Mike Gibbons recalls his first interview with Ken Bishop, founder of Southern Color Company Inc. Bishop told him, "We're trying to sell solutions, not products."
Bishop’s emphasis on problem-solving attracted Gibbons to the business more than three years ago, and he’s found that customer service is still the No. 1 priority even after acquisition of the business by Rockwood Pigments NA Inc., of Beltsville, Md.
Southern Color, based in Cartersville, Ga., supplies pigments, packaged mortar products and coloring services for the brick and ready-mixed markets as well as decorative concrete surface treatments such as overlays, sealers and acid stains.
The company, which built its reputation in the Southeast, is now expanding all over the country with the help of Rockwood, which is pouring money into every aspect of the business.
Gibbons, business manager of the construction products division, joined Southern Color after 24 years in the concrete industry, but he has never witnessed the explosive growth that Southern Color is now enjoying.
What started in the early ’80s as a home-based business expanded in 2001 to Ocala, Fla., where Southern Color operates out of two additional manufacturing facilities covering 45,000 square feet on seven acres. The stucco and cement market is booming in Florida, despite this year’s string of hurricanes, and business has grown by nearly 20 percent this year, Gibbons says. “It started off slow, but the guy who’s in charge of the Florida operation, Don Abernathy, has done everything — maintenance, credit, you name it — he’s like an Energizer bunny. He’s just done an incredible job.”
Pigments were the main focus of the business when it started, and they remain so today. Judy Craig, one of Bishop’s first employees, can take a swatch of color and match it precisely every time. The pigments go into more than ready mixed concrete; they are also used to color animal feed and are even used by dog groomers to fill in the coats of high-priced show dogs.
“That’s the range. We supply pigments for the World Congress Center, to bridges, to a 2-pound dog,” Gibbons says. “There’s the whole gamut. There’s never a routine or normal day around here.”
The fast-paced growth of the decorative concrete industry is keeping all manufacturers on a continual search for better products. Southern Color keeps at the top of its game by holding monthly training sessions not only to teach distributors about the products, but also to find out how they can be improved.
Again, it’s all about solving problems. “Like I said, we really are consumer-oriented. We’re focused on solutions, not just selling a product. If you’re just selling a product, someone else out there is going to have the same kind of product cheaper,” Gibbons said.
He is particularly excited about a new top-of-the-line, water-based sealer that will “quite bluntly, knock the shorts off anything out there now,” Gibbons said. All manufacturers are turning to more environmentally friendly, water-based products, but the challenge is to develop products that perform just as well as their solvent-based counterparts. Southern Color’s new water-based sealer uses technology that just became available, and works well over acid stains, Gibbons said.
Once selling to both distributors and contractors, Southern Color has streamlined its operations and is now selling strictly to distributors. The company takes its training to the distributors’ facilities. “Most of them love the products because we’re constantly reformulating them to try to enhance them,” Gibbons says. “It’s a never-ending quest to find a better product.”
Training includes the customer service representatives and the sales force so they can be experts on the products. At the 2005 World of Concrete, Gibbons said Southern Color will announce that it is working with Davis Colors, which is also owned by Rockwood. Southern Color products will be introduced into the Davis Color line in 2005.
Rockwood is not just putting money toward training seminars and new buildings, but supporting other areas of the company as well. As of Jan. 1, Southern Color will unveil an updated Web site. Roughly $1 million has gone into upgrading the plant, improved safety equipment was installed, and a new software system will allow employees to find up-to-the-minute sales and inventory information. The company will add another 20,000 square feet in 2005.
Moving from a family-owned business to one owned by a conglomerate has had its challenges — there’s more paperwork, unfamiliar procedures, a new computer system — but the benefits far outweigh the negatives, Gibbons says.
“It truly has been a fun time, because you have the deep resources of a larger company but you still have the flexibility of a smaller company.”