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She meets the needs of anxious buyers

Sometimes sobbing in despair over the news of a manufacturer’s discontinued product, devoted customers call Suzanne Clarridge’s company, My Brands Inc., for help.
Manufacturers pay her to handle those calls. They provide their remaining product for My Brands to distribute from its Henrietta warehouse, and in the process they make the My Brands Web site a sort of help line for distressed consumers.
Every day, the site attracts 3,000 visitors-from finicky pet owners to the Rolling Stones tour manager-looking not just for discontinued products from large manufacturers but for hard-to-find items their local grocery stores do not carry.
My Brands carries 11,000 products, mainly grocery products-imported, organic, kosher, specialty and gourmet-along with some plastics, pet products, and lawn and cleaning items.
With 15 employees based at Summit Point Drive in Henrietta and a constant rise in annual revenue since its inception in 2001, My Brands is at capacity and by next year will have to expand to a larger location to keep up with continued growth.
The company, officials explain, is not a concierge service. It does not hunt down specific products. Instead, it operates under contracts with manufacturers.
President and CEO Clarridge, 52, says that with store brands now consuming space on grocery store shelves, there is less room for new brands from manufacturers.
The average grocery store can hold a maximum of 45,000 stock-keeping units. Yet every year, Clarridge says, manufacturers introduce 15,000 to the marketplace-although not necessarily to your local market.
For example, she says, “We carry Juicy Juice, which you can find almost anywhere, but you can’t find every flavor of Juicy Juice everywhere.”
As part of its standard agreement with manufacturers, My Brands offers the full extent of their product lines but stocks them based on the consumer orders its receives. The objective is to keep inventory to a minimum. My Brands strives to turn over inventory every three to four weeks.
“We tend to have in stock here things that are very hard to find, although we do carry items that are very common, like Coffee-mate original flavor. Even though this product may be sold in 95 percent of the U.S., there may be 5 percent of the U.S. that isn’t selling it,” she says. “For consumers in that market who can’t find it, they want a place they can go and get it.”
That is the core of the My Brands business model, Clarridge says.
“We provide the manufacturer one place to send a consumer to buy any product they make,” she says.
Realizing how attached customers can become to their favorite varieties, Clarridge got the idea for My Brands while she was a marketing manager for a brand that now is one of her largest clients, Hefty Bags.
At Hefty Bags, new technologies made the simple plastic baggie obsolete-at least on store shelves. Developing My Brands came from wanting to provide a way for customers to get it using the Internet.
When Clarridge began marketing her business plan to potential investors, it was precisely because of that Internet component that she was laughed out of the room. It was 2001, and the Internet bust had made “Internet startup” sound like an outdated catchphrase from the previous decade.
Clarridge was undeterred, and given her characteristic perseverance, that was not surprising, says her brother, Ron Clarridge.
All three Clarridge siblings are entrepreneurs, like their father. In the 1960s, he founded Rochester Instrument Systems Inc.
“In the 1980s, he employed 500 in Rochester,” Ron Clarridge says.
Business always was a central theme in the family, and with his sister’s strong will and directness, he was not surprised that she became an entrepreneur.
After graduating with an MBA from Rochester Institute of Technology in 1984, Clarridge stayed at the school as a graduate assistant and taught classes at Roberts Wesleyan College.
For two years she worked at teaching, and though she says she loved it, she wanted to earn more money. The idea of owning a business became her dream, but to accomplish it she needed more experience and a really good concept.
Thirteen years later, the idea came to her.
With the aim of raising $250,000, Clarridge pitched her concept to friends and relatives. She found four willing investors.
She took six months to create the business plan and fill out the paperwork for a private-placement memorandum-a formal offering that spells out the terms of a deal, its risks and its exit strategy.
To start operating the business, she found two partners who agreed to work for the company and earn shares without paying their market value. With manufacturers already lined up and all of her own funds invested in the company, Clarridge began shipping products to customers about the same time she got married.
Six months later, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.
To deal with the illness, doctors told her, she should close the business. But that would have meant bankruptcy, and Clarridge knew that was something she could not live with.
“Doctors said (the treatment) would-and in fact it did-kick the living tar out of me. I started with the lumpectomy, then chemotherapy, followed by another lumpectomy and radiation,” she says. “The whole process took nine or 10 months, during which time it was very, very difficult. But we actually managed to grow the company despite my illness.”
Clarridge would take a day or two off after chemotherapy, but otherwise she rested on a cot in the office. She still had to go out of state to meet with clients, but she was not cleared for airline flights because of her suppressed immune system. Instead, a business partner drove her for long-distance appointments.
“The worst part was being bald and having to wear a wig. That wig itched so much, but I didn’t want my customers to know I had cancer. So I had a wig made that looked just like my regular hair. But I imagine they could tell because I had no eyelashes and no eyebrows, and I was pretty pale,” Clarridge remembers.
Surviving cancer changed every aspect of her life, including her management style, she says. Her physical inability forced Clarridge to rely on others.
“If my management style before this wasn’t one of trusting and giving people the power to make their own decisions, it became that way very quickly,” she says. “In the end, that is the culture we operate in. People take ownership of what they do and how they do it. There’s a very high level of trust, and that’s definitely a direct result of it.”
One of her original partners, Laurie Twombly, is vice president of finance and operations. Clarridge is willful, Twombly says, but she knows when to listen and respects people’s boundaries.
“We work so well together because we both have different backgrounds, and we know enough to stay away from each other’s area. She gives me my freedom, and I give her plenty of freedom,” Twombly says.
Part of their success, Clarridge says, is that both women know how to disagree without being disagreeable.
Twombly says, “I cannot agree, but I can understand why we’re doing something and let it go. She’s the same way. If I feel something really strong-it’s not like I do it often-if I assert my opinion strongly, she knows, ‘Well, she’s pushing on this one, so I better listen.'”
All 15 employees at My Brands have a high level of respect for what each person does and how, Clarridge says. Employees take ownership of their roles in the company, and with that independence they are extraordinarily conscientious.
Employees field phone calls, stock and deliver products to passionate consumers, and Clarridge says her staff is just as passionate.
My Brands is offering services to manufacturers that will help them participate in that enthusiasm by connecting them with customers through social networking sites, where My Brands is growing in popularity.
My Brands has poured significant resources into technology, especially where the Internet is concerned. The company has worked doggedly to optimize its occurrences on search engines to better reach the consumers looking for a particular product that My Brands happens to carry.
“Virtually anything in this warehouse, if you Google it, there’s a very good chance that we’ll appear, sometimes above the manufacturer in terms of search results,” Clarridge says.
To keep up with growth, the firm has expanded from an 800-square-foot warehouse in 2001 to a 2,500-square-foot building and now to a 12,000-square-foot building in Henrietta.
To add more manufacturers, the com-pany will have to move again. But until overall economic conditions improve, My Brands is staying put. It also is eliminating some poor-selling manufacturers to make room for better-selling products.
“We have had double- or triple-digit growth every year up to 2008, where the recession hit us early,” Clarridge says.
From 2001 to 2006, revenue doubled or tripled every year. The growth rate slowed to 50 percent in 2007, and despite the worsening economy, My Brands had single-digit growth in 2008. Company officials declined to disclose exact revenue figures.
“We’re hoping this year will be the same,” Twombly says. “It’s not as much growth as we would like, but in this economy any kind of growth is good growth.”
By the middle of next year, the firm expects a huge leap in volume and in sales, Clarridge says. Until then, the company
will work on software upgrades and offering new services to manufacturers, including new pathways for them to engage with consumers.
Unintentionally, My Brands has grown into an online retail grocer and a destination unto itself, instead of just a link or toll-free number on manufacturers’ Web sites, Clarridge says.
“We’re gaining national attention as an online grocery retailer, and to consumers we may appear that way, but the reality is we’re a service for all of the brands we handle,” Clarridge explains.
The idea now, Clarridge explains, is to be a cheerleader for the manufacturers My Brands carries.
Clarridge, Twombly says, is well-known for her enthusiasm about the company. She spends roughly 30 percent of her time on the road, visiting clients and encouraging them to be more responsive and engaged.
Her vivaciousness is not reserved for her company, though, neighbor Susan Smith says. She also is a ringleader in her Brighton neighborhood. She is frequently outdoors, either gardening or walking her two Australian shepherd rescue dogs.
“She’s as committed to her friends and family as she is to her clients and employees,” Smith says. “She’s the kind of neighbor who always has a hug.”
Clarridge comes from an accomplished family, Smith says, but remains down to earth.
She is a mentor to Smith’s teen-age daughter Sophie, who has shadowed Clarridge at the office.
Teaching young people is a personal passion for Clarridge. She works frequently with students at the Simon Graduate School of Business, Rochester Institute of Technology and Nazareth College of Rochester.
It is her personal goal, Clarridge says, to become a college professor someday-but only after she grows My Brands to 10 times its current size.
rbj@rbj.net / 585-546-8303

Suzanne Clarridge
Title: President and CEO
Company: My Brands Inc.
Age: 52
Education: B.A. in political science from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., 1979; MBA from Rochester Institute of Technology, 1984
Residence: Brighton
Family: Husband Thomas Letourneau; stepchildren Sarah Letourneau, 28, and Philip Letourneau, 24
Interests: walking and spending time with the family’s two Australian shepherd rescue dogs; flower and vegetable gardening; golf; skiing; staying fit and healthy
Quote: “Running your own company is hard, and there are lots of challenges. There were lots of times when I thought we would have to close the doors, less so now than ever before, but (cancer) did put it in perspective. As a person, I appreciate things in a way that nothing but a life-threatening situation can do for you.”

05/08/2009 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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