December 31, 2019
If you had walked into our secretarial services company in 1974, the clatter of a typewriter would have greeted you. My mom was typing away.
She was quite the writer and editor and a speedy typist, a good fit for Bluegrass Business Services Incorporated, as our new company was called.
Mom had worked in graduate studies at the University of Kentucky, so she knew there was a need for typing services. She typed dissertations and other school papers as well as letters, financial reports and various documents for businesses around Lexington. It was a way for executives to have an “office” without the overhead. Instead of hiring a secretary, they came to us. I went out and looked for work; Mom typed.
We’d been in business about three months when one of our clients, an insurance company, asked if we could handle a bulk mailing for them. They hated the hassle of doing it and wanted to outsource. So we did what a lot of young, eager businesses do. We said, “Yes!” And then we learned as much as we could about bulk mailings. Kind of like cramming for an exam.
We didn’t know everything, but we knew enough to know that mailing fit into the overall picture of what we wanted to do–to handle business tasks that companies either couldn’t or didn’t want to do themselves.
At that time, preparing letters and envelopes and doing bulk mail was laborious for small companies. We later got into preparing form letters for a lot of businesses, using new software and equipment from IBM and other innovators that we researched and bought. We could automate these tasks, do the work for businesses and still keep their costs down. We also started a temp agency, kind of an early Kelly Services. A college roommate came in to help in our mailing services and my dad came in and helped us better understand the financial side–how to make a profit in business; my sister handled much of the work with our temp agency.
That first office was about 300 square feet with . Today, our offices are 60,000 square feet. From that tiny staff, we’ve grown to 65 full-time employees and 35 part-time, and a good number of them have been with us since our early days.
When people hear that you’ve been in business nearly a half-century, they’re curious about how you did it, and what you learned along the way. Here are a few things I can share.
Try new stuff. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Not every idea has worked as well as adding mailing services did, but we keep trying new things. If we hadn’t ventured beyond secretarial services in the first place, a little innovation called the personal computer would have put us out of business in a few years.
We created a website to promote local culture and culinary offerings and came up with software that would help churches tell their stories on their websites. Neither of those ideas flew, but we still learned from the experiences.
Over the years, we have added divisions–what they call “verticals” in corporate-speak–so now we do design, printing, and mailing and have divisions that work with nonprofits and political candidates on their direct marketing. Our transactional team helps businesses design, print and mail thousands of bills and invoices. Our fulfillment warehouse ships thousands of packages each year. And, we keep looking for new opportunities because the marketplace is always changing and that creates needs. It’s always possible that a new idea won’t work, but we take the chance because that is how we grow.
People sometimes say, “What’s your business niche?” We’re a bunch of niches, a conglomerate of business services. Our original name Bluegrass Business Services Incorporated summed it up. We are a business services company.
You never know until you try
It’s discouraging when something doesn’t work as well as you think it will. I compare it to a singer/songwriter who comes up with what he thinks will be a hit, and it goes nowhere. Then, another song that he’s not even crazy about rockets to the top of the charts. That’s the way things work in business. There’s no way to really, really tell if an idea is going to work unless you try it.
You’re always in school–keep learning and growing
Early on, I had an enlightening meeting with a seasoned marketing director for McAlpin’s (now Dillards) a large department store. Pat Skaggs listened to my sales spiel about direct mail, and then she asked me, “How can you help me when I know so much more about direct marketing than you do?” Boy was she right. I walked out of her office crushed and feeling like I knew nothing. Moments like that either kill you or kick start you. I was disheartened, but I knew she was right, so I doubled down and started learning everything I could about direct mail and mail lists. I joined a national organization for marketing professionals. About four years later, she decided to do business with us and Pat and I became friends. When I reminded her many years later about our first encounter and told her she was the reason I had made it in this business, she was kind enough to say, “You would have made it anyway.”
Go forward through investment
You know the adage, “You’ve got to spend money to make money.” Well, it is certainly true in a business like ours that relies on technology and mechanical equipment. Our first typewriter would never be heard above the din that comes from our printing and mailing areas–printers whiz along, machines fold letters and stuff them in envelopes. It is a busy, noisy place. Equipment improves processing and production at a pretty, and trading up often makes a positive difference in our business, especially when new machines do work faster or perform more tasks at once.
Get out and talk to people
I got a lot of exercise in our early years. I called on every business in town, to let them know we did secretarial work, supplied temp workers, did mailings. Slowly, we grew the company. We saw a lot of growth in direct mail marketing and mail communications locally. Now our work comes from clients all across the United States.
Do more than one thing
Being diversified has been a key to our success. Back 45 years ago, Lexington certainly wasn’t a big enough marketplace to not be diverse. A big advantage to being diverse too is that when one or two areas are lagging, the other 3 or 4 likely keep you going. We are always looking for other business services we can provide. Often, clients see a need for something, they mention it to us and we say, “Hey, this is something other clients could use.” As you diversify though it’s good to be on guard about spreading yourself too thin. You have to be good at the things you do.