Start your company in an industry -- bottling and filling equipment -- where the normal turnaround time, purchase order to installation, is four months. Promise to have your equipment in the customer's plant in 10 working days. Emphasize that quick turnaround: your customers will be packaging companies that lose a ton of money every day a filling line is out of commission. And one more thing. Tell the customer -- who may be used to paying 33% down and another 33% on shipment -- he won't have to spend a nickel till the machinery is up and running.
A recipe for success? No doubt about it. The company that came up with the formula is James W. Ake's Electronic Liquid Fillers Inc. (#267), in LaPorte, Ind., a two-time Inc. 500 winner. Last year's revenues of nearly $10 million were 11 times 1984's, and profits 17.3% of sales.
But what you might not realize, if you were in Jim Ake's shoes, is that your rash promise, 10-day delivery with no cash down, will shape every aspect of your business. You're making complex industrial machinery, and every order must be custom-built. So how do you get the machinery assembled, shipped, and installed in 10 days? How do you get orders in the front door fast enough to replace those rushing out the back?
Start with the production form, filled out by the salesperson: it's 18 pages of questions specifying hundreds of details about what's to be shipped and how it's to be installed. Copies of the form circulate through departments, telling ELF's 35 factory workers what to assemble and when. Result: no need for foremen. "They're managed by a piece of paper," says Ake.
As the machine takes shape, the installer scheduled to set it up keeps an eye out for problems. Until he installs it successfully in the customer's plant, ELF won't get paid -- and neither the installer nor the salesperson will collect any commission. Little, however, is left to chance. The machine will be completely assembled and tested; then it will go out on one of ELF's own trucks.
A long turnaround time, as any custom manufacturer knows, gives a company a pleasant cushion: you can do your selling at a leisurely pace. With no such backlog, ELF has had to rewrite its sometimes-sluggish industry's marketing script. The phone rings? Receptionists learn to pick it up before it rings twice. Someone wants a quote? It goes out the same day it's requested.
Bringing in new business is another full-scale performance. ELF salespeople don't just call on prospects, they drive up in one of the company's eight demonstration trucks, each one outfitted with an operating filling line showcasing the latest equipment. Unique in the industry, the fleet attracts attention like any live show.
Pulling off all this requires employees who are dedicated, skilled, and above all able to work on their own. Installers work their way up from the shop floor; salespeople are all former installers. Everyone's on salary and is expected to get the day's work done before leaving. To make the long hours worthwhile. ELF pays profit-sharing bonuses that can be huge -- at the end of 1988, each worker took home 10.5 extra months' pay.
Already the company has done jobs in Taiwan, China, Korea, Indonesia, and several other countries. This year saw the start-up of a United Kingdom operation. Not bad for a little manufacturer whose plant backs up onto an Indiana cornfield. And what did it take? Just a commitment to 10-day delivery -- plus a willingness to let that commitment shape an entire company.
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Niche: Custom machinery for bottlers and packagers
Strategy: Offer customers the fastest turnaround time in the industry, and no money down