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Panel shares secrets for prospering in business

CECILIA NASMITH Northumberland Today
From left, business representatives Bud Lauria, Linda Marr, Carl Fletcher, Karen Williams, Tony Pulla, Tracey Osborne and Kenneth Bell shared the secrets of their success at Prosper In NorthumberlandÕs May 24 event at Park Playhouse and Performing Arts Centre.

From left, business representatives Bud Lauria, Linda Marr, Carl Fletcher, Karen Williams, Tony Pulla, Tracey Osborne and Kenneth Bell shared the secrets of their success at Prosper In NorthumberlandÕs May 24 event at Park Playhouse and Performing Arts Centre.

COBOURG - There's no one-size-fits-all secret to business success, but seven business people who have succeeded did share their secrets Thursday evening at the Park Theatre.

Some 300 people turned out to listen.

The seven panel members who took the stage prior to the keynote address by Nova Scotia entrepreneur Barb Stegemann (see story, Page 3) were among 10 selected by the Prosper In Northumberland coalition - each having been featured in local radio and newspaper spots over the past 10 weeks.

Each was asked questions specifically tailored to his or her own business.

Bud Lauria of Lauria Hyundai in Port Hope

"In our business especially, but probably in any business, process is the most important thing," Lauria declared.

"It can offer your business the consistency you need to be able to do the same thing every single time. You need to find that process that works."

When looking for new employees, experience is not the key. As the industry is evolving so quickly, Lauria said, "experienced" can equate to "carrying baggage."

"We hire on personality first; somebody who is friendly, who hopefully lives within our community, who is good at reaching out to people, who might bring a clientele with them - I'll even go on Facebook and see how many friends they have.

"People will buy from somebody they like, provided the product is good."

Another key trait Lauria mentioned for a potential employee is the desire to follow effective processes that are already in place.

"If I think you are not going to follow my processes, if you are going to blaze your own trail, that's not for us."

Linda Marr of the Buttermilk Cafe in Cobourg

"When you are in a service industry, especially, you need to recognize the customer and treat them really, really well," Marr said.

"Sometimes people are coming in who have walked down the street from MacCoubrey's (Funeral Home) and aren't feeling very well. It's important our staff learn to read people. I would try to make sure I thank them for understanding that.

"That's what keeps bringing people back: the servers are thinking of then, not of the tip at the end."

She likes to make it a two-way street and be considerate of her staff as well.

"We have servers who have children or are in school or get sick and have to leave. We just make it work for them. If they are happy about where the work, they will come in every day and do a great job," she figures.

Marr values consistency in her staff, the ability to acknowledge and recognize the customer every single time.

"Sometimes you go into a store, and it feels like you don't matter. People can go to a lot of places to eat, so we look after them. Look people in the eye and make them feel like they really are here," she said.

A senior customer, for example, might get an extra-comfortable chair or a table well separated from that of a busy young family.

"Customer service is far more than great food. It's a lot of things. If someone isn't happy, look after them, because they will go and tell 50 people if they are not," Marr stated.

Carl Fletcher of the Northumberland Hearing Centre in Cobourg, Brighton and Campbellford

Fletcher said he was highly influenced by his father.

"He was a mentor for me right through university. He was pharmaceutical, I am hearing, but he guided me, gave me advice, and I followed in his footsteps," he said.

"He said, 'If you can't afford it, don't buy it. Don't go into debt to achieve your goals, because you will battle that right from the onset.'"

Fletcher detailed his struggles with balancing his business and his home life. As difficult as the task is, he said, the alternative is to burn out on both fronts.

Though he has an excellent website, he said, his key demographic - seniors - will not necessarily be surfing Facebook or Twittering.

Karen Williams of the LUX Boutique in Warkworth

Williams relies on price, quality, service and product to compete.

"Even though there are other people offering the same thing I am, I think the edge is absolutely what kind of product can you offer that people actually need, but isn't available in your immediate community or surrounding communities.

"Be committed to offering a product or service that people want to come to you for," she suggested.

Williams has refused to let running a business in a small isolated community confine her.

"The challenge is, how do you get people to take that extra 30, 60 or 90 minutes to come see you? Advertise the heck out of yourself, and promote yourself as much as you can," she said.

One very successful ploy is fundraisers, like the one she did for Northumberland Hills Hospital where 20% of the proceeds from certain sales went to the hospital. It gets people into her stores to make that discovery of her ambience, her products, her service. They make the purchase, and they tell their friends about this new store they should visit.

Facebook has been another boon, giving her the ability to post photos and news of what's new and hot.

"And I sell things that way - that was a happy surprise," she noted.

"My customers are on Facebook, gals 45 to 60, because that's how they are communicating with their kids. When people click on 'like,' you get a sense of who is liking it and if you are going in the right direction."

Tony Pulla of ReMax Lakeshore Realty

The notion is that, if you are your own boss, you can do what you want when you want.

"To a certain extent, that's true. But to get to that level, you need to be very rigourous yet remain flexible. We all get up in the morning and have 24 hours," Pulla said.

"For me, the most difficult thing is finding time for myself and my family and friends. I always say I'll do what I want for myself tomorrow or next week. After a while, that takes a toll. You need time for yourself to be energized."

Everyone knows that you can't stay in this business without a professionally designed and easily navigable website. But Pulla was a pioneer in this field, putting up his own site in 1994.

"It was hard, and it was expensive. They thought I was crazy but, with the Internet, you're marketing your properties 24/7."

About 10 years ago, Internet marketing of real estate seemed to reach a tipping point, he said.

"Today, I probably have 70% of my business derived directly from the Internet."

The key is that the site should be easily operated, he said. "You don't want to have to move through 17 gates and three rings of fire to get there - keep it simple."

Nowadays, Pulla reads all the tech magazines and has a really good tech team. Still, he said, he's resisting using social media.

"There's a learning curve and security issues," he said.

Tracey Osborne of Absolute Therapeutics in Cobourg

"A business plan is and should be the foundation of how your business is run. If you have a good business plan, banks and investors will want to invest in you," Osborne stated.

Asked to share the best advice she'd ever received, she had several items to share.

"Find out who your target community is, and figure out how you can make your business special to them," she said.

"Make sure you are not spending more than what you are making.

"Join the chamber. You need to be out there. If you are not helping your community, why should they help you out?"

Kenneth Bell of Bling on King (Cobourg) and Kenneth Bell Fashion Accessories (Port Hope)

"Having a community presence is essential to having a prosperous and successful business," Bell stated.

Joining your local chamber of commerce and downtown association are good first steps, he suggested. Then consider joining a service club as well.

"It's great for volunteering, and it's great to be visible in the community and show people you are doing something outside your business.

"Another thing: help local fundraisers. Northumberland has a lot of fundraisers, believe me. I get asked 15 to 20 times a week for silent-auction prizes, and I usually give," he said.

"I know it's a pretty tough economy, but try to give even a little bit back to the community that supports you."

Bell's business began 19 years ago in Toronto, when he was peddling jewelry and accessories out of his car, driving from store to store, cold-calling. At a trade show, a woman dazzled by his displays exclaimed, "Why, you're the glitter king," and that's how he got his brand: The King of Glitz.

"The name is important, but you have to brand a product, you have to brand customer service. If you don't have a great team working for you, it's game-over," he said.

"If you feel like a winner, think like a winner and believe you're a winner, people will be attracted to your brand."

Bell waxed enthusiastic when asked about social media.

"Social media rocks for my company, that's for sure. I do e-blasts, Facebook - social media is awesome. And because I have a website, I sell all over the world," he said.

Master of ceremonies Dave Hughes expressed his hope that those in the audience who are trying to succeed in business during a challenging economic era might hear something useful.

"If you can leave and take home one of these gems, that's what this is all about," he said.