From Bed Bugs to Mini-Brownies, Businesses Adapt to Change
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
New Yorkers who worry about home infestations probably know
Roscoe, the bed bug-hunting Beagle who's been featured in cable
television commercials since 2010 and has his own website. But they
may not know that bed bug services are just the latest incarnation
for Roscoe's owners, Bell Environmental Services, a Fairfield,
N.J., company that has been around for half a century.
Over the years, the 65-employee business has gone from rooting out
termites in homes to trapping mice in department stores, from
working for pharmaceutical labs and hospitals to getting rid of
messy birds on buildings, and then back to residential work
sniffing out bed bugs with dogs like Roscoe.
Change is a way of life for small businesses such as Bell
Environmental, says 71-year-old founder Phil Waldorf, who started
the company in 1963 with a $200 investment. Waldorf's first big
upheaval happened in 1972, when the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency banned the pesticide DDT. "We had primarily used DDT for
rodent control, and everyone in the industry worried about how
they'd make it," he says. "We just got mouse traps and started
getting contracts for commercial facilities. Instead of spraying
once a month, we went in once a week to empty the traps and it
quadrupled our business."
That evolve-or-die spirit has proven particularly important during
the recession and slow recovery of recent years. A survey of 750
small business owners in May showed that 53 percent had reinvented
their businesses in the past two years, says Maria Veltre, managing
director of Citi Small Business, a division ofCitigroup (C), which
commissioned the research.
The older the businesses and their chief executives, the more
likely they were to report they had recently overhauled the
business model, Veltre says. Most CEOs reported they had changed
their products or service offerings, updated their technology and
staffing, or beefed up sales and marketing. Reducing prices, taking
less profit, and relocating were less popular means of change
mentioned by survey respondents.
"Small business owners are especially adept at reinvention," Veltre
said. "Change is never easy, but neither is starting and running a
business. The small business owners I meet with think about their
business 24 hours a day and constantly figure out how to do things
differently, with less expense and better than their
Many times, change is forced on small companies. Bell has had to
respond to changing environmental regulations and consumer concern
about toxic chemicals by swapping out many pesticides for
substances such as silica gel or carbon dioxide.
Shifting neighborhood dynamics, recession, and other concerns also
prompt changes at long-time businesses. Patricia Helding, president
of Fat Witch Bakery in New York's Chelsea Market, introduced a
mini-brownie into her line of gourmet goodies two years ago in
response to price- and diet-conscious customers. "Expensive
brownies are not recession-proof," Helding says. Her 1 3/4-inch
"Baby Witch" brownies are 40 percent cheaper and contain less than
half the calories of her standard brownies.
The 19-employee business, founded in 1998, is always evolving,
Helding says. Though much of Fat Witch's business has moved online,
Helding still works in the store and occasionally takes phone
orders to get a sense of what her customers are saying. "They're
going to tell you things, but not always in an obvious way," she
Listening to customers and responding quickly has kept Abt
Electronics growing since 1936, when Jewel Abt and her husband
David opened a radio shop in Chicago. Today, the 1,100-employee
consumer electronics and appliance store is owned and operated by
third-generation family members who continue to experiment, says
co-president Jon Abt.
"We're always changing our physical layout, adding new products to
sell, phasing things out as they go away, and adding new categories
as they come to fruition," he says. Abt has a wood shop on site to
build its own displays so it can quickly outfit floor space for new
The company is not afraid to try a new category and scrap it if
sales don't measure up. In the early 1980s, the company sold video
games but "got burned when the industry went kaput," Abt recalls.
"We got stuck with a lot of product and we've never sold software
There are misses, but there are also hits. Outsiders laughed when
Abt ventured into e-commerce in 1998; critics said consumers would
never adopt online purchasing for big-ticket items, he recalls. But
shipping from the middle of the country has proven economically
feasible, giving the company a national footprint.
This summer, the store will launch a bedding department in response
to customer demand. "We've always listened to our customers. They
trust us and they want to buy from us, so if they ask for it, we
want to carry it," Abt says.