The bigger they are… small biz v big corp

The bigger they are… small biz v big corp

Think you’re too small to go up against the major competitors in your industry? Well, think again

Gary Hirshberg is waging war. Armed with an overdeveloped sense of guerrilla marketing, he has taken his battle for market share to the densely populated hills of corporate America. Slipping in under the pretext of attending a business meeting, he invades office buildings and strikes a blow for his brand, Stonyfield Farm yogurt. “We’ve made appointments with one attorney in a skyscraper, say, where 2,000 people work, walked past the security guards carrying 400 cups of yogurt, and pushed every elevator button between 1 and 50, handing out samples to the receptionist on each floor,” says Hirshberg, president of Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm. The yogurt-industry underdog, consequently, has been lapping up impressive revenue, despite sour U.S. yogurt sales overall.

Stonyfield Farm holds a mere 2.4 percent of a $1.8 billion market dominated by Dannon, a subsidiary of the French-owned BSN Group (with 32 percent market share); General Mills’ Yoplait and Colombo brands (a combined 29 percent market share); and Kraft’s Breyers (8 percent market share). Controlling ownership in Stonyfield, founded in 1983, is held by the president and founder Hirshberg, 44, his family, and a handful of partners. Half of the company’s 150 employees also share a small stake. Stonyfield will do sales of about $50 million this year. That number has grown by 36 percent annually since 1990. Stonyfield, nevertheless, is still a bit player. And that’s why the company is making inroads anyway it can.

Hirshberg’s credo: There are yogurts, and then there is Stonyfield yogurt – a distinction only a tasting can prove. “We think of our product as a fine wine,” says Hirshberg. “Last year we gave away 6.3 million cups of yogurt. Our goal is both to take customers away from other companies, [those] making inferior products, and to convert non-yogurt eaters into yogurt eaters. The only way we can do that is to bring our yogurt to the customer’s mouth.”

In addition to his surgical strikes on the consumer marketplace, Hirshberg hopes to convert his competitors’ customers through his social-conscience efforts. Both sides of Stonyfield yogurt lids often carry messages about the need to prevent global warming or stop handgun violence. The company also donates a full 10 percent of its profits to groups like Share Our Strength, the anti-poverty and hunger organization, and the Jane Goodall Institute, which promotes wildlife research and preservation. “In terms of a branding strategy, as one looks toward the 21st century, we can’t ignore that consumers are increasingly looking to businesses to solve the world’s problems,” he says. “Companies that are making a true effort to do that are seeing tremendous consumer support.”

  • Fill ‘Er Up – Anytime
  • Entrepreneur: Don Stewart
  • Company: Mini-Tankers USA
  • Industry: Petroleum

It’s 3 a.m., and you’ve run out of diesel fuel. Your choices: Stop working (which probably isn’t such a hot idea, considering that the urgency of your project has you going around the clock), or call in help. But who ya gonna call? Most consumers of diesel fuel (construction and highway crews, for example) might try Texaco, Shell, or Getty, which generally contract out delivery services with small, local distributors or individual service stations. The problem you’ll encounter with these Goliath-led partnerships is that you’re usually going to have to wait until morning – at the very earliest – to get your equipment cranking.

The reason: Few big petroleum dealerships are open after sunset

Enter Seattle-based Mini-Tankers USA. It’s open all the time. “We operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we deliver fast. So we save the customer money by reducing downtime on equipment,” boasts company president Don Stewart.

Stewart’s diesel-fuel-delivery business prides itself on getting the customer fueled up fast. But the service doesn’t end there. “Every customer is entitled to a computer-generated receipt from his tanker. He can use it to see how efficiently or inefficiently his machinery is running,” Stewart says. “This analysis gives the customer a clear picture of his present and anticipated refueling costs and tips him off to any machinery that might need reconditioning or replacement. We’ve therefore reintroduced good, old-fashioned service into an industry where large companies have long since forgotten about it.”

The Mini-Tankers concept started in Australia in 1987 and arrived stateside in 1996. Ownership of Mini-Tankers USA is 50 percent with Mini-Tankers Investments of Australia, 29 percent with Stewart, and the rest with smaller investors. Sales in 1998 are expected to top $5 million, and Stewart believes they’ll more than double this year. The company currently has 15 trucks (which operate as franchises) in the Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and St. Louis areas, and it plans to expand next into Arizona. “We expect to have 1,500 trucks in the United States before too long,” says Stewart.

He’s not talking about a bunch of old, belching pig rigs, either. Each Mini-Tankers truck is a state-of-the-art machine with a compact design that allows for easy access to project sites that some of the Goliaths’ old-model vehicles would have a hard time maneuvering into. In addition, each Mini-Tanker truck carries “retail” items like engine lubricant and hydraulic fluid, enabling drivers to make a quick sale and address customers’ immediate needs. – R.W.

Posted by on December 1, 1999

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