John Steckler grows companies. If you want to grow but aren’t exactly sure what your business needs, ask John.
“Sometimes it’s a product,” he said. “Sometimes it’s actually shirking the revenue but increasing the profits — that can be a hard decision for some owners to grasp. Sometimes its marketing and advertising.”
A Salesman Is Born
John is one those rare locals, born, raised and educated right here in Seattle. When he entered the University of Washington, his plan was to work as an actor. So he earned a bachelor’s in communications and lined up a sweet internship he hoped would lead to a job either in front of the camera or behind it. When a clerical error gave his internship to some other student, John reluctantly accepted the only one still available – in the sales department at KIRO TV.
He wasn’t exactly thrilled, but figured at the very least he would have something to put on his resume. John sold his motorcycle in order to buy a suit, and started his internship at KIRO. He soon made a life-changing discovery: Salesmen dress a lot nicer than actors, and they have better cars.
John never looked back.
When his internship ended, KIRO didn’t have a job for him, but John was determined. He created a job description that basically said he would do the menial jobs nobody else wanted to, at whatever wage they wanted to pay — but only for three months. John scrubbed toilets, filed paperwork and persevered. After those three months, he received the first of his many promotions at KIRO.
John rose through the ranks as a salesman and sales manager, and eventually ran his own division, Account Services, where he realized real opportunity lay in finding creative ways to make money. So, he got creative.
The mission for Account Services was “to generate revenue without selling any inventory,” which John and his team did by leveraging sponsors who provided content the station a) didn’t have to pay for, and b) profited from — before selling a single ad.
From Implementer to Leader
After KIRO, John’s career shifted to encompass more than sales. It became more about helping other businesses grow, often by creating an effective sales culture from a leadership position instead of as an implementer.
“I lead the culture, create a strategy and create measurable, accountable actions. I lead,” said John. “I love to implement, but you shouldn’t pay me to do that. You need to hire me to bring that sales culture into the organization.”
This means teaching business owners how to manage their salespeople and independent representatives, how to track and measure progress and, of course, how to grow sales.
This focus developed after he left KIRO to work for one of his clients, a man who owned two companies on the decline: Gargoyle, which sold sunglasses, and Pro-Tec, which sold bike helmets. Both companies had their own unique obstacles.
Fashion and Function
Gargoyle’s once-popular sunglasses had fallen out of fashion. John learned what its specific fashion faux pax was from customers — the glasses were too big — and urged Gargoyle to create a secondary line of smaller sunglasses. The owner had a concern common among owners, that the secondary line would cannibalize his primary product. However, John convinced the owner to try it, and the resulting Gargoyle 85 was a hit. Not only did it breathe new life into the company, it boosted sales for the primary line, which took off once again.
Gargoyle continued to expand its offering and is still going strong today.
Pro-Tec’s obstacles had little to do with fashion. At one point, their bike helmets cost $20 to make and could be sold at a nice profit. When legislation made wearing helmets mandatory, it turned what had been a justifiable extravagance into a commodity, which tanked the price to $19.95. Pro-Tec was stuck with millions in inventory they couldn’t even sell at cost.
John started getting to know the company and found a secondary line was already in place: skateboard and inline-skate helmets. Unlike the now-mandatory bike helmets, these were still profitable.
John went to the owner. “We lose money on bike helmets. Let’s get rid of those and turn this into a skateboard helmet company.”
This move, even with the substantial loss they took on bike helmets, increased profits by $700,000. The company was viable again and immediately attracted a buyer. The owner sold, and Pro-Tec is still in operation today, selling helmets for snow sports, skateboarding, water sports — and bikes.
A Lot Like You, a Little Different
Around the Pacific Northwest, everybody knows at least one Socks-with-Sandals Guy.
Pemco Insurance was getting pounded by bigger insurance companies like Geico and Farmers. They hired John and tasked him with growing the business.
Since growth can mean different things to different companies, the first thing John did was ask for a specific definition of what it meant to Pemco. The answer was quotes. Their rates were competitive enough that if they could just get more people to ask for a quote, they were confident it would translate to more customers.
How do you get more people to get quotes for an insurance company? Marketing.
John researched Pemco’s target audience and the data presented the answer: Pacific Northwesterners love to self-identify as members of very specific, quirky groups.
“We aren’t Washingtonians or Pacific Northwesterners,” said John. “We’re a soccer mom, we’re a long-haired pony-tail-wearing software nerd or an island commuter. People love these.”
John met with the team at Pemco and suggested they launch a marketing campaign that not only celebrated these identifying quirks, but joined in by labeling Pemco as quirky, too. This led to the slogan, “We’re a lot like you, a little different,” which hit the spot.
Spending less than half of what their competitors spent, Pemco insurance increased quotes by 60 percent within the first quarter after launching the campaign. The company grew, even spreading into Alaska and Oregon, and kept the Northwest Profile campaign going for years.
A Tailored Approach to Growth
It was through these experiences that John learned there’s no single formula for growth. Gargoyle needed to work on their product, Pro-Tec needed reconfiguration and Pemco needed strong marketing.
Once John has identified the specific problem a company is facing, he finds the solution by examining their competition, strengths, weaknesses, etc. It can take anywhere from a couple of months to a year, but eventually the path forward becomes clear.
“The info tells you what to do,” said John. “If you have questions, you haven’t gathered enough data.”
Sometimes that data is surprising. When Shurgard Self-Storage hired John as vice president of sales, he quickly saw that their product was really hard to buy.
Shurgard offices weren’t connected. The only person who could access a location’s inventory was that location’s manager. So if they didn’t have what a customer needed, they couldn’t recommend another location. That customer just had to drive around to different facilities and hope they stumbled onto the right one. And forget calling around. The manager at each location lived on site and rarely interacted with the public, so the position naturally attracted people who weren’t exactly outgoing. And when they went to lunch or an appointment, they hung a sign on the door and any customers who dropped in just had to wait. John visited location after location and 50 percent of the time was greeted by a sign.
For a company that required customers to physically show up during limited office hours to transact business, all of this added up to a product that was too hard to buy — no matter how much someone wanted to.
John set out to change this. He started by taking inventory out of the hands of the store managers and giving every Shurgard across the country access to every other location. Now, if one location didn’t have what a customer wanted, they could direct that customer to the closest location that did.
John also created a call center staffed by trained salespeople, which took the burden off the shy office managers who were so often away from the phone.
Sure enough, Shurgard became easy to buy and sales sky-rocketed. In the first year it generated $10 million in first-month’s rent over the phone, and revenue nearly doubled from $138 million to $268 million
In established locations, there was another dimension of difficulty. Once they were full, they couldn’t grow. To combat this stagnation, John first set an expectation that no more than 90 percent of any location would be sold. This allowed a restructuring of the pricing model and created double digit growth in established stores.
The success of Shurgard attracted the attention of Public Storage, which took over the chain and currently operates thousands of locations across the globe.
Two years ago, John joined OneAccord. He wanted to expand his ability to serve clients and offer greater value.
“I was an independent consultant before,” John said. “When I came to OneAccord, all of the sudden I had access to all this other talent. That’s the value of OneAccord. When you hire somebody like me, you’re not just getting me. I can grow your company, but I don’t know how to sell your company — but I have access to that.”
OneAccord helps business owners meet their goals by not only laying out a plan of action, but walking alongside them and guiding them through that plan to the finish line. This series highlights the people who make that possible.