We buy grief" is not the official slogan of Deerfield Communications Corp., but it could be. As in, "It doesn't matter what the overall percentage [of economic expansion] is -- 2%, 5% -- there's always grief. And we buy grief." Or so says Fred Tarter, founder and CEO of Deerfield, which this year will gross about $50 million off the inventoried despair of a lot of companies that might weep for you to know about it.
Buying grief, to be sure, has its own happy rewards. Tarter's domestic barter business trades goods and services (media advertising, direct marketing, office furniture, hotel space, etc.) for slow-moving -- or discontinued -- products, then resells the bartered merchandise to other corporate customers at a tidy profit. A year ago, it was healthy enough to rack up $38 million in sales, placing it #247 on the 1983 INC. 500 list. Pretty good for what Tarter calls a "loosely defined industry" with, by his count, fewer than 10 competitors doing as much as $1 million each a year in total revenues.
"Most of our clients don't advertise their dealings with us," he avers, "but no other company does quite what we do, either. In fact, when we first applied to the Securities and Exchange Commission [as a fledgling public company], they didn't even have an established audit procedure that covered us.
"Really, though, what we do is pretty simple.Our basic service is giving customers the ability to conserve cash and get rid of inventory without writing it off. It's a business that's truly counter-cyclical: We do well almost all the time, but we do better in bad times."
It is also a family business, in every sense of the word: Tarter's wife, Barbara, is the co-founder, and among Deerfield's 21 employees are his father ("blatant reverse nepotism," he calls it), an aunt, and two cousins. So why, last July, did Deerfield agree to be bought out -- for "in excess of $10 million in cash and stock" -- by Integrated Barter International Inc. (IBI), a publicly traded, New York-based holding company? Whose grief, one might fairly ask, was reflected in the purchase agreement?
"It's funny," says Tarter, lounging in his Manhattan townhouse/office one afternoon last September, "but a friend of mine called me and said, 'Hey, what happened? I heard you were acquired. I thought business was good.' And I could only say, 'It is.' Because you have to understand this business to understand the sale. My wife and I started Deerfield 10 years ago in my daughter's bedroom with $5,000 in capital. All our assets were in the business, plus 10 years' worth of 16-to-18-hour days. We're a pure service company, and how many people sell that type of company for a lot of money? Hardly any. This wasn't the type of business I ever envisioned passing along to my kids, anyway.
"Besides," he adds, "I always wanted to be married to a rich woman. Now I am."
IBI, the source of Barbara's new-found wealth, incorporated three and a half years ago with the express purpose of building a network of companies that would channel "excess" goods from the manufacturer to the consumer -- at maximum profit each step of the way. According to Frank Vuono, IBI's vice-president, Deerfield became an acquisition target because "this is not a game with a lot of solid players. We checked Fred out pretty carefully. He was the guy with the repeat customers, the one who'd never burned anybody."
A $22-million debenture offering in July netted IBI the cash to buy out Deerfield and two other related firms, The Sam Nassi Co. and The International Asset Management Co., in the latter of which Tarter himself had had an organizational hand. Fred and Barbara have stayed on to run Deerfield as a family unit, hoping to make the other companies its "own best customers" by positioning itself close to the retail disposal of consumer goods.
Of the family he has left behind -- the INC. 500 -- Tarter says, "If I were a banking institution, I'd be a hell of a lot more interested in your 500 companies than any others I can think of. Banks don't make money lending to huge multinationals. The rates they're able to negotiate are too unfavorable. In terms of profit on investment -- and probably in dollar volume, too -- the smaller growth companies are where the real opportunities lie. I guess I'm a pretty good example. We did $1 million our first year in business, and I thought that was all the money in the world. Now we do about $1 million a week.
"It's like one of my he-roes, [Occidental Petroleum Corp.'s] Armand Hammer, once said when asked about the secret to his success. 'I find that if I work 16 to 18 hours a day,' replied Hammer, 'I get lucky."