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Thriving in Tumultuous Times: Replacements Founder’s Tips for Unbroken Success

10/10/2008

Nearly every day, news outlets report production slowdowns, layoffs and bankruptcies across industries. But some businesses seem impervious to the economic downturn. We’ve talked to the owners of some of these companies about what they’re doing right. They will share their advice in a series we call “Thriving in Tumultuous Times.” We begin in this issue with tips from Bob Page (’67 BSBA), founder and CEO of Replacements, Ltd.

Replacements Founder's Tips for Unbroken Success

Bob Page (BSBA ’67) believes in living an economical life. The founder and chief executive officer of Replacements, Ltd. in Greensboro doesn’t waste anything, and he doesn’t throw anything away. He has a recycling bin by his desk. He drives a Ford Explorer that has 108,000 miles on it. He knows that being economical just makes good business sense.

“I think ‘efficiency,’ ” Page said. “Having a background in accounting makes you keenly aware of numbers. A lot of business people out there have great ideas but we also have to understand the math behind the business.”

The numbers have been looking very good for Replacements, Ltd. The online china, crystal and collectibles retailer plans to increase its warehouse, showroom and corporate headquarters facility in Greensboro by 500,000 square feet. That means more space to place its inventory of more than 12 million pieces of new and discontinued china, crystal and silver patterns. It also means the company’s 550 workers can all be under one roof.

How has Replacements, which was launched 27 years ago and has nearly 10 million customers worldwide, continued to grow during a down economy? Page has these tips:

  1. Sweat the details. An accountant first, Page loves numbers and details. Initially, he rejected the idea of building a new warehouse in an economic downturn, “but when we analyzed the numbers, I changed my mind,” he said. He looked at what it cost in time trucking inventory from remote warehouses, in gas, in rent and in breakage during the extra travel, and having one central building made sense. The slowdown in the economy brought contractors’ estimates down to an even better price.
  2. Reach people where they are. Page used to rely almost entirely on print ads but found diminishing returns as sales growth on the Internet increased. “We’re dropping ads from a number of publications that we’ve advertised in for 15 or 20 years because they are no longer effective,” he said. “We do monthly analyses of information to know which ads are working.”
  3. Use new tools. As his sales move to the Internet, Page finds the tools that will work hard for him. “We have a customer referral program with big department stores and links from their Web sites to ours,” he said. “Software helps us maximize the benefits from search terms. For example, ‘china,’ which might refer to the country, would bring far too many hits that we pay for that are not productive. Software helps us manage the use of those terms.”
  4. Value partnerships. Page helps his suppliers succeed, knowing their success helps his business. He seeks out only the inventory his customers want. “Every three months we send the antiques dealers who are our suppliers an index more than 1,000 pages thick that details what we’re looking for and what we’re paying. They take it with them to auctions; that’s their bible,” he said.
  5. Support teamwork. Employees who feel they are valued for their contributions contribute more. “We strive to hire people who believe in our philosophy of how we treat customers,” Page said. “We have a high level of cooperation between employees and suppliers.” He pitches in where needed and expects everyone else to do the same. “Senior team members help out in the warehouse, if necessary,” he said. “I make my rounds almost every day and know just about everybody by name.”