May 27, 2018
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For Maine businesses, the basics equal success

By Matt Wickenheiser, BDN Staff

In times when many companies are retrenching, cutting employees to merely tread water in a challenging economy, the Small Business Administration has recognized two Maine firms that have managed to thrive in recent years and added at least 100 jobs.

Bancroft Contracting Corp. of South Paris and Care & Comfort Inc. of Waterville both were added to the SBA 100 list, which features 100 businesses that have created at least 100 jobs since receiving SBA assistance.

Owners of both companies said their quality work force was important in their businesses’ success. But beyond that, much of what they spoke about didn’t involve any great mysteries of management.

The keys to their individual successes were, in fact, pretty simple.

That’s true of many successful businesses, said Maurice Dube, the Maine SBA district director.

“What I find is each successful business, first of all, has to pay attention to the basics,” said Dube. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a new pizza shop or a high-tech business. To me, the basics are the basics are the basics.

“What’s your financial statement look like? If you don’t understand cash flow, it will eventually come back and bite you. You may survive it, but it will probably sink you.”

Leaders of both companies have learned lessons in doing business over the years — lessons they’ve applied successfully, and ones that can stand as examples to other entrepreneurs in the state.

Going for the bird in the hand

Bancroft Contracting first benefited from an SBA loan in 1977, when Al Bancroft founded the firm. His son Mark took over the business in 2004. In the same year, the self-insured company was hit by a series of high-price health claims. The company normally budgets for about $750,000 a year, but costs soared to $1.3 million in 2004.

The company used an SBA-secured loan to get through the rough patch. At the time, Bancroft employed a work force of a little more than 100. Today it employs 225.

The company traditionally did contract work in the paper industry, working on mill shutdowns and numerous power projects for companies. But the paper industry has shrunk in Maine in recent decades, and in 2004, Bancroft looked to diversify.

The company still does work for paper companies and also works on a number of other power-generation-related projects in Maine and other states.

In the past, the company wouldn’t take on any civil construction work in the summer that would begin too early in the spring or go into the fall — two periods when paper mill customers traditionally were doing shutdowns.

Essentially the company was ignoring work out for bid for a week’s worth of work in the slow seasons. That has changed, said Bancroft.

“We go for the bird in the hand,” Bancroft said.

There’s a takeaway for other businesses, said Bancroft — too many companies actually turn down work and limit themselves.

“Don’t let the old paradigm keep you from making the right decision,” said Bancroft. “You’ve got to re-evaluate every situation.”

Another reason for the company’s success is its reputation, said Bancroft. He points to a recent example related to a job he’s looking at in South Carolina. The hydroelectric project is having some problems and is over budget. Bancroft Contracting did similar work in Vermont last summer. The company Bancroft did the work for was so impressed with the company it has recommended the Maine firm be considered to take over the South Carolina job to get it done right.

“How do you build more work? You treat people nicely, you work hard, you try to make every job a resume builder for the next job — and this is what happens,” said Bancroft. “It’s a small world.”

His work force is an odd general contractor, said Bancroft, in that each of the employees will handle a number of different tasks rather than relying on subcontractors. The same men who are chipping away old concrete may be installing rebar, putting up forms and pouring concrete later in the job. The workers have learned on the job and the successful ones don’t mind switching tasks on the go.

“They recognize that the person that can do more things like that survive more winters without having to be laid off; they need to be versatile and flexible,” said Bancroft. “That’s my crew.”

And the crew is the face of the company for many repeat customers, he said.

“They don’t say, ‘Let’s go get Bancroft.’ They say, ‘Let’s get Dave York at Bancroft.’ They ask for our guys by name,” said Bancroft. “Our employees beget their own work.”

From home health to hammers and nails

Susan Giguere founded Care & Comfort in 1991, working out of a rented two-room office with two employees and a home computer sitting on a folding table. She worked with the SBA informally then, looking for advice. In 1996, the company got its first SBA-backed loan for $100,000. There were 12 employees at the time, and she created two new jobs. In 2000, she got a second SBA-guaranteed loan for $331,792 — and at that time, the company had 150 employees.

Today, she employs 475 from Biddeford to Madawaska, with five offices around the state. The company provides home health care, case management and mental health outpatient therapy services.

One reason the company has grown is because Giguere constantly has kept her eyes open for new business — built off the company’s core offerings, but untapped, said Lee Jellison, the company’s chief operating officer.

“Susan’s a go-getter — she runs out there and tries to find some untapped markets, something we can get into to be successful,” said Jellison. “We have a sense of urgency, which is what she instills in us and our staff.”

One example is a new venture that has turned into a full-fledged construction company. Giguere had the idea of offering in-home building modifications for clients. If an elderly client needed a wheelchair ramp or special handholds inside the house, the company could provide that, she said.

But the concept has expanded. The business is doing weatherization work, building garages and working as a subcontractor on larger projects.

“Whenever we saw opportunities, we tried not to say no,” said Giguere. “Someone a long time ago said, ‘follow the dollars.’”

The business has grown, in part, because of the market she’s in. Maine’s population is aging and more and more people need the home-based services Care & Comfort offers. But Giguere also positioned the company to be in that market a while ago. In the mid-1990s, big health care providers were dropping their long-term claim clients, and Giguere pushed the business further into that area.

Later, when new programs for behavioral health were coming online in Maine, Giguere was there, ready to take on clients.

And the company has developed a reputation for flexibility and compassion when it comes to helping clients, said Jellison.

“We know how to answer the phones at 10 minutes to 5 on a Friday,” said Giguere.

If a client calls at that late hour looking for help over the weekend, Care & Comfort will call every single employee it has to get the call covered, Jellison added.

“The returns were more referrals. We built a name — we’d take on any type of client,” said Jellison.

That care starts at the top and was the genesis of the business.

Giguere saw a need for a company to provide such support when she was caring for her elderly parents and family members with mental illness.

Her mother had Alzheimer’s disease and her father suffered multiple strokes, but there were no support firms like Care & Comfort to help her.

Another way she has been able to grow her business is by appreciating the employees she has, said Giguere. The company recognizes employees every month and names an employee of the year annually. They keep in touch with a newsletter and through social media, and Giguere said she tries to get out and visit the statewide offices and workers as much as she can “so they realize how important I think the role they play is.”

Focus on the basics

Dube, from the SBA, said the factors that Giguere and Bancroft consider when making business decisions are shared by other successful business owners he has known and worked with over the years. He recalled one group of prominent — and prosperous — Maine businessmen whom he analyzed years back, looking at common success traits.

“These guys knew what their business was, they were focused on not only their business but on its impact on the community,” said Dube. “They valued their employees; they took care of their employees.

“It does come back down to common sense, to basics.”

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