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Taking a shade and awning business to the next level

Features | June 1, 2017 | By:

“Last year was our best year, and we’re at another point of growth right now,” says Cheryl Yennaco, owner and general manager of Melrose, Mass.-based Atlantic Awnings. “That growth started when we decided to clean house and rebuild the business. It wasn’t easy but it was worth it, and at this moment we have the best team we’ve ever had.”

Yennaco is a third-generation awning shop owner, starting with her grandfather who owned Boston Awning with three partners. She grew up around awnings, working with her father at a company that he owned with his brother. While Atlantic Awning has been around since 1888, her family’s involvement in the company began in 1981 when her father purchased the shop.

First working with her father and uncle at their shop and then at Atlantic Awning, Yennaco continued to increase her hours during summers and time off from school, and started working full-time at Atlantic Awning after graduating from college with a major in business management. “It was always the plan that I would work at the company,” she says. “I graduated on a Saturday and started full-time the following Monday.”

At the top of Yennaco’s list of goals was to attend her first IFAI Expo, which took place in Orlando, Fla. “I told my dad I was going but he advised me against it, saying it wasn’t a place for a woman by herself,” she says. “But I was determined to go, and he finally relented, with the condition that he and my mom accompany me.”

It had been a few years since Yennaco’s father had attended a show, and to his surprise, more women were in attendance than he’d expected. “From that point on, he was comfortable with me going myself,” she says. “I was planning to keep going anyway. I believed it was important to be involved in the industry in that way. And I still believe that.”

In with the new

When Yennaco and her husband Mark Horton purchased Atlantic Awning three years ago, it was a rocky transition. The once-successful business had been having some difficulties, but again Yennaco was determined—and this time her determination was focused on doing whatever was necessary to rebuild the company. Horton quit his job as an electrical engineer and the two began making the difficult decisions necessary to accomplish their goals.

It took a while to come to the decision that letting long-time staff go was necessary. Yennaco says her accountant and attorney had been advising her to clean house for quite a while before she decided to take action. “My gut told me from day one that’s what I needed to do, but it’s hard to let go of someone who’s been there for 40 years,” she says. “It was really tough. After we took over, we found that the staff didn’t look up to me and my husband. They would come in late, leave early and would make mistakes, but didn’t seem to care.”

Hiring mostly new staff was no easy feat either. “This past year has been like a revolving door around here,” Yennaco says. “But one reason for that is that I don’t wait to make the tough decision to let someone go if I know it’s not going to work out. I can usually tell in a week or two if they’re not going to be a good fit.”

Getting—and keeping—the right people is now a non-negotiable philosophy for Yennaco and Horton, and making the decision to let an employee go sooner rather than later is a key part of their approach. “The longer you wait, the more detrimental it is to everyone,” she says. “Customers aren’t happy because the work isn’t getting done properly the first time. You aren’t happy because you have to re-do work and you’ve lost money. It’s hard as heck to let employees go, but you have to have the right people on the bus.”

Easing the growing pains

The challenge with having almost all new staff, Yennaco says, is that while some have more experience than others, they’re all new to Atlantic Awning. “We have a handful of people in training, but we don’t have enough people who are experienced that can help with that,” she says. “At the moment the crew can’t produce fast enough to keep up with orders, so we’re a bit backlogged. But more importantly, the staff is energetic and willing to move forward and build the company together.”

Among the strategies Yennaco has for closing that gap is implementing a software management system, and creating checklists and more standard operating procedures (SOPs). She is currently using a software management system created for the sign industry, and while it’s not intended for the awning industry, she says it’s helpful. “It has a CRM (customer relationship management), production flow and calendars, which will be a huge help,” she says. “It’s got some quirks, of course, because it’s not built for awnings. I wish there was something out there for the awning industry, but I don’t know of anything available yet—and it’s expensive to customize a system.”

Every couple of months Yennaco and Horton write a new SOP for the staff. “There are so many little pieces of the business, sometimes you just shake your head,” she says. “Creating SOPs and making an effort to meet on a regular basis with staff is helping keep us on the same page … when we’re not too caught up in the day-to-day,” she adds.

The crew uses checklists as reminders for those things that may seem obvious to someone who’s been working in the business for a long time but still need to become habits for newcomers. “For instance, when you put up an awning over someone’s door you need to open up the door to make sure it doesn’t hit the awning,” Yennaco says. “Those are the common-sense things you can forget when you’re new.”

The magic of three

Early on in Yennaco’s career she developed the habit of setting three goals when she’s looking to move the business forward (which, incidentally, is all the time). When she attends trade shows she’s found having goals in mind is particularly helpful. “This past year at IFAI Expo one of my goals was to talk to other people about what words they use on their websites as SEOs,” she says. “I also asked people how they’ve managed growth, and what advice they might have for us for the stage of growth we’re at now.”

As her career in the awning industry has progressed, Yennaco says she’s found ways to embrace change. “Being willing to change to make improvements is a big feat for me,” she says. “I don’t particularly like change, but we have changed the quality of our business and the quality of our products. I’m proud of that.”

Sigrid Tornquist, a writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn., is a frequent contributor to IFAI publications.

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