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How Do You Successfully Brand When You’re at a Strategic Crossroads?

By Ryan Rieches
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Growing from a small shirt laundry business into a national supplier of specialty linens to the hospitality industry, family-owned GBS Linens reached a strategic crossroads. The company had expanded geographically but ultimately decided to keep their local roots and explore alternate growth opportunities. After extensive research, the executive team weighed the option to either enter the lucrative retail market or keep with their B2B roots and expand and strengthen their offerings.

In this episode of Expert Opinion, GBS president and second-generation owner Sujata Mody Kamdar shared the company’s findings from brand research, the path to a decision, and the company’s genuine commitment to both their customers and their employees.

 

Topics include:

A collaborative process needs a Brand Council

Guiding statements and the value of customer research

Visual branding and respect for the founder’s legacy

The internal launch: employees taking pride in the brand

 

Episode Transcript

Welcome to Expert Opinion. The BrandingBusiness Forum where leaders share their views, insights and experiences from the world of B2B Branding, and now here’s your host.

Ryan: Hello, I’m Ryan Rieches and today’s show is titled Branding During a Strategic Crossroads. Our guest today is Sujata Mody Kamdar, president of GBS Linens, a second-generation national supplier of linens to the hospitality industry.

A few years back BrandingBusiness had the opportunity of working with Sujata and her executive team while they were at a strategic crossroads on the future of the business. To give you a little context, GBS is an established, family-run business in its second generation of leadership. The company had already began expanding across the country in key metropolitan markets and they were partnering with some of the most prominent wholesalers serving the hospitality industry.

The company had a great reputation of being fashion oriented and as such, GBS found itself being tempted to enter the higher margin, retail side of the business. So, leadership was at a crossroads of staying focused on wholesale or should we expand into retail? That’s when BrandingBusiness was brought in to evaluate the brand opportunity for the future. We can pick up the story from here. If your company is at a crossroads, I’m sure Sujata can share some valuable insights on determining the best path forward. Sujata, welcome to Expert Opinion.

Sujata: Thank you Ryan. Happy to be here.

Ryan: Yeah, well maybe to begin with you can speak just a little bit about the dynamics of a family run business, in its second generation, and how you’ve been able to take it to the next level while honoring the legacy of your father and the family, but also maximizing its future potential. I think that might be a great way to start.

Sujata: That sounds good. First and foremost, a family run business is truly that, it’s family. It’s about family blood-related, it’s about family that works with you, your work family. There are people that are just part of your roots.

My father started the business back in 1984 and this was my first and only job, ever. My father was a very strong man. He was a hard worker and he believed in providing a good, quality product with a lot of value to our clients. He started in 1984 with a little shirt laundry, and he saw the opportunity to get into specialty linens quickly into the business. His goal was to grow. By the time he retired in 2002 was really when he started stepping back. We had four facilities and we were working B2B, working purely with people within the hospitality and special events industry.

We wanted to continue to grow. Growth can mean a bunch of different things. Growth can be revenue, growth can be number of employees, growth can be more facilities, growth can be a product line expansion. We were kind of just confused as to what did we want to do next. When I took over as president in 2005, we decided that we were going to go with geographic expansion. We started facilities in Texas and we have three facilities in Texas now. Then we decided to move on to Orlando, Florida because we saw that there was great opportunity in that market.

Geographic expansion is great, but the bottom line is our family is in Southern California. That’s where we are and that’s where we plan to stay for the long term. We said to ourselves, well, if we want to continue to grow the business, although we have an absolutely amazing team, what are other things that we can do to continue to grow our revenue, our top line, while still staying pretty local?

We started looking at the retail market. There were a number of competitors in that space that were servicing the end user, the brides, the person having the party at their house, and the margins in that business are pretty darn fantastic. We thought, well maybe this is an opportunity here. That’s kind of where we said, well let’s get to know really what our customers think of us, where are they see us. Let’s study ourselves a little bit better before we decide this is the direction that we go in. That’s where you came along, Ryan, and helped us do that.

Ryan: Well, great overview. Yeah, so both sides offered tremendous potential. I remember the question is should we choose one or can we do both? I think that was really kind of the hypothesis that we began with and we’ll talk a little bit about how we got to some of those insights through research. Maybe before we do that, I know this wasn’t just your decision that you really wanted to bring in your leadership team in helping you make that decision, which we always advise in.

It’s not just marketing or it’s not just a CEO or president making these decisions. You want to have full executive-level buy in. We recommended that you form this brand council, a cross-functional team. Which kind of represented your executive team, but you brought some additional people and maybe you just want to chat a little bit about that topic, that concept, because I think it’s important.

Sujata: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m going to go back to the fact that we are a family business. We, the people that we work with, are our family. Who should you include in the decision making process when you’re guiding the ship, is your family. They should absolutely be a part of the whole process. We said, who better than to help us understand ourselves than the people who are doing these things every day. The people that are shipping our products, the people that are selling our products, the people that are delivering them, and manufacturing them.

We wanted everybody to be a part of the decision making process because they know what’s going on. They’ve got their feet on the ground. So for us assembling a team of our folks who do linen every day was absolutely important. I also believe that I don’t want to be that guy that sits in an ivory tower and makes decisions and tells people to get it done. I want it to be a collaborative process. That was absolutely essential to us.

Ryan: Good. Yeah, you want to create, buy-in.

Sujata: Absolutely.

Ryan: Buy-in occurs by a deep understanding and evaluating the opportunity. That’s where research came in as well. Together we determined that we really do need to get the voice of the customer and in your case that’s not only direct clients, but also influencers as well as the broader market. We did a number of different things. I think probably the most impactful was actually just speaking to them. You want to share a little bit about what you found as insights that were helpful to making the ultimate decision?

Sujata: Oh, absolutely. To me what’s super cool is the fact that we all look at ourselves and we have these notions of who we are, and what we are, and what we stand for, but there’s nothing like hearing from the people that you serve as to get a better understanding of how they perceive you. For us, it was absolutely fantastic being able to get access to that information. With you guys sitting down and having these in-depth interviews with our clients and seeing what do they think of GBS Linens, how do they perceive us?

What was phenomenal was a lot of the things that we believed about ourselves. So did they. They considered us to be dependable, reliable. We were offering value for doing business with us. It was really fantastic for us to be able to gather that feedback and to confirm our belief system that what we were doing, and how we were doing it was actually being executed and received by the customer in the same way that we meant to present it. So that was really, really helpful for us.

Ryan: Good. Yeah. As you mentioned, your business was B2B and so a bit of the challenge of evaluating the retail opportunity is do we want to become competitors to our existing customers? Or would we have a better opportunity to partner more deeply with our existing customers and help them sell more? It became very clear that that was the greatest opportunity for growth is not enter into a new market, the retail side, but rather double down on the opportunity to partner more deeply with our current customers. Giving them the tools that they need to sell more and this is what the audience was asking for and it just seemed to fit perfectly with where you wanted to take the business.

Sujata: Absolutely. It was like a light bulb that went off after doing this research. The whole retail, the B2C market, don’t get me wrong, it was sexy. It looked like something that would be really, really fun to do, but what we quickly realized is that linens and the delivery of linens aren’t the same B2B as they are B2C.

It requires an absolutely different business model. The way we interact with clients, the way we deliver product to clients, the way that we even market to clients, it’s just absolutely different. We quickly realized that why cannibalize our own business? That makes no sense. Why try to cut out the middleman and go directly to the end user when investments to go to the end user was just was terribly dramatic. So we said to ourselves with the information that we received, “Yeah, let’s find a way to become a stronger partner. Let’s find a way to make our product more sellable to our B2B clients who in turn will end up selling it B2C.”

Ryan: Yeah, perfect. That’s where we really shifted the mindset and let go of the idea of retail and start to develop language that really resonated and took it to the next level. Once again, the insights that we gained through those research interviews was really informative because I think you just mentioned, sometimes, quite frankly, often the customers will tell us things, they won’t tell you. They’ll tell us what’s either good or bad and sometimes rather they just tell you what you want to hear.

Sujata: Absolutely.

Ryan: Even though it confirmed a lot of your own beliefs, I remember there were a lot of insights that we were able to share that you hadn’t heard before. So it really allowed us to go confidently into this new business approach. Or rather to stay true to our current business approach.

Sujata: Absolutely. Truthfully, I look at what our competitors have done over the years and it is interesting to see how people in an effort to grow, how they started kind of like diversifying their product line. Selling to different markets, doing things that weren’t necessarily in line with their core values and doing this study, hearing this feedback that like you said, we may not have been getting if we went directly to the customer because they’re not going to tell us. They’re going to tell a third party, they’re going to be honest.

To be able to gather that feedback and sit with it made us absolutely realize, you know what, stick to what you’re good at and go down that path. Like we were talking about, become a stronger partner. Make yourselves absolutely invaluable.

Our industry is a really interesting one because we serve as special events. We service people, our clients are taking care of people that are getting married. That are putting on charity galas, things that are important days in people’s lives. It’s pretty high stress. The last thing they need is a partner who doesn’t come through. We never call ourselves a vendor. We always refer to ourselves as a partner to our clients because at the end of the day, that is what we are.

Ryan: Perfect, and you come through and partners do that.

Sujata: Absolutely.

Ryan: I remember after we finished the verbal branding, it was time to consider how to develop and evolve the visual branding, starting with your logo.

Sujata: Yeah.

Ryan: I know we had a deep conversation around this and it’s not that uncommon that the founder, initially doesn’t want to change because they’re the ones that developed either the brand or the logo or the identity. Yet, it clearly was time to give it a refresh. At the same time, I know you wanted to honor your father’s legacy, but also bring it more current. I know he gave you a great quote afterwards, but maybe you can just describe that process of going through the evolution of your logo.

Sujata: Yes. I am a firm believer in roots. My father was my mentor. He is my hero. For me, honoring him, honoring his legacy, honoring what he built was absolutely vital. Before we started working with BrandingBusiness, I had actually tried a couple of times I thought, it’s time for a new look or just a refresh. Something that makes us look a little bit more fashion forward, a little bit more modern. A little less “ethnic.” I worked with a couple of different people and no one quite understood what I was looking for. I knew what I was looking for, but the people I was talking with didn’t. I remember Ryan, when we sat down, one of the things I told you was, “I want this new look to be something that I love so much that I’d love to get a tattoo of it.” Do you remember that?

Ryan: Oh, completely.

Sujata: I will tell you, that was what came about. We involved my father in this process. We wanted him to make sure that there was buy-in on his part. Again, respecting him, respecting his legacy, respecting what he built. I remember he was so thrilled when the designs came back and we started looking at them, and we started trying to envision, God, what would this look and feel like. Could this be the new GBS? When you guys came back with the design that we agreed on, we were just all just over the moon. We were so excited with this new look.

Ryan: Warms my heart. I appreciate hearing that. Yeah, well we love the design as well and it seems like it’s serving you well. Now it’s time to launch the brand. As we always speak before we go out and do that externally, we want to make sure that we launch it internally.

Sujata: Absolutely.

Ryan: Before we do that, we’ll also take a look at what we call the guiding statements of purpose, vision, mission, and values. In other words, how we want the team to perform basically. Giving them the direction, giving them the freedom of operating inside that direction. Can you speak a little bit about that process of developing those guiding statements and how you’ve been able to use them?

Sujata: Absolutely. At the end of the day, we recognize that our product, it’s a tablecloth. There’s no rocket science behind it. It’s a piece of fabric that you put on a table, but when you look further into what we do, we’re helping create lifetime memories for our clients and their special occasions. For us it was really, really important that we take this new look, this new feel, and we present it to our team, to our people and really make them buy in to the fact that you’re not just washing a cloth, you’re not just entering an order, you’re actually helping create somebody’s special event. The importance of that, again, I go back to our industry our clients are servicing brides.

Can you imagine telling a bride on her wedding day that, “Hey, by the way, your pink tablecloths are not going to be delivered, but I can get them to you tomorrow.” That just doesn’t work. That is not possible. You are ruining her day. For us, being able to present them with this vision, with this purpose of why we are here was huge. In our industry where it tends to be lower skilled labor, I think there’s this notion that people don’t care, but you know what, at the end of the day, they do.

People want to have a reason that they come to work. They want to have a mission, they want to have something that they can buy into something that they can feel proud of, something that they can feel connected to. This whole new look, this whole new feel is kind of again, defining our purpose, redefining our value system, and being able to communicate that to our team. It really brought in a lot of buy-in and a lot of excitement on everybody’s part.

Ryan: Oh, so happy to hear that. Now it comes time to launch and I know we worked together and helping you update the website, and help you prepare for the new catalog, and some of the promotional materials. Then we also took a look at an often-underutilized asset and that is you had all these trucks on the road delivering and certainly I think that they were being underutilized at the time. We together came up with a great idea of how to brand those. You started with one and then two and then, and then you just sent us a photo of your whole fleet and it looks just fantastic. I know it’s helping you from this sense of awareness, but I remember talking as well that you mentioned that the drivers also felt a little bit more pride in what they were driving as well. Maybe you want to chat a little bit about that.

Sujata: Oh my God, seriously. The feedback on this has been insane. You talk about rolling advertisement. Our trucks have been received so well by our clients, but seriously by our drivers. They love looking amazing. Hopping into that truck with this beautiful graphic on it. They feel very, very proud of the vehicles that they’re delivering their product in.

To me the funny part is that again, my family business has been part of me since I was 16 years old. My friends have seen me grow up in the business and we’ve all gone through school, and grad school, and all that stuff together. What’s really special to me personally is when my friends see our trucks on the road and they take pictures and they text them to me.

Ryan: Cool.

Sujata: I had a friend a couple of weeks ago say he saw one of our trucks and he’s like, “I got to say, I felt so proud. I have known your family forever and I just felt so proud looking at that truck.” That seriously just warms my heart.

Ryan: I’m really happy to hear that. While we’re on that topic, I know at the beginning of the relationship we always like to ask, what does success look like at the end of this brand new initiative? Are there any other examples that you can point to, whether it’s either internal or external, or how do you measure success now that it’s been a few years?

Sujata: Well, I guess, I measure success in a couple of different ways. There are the obvious ones, the ones that are completely measurable and that’s revenue. That’s been wonderful and that’s been a great thing for us to see that type of growth. Especially in these new markets where we come in and they don’t know what the old GBS looks like. They just see what the new GBS looks like and they’re just absolutely blown away.

Our clients that have been with us for a million years, for them to be coming back to us and saying, “God, this new look, this new feel, this new marketing collateral that you guys are offering us is so helpful for us in selling to our clients,” is just wonderful to hear.

Internally, I’m going to go back to that to what I said earlier, the pride and the buy-in that we have from our own team. To me just to have that feel of excitement, to have that feel of connection, and to see somebody on the shop floor being connected and excited to wear a t-shirt.

We did this, funny enough on our 35th anniversary, we just celebrated this past September, and we just decided to get t-shirts made for everybody and we just put our logos on them and we didn’t tell anyone that they needed to wear them. Funny thing was how excited people were and how much pride they had in wearing this. 95% of our office showed up that Friday with those shirts on.

Ryan: Awesome.

Sujata: It was the coolest thing. I’m like, look how much pride they have in their company. I mean, no one told you that you had to wear it, but they chose to. It was just amazing to see.

Ryan: Very cool. Well, Sujata, we’re almost out of time. Any other closing thoughts or advice for others who are going through a process where they’re kind of at a strategic crossroads?

Sujata: Yes. I mean, I will say this and I will say this over again and this is something that I hope to do again in the future is, really investing and understanding how you are perceived in the marketplace. It’s really, really vital in trying to figure out what you want to do next.

Again, we have our notions of who we are, but there’s nothing like hearing it from the people that you service. I’m going to give you a plug here, Ryan, working with BrandingBusiness. If you want an in depth study, if you want a refreshed look, if you want a tattoo of your new look, work with you guys.

Ryan: That’s awesome. Well, it’s been a great partnership. We certainly enjoy working with you and Ashesh and the rest of the team there. Thank you so much for being a guest today.

Sujata: Thank you Ryan, for inviting me. It was great.

Ryan: Absolutely. Well that concludes our show for today. This is Ryan Rieches and you’ve been listening to another edition of Expert Opinion. The BrandingBusiness Forum where thought leaders share their point of view. If you’d like to listen to past shows or read our blog series, visit BrandingBusiness.com and until our next show, grow your business by living your brand promise.