It did not take Donna Shultz long to find her calling.
In 1985, she landed an entry-level position at Giltspur Exhibits, an exhibition company, working closely with companies on trade show exhibits. Shultz said the work was engaging, and she jumped at the challenges of working with clients and helping them come up with displays that would set them apart from their competition.
Soon she found herself on the Eastman Kodak Co. account, which left her with plenty of work.
As Shultz deepened her relationships with clients, she came to better understand the industry’s difficulties. Many clients faced the same issues over and over again in preparing exhibits, and Shultz believed she could help.
So in 1993 she founded Mirror Show Management Inc., a Webster-based trade show design company that branched off the work Shultz had been doing for the last eight years. The company grew largely due to Shultz’s relationship with Kodak, but she also took steps to reach new clients in what is a $25 billion trade show industry.
The company now has 79 employees and saw revenue growth of 78 percent from 2013 to 2014.
Shultz, the company’s president and CEO, recently talked with the Rochester Business Journal about how Mirror Show Management managed amid a recession and difficulties for Kodak and the importance of creating the right culture, as well as the growth that helped propel it to the top of the Rochester Top 100 in 2015. An edited transcript follows.
Starting the show
ROCHESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL: What led you to start Mirror Show Management?
DONNA SHULTZ: Back in the mid-1980s, I landed an entry-level job at an event company and I found my passion about one day in. I worked for this company for about eight years and was loving every minute of it. The trade show industry was fascinating, and I had a job that I really loved. I was an account executive, so it was my job to listen to their needs and understand the issues, and as I was doing that and getting to know them better I learned that they all were facing the same issues.
As I interviewed clients and talked to them, I always kept in mind what were the major problems facing them. One thing that was difficult for many of them was pricing. Some said that every time they had a show managed, it was a different price. One time it would be $2,000 and the next time it was $3,000 and then it would be $4,000 the next time. They just couldn’t understand why they were always getting different prices.
The ideas I developed to help solve my customers’ problems ended up being the cornerstone of a new business, and Mirror Show Management came to be in 1993. Exhibit managers had many unmet needs, and I built our company squarely around the solutions to their problems. We introduced a lot of things with those problems in mind, like a more standardized system of pricing that we called square-foot pricing. Another thing we developed way back when was called the 30-day invoice guarantee, where in one month they had a guaranteed invoice.
After 30 days, the clients needed to have their bills wrapped up because they were wrapped up in tight budgets. It helped that we could guarantee that all vendor invoices could be finished and in their hands in that time frame. It can be a chore to get it done, but we’ve told them if we don’t get it in their hands they would get a 10 percent discount. In 22 years now we’ve never had to give that discount out. Those were important things to be able to do for clients and they are still programs we have today.
RBJ: How were you able to grow so quickly?
SHULTZ: I think a big part of it was because we were really listening to them and coming up with solutions to their problems, not just talking about what we wanted to sell to them. And Kodak was really what helped get us started. They were my biggest client, and I owe a lot of success to the partnership with them we were able to forge early on.
They were a fantastic client, and even helped push me to get my certification as a woman-owned business. That really helped our growth, and within about the first six months we had over $1 million in business. Today we’re managing more than 1,000 shows all over the world, and that all got a start thanks to Kodak.
RBJ: How did you begin to branch out and find new clients?
SHULTZ: I had a pretty clean break when I left to start Mirror Show Management, and a lot of customers came to me. Kodak came right away and we started working with Johnson & Johnson, which at the time was Ortho Clinical Diagnostics.
I think our advantage as we were starting out was always about service. We had real connections to our clients and were always open for them to talk to us and bring their problems. Even 20 years ago, it was so important that when someone needs to get in touch about an issue they’re having, you would answer the phone and be there for them. There is great value in that, and they could sense the passion around what I did and what we did. We were there for our customers, and I think that’s what it took.
The first three or four years, most of our growth and business was still coming from
Kodak. We were growing as they did, with one division or another, so a lot of it was Kodak-related, but with different areas of their business.
But as we grew like that, we realized that kind of growth can get you into trouble. In fact the first really bad time we had with the company was when Kodak filed for bankruptcy. We had to learn how to stop, regroup and move forward with that.
RBJ: What was the approach you took during Kodak’s bankruptcy?
SHULTZ: We had double-digit growth for years and years, and then that Kodak hiccup happened. We learned to stop and re-assess our resources, and we had to do some layoffs and let people go.
At the same time, though, we were always respectful of Kodak and worked with them to get whatever they needed during that time. So, we made sure we stayed with them as we were realigning our resources. That year (2012) when they first filed for bankruptcy was tough, but we were back to growing as soon as we were through that.
It was a difficult time personally, too. It was tough emotionally to let people go for the first time, but we knew there was still a core group of people here passionate about what we did. By the next year we had substantial growth, and we just kept moving forward and always focused on being great at what we did.
There are thousands and thousands of companies that do trade shows, and we know there are more fish in the sea. So, we expanded our work and started partnering with new companies. Companies spend a total of $25 billion on trade shows, and we realized that we had been too focused on one company and needed to branch out more.
We’ve been able to grow beyond Kodak thanks to our strong commitment to clients. We’ve never really had a sales force, just a really good client services team and it’s amazing what word of mouth has done for us in terms of growth. Often when we’re working with one person here at a company, (they) might leave and go to another company or go out of town and they would bring their relationship with us with them. If you’re doing good work, the word will get around.
RBJ: Were there difficulties with any other companies apart from Kodak, especially during the recession?
SHULTZ: When one industry is not doing well, they’ll tend to freeze their budgets or cut back on the shows they’re doing. But what was good for us was we always had a diverse client base, so we were working with companies across a number of different industries.
There was always a balance of some that were doing well and others tightening up, but we never went through a time when all of our clients were cutting back at the same time. We’ve also done very well reaching out and finding clients that really need trade shows.
For a lot of companies, those shows are the only time to connect one-on-one with customers, so they will always be doing them no matter what is happening in the economy. I know that trade shows are never going away, and as long as we can be the best at what we’re doing we will always have customers.
Key to growth
RBJ: What is the key of your growth today?
SHULTZ: Passion and vision. A real passion to serving our customers has always been at the core of our success. But that can only happen by hiring great people. They are the key. Without them, all of the innovations we’ve brought to the tradeshow and events industry could not have happened. And we wouldn’t be able to imagine the great customer experiences we provide for our clients without the talented people we have on staff.
Great people means more than great skills. Our people need to embody a set of core values that we have defined as crucial to our—and their—success. So we are very choosy about only hiring people who embody these values.
RBJ: What is the process you go through with clients when putting together a show?
SHULTZ: The first thing we do is sit with clients and have what we call an experience design meeting. We get them to talk, not as much about the booth or the walls or the carpet color, but the customer experience they want. We have a series of questions and talk through what they want and then get into a design. We render and design the exhibit, and then show them what it would look like from the perspective of their customers and what their experience would be like as they walk through the exhibit.
Then, once the client has approved it, we have an engineering department and we build it all right here in our wood shop. We set it up and tear it down for them, then we store it until the next show. It’s really a full-service customer experience.
RBJ: Are there challenges in providing all of that and finding employees with the right expertise?
SHULTZ: We find a lot of local talent, but one of the biggest challenges for us is always finding designers. It’s tough sometimes—we’re looking for someone with a very specific type of skill set, who can work hard and do a good job.
Growing a culture
RBJ: What is the culture like at Mirror Show Management?
SHULTZ: I love it, so I’m probably a little bit biased. It’s fun and creative and colorful, but it’s also really intense. There are times when we have everyone going full gear and staying late and working hard. It’s difficult work, but also very rewarding. That’s one of our core values, to be able to strive in a difficult and demanding environment. If they can’t handle that, then this isn’t the right place for them.
Though it’s challenging, this is really an atmosphere that employees love. We don’t have much turnover, and there are employees who have been here since the first year I started the business. If you can meet our core values and thrive in that environment, if you’re a giver and not a taker, if you can thrive in that atmosphere, then you’ll never want to leave. We have an amazing team of people. You’ve got to have that same passion that I found on day one, but once you get into it you’ll never want to do anything else.
RBJ: How has the number of employees grown along with the company?
SHULTZ: We had double-digit growth in our first few years just because of the rapid growth in our sales. We try to track very carefully the number of projects we have versus people, so we’re not burning our employees. Now we’ve been adding people weekly it seems.
I think that employee growth will continue, and last year was one of the biggest years we’ve ever had. This year we think we’ll have at least 25 percent growth.
It’s important for us to work with new employees as soon as they come on board. I just had a new employee meeting, and I spent time with them to make sure they know me. I find it’s important for the employees to be able to really connect with me, and it doesn’t matter if they’re working in the warehouse or on design. If I can make that connection with them on their first day, it really sets the tone for what kind of company we are.
RBJ: What is your outlook for Mirror Show Management?
SHULTZ: We see the importance technology is going to play, and we’re adding new talent to our pool that will help with new ideas. Back when we started 20 years ago, an exhibit was four walls and displays. Now it’s interactive, and it’s so important for a company like ours to keep ahead of the culture and be able to create an experience that is unique.
That is something that never stops, and we’ve got to be always looking to the future to find what will set us apart and help bring something for clients that no one has ever seen before.
There are a lot of companies that do what we do, but I think we do it best. I think our difference is that we really focus on having the best people. We don’t just want good people, we want great people and work really hard to attract the right fit. Once we do, that is what makes companies want to work with us. It’s the strength of the people we have, not the name of the company.
RBJ: What has been your experience as a woman-owned business?
SHULTZ: I have to admit, it does get us into some pitches and request for proposals. While it does help get our foot in the door, it doesn’t get us the business. The only thing that will get us working with clients is if we’re the best on the merits of what we pitch.
I would think that with how everything has changed it’s easier for women to get into the business world, but to be honest I never saw a roadblock in my way. I never looked at men and women differently, but instead I have kind of a gender-neutral approach. If you feel you can do something, then go for it. I don’t know if being a man or a woman holds you back in any way.
But I believe the success of the company does provide a great role model for girls and women to see they can aspire to do anything they want. I have two kids, and they don’t just have to think, “What will I do when I grow up?” but get to think, “What business can I own?”
I am also a platinum member of the Women Presidents’ Organization. Laurie Kamal, our vice president of finance, and I serve on the Women’s Leadership Council for the United Way. Mirror Show Management supports the Young Women’s College Prep, Rochester’s first all-girls public school. We also support numerous worthy activities at the YWCA.
That’s actually something we do with all our employees. One of our biggest core values is giving, and I encourage them to give their time and their money. We support them in every way, including allowing time off for people who are donating their time. We also have quarterly meetings where different non-profit organizations come in and we’ll serve lunch and they will talk to our employees about how they can get involved.
Those are great events to open people’s eyes. We’re not forcing anyone to give of their time, but it really makes people excited to get involved and help find success.
RBJ: How important is that civic involvement to you?
SHULTZ: I feel like it’s our obligation. The more you have, the more voice you have and I think the more you’re obligated to talk about it and take part in our community. In our community not one person or organization is going to be able to do it all, and we emphasize to our employees how important it is for everyone to do their part, even if it’s not huge. If they can just give $5, that’s $5 more. Whether it’s giving their time or a little out of their paycheck, we encourage everyone to find what they’re passionate about and give their time and treasure.
I believe that if at the top I’m doing that and giving of my time, they can look at that example and follow suit. We’re a really giving organization, and I see a lot of other great companies in Rochester that are involved in the same way. This community needs us, and we need to be there for them.
RBJ: In 2012, Mirror Show Management implemented an employee stock ownership plan that allowed employees to earn shares of company stock for their retirement. How important was that step in the growth of the company and in keeping employees motivated and invested?
SHULTZ: When you’re the leader of an organization and have some 80 people working with you, the greatest thing you can do is show those employees that they are empowered. That’s given them so much energy with customers, and our business has really skyrocketed since we implemented that ESOP. It really has changed everything, and now people in the warehouse are proud that they can make their own decisions and at the end of the year they’re the ones who reap the reward.
And, God forbid, if anything ever happens to me, we would be employee-owned and can still operate without me. We have a lot of empowered people here to make their own decisions, and that ensures that the company can live on without me.
That had always been in the back of my mind, and I get calls all the time from people wanting to buy the business. But we have such a great reputation and customers love us, and I didn’t want to sell. I feel like this company can be here forever, and I want that to happen. So we came up with the employee stock ownership plan and 49 percent is owned by the employees, while I own the other 51 percent.
With a company like this, it’s your baby. You started the business and there’s no amount of money that would make you want to sell some someone who might not keep that same culture. I always felt that this wasn’t just my company, it belonged to everyone, and I rest assured that this is the plan for the future of Mirror Show Management.
RBJ: What results have you seen since implementing the ESOP?
SHULTZ: Our latest surge of business began in 2012, and we have more than doubled our revenue since then. That also happens to be the year we decided to become an ESOP company. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Making every employee a part-owner has empowered our people, energizing each person to bring extra passion to serving our customers. And, of course, when you do a great job for your customers, word gets around and new business follows.
RBJ: What is your favorite part of the job?
SHULTZ: It’s everything. I love the creative side, but I come from a background in sales so I love talking to customers. Getting to work and talk with them is one of the favorite parts of the job for me. Aside from that, it’s great to be with a group of people who love what they do, and 100 percent of the time you see people smiling and walking around the hallways just loving the work they do.
RBJ: What does it mean for your company to be included on the Top 100 list?
SHULTZ: I think being in the Top 100 is pretty darn exciting. For our first 10 years as a company, we never applied and I think we just had our heads down and were not thinking about even applying until later. Now we’ve been on it six times, and this is the seventh.
It means so much—not just to me, but to all the employees. They get so excited, and we have a big celebration and give out $100 bills. I try to come up with new ideas whenever we hit the list, creative ways to celebrate it with everyone. They need to know that it’s not just me getting this award, it’s everyone. It really is an amazing accomplishment for us to be in the top 100 companies in Rochester.
10/30/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email email@example.com.