Growing Business

By Aimee Nelson, the 2017 mAGazine
Photography by Matt Barton


Business is cutthroat. Sometimes a little cultivation makes all the difference between growth and extinction. The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment wants Kentucky companies to grow and thrive. CAFE's Grow Kentucky is cultivating seeds for success. An economic gardening program, it is a partnership between the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky and the Kentucky Small Business Development Center.

Grow Kentucky team leader Gordon Garrett describes the program as a quick, but thorough team approach to growing businesses.

"We're in, we're out," he said. "It's a very intensive six- to seven-week process."

Garrett said the program works with companies that are poised for growth, but perhaps don't have enough knowledge about their marketplace to move forward. Grow Kentucky deploys a team of specialists to help with strategic market research, geographic information systems, search engine optimization, and social media marketing.

"In a lot of cases, we can tell businesses about their marketplace and their competitors," Garrett said. "We identify 'watering holes,' which are places where their customers may congregate online, and we try to get the business in close proximity to their customers in those 'watering holes' to give them potential for some one-on-one marketing."

Digging deep and growing

When a company decides to partner with Grow Kentucky, they begin a relationship that lasts much longer than the official six- to seven-week program. The program fee is $1,500, but many clients find grant funding to cover the costs. Company representatives meet with Grow Kentucky staff during a discovery call. The call frames their situation, identifies areas of success, and areas where they need help.

Powell Valley Millwork

Powell Valley Millwork

"We try to find out why they win business and they lose business," Garrett said. "We talk a lot about their challenges and where they want the company to go."

Next, the team leader sends notes to other team members and gives them a week or so to digest the information and get to work. The team sets up an online location with the client where team members can share documents. The documents will include information about market trends, competitors, mapped geographic areas for targeted marketing, lists of websites, blogs,and online communities that help the client better understand current and potential customers.

Along the way, the team leader will stay in contact with the client.

"Our end goal is to help them grow," Garrett said. "We couple our information with consulting. We don't just hand them a stack of paper and say, 'Best of luck. Call us if you need us.' We try to go through all the information with them and help them make sense of it. We give them some strategic direction and hopefully help them increase sales, number of employees and, if at all possible, increase their tax base."

The Harvest
Powell Valley Milkwork-Clay City

In the past two years, Grow Kentucky has worked with approximately 30 clients. Some of them are far enough out of the initial consulting phase to evaluate their results.

Michael Thornberry is one of the five managing principals of Powell Valley Millwork, a wood mouldings manufacturer located to Eastern Kentucky. Michael graduated from UK in 2007 with a bachelor's degree in political science. He moved to Washington, D.C. to follow a career in politics for several years, but wanted to get back home to Kentucky and join his family in their business. The company, Powell Valley Millwork located in Clay City, sounds young on paper but is actually a revival of a previous collaboration in the same industry that began in 1993. Michael's grandfather and father built a similar business in Montgomery County, which they sold in 2007.

"We missed the business, we missed the industry, we missed our team," Thornberry said. "When we learned of the opportunity to acquire this site, we began talking with two gentlemen, Brian Lambert and Dale Budke, who were instrumental in the success of our previous facility. They both joined us as partners in this new company."

The partners were able to rehire the existing 35 employees at the site, a staff which has since grown to nearly 90 folks working two shifts supplying customers across North America.

"The past couple of years have been filled with upgrades to the land and facilities, new equipment, new accounts, and responding to markets that are slowly making their way out of the recession," Thornberry said.

Powell Valley Millwork manufactures wood moldings, primed interior trim, and plantation shutter components among other specialty products. They made a connection to Grow Kentucky through the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development.

(l-r) Gordon Garrett, Jimmy Thornberry, and Michael Thornberry

(l-r) Gordon Garrett, Jimmy Thornberry, and Michael Thornberry

"We began talking with Grow Kentucky in 2015, describing what we did, who our current customer type was, what we were going after, and who we were looking for. We posed questions on how to gather more data and information to talk with customers or find better ways to communicate with folks who we knew existed but needed help making a connection," Thornberry said. "As Gordon predicted, the data that came back to us was overwhelming. I'm proud to say that we've made contact with several of those leads across a wide variety of product categories and have had success."

Simona Balazs is a geographic information systems specialist on the Grow Kentucky team with a primary responsibility of creating maps that help clients visualize their targets.

"We customize the maps to the client's situation, and the results they get can really make a difference in how they market their products and services," Balazs said. "It gives the client a better understanding of their business possibilities and where they want to go."

Thornberry said he and his father both have large maps provided by Grow Kentucky in their offices, which help them see their existing and potential customer base.

"It provides direction to who we should target and helps us implement the best strategy to reach a specific market," he added.

The Powell Valley team said the website component of Grow Kentucky's services had an immediate impact on their business.

"To have someone say, 'Here, use this language, consider this blog post, Twitter, or Facebook post,' gave us a significant leg up," Thornberry said. "Having an organized and engaging website is an integral component to telling our story to anyone in the world with access to a computer, tablet, or smart phone."

Powell Valley wants to expand and keep evolving, With Grow Kentucky's help, they are well on their way.

"Working with Gordon and his team has been a huge benefit. They are a group of professionals with a keen ability to gather information and disseminate it in a way that is immediately useful to businesses," said Jimmy Thornberry, Michael's father. "Their work created a very large database of potential customers and projects that we had not been exposed to before. I think one of the things that is important to our company is to come up with something new and different and to think outside the box."

Davert USA - Bowling Green

Davert USA is in a completely different business sector than Powell Valley Millwork, but still found a place with Grow Kentucky. Davert manufactures metal, and their core clientele is in the automotive industry. They supply paint-assist tools to automotive manufacturing assembly plants. Davert's parent company is about 20 years old, but the U.S. divison started in 2014. 

Davert's president, Greg Head, and controller Randy Matthews received valuable information through Grow Kentucky.

"One of our goals as a company was to diversify our offerings," Matthews said. "Grow Kentucky gave us the ability to know what businesses were in Kentucky and who their contacts were."

Davert deals with four assembly plants in Kentucky- Toyota in Georgetown, two Ford plants in Louisville, and the Corvette plant in Bowling Green. With Grow Kentucky's help, Davert is finding ways to expand business beyond the automotive sector and build relationships with companies in the agricultural machinery and rail car industries.

"I would say that you can get to where you want to go without working with Grow Kentucky, but it's going to take you a lot longer to do it, and it'll be a lot more expensive," Matthews said.

Success Leads to Satisfaction

Garrett has a diverse background as an entrepreneur in the software industry. He has experience with starting up, raising capital, and buying and selling other companies. He eventually sold his company and came to work for UK about 10 years ago. 

Randy Matthews and the Davert factory floor.

Randy Matthews and the Davert factory floor.

Helping businesses that are in trouble gives him a lot of personal satisfaction.

"Things happen quickly. Sometimes the money dries up, credit dries up, or notes get called in. We've been able to help businesses like that get going again," he said.

Working with a variety of businesses and seeing all kinds of idea from truly creative people brings its own satisfaction.

"To help people realize their dreams, to take chaos and bring order to it, to help businesses get on their feet and guide them toward success, well, there's nothing like it," he said.

"As long as we have clients, we'll keep growing Kentucky."

PolicyJennifer Elwell