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Area businesses get creative in fight for economic survival

November 08, 2008|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU

TRI-STATE -- The economy was just as tough as it is now some years ago when the general manager at Denise Smoot's company told employees:

"I think everybody is hoarding stuff. So go through your desks and shelves and give me every pen, pencil and paper clip box you find."

Smoot, who was the human resources manager back then, was surprised at the result.

"We actually found so many office supplies that we didn't have to reorder anything for four or five months," Smoot said, laughing. "We said, 'Oh my gosh! We didn't realize so much was here!'"

Different story, same lesson:

Teri Leiter was at a wedding last month in Texas.

"The food was outstanding," said Leiter, who owns a catering business in Washington County, "but as I looked around, I saw no staff. And then, a little bit later, I saw family and friends get up and clear off all the dishes.

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"That was their way of still having a great time, but saving a little bit of money."

And that is the point, of course.

Facing an increasingly mean economy, we Americans, just like our employers, are searching for ways to go lean -- and still keep going.

Staying afloat

Lisa Moser didn't like the choice, but she and her husband knew they couldn't go or take their two Hagerstown employees to Line-X's annual conference for franchisees in California this year.

They just can't afford it, Moser said.

"Last year, it cost us about $6,000 to take them, and we had hoped to do that again because of all the training you get and because it would have opened up a lot more ideas about where people are selling" Line-X's protective spray-on product, Moser said.

Traditionally used to protect truck beds, it also is being applied as a coating on truck hoods and other equipment.

Moser said the economy has helped the retail side of her business in one way. It has spurred sales of a special oil filter to many trucking companies trying to lower maintenance costs, she said.

Still, she said, times are so tough that she and her husband haven't drawn a steady paycheck from the business in months.

"Understanding how lean times have been, you've got to take care of the bottom line first," Moser said. "And with people not spending right now, I've got to be honest -- we have a swimming pool at home, but we didn't even open it because we were afraid we couldn't afford it."

Lemons to lemonade

Todd Ghattas said the economy has hurt Office Suppliers Inc. (OSI), but not as much as it has some competitors because OSI is finding new ways to do business.

"Taking lemons and making lemonade is what we've been trying to do," said Ghattas, who is OSI's general manager.

For example, instead of selling new furniture to a local company that's moving, OSI is capturing its business a different way: It is tearing down the existing furniture, moving it, cleaning it and, if necessary, rebuilding it, Ghattas said.

"It's not our core business," he said of the new service. "Ultimately, I want to sell new product, but if I have to do this in times when it's bad, it keeps the lights on for us and it keeps our people working."

The Hagerstown-based company has about 36 employees. It hasn't had to lay off any in at least a year, but it also hasn't replaced the few who have left, Ghattas said.

Besides selling office furniture, which is its main business, the company sells copiers and office supplies.

To cut fuel expenses this year, OSI has directed many of its sales representatives to work from the office and call their clients instead of driving, Ghattas said.

In addition, a receptionist's job has been changed, he said. Now, while an automated system answers most calls, she calls customers to sell office supplies.

"She's still at her desk, but she's not costing the company money," Ghattas said. "She's now producing money."

OSI itself was moving into new quarters north of Hagerstown this past week. The new building, which OSI is leasing from Ghattas' father's property company, will be almost completely equipped with new furniture, but that is what it needs to show off in its business, the younger Ghattas said.

And even in these tough times, OSI still is hoping to have an employee Christmas party away from the office this year.

"Quite honestly, there has been talk of canceling it, but as of this date, it's still on," Ghattas said.

Catering to needs

Steve Lohman, president of Savoy Catering Services Inc. in Waynesboro, Pa., and Teri Leiter, co-owner of Leiter's Fine Catering in Hagerstown, seem to be getting a lot of the same types of calls these days.

Many customers, especially those that have laid off workers, still want to have an employee Christmas party, Lohman said. But instead of renting a banquet hall for $500 or $600, some want one catered at the company's plant itself.

"What they'll do is say, 'Hey, we're going to have a Christmas party for you ... we're just going to feed you at lunchtime during the week.'"

And at a bank, for instance, one of the board members might be offering to host the annual party at their house, Leiter said.

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