Archive for the ‘Small Business’ Category

Exercise your mind!

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

72 novaIn 1979, I bought my first car, a 72 Chevy Nova, off of a used car lot in North St. Louis. I did little research and just fell in love with the cool looking bright orange sports car. It had little frills, no A/C, manual windows and a stick shift. Ah, what a nice car; simple and fun to drive!

Then reality sunk in. The car looked great but seemed to eat gas and my left brain told me to get a handle on what gas mileage I was getting (not that I could really do anything about it). Back then, there were no gauges to report the gas mileage, so I kept a note book in my glove box. I wrote down the gallons and mileage after each fill up. Then I subtracted the difference in gallons and divided it into the difference in miles since the last fill up. The result was a pretty consistent picture of my gas mileage. And I did it all manually, in the car, without the help of a calculator!

Today, I push a button and it gives me the result instantly. No fill up needed. No log book. No mental math!

Computers have created a world of instant information and calculations that we use for a more efficient lifestyle. But the unfortunate consequence is that it eliminates the curiosity of how something really works. We morph into a lifestyle that relies on a machine to do the thinking for us. We focus our thoughts onto visual things rather than using the mind for basic step-by-step processes like math and sciences. After a prolonged period of nonuse atrophy sets in and we can forget about simple things, like multiplication tables, or how to figure out a percentage increase, or division by long hand.

Try a simple test. Divide 500 by 10,500 without a computer. Did you struggle getting the result? I sure did. It took me a moment to remember which number went on the left side and right side of the bracket, and how to “carry the zeroes” before I came up with the quotient of .0476.

The other day, I built a bench out of wood. The directions called for cutting a board at a 60 degree angle. I had to pause a moment to get it right. My mind is used to 45 and 90 degree angles, not 60.

In business, I use math every day as part of my financial responsibilities for my stores.  I have trained myself to add numbers quickly in my head, and to come up with percentage increases or decreases. I now construct complex excel spreadsheets using a variety of different formulas. But it is not easy and I have to force myself to do this to exercise my brain.

A couple of weeks ago, my business partner asked me to calculate the gross profit % of a subset of a particular department. I knew the result of 2 individual subsets, and the grand total, but not the third subset. So I had to set up a basic algebraic formula of x and y to derive the result. It took a while, but when I did get the answer, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment, much more than if the computer had done it for me.

Do not be embarrassed if you have forgotten some basic skills;  but do take the time to exercise the mind with refresher courses. There are many tutorials you can use online to review subject matter you may have forgotten since grade school. One I really like is the Khan Academy. It is free and the videos are short, around 10 minutes, on thousands of topics.  Other exercises include:

-Play Words with Friends-Debbie plays it all the time and has multiple games going on simultaneously with different people,

-Watch Jeopardy-this show is filled with fun facts and entertaining as well,

-Turn off the TV and read a book-when is the last time you actually did read a book cover to cover?

-Subscribe to Merriam Webster Word of the Day and learn some new words

Good luck.


John Marklin

Using patience as an asset

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

Throughout my career I have always tried to have a plan in place before making a decision. It just comes natural to me; thinking of the next steps in order to move the project ahead. My left brained organizational side has always told me to move ahead cautiously, to avoid surprises and to have time and options if things don’t go the way I thought they would.

I own three grocery in Virginia: one in the southwest corner (Danville), one in northwest section in the Shenandoah Valley (Bridgewater), and one on the eastern shore (Chincoteague). Living in Richmond puts me in the center of these three stores but still 2-4 hours away from any one store. Consequently, I spend a considerable amount of time driving between stores as my partner and I vowed to be extremely active and onsite as much as possible.

When I tell people about this, oftentimes they look at me like I am a bit crazy; spending so much time behind the wheel,  and on the road in motels while eating at greasy restaurants. They ask why don’t I find something closer to Richmond, to make my life a bit more convenient.

They have a good point and one that I have asked myself in the past. But then I realize that I do this because it was absolutely necessary to be successful.

I have seen too many situations where retailers choose locations because they are close by, or convenient to get to, or synergistic with their corporate staff. And by doing so, they put the business before the location. They force the situation and think that by building something, well people will flock to it.

Throughout my life I have only seen one retailer ever successful at picking locations irrespective of the normal traffic pattern-Walmart. They will often build a store in a sparsely filled part of the town, yet are successful at drawing gobs of people to the location.

But there is only one Walmart. Most retailers who are successful are good because they have a great business AND a great location.

We have been offered numerous opportunities to run stores in cities and towns close to Richmond. But after we looked at the business, and then the location, it made no sense, despite potentially being convenient.

We have managed to be patient and to wait for the right opportunity to come by. In doing so, we look at every possible opportunity, but we really know why we are successful. So we wait patiently for the right opportunity.

But patience doesn’t mean delaying everything. Oh no. We work hard on establishing relationships with vendors and suppliers and bankers so when the right opportunity does prevent itself, we can strike quickly, like we did with our most recent store.

When decisions are forced due to ego, time deadlines, or outside pressures, nothing good can come from it. You usually pay too much, or give up a significant bargaining chip. And oftentimes have buyer’s remorse for acting to soon.


John Marklin

Listen and fix

Friday, August 1st, 2014

rosesLast month I sent Debbie a dozen roses for our 35th wedding anniversary. I later discovered that there were only eleven roses sent and that the flower arrangement was a little askew (possibly due to falling over in the delivery truck).

So I called the floral shop, not to complain or to get a refund, but to politely inform them of the one rose shortage. That they may want to check into why or how this happened; to prevent it from happening again.

A few days later, two roses were delivered to Debbie with an apology. That really wasn’t necessary, but it was indeed noticed by Debbie and by me. The floral shop has won a customer for life!

Last week I was bagging groceries at our new store on Chincoteague Island (I love to bag because it gives me the best direct contact with my customers). The one pound bag of frozen shrimp on sale was not ringing up on the register. I quickly went to the frozen case, retrieved the price from the shelf tag and told the cashier so the customer would be charged correctly.

We have over 30,000 different items in our store. That is a lot of information that has to be stored, updated and retrieved in the computer upon a scan across the register. So occasionally we do have some that do not ring up properly. The important point is not to get frustrated with the small percentage of error, but to correct the problem as it happens. I took down the UPC code on the frozen shrimp bag and had it immediately entered correctly in the computer, hopefully before the next customer bought one.

Yesterday, I was at another one of our stores. I met a woman across the street from our store who regularly shops with us. She asked about our ground beef and where it was coming from. I told her and then asked why and she went on to say that the last time she bought some “it just didn’t taste good”. I apologized and told her I would check into it.

After talking to our butcher, we did have a case of ground beef that failed our inspection process and was quickly retrieved and thrown away. We then notified the supplier. I was assured by our butcher that the matter had been resolved up to our quality standards. I then had the butcher prepare a fresh 1.5 pound tray of ground beef and personally delivered it to the woman across the street, with my sincere apology.

All three of these corrective measures (roses, frozen shrimp and ground beef) were preceded by a trigger:  a customer comment or a noticeable flaw in the system. The easy thing to do would be to do nothing to fix the flaw. But an owner knows better, that most people don’t complain. So when they do, it is probably something that really needs corrective action. And to fix it quickly and then notify the customer can go a long way in retaining customers.

So what do you do when you hear about a flaw in the system?


John Marklin


11 days!

Monday, June 30th, 2014

ChincoteaguePony-Penning-2002-500x333On May 24, 2014, my business partner and I received a phone call that a grocery store was for sale on Chincoteague island, off of the eastern shore of VA. That weekend, my partner and his wife traveled to the island to check it out. A few days later, we met in Richmond with all interested parties and negotiated a deal to buy our third store. After many hours and sleepless nights, we closed on the deal on 6/7/14.

The next two weeks became a  true race in order to get the store open in time for the tourist season in mid-June.

In that period of time, we did hundreds of tasks, including the following:

-Hired 25 new employees

-Removed all trash and old inventory

-Cleaned and sanitized everything

-Painted the interior walls

-Repaired all refrigeration units

-Replaced the air conditioner

-Scrubbed and put on 5 coats of floor wax

-Replaced every fluorescent light bulb

-Installed new front end cash registers and trained the cashiers

-Replace meat, deli and produce scales and trained employees

-Filled the store up with groceries

And all of this was accomplished for our store opening on June 20. Excluding off days for floor cleaning, that was only 11 days!

None of this could have been accomplished without the help of dozens of employees, vendors and suppliers. The relationships that we have established over the past 4 years in growing our businesses really paid off. People literally dropped everything to come to the island to help us get the store open on time. And for this we are extremely grateful.

We are improving the store every day and you can watch the progress on Facebook. The reception from the islanders (Teagers) and the tourists has been wonderful.

Chincoteague island was just named the happiest seaside island  by Coastal Living Magazine. And the annual pony penning is July 30, 2014.

Come on up and visit. A nice little grocery store is there to serve your needs!


John Marklin

Give your effort the respect it deserves

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Many years ago, my wife and I decided to start a little side business at the request of a friend. We were sold on the fact that we could make some extra money doing very little by starting our own online travel agency.

All it took was signing up with an internet company for a few bucks and presto we had our own personal travel agency: Cobblestone Travel.  The agency hooked in with an online search engine and booked travel with airlines, hotels and cars. And after the travel was booked and paid for, we would then receive a small percentage commission on the sales.

The effort on our part was not much. All that was needed was to leverage our relationships with friends and business contacts, introduce them to the idea and let them book travel with Cobblestone. Quick money-little effort. It seemed like a no-lose proposition.

But the agency was doomed from the start.

First we learned that the service we were providing (the search engine) was nothing different than what was used by the big companies. We weren’t providing cheaper travel and our routes weren’t the fastest. We quickly discovered that we were not providing a value to the customer.

Second, and more important, we really didn’t like the idea of selling to our friends and family. Our heart wasn’t in it. The sideline business fell victim to the “absentee owner disease” and was running aimlessly by itself.  

Hence, sales fizzled and the agency was really only used for our own personal use. After a few months, we decided to close down Cobblestone Travel.

I don’t know why I thought it would be any different. I put in very little money, time and effort, yet I expected a payback. Hmmm. I thought I was smarter than that!

Since then I vowed to myself that I would learn from that mistake. I would not take on any venture unless I could put my entire being into it. No more side shows expecting unrealistic rewards; it just doesn’t happen.

Today, I own two grocery stores with a business partner. My partner and I made a pact from the outset that one of us will be in our stores once a week. We will not allow complacency to fill in; we will not become absentee owners.

Four times a year, the owners and our wives meet for a board meeting. We usually make a weekend out of it, get away and have some fun while we allocate some serious time to discussing business results and strategies.

The business part of the meeting takes place in a professional manner. We follow an agenda, listen to one another, debate topics and vote on ideas. I prepare a booklet of stats, charts and graphs showing the trends of the past and the predictions of the future. Although I’ve prepared hundreds of board books in my previous business life as a CFO, none are done with more diligence and commitment than now. Because now it is my business, money and family’s future.

Whether it is running a business, coaching a Little League team, organizing a not-for-profit function or building a model airplane, give it your full attention. And give the effort the respect it deserves.


John Marklin

Staying secure in a hacker’s world

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

In the past month, I have been the victim of a forged check scheme at one of my store’s bank accounts, and a hack job with my personal credit card from the Target debacle.

The days of armed robberies are being supplanted  with cyber-space crime. It is everywhere and becoming more popular than ever.

What is a person to do? Stick your head in the sand and avoid paper checks or transacting business on the internet? That is not likely. In fact, online shopping is growing at a breakneck pace due to the ease of comparison shopping and the option of free delivery if you look hard enough.

Here are some things that can help. I do some of these, not all. But all seem to give you a better sense of safety in an unsafe world:

1-If you have to pay with a card, ALWAYS use credit instead of debit. The protection is far superior with credit if something goes wrong with the transaction.

2-For smaller and more risky purchases such as in a restaurant, use cash instead of a credit card. Can you think of a more unsafe process than to give your card to a complete stranger, who then goes out of your eyesight to potentially do whatever with your credit card numbers?

3-If possible, eliminate paper checks with electronic checks that YOU control. Paper checks can be easily duplicated and forged through online check writing programs and blank check stock from Staples. Electronic payments only go to the intended party’s bank account.

4-Only allow regular monthly payments to be auto debited from your bank accounts. This would include mortgage payments, utility bills, and communication services like cable and internet.

5-Review your banking and credit card activity frequently, (I recommend daily). Recovery is more likely for a claim to be processed if found sooner than later; not to mention the loss of cash in your bank account or an inflated bill to pay on a credit card statement.

6-Consider placing a security freeze on your credit information with the top three credit companies (Experian, Transunion and Equifax). A security freeze prohibits anyone from checking your credit without your pre-authorization. And the number of credit card solicitations you get in the mail will likely drop. Here are the three websites: Experian, Equifax, Transunion.

7-Shred all unused or old credit and debit cards as well as banking and credit card statements. Don’t give a dumpster hunter the opportunity to get your private information.

8-Change passwords often and use symbols, CAPS and numbers.

9-Avoid doing online business with vendors who allow weak passwords. Check out the this article for unsafe websites as the results may shock you.

10-Always have an up-to-date virus protection program on your pc. I use Avast. And it is free.


I hope you find some of these tips helpful in staying safe.


John Marklin

The business circle

Wednesday, January 29th, 2014

SFF logoShortly after we bought the Bridgewater Foods Supermarket, we were approached by a shopper who invited us to a local produce auction. Not knowing exactly what to expect, we checked into it with our employees and shoppers.

Our store is in the middle of a Mennonite farming community in the western hills of Virginia. Some time ago, the local farmers banded together to build a series of pole barns whereby neighbors could bring their fresh produce and sell it to other merchants via a good old fashion auction. The auction lasted for the length of the summer, a couple of times a week.

Our store decided to participate. We showed up and listened and learned how to work the auction. We always had a few seasonal items in mind that we would buy if we could get them at a good price. And, we found a neighbor to haul what we bought back to the store at a fair price.

We quickly merchandised the product neatly into our produce section. We put up big signs emphasizing the word “local”.

And the results were immediate. We had our regular customers start to notice and tell their friends. We soon had new customers come in who liked the idea of buying and selling locally. And of course, we had some of the farmers, those who sold us the product, in to shop for other grocery items.

A few weeks ago, another local group, the Shenandoah Family Farm Cooperative, approached us to sell their homemade milk. They gave us a fair price and we quickly agreed to add the label.

Yesterday, we were scheduled to get our first shipment of Shenandoah Family Farm milk. To our surprise, we had about 20 members of the cooperative show up for support and to see the first shipment of  their product; to make sure it was well received by the community.

But the truck was a couple of hours late. No problem, the coop members, some with grade school kids, hung around and had some hot chocolate, coffee and donuts and patiently waited. When the product arrived, they beamed with delight. They also bought most of the competing product that was being replaced and donated it to the local food pantry.

We had reports throughout the day of people specifically coming in to buy the local milk as the word spread fast throughout the community.

Owning a store in a small town is difficult and risky at times. But when you experience a true “circle of business” within your community, it makes you very proud to be a small part of the cycle.


John Marklin

I love a parade

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

1441374_269054623241942_1529588517_nTwo years, Lee and I had just bought the Bridgewater Foods grocery store. Bridgewater, VA is a small farming town outside of Harrisonburg, VA. We were working hard to come up with ideas to get involved in the community. One idea I had was to bring Santa Claus to Bridgewater. I checked around and there were no official Santa events in town. So I bought a Santa suit (quite humorous looking now that I look back at the pictures) and surprised my customers one day by walking the store. The Pepsi man was filling his end cap so I jumped on a pallet of Pepsi and he wheeled me around the store. I high fived customers and little kids. I then went onto Main Street and waved at the passing cars. A few kids wanted their picture taken with Santa, so I obliged.

Last year, I decided to have a parade through town. I asked a fellow farmer to borrow his wagon and tractor, asked some friends to be Santa and his Elf, and  did some in-store publicizing about meeting Santa and parading through town. On parade day, I had about 20 kids show up to ride in the wagon with Santa. Led by my butcher on a motorcycle, we paraded through town waving and spreading Christmas cheer. Afterwards, we stopped at our store and had free pictures with kids (about 75 in total).

This year, Lee and I decided to step it up a notch. We discovered that it had been 39 years since the town had an official Christmas parade, so we started a year in advance to organize one. A big one! We approached the Town Administrator, the Police Chief and Fire Chief and got their go-ahead and full support. We then picked a date and early in the Fall focused on sign-ups. One day, Lee and I blanketed the town with sign up forms. He took one side of Main Street and I took the other. We knocked on every merchant’s door. By the end of the day, we had 50 committed floats.

Lee and I wanted to do something special for the Bridgewater Retirement Home in town. We knew many living there could not make it to the parade, so we took the parade to them.  We scheduled the parade to begin on their grounds. We scheduled pre-parade concerts, in the Assisted Living facility, Nursing Home and outdoors, by the Bridgewater College choir, Pep band and the student who sings the national anthem for JMU.

Later the publicity started to go into full swing. We put red parade posters on every telephone pole along the parade route. We aired commercials on local radio. We put notices in our weekly newspaper ads, on our Facebook fan page and through our proprietary email list. The word started to spread. I was getting calls every day for new entrants. By parade day, I had over 100 units committed with 85 official floats.

I asked for volunteers, and they immediately stepped up. I asked for vendor and local support with advertising, supplies and food and they responded.

And then I started a routine communication vehicle with the parade participants and with the volunteers. Every week leading up to the parade I would email a notice advising them of something. We ended with 13 official parade notices.

When parade day  came, there was only one more thing to worry about-the weather. The Weather Channel was calling for a cold and rainy forecast for the parade. I called some  of my family and friends to pray for good weather. By parade day, the rain had stopped by 6 am, just in time for the 10 am start.

We had thousands show up lining the street to see the parade. Each float was introduced by Q101 DJ, Ian, and some floats had 30 second commercials about their business. About 14 floats stopped to do a 1 minute song or dance performance.

The parade went smoothly and ended in about one hour and 15 minutes. After the parade, the crowd moved to Santa’s Village across from my store to have pictures with Santa and hear some more music.


Here are some of the things I learned from this year’s parade:

1-It took a few years to get established before launching such a big event. We started off small two years ago and slowly built to a major event.

2-I needed local support from the town, police and fire. Once you have that, you are good to go.

3-Start early. We have literally been working on this for a year. We had some natural dormant periods, but the planning ahead reduced the stress and risk of screw up at the end.

4-Communicate often. Email is the best way to communicate on a routine basis. Not everyone reads their email, but for those who do, they love to hear about the plans and the development of the parade.

5-Ask for help, from anyone. I was shocked to see what people will do if they believe in the cause.

6-And lastly, SMILE and show enthusiasm at all times when planning and executing the parade. After all, who doesn’t love a parade?


John Marklin

Treating a vendor

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

You see it everywhere.

“The customer is #1”

 “Whatever the customer wants, give it to them”

 “The customer is always right”

No doubt, without satisfied customers, we have nothing. And customers remain the primary focus for any thriving business.

But let’s talk a minute about the other side of the supply chain, the vendor. How do you and your business view the merchant who supplies your business with goods and services?

When I grew up in the food wholesaling business, I admit that relations with vendors were not given much attention. They were purely viewed as a source of supply and were inanimate objects that only existed for the wholesaler (its customer). Phone calls, correspondence and transactions were short, routine and mundane. Rarely did the wholesaler reach out to the vendor to strike up a relationship other than for pure business.

Continuing this practice today handcuffs the wholesaler into gaining a more prosperous relationship with the vendor.

Behind that vendor mask lies a human, one who is no doubt trying to do a good job. His job might be heavily weighted on productivity, in and out trips, and may appear to lack much of human interaction.

But what if the wholesaler, or any customer, took the time to get to know the vendor? Find out a little more about their product or services outside of the obvious. Ask questions about how he could help your business. Find out about special deals, and ways to leverage those into your practice. All this while treating them with respect and cheerfulness.

I look forward to meeting vendors in my stores. I greet them at the door, offer them a cup of coffee, take them on a personal tour of the store and always walk them to the door. Shake their hands, look them in the eye and let them know how you feel, and find out how they feel about the visit. Oftentimes, this practice at least will convert them into a customer of mine.

Does you vendor hate to visit you? If so, there is a business opportunity that is going awry.

Improving the way you treat a vendor can only improve the way the vendor will treat you.


John Marklin

Create change

Friday, September 20th, 2013

In Spencer Johnson’s classic book, “Who moved my cheese?”, he speaks to how to handle unexpected change. How some manage change differently, yet those who attack it with vigor and zest will likely succeed in the end.

This is true, but it deals with a reactive situation. The change has already happened, and one is forced to deal with it.

How about getting in front of the situation and look for change. That’s right, be proactive and change things up in your life!

One thing that I really like about Virginia is the change of seasons. Not too cold or hot, yet enough of a change to bring a sense of anticipation for the coming season.

At our grocery stores, my partner and I try to change something in the store each week. It could be a new item or changing a display. The customers love coming in to see what is different.

Our river home, Shadowood, is our get-a-way place for the weekend to do things we can’t do in the city: hiking, boating, hobbies, gardening, etc. Oftentimes people ask if I will eventually move there full time. My answer is no. Because it will then become the same, and I may not look forward to it as much as I do now.

In my career, I have always been restless and looking to advance and change things up. Staying in the same job or position has never been an option for me. And this pattern has paid off quite nicely for me.

There used to be a saying that “the only one who loves change is a baby with a dirty diaper”. I say hogwash. Change is what keeps us going, advancing, encountering, winning and losing in life.

Successful people know how to handle change. Happy people know how to create change.


John Marklin