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A St. Johns County manufacturer springs to life

A look at how Optimum Springs got its start

By Jim Molis

Optimum Spring Solutions has honed a niche in producing and exporting customized springs foroptimum springs other manufacturers by researching its market, refining its business plan, and resolutely pursuing opportunities to grow.

“They’re a great small company started by two industrious people,” said Nick Sacia, executive director of the Economic Development Council of the St. Johns County Chamber of Commerce.

That industriousness emanates from a multi-generational commitment to manufacturing quality springs and offering them at competitive prices with fast delivery and personalized service.

As a young girl in Argentina, Andrea De Palma grew up in her family’s spring factory. She watched how springs were made, played with them, and often helped count them, sometimes for fun.

Her family started the company, Resortes De Palma, in the 1970s. They grew it into a multinational corporation, exporting springs to the United States and Europe.

In 2006, she and her husband, Marco Fortini, started working with the company’s U.S. customers a few hours each month while living in North Carolina. Though they were both in computer sciences at separate companies at the time—he as a project manager in software development and she as a software trainer—they helped her family when they could.

Initially, the couple provided administrative support, following up on deliveries and payments. As they learned more about spring design, they started answering technical questions and recommending materials. “We were learning about the business by accident and it became interesting,” Fortini said.

The couple became more involved, wanting to add U.S. customers and increase volume. But with a sagging economy, rising gas prices, and increasing shipping costs, it was becoming more difficult to import springs. “It felt like we were swimming upstream,” De Palma said.

So, they started researching the possibility of manufacturing springs in the U.S. and exporting, rather than importing. With small-business counseling from SCORE, the couple compiled an exhaustive business plan.

“We recognize that planning is a key component of success,” Fortini said. “Implementing a carefully crafted plan is the easy part. The hard part is making sure that the planning addresses as many variables as you can anticipate, and controlling those risks.”

In compiling their plan, they identified Jacksonville as an ideal market, citing its transportation infrastructure, access to industrial equipment and materials, quality schools, and leading healthcare facilities. De Palma also referenced the Port of Jacksonville as a competitive advantage.

“[The decision to move to Jacksonville] was half and half the decision—half for the company and half for us,” Fortini said, alluding to the good quality of life in the greater Jacksonville area.

So, in June 2009 the couple opened Optimum Spring Solutions in a 5,000-square-foot space off U.S. 1, near CR 210 and Interstate 95 in St. Johns County.

They started with a single machine, which in itself was a risk. And to finance their operation, they approached 20 prospective lenders, who all (except one) turned them down. The one offer they received? Financing at an interest rate of 40%—hardly an attractive offer.

Despite having strong personal credit scores, since they were starting a new company, lenders repeatedly told them that there would not be enough volume to support the purchase. The couple disagreed. “We knew from the planning and risk assessment that there were opportunities for our company,” De Palma said.

The couple purchased the machine after combining $500,000 from their savings and family loans. Her father also trained Fortini on a similar machine at her family’s factory in Argentina, so that Fortini maximized the value of his training time with the machine’s manufacturer. 

With Fortini producing the springs, Optimum Spring Solutions rapidly began filling orders. Shortly after beginning, they received a large order related to a defense contract. Together with existing orders and a need to manufacturer larger springs than the first machine could handle, the couple soon added a second machine and related equipment.

Optimum Spring Solutions now manufactures custom springs for the U.S. military, large domestic companies, and businesses in other countries, including Canada, New Zealand, Singapore and China.

Building relationships and credibility have been vital.

The couple learned early to seek help wherever possible. They met two of their closest advisors, Sacia, from the St. Johns Chamber and Larry Bernaski from Enterprise Florida, while attending an exporting seminar hosted by Congressman John Mica, R-FL.

“It came through to me loud and clear speaking to Marco and Andrea that they wanted to export,” said Bernaski, regional manager of international trade development and Canada specialist for Enterprise Florida. “They’ve demonstrated their commitment.”

They also have grasped the importance of having Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership with offices throughout the state as well as internationally, vouch for them with overseas customers. Enterprise Florida provides introductions and letters confirming that Optimum Spring Solutions is a reputable company.

“Many companies don’t fully understand how significant this introduction can be and the positive impact it can have on the foreign company’s decision to buy from a U.S. company,” Bernaski said. “An introduction can qualify the U.S. company and allay any fears a foreign company might have in doing business with a U.S. company,” he added.

Optimum Spring Solutions also alleviates fears by thoroughly addressing the needs of its existing customers, so that they will recommend them to others. Trust in their expertise is crucial for referrals.

 “We learned from Andrea’s family how to listen to what the customer needs and to provide the optimum solution for their project,” Fortini said.

With training in computers and industrial trades prior to starting the company, Fortini has evolved into a materials specialist who can recommend the proper springs to meet a customer’s technical specifications. He does so by evaluating variables such as size, durability, heat resistance, and corrosiveness.

Fortini no longer does all of the manufacturing himself. He has trained an employee to run the machinery and is teaching an intern to do so as well. With four workers total, including themselves, Fortini and De Palma now focus on developing the infrastructure and resources that the company needs to grow.

Fortini focuses on spring design, customer service, and technical matters. De Palma oversees purchasing, billing and shipping. They share responsibilities for sales.

The couple culls from their technology backgrounds, emphasizing search engine optimization for lead generation.  “Our storefront is our website,” said De Palma, noting that the company services other manufacturers outside of the area, not end users.

De Palma and Fortini want to expand steadily, preferring to emphasize service and technical support. “You can grow without taking care of your customer’s needs but it will lead to failure,” De Palma said.

“Our goal is to keep growing at a rate that enables us to maintain a personalized level of service and excellent technical support to our customers.”

They maintain quality and service by collaborating closely with one another, meeting at least weekly to focus on operations and at least monthly to review strategy and plans. They also maintain fluid and constant communication with her family and advisors such as Sacia, Bernaski and Mike Zollar of SCORE, learning much from each group.

 “It’s a lot of work,” Fortini said. “But you can control the risk with proper planning and by building a close network of people and resources who can assist you.

“Without that we would not have succeeded.”

Jim Molis is a contributing editor to Advantage: The Resource for Small Business. He can be reached at jim@creatwoodpr.com.

SIDEBAR

How to export successfully

Optimum Spring Solutions has succeeded by committing to exporting.

“Some companies consider exporting a secondary revenue stream,” said Larry Bernaski, regional manager of international trade development and Canada specialist for Enterprise Florida. “Successful ones see it as a primary revenue stream.”

Enterprise Florida has helped Optimum Spring Solutions and other companies cultivate business by developing relationships internationally. Optimum Spring Solutions owners Andrea De Palma and Marco Fortini, both of whom are from Argentina, immediately grasped the importance of doing so, Bernaski said.

“Generally speaking, owners of U.S. companies who are from different countries have different mindsets when it comes to exporting,” Bernaski said. “These kinds of companies are more predisposed to exporting because their business experience was formed in countries with economies that relied more heavily on exporting,” Bernaski added. “Because exporting is a more common practice outside of the U.S., it follows that Andrea and Marco, who grew up in Argentina, would feel more comfortable exporting.”

Successful exporters do the following, Bernaski said.

• Have a “go-to person” through whom all exporting matters flow. They champion exporting and ensure that it does not become of secondary importance.

• Handle inquiries from abroad quickly. “Foreign companies often like to deal with U.S. companies who take their questions to the go-to person and get an answer.”

• Get help. They use resources available through networking and other means.

• Know the market. “Learn everything you can from the small transactions then start tackling the larger transactions.”

• Commit to the export process. “Commitment is just as important as size, perhaps more important than size.”

Optimum Spring Solutions exemplifies these traits, Bernaski said. He has enjoyed watching the company grow, generate jobs, and support the local economy.

“That’s the great part about this job, to see companies like Optimum Spring Solutions doing what they’re doing.”

Planning for success

Planning winds through everything that Optimum Spring Solutions does. From crafting their initial business plan to their monthly strategy sessions, Andrea De Palma and Marco Fortini have identified the proper path through planning.

“You need to put yourself in that moment in the future and see what has to take place for that to be feasible,” Fortini said.

Before starting their company, the couple spent six months compiling a 75-page business plan, including their competitive analysis, goals, marketing strategies, financials, and other key areas. They learned how to use Census Bureau data and other resources to compile relevant information. “We went to every kind of seminar you can imagine,” De Palma said.

The couple also worked closely with SCORE, a nonprofit advisory service for small-business owners.

“Optimum Springs Solutions is an example of a company where the owners are very receptive to learning,” SCORE Counselor Mike Zollar said. “That’s very helpful.”

Fortini and De Palma would listen, learn, revise, and implement their plan, then come back for more advice, Zollar said. Not all business owners are so thorough in their planning.

“One of the biggest problems we find with many small businesses is people are very passionate about their ideas and overlook some of the basics like cash flow,” Zollar said.  “They need to be open to learning that kind of thing.”

Zollar worked closely with Fortini on how to develop relationships with new clients and how to handle new business. He also helped them adjust their quotation systems and financial projections to handle growth.

De Palma and Fortini review and revise their plans often, breaking down each year, month, week, day, and seemingly hour. The bigger the challenge, the more they plan.

“At the most stressful moments, the stress was relieved with planning,” Fortini said.

They plan to keep planning—and to keep growing.


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