TUKWILA, Wash. – An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion, according to one of Newton’s laws – unless circumstances change.
For spice trader Ron Harris, owner of Valley Harvest Products, circumstances changed when he started meeting with Asbury Lockett, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC).
He hadn’t been resting, but he hadn’t been moving ahead. So many daily tasks demanded his attention that he couldn’t make progress on long-term goals.
For the past year, Harris and Lockett have been meeting about every six weeks to go over financial statements, business strategy, marketing, new markets, priority lists, self-imposed deadlines and anything else that might help Harris grow and strengthen his business.
“You eat an elephant one bite at a time,” he said. “Asbury helps me do that.”
Technical and people skills
The SBDC (http://www.wsbdc.org/) provides one-on-one, confidential, no-cost business advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition their businesses. It receives key financial support from Washington State University and the U.S. Small Business Administration. One of more than 20 offices statewide, the SBDC in Des Moines is located at Highline Community College.
In addition to his SBDC certification, Lockett is a certified executive coach and has a law degree and an MBA. That combination of technical expertise and people skills enables him to meet clients where they are and help them move forward, whether they are first-time business owners or seasoned entrepreneurs who have created and sold several companies.
Lockett helped Harris break down goals into manageable steps. They set up systems to manage daily details even as Harris stays focused on the big picture.
Revenues are up and Harris said he is excited about the goals he has set for 2014. Though he prefers to keep the specifics confidential, he was happy to share some of the lessons he has learned, or re-learned, as he’s worked to move his company forward.
Free advising, depth of experience
“It isn’t always new things you need to learn,” he said. “Sometimes you need to be reminded of things you already know.”
He said he appreciated that SBDC advisors have experience with a broad range of businesses and are part of a network of advisors with deep expertise in diverse areas. They can bring their different experiences to bear on challenges, he said, and sometimes have a new way of looking at things.
Another advantage, he said, is that SBDC advisors aren’t paid by the client so they have no reason to tell the client what he or she wants to hear.
“I like that Asbury’s advice is objective or neutral,” he said. “He has helped me get the ball rolling so I can make bigger plans down the road.”
Sales focus on chefs
Harris got started in the spice business in 1990 when a neighbor who was operating out of his garage recruited him to help with sales. He stuck with the business for 16 years as it grew into a mid-size spice company supplying to commercial kitchens and food producers in the Puget Sound.
But when new owners took over in 2006 and decided to concentrate on high-volume food processing accounts, Harris saw an opportunity to create his own small business and focus on restaurant accounts. Valley Harvest Products (http://www.vhpspice.com/) has six employees and a product list of more than 200 herbs and spices, along with seasoning mixes, soup bases, extracts and a line of organic products.
Valley Harvest Products fills a niche – providing chefs with high-quality spices and herbs of consistent flavor and potency on a reliable schedule – but it isn’t necessarily a lucrative niche. Most of the sales are for one to five pounds of product and they mostly buy from larger U.S. importers.
Gaining customer trust, loyalty
While his sales staff do make cold calls, the majority of new sales occur when a chef or other kitchen staff member at one restaurant leaves for a new position and recommends Valley Harvest Products to his or her new employers.
Another way to increase sales is to help existing clients spice up their menu.
“The chefs learn to trust you and you earn the right to make recommendations,” Harris said. Most often those recommendations are gleaned from other chefs.
With Lockett’s help, Harris is looking to expand his product list and move into new markets this year. Now that the day-to-day work is running smoothly, he’s looking for new ways to spice things up, literally.
As he tells his customers, “When you think of spice, think of me.”
Ron Harris, Valley Harvest Products, email@example.com, 206-575-7572
Asbury Lockett, Washington SBDC, firstname.lastname@example.org, 206-592-4153