The Philadelphia Inquirer

Rick Skidmore, CEO of Timberlane Shutters Inc. in Montgomeryville, said partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation boosted business.

How firm got word out on its authentic shutters…

“Components of a custom-made Timberlane shutter are glued. Much of assembly is done by hand. The health of the small business, its owner believes is attributable in part to the company’s decision to share profits with employees.”

Rick Skidmore, president and founder of Timberlane Inc, founded his $11 million company 11 years ago after realizing he could not find authentic shutters for his Doylestown home

The former life-insurance agent knew he might be on to something after driving through clusters of historic homes and interviewing their owners.

“I would knock on a bunch of doors and talk to people, who would say, ‘I didn’t know I could get the same ones I could get hundreds of years ago.'”

Simply having a product to fill a need won’t make a business succeed, however, marketing experts say. It’s a problem especially familiar to small businesses such as Skidmore’s.

“The first challenge a small business faces is just awareness,” said Barbara E. Kahn, a marketing professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “It can be pretty hard to get your message out.”

Skidmore said he believe his decision three years ago to partner with the National Trust for Historic Preservation provided the needed momentum.

Sales for the Montgomeryville manufacturer of custom shutters have double – to $8.4 million last years – since the partnership began.

Timberlane, which employs 70, is on track for $11 million in sales this year, Skidmore said.

It has hired 11 people since July and last month moved into a 57,000-square-foot factory it bought for $5 million. The company aims for sales of $14 million next year.

The partnership with the National Trust “adds a lot of creditability,” said Skidmore, 39. So does the list of sites that display Timberlane shutters: the Lincoln Cottage in Washington, which was President Lincoln’s retreat during the Civil War: The Ashton Villa museum and mansion in Galveston, Text; and the Edison-Ford Estate in Fort Myers, Fla.

The company’s products are not cheap. The shutters cost $300 to $500 per pair. Timberlane also sells to luxury and custom homebuilders.

But it is the historical piece that bolsters the company’s reputation Skidmore said.

“They understand the nature of these buildings and the kind of shutters that were used in the period house is being restored to, said Bobbie Greene McCarthy, director of the Washington-based National Trust’s Save America’s Treasures program, “Shutters are not just decorative, but are critical to the health and survival of the structure.”

The health of the business is attributable in part to the company’s decision early on to share profits with employees, Skidmore said.

Employees review the company’s financial performance quarterly. Meetings are held in a corner of the shop floor and usually last no more than an hour.

Employees, who are not unionized, are eligible for bonuses up to 13-percent of their annual salary depending on how they and the company perform.

“It’s that flagpole to get people around,” Skidmore said. “We want people to realized this is not a nonprofit. You want to make money, we want to make money.”

The arrangement isn’t common, said Fred H. Murphy, a professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Management. Companies such as Southwest Airlines Co. are legendary for their willingness to share profits with its employees.

“Employees know whether their company is doing well or not just by looking at the shop floor.” He said. “If you’re above board and straight with employees, they’ll be straight with you. Unions have a foothold when the employees are unhappy.”

Along with the company’s growth come bigger challenges. Skidmore, who has a five-person management team, said he planned to hire a senior financial officer and because he has more space now has to invest more in property, plant, and equipment.

The factory needs a new roof and employees complain about a lack of ventilation. Timberlane fabricates shutters from western red cedar, whose aroma is unmistakable.

Skidmore’s goal is to reach $100 million in sales by 2016, though he already laments that a casualty of that growth would be losing the social culture that exits today.

“There reaches a point in the company where it has to become less of a frat and more of a real business,” he said. “I have solid relationships with people I work with, but I don’t have best friends working for me anymore.”

Lessons Learned

Rick Skidmore founder and president of Timberlane Shutters Inc., offers these three tips to owners of small businesses:

Hire smart people. “Good people are critical.”

Realize what you don’t know and don’t be “Afraid to admit it.”

Stay out of your own way. Let employees learn and grow on the job, which “isn’t easy when you’re a control freak and have everything on the line.”

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