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Finding upside in a down economy

A diverse lineup of companies navigated their way into this year’s Mississippi 100 listing. Some took well-traveled routes to reach the list while others found somewhat less conventional ways to get there.

However, they all shared an inhospitable economic climate that added gravity to each decision and step along the way.

Some Mississippi companies cut workforce or shut down some of their operations on the premise a lean dog runs a longer race.

Some, on the other hand, felt their sector would return to life sooner rather than later and found it wise to position for the rebound.

The outcome sought?

Keeping current customers and taking customers from downsized competitors.

Jackson’s Irby Electric saw sufficient upside in staying the course, and today the electrical wholesale distributor is readying a $5 million complex to help it meet the demands of a growing customer base.

Mike Wigton, Irby president, said he thought all along the industrial market would strengthen, even though the multi-state company went from record sales in 2008 to a tough 2009 and on to a 2010 recovery that it reached with a limp.

But now it’s back in stride in a sector that has returned to life, said Wigton in an interview in early summer. “The net result is that the industrial market has really jumped. That‘s what’s helped us to grow faster than the market.”

And to achieve a top 5 ranking on The Mississippi 100.

Irby’s approach strays from conventional wisdom but it is one that other private companies around the state have taken up as well, according to Martin Willoughby, attorney, business specialist and COO of Butler Snow’s Advisory.

He said weekly contacts with business leaders throughout Mississippi found that some companies adopted growth strategies on the bet that economic storms never last. “Some not only held the course but invested in top talent,“ said Willoughby, who writes a business advice column for the Mississippi Business Journal.

As others let workers go, these companies “grew their workforces as they knew recovery was coming,” he said.

Some of these companies had the good fortune of filling a market niche in which they are still having growth. These companies share two key traits, Willoughby said: They understand their industry and they understand their customers.

Any company seeing growth, or at least stability, in this economy has found a way to convey value to a customer not inclined to buy, Willoughby said. “I have seen companies really have to emphasize the value of their products and services.”

To get cash-squeezed individuals and businesses to spend dollars with you, you’re ahead of the game today if you can offer something that helps “do more with less,” he added.

“Then you‘re on to something.”

Companies have reacted to the prolonged economic duress through strategies designed to meet their unique conditions. But the ones that are growing today share some “generic business mindsets/cultures that foster sustainability,” said Jim Finley, owner of the Growth Coach and adviser to Jackson State University’s business incubator, the Mississippi e-Business Innovation Center.

Here are Finley’s suggestions for mindsets/cultures:

>> Continuous improvement (If it ain’t broke, break it);
>> Constancy of purpose;
>> Balance between business and personal life;
>> Set long term goals supported by short-term benchmarks;
>> Embrace lifelong learning and training;
>> Revenue is in the relationship (employees, customers, suppliers, etc.)
>> Form strategic alliances to improve service/profits/capabilities.

Finley further sees today’s growth-oriented companies as ones that center on collaboration and alliances with other businesses. Some are even thinking globally, he said.

Some companies are also using the damaged economy as an opportunity to retrain their people and, in some cases, redirect business growth into a whole new area, according to Finley.

“There are companies right now that are doing outstandingly well,” said Finley, who ran auto electrical parts manufacturer Craft-Co Enterprises from 1992 through 2007.

But “some are just stuck,” Finley said.

To gain some forward motion, it always helps to get some professional business guidance “so you can open yourself up” to new ideas and approaches.

“The best opportunities are found behind the difficulties.”

So where are the opportunities?

Butler Snow’s Willoughby said some obvious ones are in the healthcare and life sciences sectors and will be for “the foreseeable future.”

A bit below the radar but showing promise are early stage “creative,” or knowledge-based, companies, Willoughby said. “I do believe there is a lot of opportunity around these creative economy companies.”

Like Willoughby, Finley sees health care services as remaining strong in Mississippi’s future.

He said near term business opportunities also rest in these markets and industries:

>> Education and training;
>> Manufacturing;
>> Alternative energy sources;
>> Municipal infrastructure rebuilding.

As an advisor at JSU’s e-Business Innovation Center, Finley typically guides startup companies that have had a successful launch and are ready for growth.

In exchange for help, Finley said, each must be ready to “take a deeper dive” into a challenging economy.

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