How does a tiny engine-repair shop in Cleveland become a player in the global marketplace? That's what Joseph and Lori Scholtz, the owners of Timberline Tractor & Marine, wondered in 1996 when they sought to diversify their business.
Just getting Timberline's name out to clients in northeastern Ohio had been enough of a challenge. "When we started in 1984, we were a subcontractor to an engine parts distributor and got our jobs through them," explains Lori, Timberline's secretary/treasurer. "That was good for a while, but our relationship with the distributor restricted us to assignments for the construction business, which is very cyclical. For the company to grow, we had to diversify our services and pursue our own projects, such as repair contracts for the government. We were also interested in doing more work on marine engines. Our parts distributor resisted that idea because of the risks and special insurance requirements."
After weighing the alternatives, the Scholtzes decided to "go independent" and parted amicably from the distributor. The business grew steadily over the next 12 years, yet it wasn't long before the couple ran up against some formidable competition. "Some of the major manufacturers began to corner the market on repair services for their equipment, which shut us out of a lot of projects," Lori says. "We were able to negotiate arrangements with some of the dealers and get work through them, but it was often a struggle to keep our workload steady. It was almost like we were in the same position as when we started."
Once again, the Scholtzes found themselves searching for ways to expand their business. Among the most appealing prospects was the overseas market, particularly for their marine repair services. The task of exploiting this market was assigned to Lori's father, Al Lemons, who admits that his enthusiasm far exceeded his experience. "I had worked for 30 years on the production side of business, never sales," he says. "This was a new endeavor for me, so I tried to find out as much as I could about it."
Armed with SCORE's training and the updated image materials, Al became something of a globetrotter, visiting a number of European and Asian countries in search of new business for Timberline. His travels have produced an international web of contacts and a global reputation for Timberline that extends from Italy to Indonesia. "We haven't conquered the world by any means, but we have made many positive inroads in several countries and diversified our markets," Al says. "But the most amazing to me is that I started out with no sales expertise. Thanks to SCORE, I'm much more comfortable about pursuing new business—no matter where it is."
"SCORE certainly helped smooth the road for me," says Al Lemons. "I felt more confident in making sales calls and explaining what we could offer. That, in turn, gave me the credibility to make a more convincing case to clients."
In the course of his research, Al learned about SCORE and its free mentoring services to small businesses. He met with Bob Arkes, a former international sales executive, who offered literally a world of knowledge and experience.
"Bob gave me everything I needed to develop a sales and marketing plan—how to identify potential customers, who to contact, and strategy," Al says. "He also told me how he had handled exports during his career, and some of the lessons he'd learned in working overseas."
Bob also enlisted the assistance of SCORE Mentor Bob Kaderaver, a former sales and marketing executive, to critique Timberline's brochures and marketing materials. "He pointed out that while our brochure was attractive, it didn't properly convey our marine services," Lori says. "He suggested several changes, which we eagerly implemented. They obviously worked as we began getting more new contracts."