Window of Opportunity
By: Larry Platt
Rick Skidmore just wanted a decent shutter.
He wound up building one of the fastest-growing companies in America
“ARE YOU FREAKIN’ NUTS?”
That’s what Rick Skidmore’s best friend asked him over for a pitcher of beer in 1996, after he’d announce his master plan. Skidmore, then 29, explained that he’d be cashing in his 401(k), a nest egg of a few hundred thousand dollars that he’d built up in the insurance industry, and renting space in the back of a paint distributorship in which he’d make and sell historic-looking shutters. Yes, window shutters. At the time, Skidmore, who had a wife and a one-year old at home, had yet to line up a single customer.
“ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?”
That’s what Rick Skidmore’s fellow members of the Young Entrepreneurs Organization said when he told them of his “open books” management policy for his still-fledgling company, Timberlane, Inc. Each month, the previous month’s books – all revenues and expenses -were laid bare for his employees, whose bonuses were tied to the company’s profitability. If the company didn’t make money, the workers wouldn’t see a profit-sharing check—and they’d want to know why. The club members looked at him as though he was mad: Why put yourself in a position where each month you owe your employees an explanation for every expenditure, every management decision?
“ARE YOU CRAZY? YOU’RE SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR A PUBLIC LYNCHING!”
That’s what Timberlane’s director of sales said when Skidmore arranged for a management consultant to come in and interview each of the company’s 40 employees about his leadership style—with the findings to be presented to Skidmore for the first time in front of the whole staff. When the day came, they watched the boss sink lower and lower in his chair while the overhead projector listed the anonymous comments about Him: “Control freak.” “Says one thing and does another.” Won’t let go of the simplest little things.”
Now, five years after the first naysayer inquired as to his sanity, Rick Skidmore is having the last laugh. Timberlane has become the industry leader, posting more than $5 million in sales last year; Inc. Magazine recently ranked it 184th of the nation’s 500 fastest growing companies.
Self-satisfied, Skidmore leans back behind the desk in his North Wales office. At 35, he has a round, boyish face that matches his teen-like kinetic-ism; behind him, the walls of his bookshelf are lined with tomes that speak to his rapid rise. 1001 Ways to Reward Employees rests next to Leading Practices of Entrepreneurs, right near his Personal Power tapes, which he lead to employees—and follows up later with informal pop quizzes. “I love when people tell me I can’t do something,” he says, maintaining a salesman’s laser eye contact. ‘When people doubted me, I’d just flip them the bird and say, “Whatever. I’ll stick it in your face in a couple of years.’”
IN 1996, RICK SKIDMORE WAS MAKING $150,000 a year as a district manager for Met Life. That was his job, but his passion was reserved for Saturday and Sunday, when he donned the persona, as he puts it, of a “weekend warrior woodworker” and tinkered with his quaint antiques-laden 70-year-old Doylestown house. His life changed when it came time to replace his shutters.
Skidmore searched for a company that specialized in antique wooden shutters straight out of the 19th century — thick as doors and hinged with hand-forged wrought iron hardware. His plan was to find the company that made them, get its catalog, and then make them himself by copying the design in his garage workshop. Only he couldn’t find the company—because it didn’t exist. A handful of firms made shutters in addition to other products, and some were even pretty good. But shutters weren’t their forte. Skidmore began to suspect he’d discovered an untapped market. The closest thing to a market leader, he learned, was Vixenhill Manufacturing, out of Elverson, Pennsylvania, about 15 miles west of Valley Forge. But Vixenhill specialized in gazebos and porches, and seemed to sell shutters almost as an afterthought. “Timberlane has made inroads into our business,” says Vixenhill CEO Chris Peeples. “He [Skidmore] copied every aspect of our product, matched our prices and has had great success. It’s flattering.”
Back in 1996, Skidmore wasn’t thinking about challenging Vixenhill. He simply knew he could make a cool, historic-looking shutter that he was convinced his Bucks County neighbors would love to own. He drove around Doylestown, Solebury and New Hope, gazing at homes that were historically accurate in every respect except for their shutters, where cheap vinyl Home Depot products predominated. So he made the kind of shutters he wanted, took some photos of them, and after work and on weekends, began knocking on doors. Holding his Polaroids aloft, he’d ask homeowners if they’d be interested in such shutters. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
Meantime, Skidmore was complaining more and more about his humdrum, though lucrative, day job.
“So do something about it said his now-estranged wife Colleen.
“It was kind of like we were on the high dive looking into an empty pool,” Skidmore recalls today. “But I said, ‘What the hell’ and jumped anyway.”
Skidmore had exhibited an entrepreneurial streak even as a kid. The son of a Navy Yard pattern-maker and an Italian immigrant stay at home mom, he was raised in Olney, where his mother indulged his schemes. At seven, he was hawking her funnel cakes on a street corner; she’d run deliveries of fresh cakes out to the curb every five minutes. Later, while an undergrad at Temple University, Skidmore earned in excess of $30,000 a year selling appliances at Sears in Abington, built backyard decks for suburban homeowners on the weekends, and served as a police dispatcher in Lower Moreland on the graveyard 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift while he got his homework done.
It was 1996 when Skidmore opened his shutter shop in the back of the wholesale paint distributorship in Warrington, bankrolling the rent the raw materials, the tools-not to mention the baby formula and his home mortgage—with his 401(k). He’d unload shipments of wood himself, by hand—who could afford a forklift? Once he made a few shutters, he produced a catalog and advertised on the backs of niche magazines—Victorian Homes, Country Living, Old House Journal. By day, he made shutters. At night, he’d call the potential customers who left messages on the ad’s 800 number voicemail. Soon, he was making 500 phone calls a week.
The ad campaign worked. Sales took off, in part because Skidmore wasn’t just making annoying cold calls; he was contacting people who’d already dialed 800-250-2221 to get more information. And he soon found that the only thing his niche customers loved more than improving their houses was talking about their houses. “Whether I called at dinner hour or as late as 10 p.m., I could not get people off the phone,” he recalls. “Their houses were their hobby, and they wanted to talk about them.”
By 1998, Timberlane was a million dollar company, and Skidmore had hired a staff to man the phones and rented 30,000 square feet of office and production space in North Wales. In 2000, Timberlane’s revenues surpassed the $ 3million mark. Last year, when sales exceeded $5 million, Skidmore found he was insulated from the national economic slowdown. His customers were mostly high-end; if they were belt-tightening elsewhere, they weren’t cutting back on their homes. One of the best weeks Timberlane has ever had was September 11th, in which the company moved some $110,000 worth of shutters despite the terrorist attacks. With Timberlane having outgrown its North Wales facility, Skidmore is now scouting new sites. The growth has been so swift that he is convinced the biggest threat to his future is maintaining his cult-like following. “Managing this growth while still being a change agent,” he says breathlessly. “That’s my greatest challenge right now.”
A DUSTY ANTEROOM JUST OFF THE cramped and noisy production floor is the setting of Timberlane’s monthly open-books meeting. A procession of workers shuffles in, some still wearing protective eye goggles.
Skidmore, dressed in corduroy pants and a tan wool sweater, stands before them and begins by encouraging his workers to attend a class in efficiency to be offered this week. Then he places the company’s income statement on the overhead projector and goes through it, line by line.
The figures show a host of unanticipated costs eating into the bottom line. Months ago, Skidmore approved a quarter of a million dollar for something called a “molder,” a processing machine that promised to increase efficiency—in the long run. Information technology has required more investment than he budgeted for. He also had to replace a forklift, and subsequently overheard one of the workers make a passing remark on the shop floor—“I don’t know why the hell we need a new forklift when its been months since we’ve gotten a bonus.” He knows what to expect once he’s gone through the statement, which shows that thanks to these expenditures, there won’t be any profits to share this month, either.
“At the risk of opening a can of worms here, what issues do you guys have?” he asked smiling. “No judgment will be passed on you, and you don’t have to feel awkward asking something that puts me on the spot. I don’t care.”
One worker raised his hand. “I know we spent a lot of money this year on upgrades to the company,” he says. “What spending pattern do you see for next year?”
“That’s a good question, Bob,” Skidmore tells him. “We’re only about 30 percent into the budget for next year, but from an infrastructure standpoint, if for no other reason than we’re out of space, there’s nothing huge on the horizon, other than our possible move.”
“So we don’t know what’s on the horizon in terms of what our expenses are?” someone else asks.
“No, we don’t,” Skidmore says. “Let me take a liberty here. Am I reading into this that what you’re really asking me is, are certain expenses completely necessary? I know it’s frustrating that we have a new forklift and no profit-sharing. But you have to keep in mind that the old forklift was going to die. If we didn’t get a new one, you’d be unloading the trucks by hand, which would really cut efficiency long-term. So it’s not really an option.”
The group seems satisfied, especially once Skidmore unveils the numbers from the first 10 days of the current month, which show they’re back on track for profit-sharing checks four weeks from now. Afterward, far from sweating over having had to field challenging questions from his employees, Skidmore is upbeat. “I hear their questions, and I’m impressed,” he says, walking briskly back to his office. “Bob, the one who was asking a lot of those questions, works in our panel-processing department. By him asking about our expenses, that tells me that he gets it—he knows that if we didn’t spend so much, he’d have his bonus. That’s cool because it tells me I’ve educated him. He gets the concept. Two years ago, he didn’t know what profit-sharing was, or how to read a balance sheet.”
Skidmore has always been confident in the visionary part of his job, his entrepreneurial skills. But three years ago, as his staff grew, he wondered about his leadership skills. That’s when he brought in a consultant Tom Martin, a Wharton grad whose company, Rethink, Inc., operates out of New Hope. Martin interviewed every employee for two hours about Skidmore, who insisted on getting the bad news from Martin in front of the staff. He sat there, squirming, as he heard how “condescending” and “controlling” and “manipulative” his employees found him to be.
“It was painful to watch,” recalls Timberlane sales director Rich Heggs. “ No one could figure out why he did it. I was, like, ‘How masochistic are you? But he sat there and took it, and it had a real effect. He dropped his guard in front of everyone. It was so clear how devastated he was. The level of trust for him just skyrocketed from then on.”
Likewise, Skidmore has learned that he has to trust his employees. He has empowered even his most junior workers—for example, anyone who spots a problem can halt shutter production at any step in the process, no questions asked. And he has also learned that there are times when he just has to back off. Three years ago, his Christmas gift to his employees was to take them and their spouses to New York to see Les Miz and spend a night at a four-star hotel. The whole caboodle cost $10,000, but was worth it for the lesson learned: Most of the workers seemed ill at ease in the posh hotel, and they didn’t much enjoy the Broadway show. Minutes after the curtain went up, Skidmore slumped in his chair, embarrassed, when on of his earthier burst out laughing at a male dancer in tights. “You see that dude?” the worker cried. “His boys are hanging out!”
Now, Christmas is spent at Dave & Buster’s, which his team seems to enjoy a lot more. “When I took them to New York, that was all about me,” Skidmore says. “I learned that if you really want your people to be a part of the team, you’ve got to make it about them. Dave & Buster’s is a home run for this crew.”
THERE ARE LEGITIMATE QUESTIONS about Rick Skidmore’s company’s future, and he knows it. That’s why he’s looking into developing a second –but related product line (he won’t say what it is); there are only so many people willing to shell out $250 to $500 for a pair of shutters.
So, he’s doing his due diligence, even talking to potential investors for the first time. But around the modest Timberlane offices, discussions of Skidmore’s strategic planning are almost always accompanied by an ironic smile. No one knows better than his flock that, yeah, sure he’ll do his homework, but any move he makes will emanate directly from his gut.
Last year, Skidmore went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming on a ski trip with sales director Heggs and shipping and receiving manager Adam Light. They found themselves at an elevation of 13,000 feet, staring at a sign that read
Warning: AVALANCHE RISK. DON’T PROCEED IF YOU ARE NOT AN EXPERT SKIER. AREA NOT PATROLLED BY SKI PATROL.
The three men weren’t advanced expert skiers. Nor did they have avalanche beacons. Yet Skidmore whizzed right past the sign. Heggs and Light looked at one another, shrugged and followed. Soon they were cascading down a narrow 200 high cliff— straight down. “It’s not that Rick knew he was such a good skier—it’s just that he had this determination, this sense that ‘I can do this,’” recalls Heggs. “We think about things; he does them. He’s the first one to jump off any ledge, and the rest of us are just crazy to follow.”