DOBSON — Nothing is certain these days in the business world, even for a local company more than 50 years old, and its leader had some strong advice Friday for those wanting to survive in the Millennials Era.
“It’s very simple,” CEO David O’Neal of Leonard Buildings and Truck Accessories told about 140 people gathered for the 21st-annual meeting of the Surry County Economic Development Partnership. “You grow or you die.”
That has pretty much been a rule of thumb for decades, but an increasingly high-tech environment has made it more critical than ever, according to O’Neal, the keynote speaker for the lunchtime event held on the campus of Surry Community College.
During his address before representatives of about 60 local businesses and industries and elected officials countywide, he cited a need to be in tune with emerging younger generations of consumers, through social media and similar means.
In the case of Leonard Buildings and Truck Accessories, O’Neal said it has been revealed that 30 percent of its retail customer base are millennials, identified as persons born from the early 1980s to 2000.
That translates to 75 million to 80 million people, explained O’Neal, whose company manufactures utility and other trailers, structures such as portable storage sheds, and truck accessories. “We’re the largest specialty truck accessory company in the nation,” he said.
Leonard Buildings and Truck Accessories has 150,000-square-foot manufacturing facilities and its company headquarters at Holly Springs south of Mount Airy, and also includes a distribution and retail network. Products made locally are distributed to 57 retail locations owned by the company in five states, where it has 400 employees — including 175 in Surry.
But despite a long record of success spawned by Tyson Leonard, who launched the company in 1963, Leonard Buildings and Truck Accessories has had to re-tool itself in recent years due to the recession and the need to conform to a high-tech environment.
“It’s a different world,” O’Neal added.
Younger customers communicate differently than previous generations, O’Neal said of their reliance on tools such as texting and social media. And chances are, they learn about products they are interested in online before even visiting the showroom floor.
“They’re more tech-savvy,” O’Neal said. “They research before they buy.”
In response, the company has tailored its marketing strategies to incorporate social media websites such as Facebook and Craigslist into the mix, he said, in addition to modernizing its own Internet site that now draws thousands of visits per week.
The Leonard official said that in terms of “what does this mean for all of us?” the lesson is a business must always be willing to alter its approaches in order to reach changing markets.
People still key
Yet an increasing reliance on high-tech methods doesn’t mean the basics are less important, O’Neal told the crowd in Dobson.
“People are our most valuable resource,” he said of a continued emphasis by his company on that business element.
This includes operating “Leonard University” for training retail store personnel, who learn about everything the company makes. The company seeks to maintain dedicated employees through recruiting, training and retaining, O’Neal said.
He mentioned that such employees came in handy during the recession years of 2007-2011. “I don’t really have much to say,” O’Neal remarked of that period in the history of the company, which had moved to Holly Springs in 1972 from Leonard’s home state of Georgia.
“We were faced with a reduction in workforce,” O’Neal recalled of those tough times
“The remaining crew pulled together and we survived,” he said. “And the last two years for us have been great.”
One milestone in the company’s history occurred last year when Tyson Leonard and his wife Sandra decided to “pass the torch” by selling it to Copeley Capital, a Charlotte-based entity, and a small group of senior managers at Leonard.
“His concern was finding the right partner,” O’Neal said. “And it (the sale) was the right thing to do.”
Since its sales are tied closely to the housing construction and truck-purchasing markets, downturns in those industries can impact the Leonard company, O’Neal said of the need to maintain a strong position in the market.
Network of support
In further detailing the strategies Leonard Buildings and Truck Accessories has relied on which presumably can be embraced by other businesses, O’Neal said the company’s longevity also has been aided by community resources that support businesses. These have allowed it to receive training or cash at key times, he added.
O’Neal referred to such entities as Surry Community College, the Economic Development Partnership, the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, WorkForce Unlimited, Surrey Bank & Trust and the Piedmont Triad Regional Council.
“We’re just fortunate to have these great resources available,” added the Leonard CEO, who was especially complimentary toward those provided by the college.
“The training and help we’ve received over the years (from SCC) has just been invaluable.”
Local companies stressed
Both Todd Tucker, president of the Economic Development Partnership, and Jud Brown, the 2016 chairman of the EDP governing board, said O’Neal’s address at the annual meeting reflects a change in recent years to highlight the success stories of local companies.
Tucker said in the past, the EDP would invite economic experts from state universities or similar speakers, but decided that business people in Surry also had much to say on such subjects.
“I think it’s a great change,” Brown said of the choice of recent speakers. “It’s very interesting and informative for all of us.”
Having local representatives talk is a way of revealing the “hidden gems” among Surry’s businesses and industries, Brown said, whose experiences can help others.
“We know about them, we just don’t know all they do.”
“They have done a good job growing their companies, hiring people — all of the above,” Tucker said of O’Neal and others who’ve spoken at the annual meetings.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.