Thursday, December 18, 2003

These business class students their marketing management consulting teacher, Marty Parisien, in the back, left, gave a business makeover to local computer repair company, SuperGeeks.

Geeks get makeover

Marketing campaigns and better
landscaping are among the
recommendations business
students had for local computer
repair firm SuperGeeks

Computer repair entrepreneur James Kerr recently faced a business-style makeover, and given the scrutiny his company SuperGeeks had received during weeks of questioning and prodding, he was prepared for the worst.

"It's going to be vicious," Kerr said shortly before he was to face the critiquing.

Kerr, founder, president and chief executive of SuperGeeks, had opened his books to a group of 20 Asian business students, mainly 30-somethings, in search of corporate improvement.

The students' presentations, made Tuesday night in front of Kerr, are part of a six-month course at the Japan-America Institute of Management Science, a private, nonprofit postgraduate institute.

Kerr, a Philadelphia native who says he has a need for risk, was approached to participate in the makeover by Marty Parisien, a JAIMS instructor who himself is an entrepreneur and a business consultant with the state High Technology Development Corp.'s Innovative Solutions program.

Past companies that have gotten free consulting from JAIMS students are:

>> Gay & Robinson Inc., a 114-year-old private family business that is Kauai's last sugar grower (the students developed an energy-to-waste program);

>> Matsuda-Fukuyama Farms Inc. (the students developed value-added products); and

>> Island Wearable Arts Inc., which was later acquired by Parisien. "They essentially did my due diligence and I bought the company," Parisien said.

Being entrepreneurs in a small town like Honolulu, Parisien and Kerr go back a few years, to when Parisien owned a now-defunct sign company Signs Inc. and Kerr needed a sign for his computer repair business. Kerr got a good cheap sign, he says, and Parisien got his computer fixed.

Kerr said he appreciated the invitation for the business makeover, given that it amounts to having 20 consultants looking over his company for free.

"The sooner we get to the truth, independent of whose fault it is ... the more successful we'll be," Kerr said. "They know everything (about the company's books), but that's OK. I think I'm going to be more productive and successful if I opened things up and listened to advice than if I lock it down, and pretend like I have the answer to everything."

Kerr, also a 38-year-old karate instructor, started SuperGeeks in 1998 and remains sole owner and chief executive of the 12-employee company, which is headquartered in Moiliili. SuperGeeks recently opened a three-employee service center at the Pearl Harbor Navy Exchange.

Some SuperGeeks statistics:

>> The company is close to $1 million in revenue.

>> It reduced staff from 18 employees, and began outsourcing such tasks as database entry, programming and computer training.

>> It hit the financial black two years ago, after being in business for only three years.

>> The typical customer has anywhere from five to 25 computers, and no internal information technology department.

>> Its biggest clients are Tiffany's, Pacific Business News and major military housing contractor Actus Lend Lease of Napa, Calif.

>> The company generally charges $125 an hour for on-site computer and network repair.

JAIMS, located on Hawaii Kai Drive, was founded by Tokyo-based Fujitsu Ltd. in 1972, and Fujitsu, Japan's biggest maker of business computers, provides scholarships for Asia-Pacific students and sends its employees to Honolulu for training. Of the makeover experts, 14 are from Japan, and many of them work for Fujitsu. The class also has students from the Philippines, South Korea, Singapore and Vietnam. One is a newspaper reporter and another is a buyer for J.C. Penney Korea.

Because the JAIMS students were given access to the financial and competitive secrets of SuperGeeks, the Star-Bulletin was only allowed to sit in on four of their seven presentations. The rest were deemed too sensitive for the public eye and prying competitors.

The group that probed SuperGeek's public relations strategy said that they had trouble finding the company's store on South King Street. "There was a sign, missed it completely," said Lina Tan, a student from Singapore. "Customers don't even know where the location is."

The students said the company should adopt generic public relations tactics. They designed flashy blue-and-yellow T-shirts, emblazoned with the SuperGeeks logo (a large G, for Geeks), an idea that Kerr immediately liked. "I'd love to have a T-shirt," he said.

Yutaka Saito, a student and Fujitsu employee, suggested blowing up the company logo in front of its building, though that would be subject to city sign restrictions.

At times, the advice given was contradictory.

One group decided, based on the demographics of SuperGeek's current customers, that the company should focus more on getting corporate business, rather than individuals, because that's where the money is.

But a separate group said the company should do the opposite and focus on individual business that comes to its shops, and not on site visits to corporations, because the company has more control over the in-house work. Kerr said he needs more analysis of the issue, particularly of the impact on profitability, not just revenue.

Kerr, who videotaped the 20-minute presentations, said there was a lot of constructive information, but the students needed market research to back up their ideas, and that required more than the four weeks allotted.

"It needs to be substantiated. That's really where consulting is most effective is when they can present a case and qualify it," Kerr said.

Some tips were immediately practical, such as coming up with a regular internal newsletter, having extended hours of operation and trimming the bushes outside the company shop for better visibility.

Even before he faced the presentations, Kerr concluded from the line of questioning he got that he needed to make changes. Instead of having a person always answer the telephone right away, he recently had SuperGeeks move to an automatic answering system to be more efficient.

Since SuperGeeks has high labor costs, outsourcing was a common suggestion among the students. Kerr, who has contracted out work before, said he'd want to know more about what his competitors do first. "The guys who are good, they ultimately cost money," he said.

Some of the wilder suggestions included holding computer-fixing contests.

As for his own grade, Kerr said: "I always rate myself poorly.

"As far as execution, you know I'd love to be able to go back to my peers and my mentors at Sony Japan ... and say, look what I've achieved. I don't think I've achieved something sizable enough yet to return to them and share the success story.

"Survival's not good enough for me. This one's got to be a home run."


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