The Reflective Group

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Mike Bosch, part of a "rural by choice" movement, is pictured in Baldwin City, Kansas, April 24, 2013. Bosch kept his IT business instead of moving it to Dallas. Young people have been leaving rural America for decades, but Mike Bosch, 34, is happy to swim against the tide. REUTERS/Kevin Murphy

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Since its launch in 2011, Reflective Group has evolved from software development to a full-fledged digital agency that offers graphic design and video production services along with cloud technology solutions. Intent on growth, the young company entered the Kansas Economic Gardening Network in mid-2013, which gave it access to the National Center for Economic Gardening’s (NCEG) National Strategic Research Team (NSRT). At the time, Reflective Group was generating about $500,000 in annual revenue with 16 employees.

“The Economic Gardening® process really helped us define who we were in the marketplace and get ready to enter other sectors,” says Erick Stewart, president of the Battle Creek-based company.

To do so, the NSRT researched potential customers in renewable energy, military, high-speed rail, agricultural and recreational markets. The team also identified specific risks inherent in those markets, along with potential competitors. “Now we’re information rich,” Stewart says. “If we had to compile that data on our own, it would have taken years. What’s more, some of the research specialists had hands-on experience with industries we wanted to pursue and were able to provide valuable insights.”

The NSRT also made recommendations for revamping Stewart Industries’ website.

“Although it was visually pleasing, it was just an electronic brochure — and somewhat misleading about what we really did.” Stewart says. Today, however, the company’s new website clearly shows the breadth of its capabilities. For example, Stewart Industries can do anything from putting a lever on a small motor to building the heater core system for a vehicle’s air conditioning system. In addition to product versatility, the company works with all types of materials including rubber, aluminum, steel and foam.

The website also explains how industries can benefit from sub-assembly, which remains a newer concept for many markets. “Take renewable energy,” Stewart explains. “Many companies have developed innovative products, but aren’t adept at mass production. They need the support of a company like ours because we’re not after their intellectual property; we just want to help them produce their products more efficiently. This, in turn, creates more value and growth opportunities for both companies.”

One of the NSRT’s members is also a specialist at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center. The center had developed a new pricing system for Stewart Industries just prior to its Economic Gardening engagement, and the researcher helped implement the system. “The pricing system has helped us understand our products better — where we’re making money and where we’re losing money,” Stewart says. “This enables us to make better decisions; by approaching some projects differently with current customers and becoming better prepared to go after new customers.”

“It’s all interrelated,” he adds. Armed with the market research, the new website and the pricing system, Stewart believes his company will be able to exceed $50 million in annual revenue in the next five years — up from $39 million in 2013. Indeed, since his Economic Gardening engagement, Stewart has already picked up a new customer who has added more than $500,000 in revenue with a single project. “And as we grow the top line, we’re growing the bottom line,” he observes.

Stewart also expects to increase his workforce beyond the current 75 employees. “More important, they’ll be the right jobs,” he says. “I love for us to be a springboard for people in their lives. As we develop our people, we also foster an associate that not only has a bright future at Stewart Industries, but is overall more marketable.”

“The Economic Gardening engagement helped us think more strategically — who we are and where we want to go,” Stewart says. “The research team helped us tell our story differently on our website and gave us tools that made us more attractive to people who might have considered us a mom-and-pop company. We no longer look mom-and-poppy on our website.”

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In contrast to relocation or startup initiatives, Economic Gardening® targets second-stage companies already operating in a community. It helps these existing businesses grow larger by assisting them with strategic issues and providing them with customized research.