Navigating Scalability with a Growing Business
Taking a company from start-up to stability is often the first big hurdle for entrepreneurs trying to build a business enterprise.
Manufacturers and other companies exist to pursue growth: in revenue, in market share, in visibility with their target customers, in capacity and operations, and in sheer size as measured by workforce and physical plant – to the extent those metrics support other growth goals.
Achieving stability generally means you are aggressively pursuing or achieving profitability. Sometimes — but not always — the two milestones are concurrent. What comes next, however, can be a stumbling block for any organization that seeks steady growth: creating “scalability” in your business operations.
When a company reaches an inflection point in its growth history, leadership is often confronted with a problem: either maintain status quo operations and exist at current levels of capacity and revenue potential, or make investments and strategic decisions to enable a whole new level of expansion.
For a law firm or consultancy it could mean adding new practice groups or acquiring specialty talent and expertise. For an early-stage consumer brand it might be a matter of sourcing its first contract manufacturing relationship. And for a tech start-up with a better app for managing daily tasks, the scalability solution might be a major investment in digital and social media marketing.
Achieving scale and expanding capacity isn’t always a matter of creating more square feet of shop space and a higher employee headcount. It just so happens, however, that in our own business as a global leader in manufacturing premium office furnishing systems – that’s exactly what scaling up requires.
AIS reached a crossroads — our own inflection point — about six years ago. We had five buildings with 23 trucks just going from one facility to another. The inefficiencies were killing us and choking off our ability to scale up.
Part of the challenge we faced was our on-demand manufacturing process. We don’t inventory any finished goods – all orders are custom-made. Nothing is sitting on a shelf. It’s all made to order. And that’s an important part of our company culture. I like to say we are a sales organization above all else – and a manufacturing operation that fulfills our sales promise and always exceeds expectations.
But “custom-made” does not mean “boutique.” AIS is a large manufacturer with over 700 employees creating thousands of workspace solutions for clients across the U.S. every year – to the tune of $200 million in annual revenue.
So as we developed a strategic plan to consolidate operations from five locations into a single 600,000 square foot building in Leominster, Mass. – we knew we had to get all the pieces just right. That meant designing the manufacturing floor and footprint for optimum workflow and speed – while maintaining the integrity of our process and ensuring worker safety.
It also meant integrating new technology and equipment in a way that enhanced production. The dirty little secret about automation is it doesn’t always translate to efficiency. That’s a challenge that must be solved before a company makes a major capital investment.
And finally we had to make sure that our existing and loyal customer base — nurtured and developed over 30 years — experienced zero hiccups, impacts or noticeable changes in their AIS relationship as a result of our ambition to scale up.
Our new facility was completed in 2016 and, I’m happy to say, so far we have navigated our “scalability” moment with encouraging success.
Once an important lesson is learned, I believe it’s meant to be shared. And the lessons we learned in positioning AIS for many years of growth are applicable to all kinds of business organizations:
- Understand your current limitations and be honest about them. Developing a strategy for scaling up requires knowing exactly where you stand.
- Establish a capacity, product output, sales volume or other goal or set of goals as your objective for increasing scale. Then ask your leadership team if it’s ambitious enough to motivate the next generation of organizational growth.
- Keep your workforce informed and aware at all times of strategic decisions and how they will impact the worker experience. Transparency of this kind pays great dividends in long-term employee relations.
- Finally, be rigid in practice and dutiful to your customers in ensuring that – though it may be the largest company-growth endeavor you will undertake – existing customer relationships will never be compromised as a result of your scaling up.
Companies exist to pursue growth and expansion. The boundaries that are holding an organization back can be overcome with a proper strategy for achieving scale.
Bruce Platzman is President, CEO and co-founder of AIS in Leominster, Massachusetts.