What do you do when your suppliers aren’t as remarkable as your brand? How is it possible start-up and significantly grow your own production operation debt-free? Chuck Bowen has been able to figure out the answers to both.
Chuck and his team at TrueBlue Production manufactures high quality products for many well-known brands. They are a rapidly growing US company with operations in a region in Mexico recognized worldwide as the center for leatherwork. TrueBlue is sought-after for their expertise handcrafting a wide range of high-end products (from luggage to wallets, women’s clutches to iPad cases), primarily with materials such as leather, waxed canvas and custom hardware. Their values are focused on delivering “Wow!” to their clients through leveraging the collective strength of their remarkable team members.
MO: What inspired you to launch TrueBlue?
Chuck: In early 2008, I was working closely with Dave Munson (owner, www.SaddlebackLeather.com) to help him get his business on track and prepare for significant growth. After working together for some time with our vendors in Mexico, we decided that if we were to deliver the remarkable experience to our customers that we strongly desired then we would need to produce our own products. We knew that our products – and therefore our production – absolutely had to reflect our own core values and how we approach our mission of wowing our customers (Saddleback’s tagline is “They’ll Fight Over It When You’re Dead”). A little later, I became Saddleback’s CEO. Dave and I partnered to launch TrueBlue with my role as the architect to build it from the ground up. I’ve also partnered with other creative-type entrepreneurs to launch and grow their businesses; super fun! Remarkable Dreams = Remarkable Products = Remarkable Experiences.
MO: Can you expand on how you’ve managed to grow dramatically in size and reputation over the past 5 years while remaining debt-free?
Chuck: Honestly, this is probably our greatest challenge as it is with practically all entrepreneurs – how to fund significant growth with the cash generated from operations. The ability to do so must be rooted in the core belief that it’s best and indeed possible. It appears easier (at least in the beginning) to fund growth through debt instruments (credit lines, loans, credit cards, etc) to “get you over the hump” because “I’ll pay it back as soon as I’m more profitable”. However, the real truth is that most businesses – once they take on debt – depend on ever-expanding credit lines to fund growth and (unfortunately) bridge shortfalls (payroll, raw materials, etc). Debt is rarely ever eliminated and servicing it becomes another expense to the business.
Our approach is to let the natural “guardrails” created by using cash from operations encourage us to be more thoughtful and discerning re: how we spend our money. We think through major expenditures (adding people, equipment, space, etc) to ensure we’re going to get a return on that investment. We then use the profit generated to fund the next thing(s) we want to do. I believe that if you go to the trouble to till the ground and plant your garden, you must also be prepared to water and fertilize it. Most often the problem tackles entrepreneurs early on because they are already depending on their business to provide for their personal financial needs, rather than re-investing profit back into the business and therefore starving it. Perhaps they are trying to grow too fast because they carry a scarcity mentality and believe that if they don’t move faster than they are truly prepared, then somehow they’ll lose market share, someone will steal their idea, there’s a small window of opportunity, etc. These are rarely truths for most entrepreneurs and, accordingly, debt ends up pressuring them to close their doors rather than helping swing them wide open. Believe me, slowing things down a bit has often saved us from making big financial mistakes. We sleep very well at night because, after all, it’s not what you make (sales) but rather what you get to keep (profit) that matters most of all.
MO: What’s one marketing strategy that’s worked really well for you?
Chuck: Delivering on our promises. We do a great job producing our clients’ products and people notice. We keep our promises re: standing behind our quality; if a client isn’t happy, they don’t pay until they are. We’ll fix the problem ASAP even including replacing the product at our cost. No arguments. Word gets around quickly when you do; most of our clients have found us after seeing/experiencing products we’ve produced for others. They dream about us to make their products just as well. Really!
MO: What are some examples of how you deliver the “wow factor” to your clients?
Chuck: As I mentioned, honoring our promises really wows our clients. It’s sad, but true, that today that’s still a rare thing. We communicate well. We own our mistakes. We form personal relationships with our clients, including hosting them in our corporate house near our Mexico factory. And, of course, we do our best to blow them away when they see their Golden Sample (final prototype) for the first time. We take great care of our family (our team members) so they take great care of our clients. Amazingly simple and powerful.
MO: How much did your father’s entrepreneurism help influence your career path?
Chuck: That’s a great question. Initially, I did the college thing and then worked over 17 years in the corporate world. For a long time I wanted to be a “professional” and take on more ownership for a business’ bottom line. I practically fell into entrepreneurism after deciding I no longer wanted to be away from my family as I did another high-tech start-up / turnaround. Now, as I’ve traveled the entrepreneur path and pondered it a bit, I’ve realized my dad has indeed influenced me greatly as an entrepreneur.
His work ethic was unparalleled. My dad owned a small hardware and building supply business in South Georgia. After closing up each day, he’d come home and take care of our 200-acre farm (complete with cattle, goats, hogs and acres of crops). That was his “hobby” farm. I worked alongside him in both and did my best to help and keep up with him. He managed both businesses with cash. As long as I knew him, he never borrowed money for anything. Dad took two years to build our home on the farm so that he could cash flow it. However, he also loved to experiment with new ideas; I remember him planting new cash crops based on what the market was doing. He added new livestock periodically (goats when the market was good for them). Dad was also very committed to his employees and livestock; his personal values required that they needed to eat before he did. He loved and took care of his team.
My dad has had a significant influence on me. He never talked much with me about his values and approach; I observed it through how he lived.
MO: What’s the most exciting thing on the horizon for you personally or professionally?
Chuck: Wow, that’s a big question. Personally, I’m excited to see both my wife Lori and daughter Haley blossoming into their own forms of “entrepreneurism”. I guess this stuff does rub off … Professionally, I’m inspired by the seemingly endless upside to TrueBlue as we help deliver dreams to our clients and their customers. We have been blessed to have a continuing flow of prospective clients that appear fun to work alongside. I also get to coach and hang out with other entrepreneurs (some are TrueBlue clients as well), helping them grow their businesses. Some have even honored me with partnership offers, a few of which I’ve joined on their journey. Life is abundant. Helping people realize their dreams helps me realize mine.
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