Richard Marchbanks is the president of Gateway Exhibits, a turnkey trade show solutions provider. He is also a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) in St. Louis, Missouri. We recently talked to Marchbanks about adapting to the challenges of the global coronavirus pandemic and making the most of his EO membership.
When COVID-19 struck and it became clear that major changes were coming to the trade show industry, what steps did you take?
We sat down as a leadership team to discuss what we had in unused or dead assets, and what opportunities we could seize with fewer employees.
How did you identify a new business model?
We realized that our sister company’s solvent supplier could formulate sanitizer. So, we reached out, got terms and within four days we had nine pallets delivered. We used our marketing expertise to get the word out and we sold out in a month!
We also have a custom fabrication shop with a computer numerical control (CNC) machine so our first idea was to do environments and, in fact, we did get three builds and installations done. But that proved labor intensive; it was using up much of our bandwidth. Around the same time that we were finishing our third install, we called to order more sanitizer and were shocked to find out the costs had risen 48 percent! We then realized that there would likely be a similar supply-demand issue coming with plexiglass as more businesses started installing protective shields.
Did you have experience in that industry?
We were never in the personal protective equipment industry, but we did use plexiglass in manufacturing exhibit components like signage, counters and design elements. So we decided that we could probably design and build plexishields for cashiers, tellers, etc.
We created a prototype and then reached out to a fellow EO member, Tamara Keefe, at Clementine’s Creamery to see if she would be interested in using our product in her stores. She was thrilled!
What challenges did you face in starting this new business?
We only had one employee who was trained in CAD software and we had recently had to lay him off. We were able to bring him back, thankfully. Also, the plexiglass was scarce and the price was going up—and we were short on cash.
We created dealer agreements and terms with three vendors, and bought all they had! We then had 30 days to move enough of it to pay at least one of the vendors. We also utilized a no-limit credit card to buy US$200,000 more plexiglass from another vendor.
How did your years in EO and the knowledge and connections you made through EO help?
In the last US economic downturn in 2008-2009, my Forum and EO taught me that the keys to surviving are being the first to respond, taking quick decisive action and being agile. I also used my EO network to broadcast the fact that we were now in the plexiglass business. They were extremely supportive.
MyEO DealExchange is an online platform that allows EO members to seek funding and make business deals with one another. What role did MyEO DealExchange play?
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, the membership fee for MyEO DealExchange was waived. With no fee to join, many EO members are leveraging this significant benefit.
If you’re not familiar with MyEO DealExchange, it’s easy to use: You simply create a custom post on the Opportunity Network platform, detailing the type of deal you’re seeking.
Your post will be shared among potentially thousands of EO and vetted non-EO entrepreneurs. Investors connect with you via email to express their interest.
MyEO DealExchange provides instant credibility and a willingness to do business without a ton of formality because of the level of trust implied.
Another benefit of MyEO DealExchange: If you have questions or wish to seek the expertise of experienced members within the platform, there’s an area within the platform where you can share and seek input from others about creating your deal or making a decision.
Our largest and two of our top five jobs to date came from MyEO DealExchange!
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned throughout this process?
Core values are “core” for a reason: We preach and live them vigorously, and they saved the day. I also was reminded how awesome the EO network of entrepreneurs are as a support system.
What would you share with other entrepreneurs who are considering a similar pivot?
I would shared these top lessons:
- Commit and act. Over-analysis will lead to disaster in times of crisis.
- Agility is your main weapon. Should you determine that you chose the wrong pivot, the agility to quickly disengage and go down another path is critical—as we did when we determined sanitizer was the wrong way forward and moved to plexiglass.
- Keep your eyes down the road. You must be looking three to four steps ahead. We know that plexiglass will have a shelf-life of a handful of months, so we are trying to maximize that footprint while it exists. We have already looked down the road, formulating a private-label plexiglass cleaner to sell once the plex sales have stalled.
Richard Marchbanks is the president of Gateway Exhibits, a turnkey trade show solutions provider that recently transitioned to producing standard and custom-sized counter, desktop and rolling plexiglass shields, called PowerPlex defense barriers. Learn more.