business so that he can put the people and tools in place to run it instead of the current status where the business is running him.”

▪ Move beyond word-of-mouth marketing: While Alex Electric Services relied primarily on word-of-mouth to drive sales, Arboleya recommended taking the company’s Facebook page — which had just three likes — and concentrating on building a following of existing customers. “It’s not just Facebook,” she said. “Across the board, the company needs to devote time to growing their social-media platforms.”

This is an area where Varela admitted that he has not had much time to explore. “As the SCORE counselors saw from our Facebook page, we weren’t really putting much effort into social media,” Varela said. “That’s another reason why we sought the help of SCORE — to help us find the right direction.”

Arboleya also recommended developing email campaigns for discounts and promotions that are sent to customers using a free service like MailChimp. “It’s free to send to a list of 2,000 names,” she said. “It’s a free way to get your feet wet. You can also segment your contact list into commercial and residential subscribers for more targeted campaigns.”

Arboleya encouraged Varela to create a branded email newsletter. “Ask all clients, vendors and professionals you meet to join your newsletter,” she said. “To grow your business, it is important to always stay top of mind. Structured emails with informative content is a perfect, inexpensive way to do so. Collect as many email addresses as you can and send out at least one email every two to three weeks with helpful and interesting industry content.”

Timing of the newsletter and its content are key. “Scheduling biweekly or monthly emails keeps you in contact with clients and potential new ones,” Arboleya said. “Newsletter content should be 80 percent useful information and 20 percent specials, discounts or services offered.”

Varela said he was committed to taking the SCORE counselors’ advice: “I learned a lot of things through this experience. I was able to work out ways to delegate and shift responsibility to people who I know can lead. I just had to change my overall approach, and the counselors really helped me with that.”

And he’s hopeful about the future. “My wife is a teacher at Coral Gables Elementary,” he said. “And I know that she is looking forward to me turning the reins over to others so that I can spend more time with my family.”

Tasha Cunningham can be reached at Tasha.Cunningham@cg.mgs.com.

The makeover

The business: Alex Electric Services has been in business for nearly 25 years and is located at 2245 W 10th Court, Hialeah, FL 33010. The company was established in 1991 by Alex Varela. The company specializes in providing electrical services to residents and commercial structures.

The challenge: Finding ways to streamline internal processes so that the company’s owner, Alex Varela, could get out of running the business day-to-day and spend more time with his family.

The experts: Rosi Arboleya is the owner of Perpetual Message, a Miami-based design studio. Alvin Hayes is SCORE Miami’s director of development. Raju Mohandas is the owner of BridgePoint Financial Group. He helps businesses restructure and obtain working capital. He was recently named SCORE Miami’s Volunteer of the Year.

The makeover: In just under three weeks, the SCORE team identified several ways to help the company streamline its processes and run it more efficiently. They worked with the owner, Alex Varela, to implement strategies and restructure the way the company runs.

How to apply for a makeover

Business Monday’s Small Business Makeovers focus on a particular aspect of a business that needs help. Experts in the community will provide the advice. The makeover is open to full-time businesses in Miami-Dade or Broward counties that have been open at least two years. Email your request to rclarke@miamiherald.com and put ‘Makeover’ in the subject line.

Source: The Miami Herald

Writer: Tasha Cunningham

Photo: Hector Gabino hgabino@elnuevoherald.com

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Miami Herald Makeover: C.S. Orchids

emineo media cs orchids Miami Herald MakeoverFor most couples, being married for half a century is quite an accomplishment. But for Carmen and Carlos Segrera, their 50-year union is about more than marriage. The pair are also business partners and owners of a company that specializes in creating elegant arrangements of delicate orchids for homes and businesses.

It all started more than two decades ago as a hobby for Carmen Segrera.

“I have always been fascinated by orchids,” Segrera said. “Ever since I was young, I have been in love with them. I have grown them and made arrangements with them. My friends and neighbors loved it. It was also a welcome reprieve from the stress of working in corporate America.”

After years of working for a major airline, Segrera wanted to turn her passion into a business. The Segreras turned her hobby into C.S. Orchids, a company that has been in business in Miami for more than 12 years.

“I knew this is what she loved to do,” Carlos Segrera said. “And after so many years of watching her, I developed a passion for it too. It’s really a pleasure watching the joy and beauty that orchids bring into people’s lives.”

With little more than passion and a will to succeed, the Segreras opened their business in 2003. The couple’s first client was former University of Miami President Donna Shalala. “She really encouraged us when my husband and I were starting out,” Segrera said. “And she remains a client to this day.”

With a client list that now includes major professional and residential buildings like the Wells Fargo Center and Gables Condominium, the Segreras are looking to expand. The company offers a variety of services including custom arrangements that can be purchased or leased and maintenance of private orchid collections. But they wanted to explore ways they can grow the business using tools like social media and the Web to market their company and increase sales. The couple also wanted to look at developing a business plan to create a targeted road map for growth and finding out more about local and state grants to help small businesses.

Neither of the Segreras is a marketing expert, however, and the couple instead turned to the Miami Herald for a Small Business Makeover to help them find the best way to achieve their goals. The Herald, in turn, brought in Miami SCORE, a national nonprofit organization of retired volunteers who have been successful entrepreneurs and built thriving businesses. SCORE volunteers use their entrepreneurial skills and offer mentoring services to small business owners at no charge. SCORE identified three counselors to help C.S. Orchids get on the road to expansion.

The SCORE team included Sandi Abbott, the owner of Xpresso Content Café, a digital marketing agency that specializes in helping small businesses grow their sales and referral network by using the latest online marketing tools. Abbott has had a long career in corporate communications, including stints at Hertz Car Rental and as a vice president for AmeriFirst Bank in the 1990s. Lorinda Gonzalez is a grant writer and owner of Grant Ink, a firm focused on providing clients with access to quality grant writing services. Gonzalez has helped clients secure grants in a variety of industries and works closely with SCORE clients to help them identify viable grant opportunities for their businesses. Sam Shirley is an associate with Prudential. He has built a long career in the financial sector and has worked for major banks including Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

After working with C.S. Orchids for a little more than a month, the counselors identified several areas of the business where the Segreras could realize immediate improvement. First, the company needed to focus on its website and explore e-commerce. The company also needed a business plan. The company also wanted help to understand what opportunities were available in terms of securing government grants and participating in public procurements in an effort to maximize growth.

The counselors agreed that the Segreras needed to concentrate on the business plan and incorporating e-commerce into their website. To accomplish these goals, the SCORE team had the following advice:

▪ Develop a business plan and run more efficiently: “This business has been around for over 12 years but never really had a formal business plan,” Shirley said. “To grow and successfully move toward expanding the business, C.S. Orchids is going to need one.”

Shirley recommended developing the plan to breathe new life into the business. “By taking the time to put together a solid business plan, C.S. Orchids will be inspired to set new goals and objectives and take their business further,” Shirley said. “It’s going to give the company the opportunity to approach running their business in a more systematic fashion and allow them to focus on growth.”

Shirley also suggested a multipronged approach to finding ways to save money and run the business more efficiently. He advised the company to review all insurance policies for both the business and the Segreras personally to help save money on monthly premiums.

“The company should also review workers’ compensation policies, auto policies and business liability insurance to see where they can save on premiums,” Shirley said. “Another opportunity to save money and run more efficiently would be to look at working with FPL to find ways to reduce their energy usage in maintaining the orchids.”

▪ Explore government grants and public procurements: As a seasoned grant writer, Gonzalez saw prime opportunities for C.S. Orchids to benefit from government grants.

“C.S. Orchids should definitely look into the mom and pop grants offered by many Miami-Dade County commissioners,” Gonzalez said. “There are also great opportunities out there for minority and women-owned businesses to get grants.”

Gonzalez also recommended getting certified as a minority-owned small business to take advantage of public procurements.

“If the company were a certified small business they could take advantage of Requests for Proposals and other public procurements for their services, which includes plant maintenance.”

▪ Embrace e-commerce and social media: “The company’s website is due for an update,” Abbott said. “I recommend going to a WordPress template that is mobile-friendly and easy to update.”

Abbott also recommended adding an e-commerce area to the site to take orders online, a blog to the website that is updated regularly and adding a photo gallery to showcase the company’s products and services.

“Photos are a very engaging way to sell a product,” Abbott said. “They could include a sampling of the arrangements for sale or lease, the gift baskets they make and the larger corporate installations. While it’s not necessary to include pricing, they could at least give potential clients an idea of what services are offered and give them a reason to stay longer on your site. I would also include a personal touch by telling the story of how the company got started and their philosophy on providing quality service.”

Abbott also recommended including a customer referral form and testimonials on the website as a way for people to get in touch with the company. In terms of social media, Abbott recommended making the company’s Facebook page more robust by adding more information in the “About Us” section and a link to the website.

“The company should create photo albums of their installations and post images of the staff doing fun things like making arrangements or even dancing in the office,” Abbott said. “And when they go to events, take pictures and tag people in the posts. They want an ideal mix of about 50 percent entertaining posts that encourage folks to like, share and comment. It’s important to share content that is engaging. The more engaging your content, the more Facebook will show it in the newsfeed of your fans. Another 30 percent of the content posted should be industry expertise and the last 20 percent should be about the company.”

For their part, the Segreras plan on taking the counselors’ advice and reassessing how they are doing at the end of this year.

“We are so blessed to have met this wonderful group of experts who are helping us to get our business to the next level,” Carmen Segrera said. “My husband and I are grateful for the opportunity that has been given to us and will implement all of the recommendations offered to help us grow.”

The makeover

The business: C.S. Orchids has been in business for 12 years and is located at 4936 SW 75th Ave., Miami. The company was established in 2003 by Carmen and Carlos Segrera. The company provides custom orchid arrangements and maintenance of private orchid collections to residents and businesses throughout South Florida.

The challenge: Moving the business’ marketing from traditional word-of-mouth promotion to embracing digital tools and social media to help the company grow.

The experts: Sandi Abbott, owner of Xpresso Content Café with over 20 years of marketing experience; Lorinda Gonzalez, a grant writing expert who has worked with SCORE for over five years; and Sam Shirley, a financial expert with Prudential who has over 15 years of banking experience. Orlando Espinosa, co-founder of Emineo Media, who has more than 25 years of experience in branding and social media. He has also led training programs for entrepreneurs both in the United States and abroad.

The makeover: In just over a month, the SCORE team developed a solid marketing strategy for C.S. Orchids. They worked with the owners to develop new marketing strategies using social media and other online tools and identified opportunities to secure small business grants.

Read more here: Miami Herald
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