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De Young: Repositioning Companies
By trade a certified public accountant, the managing director of Grand Rapids business-to-business marketing firm Francis Marketing was first introduced to the company as part of an embezzlement investigation.
In late 1994, De Young was working as a public accountant in the Grand Rapids office of accounting firm Plante & Moran, specializing in private placement offerings, business evaluation and troubled-company consulting. He had not worked with the firm’s client J.A. Francis & Associates, as it was then known, before the embezzlement investigation. But during a lengthy period spent auditing and correcting the company’s financial records, he became intimately familiar with the family-owned firm.
The following summer, he was engaged to Heather Francis, the managing director and daughter of the founder. They were married on Dec. 23.
“Everybody thought we were nuts,” De Young said. “We were getting married right before Christmas, and it turned out to be the ideal time.”
When De Young left the accounting field two years later to join the Francis family business, he found his accounting skills translated surprisingly well to the marketing world.
“The nature of our work here, the nature of our clients, is about making smart business decisions and being good business counselors,” he said. “As an accountant, I had a much more inquisitive stance than just trying to complete an audit. I needed to understand how the company worked. … So the transition was in many respects seamless for me.”
Almost exclusively a B2B marketer, with a particular emphasis toward repositioning brands, Francis Marketing prides itself on understanding how businesses work. Clients are typically seeking means to increase their differentiation in the marketplace, and that often requires more than a basic marketing campaign.
“Other marketing firms are more about marketing; they’re communication driven,” De Young said. “We do that, too, but that’s not what we’re trying to create. Our goal is not to sell them a creative project. Creative is important — it moves people to take action — but this is more of a strategic effort. How do we position the firm to succeed in the marketplace?”
There are no impulse buys in the B2B market, De Young noted. Engineering products and services, construction, industrial products and services, professional services and other companies that cater exclusively to other businesses face a great deal of scrutiny from their customers. For a single customer, the decision to purchase can be influenced by a host of stakeholders — the end user, technical implications, financial concerns, management — with months, sometimes years, of research and debate.
“There are multiple people you need to influence over time,” De Young said. “You need to be able to show that there are few credible substitutes.”
Francis Marketing generally works with companies that see too many credible alternatives in the market, where the segment has become too competitive and price conscious, making growth, and sometimes survival, difficult. More often than not, the repositioning process is less a matter of refining the company’s message than retooling its business model, perhaps adding a new product or seeking new markets.
A recent Francis success story is construction firm CSM Group. Based in Galesburg, with operations throughout West Michigan, CSM Group was a successful, reliable general contractor with a long history and a solid reputation, one of literally dozens of such companies in the region. When the market as a whole grew, so did CSM Group; when it contracted, CSM Group did, too.
After researching the company and its market, Francis Marketing suggested that CSM Group no longer identify itself as a general contractor. Most of its work was construction management, a professional service, with very little actual construction.
“They were afraid to narrow themselves, but that was what they needed to do,” said De Young. “This was a position that only serves the business owner, and that’s not true of general contracting.”
In the first year after implementing the change, CSM Group saw annual growth six times that of its West Michigan peers. In the two years since, it has averaged an annual growth in volume of 50 percent.
“It was a natural fit,” said Doug Phillips, director of business development for CSM Group. “We did really know what we were looking for, but they were able to capture our company’s culture and turn it into a program that worked.”
De Young emphasized that changes of this sort are not surface deep. Every employee in the company plays a role in the company’s position in the market, even if that employee’s general role stays the same.
“The staff members themselves have the most impact on the brand,” he said. “If you align all these people, they are essentially all salespeople out on the street.”
With so many companies in Michigan realizing substantial changes in their historical markets, De Young figures there will be a growing need for companies to reposition themselves.
“Companies are going to have to change, adjust and augment the things they’ve been doing for many years,” he said.
After graduating from Calvin College in 1989, the West Michigan native accepted a post at the Plante & Moran office in Ann Arbor. He returned in 1991, working in management positions at local food and medical companies. Just prior to joining the local Plante & Moran staff, he served as administrator for a 30-doctor mental health practice.
In 2000, De Young and his wife purchased the company her father founded in 1986, renaming it Francis Marketing. It is still located on two floors of 124 E. Fulton St. in Grand Rapids, perhaps the only local office building with a manual elevator.
The company recently launched Francis SEO, a subsidiary focused on B2B search-engine optimization.