Today we sit down with Austin, Texas business investor Jeremy Giroir from Collective Capital as he talks about his journey through acquiring a manufacturing business, implementing technology and processes to maximize efficiency and profits, and eventually selling the business. We will learn about compressing time to create value, increasing headcount to decrease key person risk, and implementing technology to decrease material costs. These principles are applicable to growing manufacturing businesses, but with a bit of creativity, provide insight into how to scale service, product, and eCommerce businesses.
- Learn to let go of responsibilities and delegate. Holding onto tasks because they are familiar is costing you $$
- Keep a running list of all the things you’d like to do to grow or improve the business. Revisit this list monthly for re-ranking of priority. Determine what can be done this year, this quarter, and this month. Rinse and repeat as fast as you can.
- Look at all the processes in your business: sales, inventory management, product or service delivery, scheduling, project management, invoicing, accounting: how much time is being spent on these things and how much can you compress time using software or equipment to create value?
- Consider using technology to decrease dependence on any individual employee to spread responsibility across the whole team.
- If you intend to sell, keep clean books because it can increase the premium you get for your business by inspiring confidence in future earnings and solid processes.
Chris: Jeremy, how do you explain what you do?
Jeremy: I’ve tried to shed the thought of identities a bit so I don’t call myself an entrepreneur but I definitely resonate with the entrepreneurial mindset. I also think I’m an investor. I spend a lot of my time in multi-family real estate but I’m always looking for business deals as well. So if I had to label myself, I’d say I’m an investor/entrepreneur.
Chris: What are you working on right now?
Jeremy: Right now, the big project I’m working on is an RV resort development in Liberty Hill, about 30 minutes outside of Austin. We are looking to redefine the RV industry. We purposely left the word “park” out of our description. We are planning on having really nice amenities and catering to the more remote workforce of the coming generations.
Chris: Today we are talking because The Ronin Society is a small business consultant in Austin for a number of businesses in the small market, which we define as less than $10M in revenue. They aren’t quite big enough for private equity but they have the early stages of clear product market fit. The majority of them aren’t technologists or finance people, and if they are, they are usually too busy working in the business to get some objective outside perspective on how to apply tech and finance to their business. Before we dig into your frameworks and tactics around that, can you tell us about your background?
Jeremy: My dad worked in the oil fields for about 25 years but he always had a side hustle. He sold beepers, sold payphones, had car washes, sold pre-paid phone cards, and eventually built a business around ATMs. He eventually was offered a severance and that’s when he went full time into entrepreneurship. The ATM business ended up taking off as well as the phone card business. The whole time, I was always somewhat involved in whatever he was doing.
I was intrigued by his ability to create something out of nothing.
In college, I never got a job. I was fortunate enough to have access to the phone card business so I went to a bunch of convenience stores around LSU and sold them phone cards and then I put ATMs around LSU as well. There was some upfront work but it leveled out to about 20 hours a month. It was paying me more than all my friends who were working 20-25 hours a week. I definitely had a head start in that my dad was willing to believe in me and finance my ventures. Having his blessing and support was invaluable.
After college, I turned down a job with PricewaterhouseCoopers so I could sell candy. I bought 20 candy vending machines from a guy back when you could still buy businesses in the local paper. There was this paper called the Quick Quarter. I bought them my last semester of college. And I did the math on my return on investment per hour of work. I was making more money than a doctor. So I decided to scale that business. I got some seed money from my dad and I started buying machines, 100 at a time. I hired someone to help me find locations and then I’d put them up. Over two years, I got it up to 500 machines. I ran that for a few years then sold it and moved to Chicago.
In Chicago, I worked for a dental firm, General Dentistry, and when I joined we were doing around $20M in revenue, and when I left five years later, we were up to $100M+. During this time, I learned how to budget properly, forecast numbers, and manage large amounts of accounts receivable. I reported directly to the CFO and saw how a team that was managed properly, held accountable, and working towards the same goal could create incredible things. Before that, I had always been a solo guy, and thought that employees just shortened runways and took away profits. Eventually, I left that business and moved to Austin in search of a business to acquire.
I had dealt with a lot of real estate transactions during my time in dental and developed an affinity for real estate and started to understand the service and product providers that support that industry. I ultimately found a stone fabrication business in Austin that I thought was really interesting and it checked all the initial boxes, so I visited, walked the property, went to a few jobs, and started learning the business. What I loved about it was the combination of manual labor, a real tactile product you could touch, and the art of designing these beautiful stones and working with interior designers. I knew I’d get to wear a lot of hats and have a lot of different conversations which was important to me.
Chris: How many businesses did you look at before buying the stone fabrication business?
Jeremy: I looked at a ton of them and the problem was that the books were always so hard to interpret. It was so hard to tell what the true numbers were. And the numbers never seemed to be as good as advertised. This business was the opposite. They had clean books. They showed growth every month. The finances were probably even better than advertised. And the owner was super friendly and would let me call him with questions any time I was confused or needed some help.
Chris: How was it financed?
Jeremy: I can’t completely disclose it but it was a combination of owner financing and some money from myself and some debt from my dad. It would have qualified for SBA and I thought about going down that route, but the process was tedious and I was lucky to have access to my dad so I went that route.
Chris: What were some surprises when you bought the business?
Jeremy: I bought it from a husband and wife team and I guess I overlooked that I was actually buying a job more so than a business. The two of them handled everything manually, from scheduling to payroll, to invoicing via snail mail. They took customer calls all day, would go out and measure houses, and then go and coordinate with the installers. It was a lot of work. I was working 70-80 hours a week for the first year and a half. Also, customer concentration was high. Two of them made up about 75% of my revenue and I lost one of them which was about 25% of my revenue in the third month in business.
This difficult time is what really sent me in the direction of using technology to upgrade this business. We had clients asking us to do more work but we were busting at the seems. The office only had one computer and with how things were being done, we could only do 5-6 installs a day. The scheduling was done on one of those big calendar posters on your desk. It was how they kept track of any changes on job sites and install dates. It was insane. All invoices were printed and being mailed or hand delivered. In the shop, the equipment being used was probably 20 years old. We had tons of wasted materials that weren’t able to be salvaged or sold. And each project required a highly skilled person that took almost 1.5 hours per project. So the business was really hamstrung.
Chris: From what you’ve said, it looks like you saw some pent up demand that couldn’t be serviced due to limitations of the production side and some general administrative processes that were extremely inefficient. What did you do to solve all this stuff? How do you prioritize?
Jeremy: I just made an exhaustive list of everything I wanted to do. And it was a growing list from day one, it was just always growing. But then I would prioritize that list. And then I would break it down into reasonable chunks of like, what can I accomplish in the next year? And then from that I would say, well, what can I do in the next quarter? And then from that, I would make monthly and weekly goals that aligned with those quarterly goals.
Chris: What kind of goals are we talking about?
Jeremy: I wrote down everything but some things like, “Modernize the Facility,” “Have a Tech Driven Shop”, these sorts of things are like one and two year tasks. Create a website was a week. Some things on that list I never even got to but I knew if I kept checking things off as quickly as I could, I’d be okay.
One of the bigger things we did was get a tech driven CAD power saw that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. That thing allowed us to be cutting jobs all day with minimal supervision. It also uploaded all our materials so we could maximize the number of jobs based on the square footage of material we had. Overall, stone was a Cost of Goods Sold, and it was close to 40% of revenue on the P&L every year. This meant it was high on the priority list for being optimized. All of a sudden, instead of manually measuring every piece of stone from the quarry that was shipped to us, we were setting up a tripod with a camera and uploading it into software that was taking digital measurements. And now the saw was running all day instead of being turned on and then off to do more measurements. This took our Sawyer (stone cutter) from a laborer to more of a material handler.
Overall, the shop went form dangerous and inefficient, to a fully digitized shop. Eventually the shop got to the point where it could theoretically be run by one person.
Chris: How would you bucket these different types of process improvements so that other business owners have a framework to think through? It looks like we have manufacturing of raw materials improvements, scheduling software, accounting software to speed up invoicing. What am I missing?
Jeremy: So the scheduling software was somewhat of a project management software as well. This was great because we were able to tag the inventory used for COGS, and do invoicing and project tracking all in one place.
In retrospect, sales and marketing operations was an area I didn’t spend enough time in. It was on my list of priorities but I wasn’t able to get to it before we sold. Looking back, I held on to a lot of tasks a lot longer than I probably should have. I could have hired people for accounting tasks, forecasting, and book keeping. But I held onto those because they were familiar and I could control them because they were my comfort zone.
This ended up being more expensive than I could ever calculate because if I had taken half of that time spent on accounting and finance and spent it coming up with a sales program, I could have doubled or tripled the company in that same amount of time. But at that time, I was in a conservative, finite mindset. I wasn’t thinking about how to best utilize my resources. I was busy thinking about how every dollar saved could go to paying down debt.
Chris: Is that an argument for using equity more than debt if you’re a conservative operator?
Jeremy: It’s a balance. As we’re seeing with the markets right now, if you’re over leveraged, you’re going to get into trouble really quickly. Leverage is a powerful tool which we use in real estate all the time but you have to be responsible about it, and have some safeguards in place so you don’t over lever.
Chris: Most business owners struggle with objectivity when looking at their business because it’s their baby. You have this unique position of being objective as an investor. What does the ideal business look like? What are some practices or principles that you’d want to see in a business before you invest or acquire it?
Jeremy: One of the main factors of why I bought that company was the finances were clear and in order. Everything I tried to like dig into was transparent and you know, receipts were kept and bank accounts were reconciled. It was smooth and I think that was also one of the reasons why I got a premium when I sold: it is because I kept good books.
Another thing with that stone company was, I bought a job and I don’t want to buy a job again. I think a lot of businesses in the sub $10M range are heavily reliant on the owner. That was something I worked hard through the years at this business to solve. I wanted to work myself out of a job. This was difficult because I was still buying everything. I was paying the credit card bill. I was approving everything that had to be invested in on working capital or equipment. So I could leave for a few weeks but it would start to pile up. I also held on to the upper level, big customer relationships.
Finally, I like to look for things that can scale. I like to look at how big the market is and whether it’s shrinking or growing. If the market is out there and growing, you can go and get it as long as you’re a financially sound business that won’t run out of money soon. If the market is shrinking, it gets really hard to win new business.
Chris: How do you think about technology being applied to a small business in general?
Jeremy: My philosophy behind it was if I can somehow compress time, then I’m creating value. And that’s how it works with all of those technology inputs, it’s just compressed time. Every single thing that we applied tech to was meant to save time, you know, whether it was scheduling, inventory management, or the flow of a job through the shop; every time we applied technology, it saved time. It also had some other unintended benefits.
Using tech and software platforms also took a lot of the leverage that employees had away from them to make it a more fair playing field. The way the shop was run before was heavily dependent on skilled labor. So, at any moment, they could leave you because they’re going to get $1 an hour more elsewhere. You also can’t scale skilled labor. So the technology really leveled that playing field. We never get rid of anybody. Everybody kept their jobs. We added jobs. And when I bought it, I think we had six employees, and when we sold we had 22 jobs. This increased division of labor also relieved a tremendous amount of pressure because no one person was critical to all operations.
Chris: As small business consultants, we often are faced with the limited resources problem. We often see opportunities to hire sales people as a qay to grow a business with limited risk. Did you hire a salesperson? How did you calculate sales commission plans?
Jeremy: I hired a couple of them. The first one was really good. And then he ended up leaving for family reasons to go run a family business but the next one didn’t perform as well. Calculating sales commission was tough. I did it manually on every single job. I’d give a percentage of Gross Profit, but figuring out gross profit was difficult. Also, a lot of the jobs they sold were high end and our margins are a bit lower there, so I probably overpaid on commissions. The process would take like five hours each quarter. It was brutal.
Chris: What was the biggest thing on your list that you didn’t get to?
Jeremy: I never got around to the values and mission part of the business and I really think that is the most key component to a company. I’m about to get philosophical so bear with me.
What are we as humans doing on this planet right now? I think we’re occupying ourselves until we die. So what is a business? Well, it’s just a collection of people getting together for a mutual cause, in this case to install counter tops. They’re just doing that so they can support their life. I think if there’s a real purpose behind what they’re doing, and they’re able to see the big picture, they will work together as a team in incredible ways. I think that if you come to work and live this mindset instead of coming to work because you’re making X dollars per hour or a certain salary, everyone will perform at a higher level.
If I think of a company, what lives on? It’s the lessons learned in that company, the company can die, the people can die. But what can be passed on are the lessons learned like showing up to work on time, being responsible, and doing what you say you’re going to do. These are the things that you’re going to teach your kids or teach the next generation of people. And I think ultimately that’s the point of companies. They’re just a vehicle to disseminate core values.
Don’t get me wrong – people need to be paid a fair wage and they want a competitive salary. But I think that can be sorted relatively easily. If you have a bigger picture in mind, your people will bring a lot more to the table than if their just working for that salary or paycheck.
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