A Client's Best Friend

What do you do when your customer base is slammed by a downturn? If you're Sherri Stevens, you make yourself indispensable

Written by Jennifer Myers

When a Tier 1 supplier to Toyota Canada phoned Sherri Stevens looking for 20 temporary plant workers, she was both excited and terrified. It was 1991; Stevens was just a year into running her staffing agency in Ingersoll, Ont., and to that point had placed only office personnel. “It was a huge opportunity,” she says. “But I knew nothing about the automotive industry.”

Motivated by the challenge and hungry for the business, Stevens took on the job—and delivered. Moreover, she used the “in” to start defining her firm as a premier supplier to the auto industry.

Two decades later, SRG (Stevens Resource Group Inc.) provides a broad range of HR services to a client base largely composed of Tier 1 and 2 auto manufacturers out of seven offices in Ontario and a new branch in Tupelo, Miss. In 2010, SRG’s sales topped $15 million, and Stevens has now placed No. 25 on the 2011 PROFIT W100 ranking.

Along the way, Stevens has had to contend with two recessions that, given the volatility of the auto sector, could have killed her company. She has responded by diversifying SRG’s client base, boosting its service offerings and enriching its relationships with current customers. In doing so, she has created a business that clients want to stick with in good times and bad.

As daunted as she was by that 1991 call from Vuteq Canada Inc., Stevens now feels that her lack of industry experience proved helpful. To get a better understanding of how the auto sector worked, she asked to tour Vuteq’s plant and peppered its management with questions to determine the skill sets needed, among other things. Instead of being put off by her curiosity, Vuteq found it refreshing. “We were up front in admitting we didn’t know anything,” says Stevens. “But we were willing to work hard to learn their business, and they respected that.”

Word about SRG’s consultative approach quickly got around and, thanks in large part to glowing referrals from Vuteq, the firm began to add other Toyota suppliers to its client roster. By 2000, 90% of its placements were going to auto manufacturers.

Then came the dot-bomb. While its effects on the auto sector were limited, it alerted Stevens to the risks of being so tied to one sector. Diversification became her priority. She opened new locations in non-automotive towns and challenged her branch managers to find new business in different sectors. Stevens also invested in marketing materials that stressed SRG’s full range of services, which by then included reference checks, top-level recruiting and training.

As a result, SRG picked up clients in warehousing, logistics, foodservices and hospitality, increasing its non-automotive revenue to 30% of its business.

Such efforts were enough to ensure that when the 2008 crash hit, SRG was partially shielded from its effects. But not fully. As plants across Ontario curbed or stopped production, SRG’s sales plummeted by 50%, forcing it to close two locations.

Instead of panicking, Stevens opted to beat the slump by staying by her clients’ sides. By nature prone to such acts as sending new customers handwritten thank-you notes, cozying up to her clientele came easily to Stevens. She encouraged her team to emulate her by calling and visiting clients regularly. And Stevens launched a staff-training program to reinforce SRG’s customer-service standards. The strategy worked; the firm came out of the recession with a strong client base intact—65% of which is now automotive.

The experience has taught Stevens that when clients feel a supplier is indispensable, they’ll fight to keep that supplier on when times are tough. So, her goal now is to make SRG even more essential to customers.

This strategy is writ large in SRG’s Tupelo facility, which opened in January. Located near a brand-new Toyota plant, the outpost boasts a scaled-down version of a parts plant’s shop floor. Its purpose is to teach recruits the Toyota Production System, allowing SRG to offer clients the valuable perk of fully trained workers.

It’s a big investment, but since Stevens has a golden reputation among the Canadian branches of many of the Tupelo plant’s parts suppliers, and since few local staffing firms have automotive expertise, she believes it will pay off. “It really sets us apart,” says Stevens. “Our clients there now see us as an HR partner.”

Stevens plans to replicate the skills-centre concept in Georgetown, Ky., another Toyota hub. She is also looking to acquire other staffing agencies to boost growth. Even with the uncertain state of the U.S. economy, the timing seems right: by offering services clients have come to rely on, Stevens has created a business resilient enough to thrive in any conditions.

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Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com