Imagine driving along the highway, when all of a sudden traffic comes to a complete standstill. You are stuck, with no place to go.
That’s exactly what happened to small business owner Juan Carlos Lopez. Only he wasn’t in his car. He was in his office when he noticed his business was at an impasse.
You see, for over 20 years the founder and owner of NEMA Associates, with his wife Claudia, had carved out a niche market by providing advertising and marketing services to major Hispanic companies like Goya, Condal, La Fe, La Flor and many others.
In 1993, he walked away from a successful corporate career with a coffee roaster company in Hoboken to start NEMA Associates. “I had the corporate privileges, but I wasn’t satisfied,” said Lopez. “I saw firsthand in my previous job that the ethnic market was much underserved. So I started with the idea of focusing on the Hispanic market.”
So he set up shop in the basement of his Old Bridge home. Soon after he converted his 600 square foot garage to an office and additional workspace with four employees. By 1995, the company moved into a leased space with 1500 square feet in Morganville.
Each year the business continued to grow, and by 1998 NEMA Associates needed more space. So this time, Lopez purchased a building in Newark with 3,500 feet. Over the next six years the company would grow to 14 employees and was now offering its clients graphic design, branding development, marketing services, printing services, advertising specialties and retail solutions.
“We offer our clients services that include logo, packaging and web design, development of point of sale and point of purchase displays, banners, exhibits, aisle danglers, merchandise and newsletters,” said Lopez.
A big portion of the company’s revenues depended on independent supermarkets and small chain supermarkets. NEMA Associates designs and prints window signs, retail flyers and store signage, by 2014, that portion of the business took a hit with closings, mergers and industry realignment of many supermarkets in New Jersey “We lost a lot of retail business and with that our revenues dropped by 20 percent,” said Lopez.
After 20 years in business, this was the point where Lopez found his business at a standstill. “I was definitely looking for a way to grow the company more rationally”, said Lopez.
He found it when an invitation came from the US Small Business Administration (SBA) to participate in the agency’s Emerging Leaders training program. The SBA Emerging Leaders Initiative is a federal training program that specifically focuses on executives of businesses poised for growth in historically challenged communities.
“Sometimes all a small business owner needs to do is reexamine the way they do business and find ways how they can improve the processes they employ,” said SBA New Jersey District Director Al Titone. “This initiative provides executives like Juan Carlos Lopez with the organizational framework, resource network, and motivation required to build sustainable businesses and promote the economic development within urban communities.”
“The Emerging Leaders program is a seven-month intensive executive-level series intended to accelerate the growth of high-potential small businesses in New Jersey’s underserved cities,” said Titone. “This comprehensive curriculum provides the tools to catapult a company to the next level and help it emerge as a force in the community.”
To qualify to participate in the program, a small business owner must have annual revenues of at least $400,000; have been in business for at least 3 years; and have at least one employee, other than self.
For Lopez, the program was an eye opener. “Emerging Leaders offered me the opportunity to understand my financials and focus on accounting practices,” said Lopez. I knew the terms P&L, cash flow and balance sheet, but I did not understand them. We were doing some things incorrectly. I call it checkbook accounting, not a good practice if you are looking to grow.”
So for the first time in over 20 years, NEMA Associates began to employ a general accounting system. “It took us six months to restructure, but we accomplished that goal. For the first time, we knew exactly what revenue streams were strong and which ones were weak,” said Lopez. “We went to clients where we were not making money in some areas of the business and explained our situation and most important offered them a cut off period in order to minimize any interruptions, most of the clients accepted the compelling argument and willing to pay the extra cost for the continuation of service and now those areas have become profitable.”
Another important goal for Lopez, while participating in Emerging Leaders program, was to learn how to grow the business to the next level. This past year Lopez sold the company’s building in Newark and purchased a 10,000 square foot facility in Linden. “The idea of offering our clients more services and having them come in and view our different samples of materials, finishes, garments and much more was one of our main interest” said Lopez. “I wanted to develop a showroom where they can touch and see the materials, besides our virtual samples on our website.”
According to Lopez NEMA Associates met its target of 5 percent growth in 2016. “I project in 2017 that we should be on track for 25 percent growth and in two years we should be up to 20 employees,” said Lopez.
“I believe in giving our clients added value,” he said. “That is what is going to make us grow. I love helping our clients and I get energized when a new client comes through our doors with a new idea or concept and asks us to help them to achieve their goals.”