Prosper Spotlight: Rita Brown

Rita Brown’s husband, Doug, was working for a Chicago-based steel
company here in Michigan. After they pulled out, Doug and Rita sat
down, brainstormed, and decided it was time to move forward with their
own idea — Detroit Drafting.

The 3-year-old company is based out of
Bloomfield Hills. During their first year, they made
modest gains, Rita says, but after that Detroit Drafting leaped out of the gate with a net rising
over 300 percent. Rita says they keeping things running like a
family business, so they will be able to weather any economic storm. In
fact, she anticipates 2009 to be their first million dollar year. Prosper
spoke with Rita about Detroit Drafting’s business model, cultivating
and retaining talent in the area, and the small business’ future.

Question: How did Detroit Drafting come about and why?
Left with two days of health care, two weeks severance and not much else, Doug’s former Chicago based company unceremoniously pulled out of Michigan. Detroit Drafting came out of necessity. It’s something that we had been refining over the past several years and when opportunity met necessity — well, it became a defining moment for us, and the culmination of a lot of preparation. We had started our careers working together in my father’s engineering/detailing company in Southfield. And we are thrilled to be able to again work together in our family business.

Q: How important is it to keep that family business feel to your company?
It’s important for us to maintain a family friendly working climate in a professional context. We know exactly what it means to be trying to earn a living, build a career and raise a family. Doug and I bring complementary personal and professional skills to our company. Maintaining a personal touch in a traditionally, pardon the pun, but “steely” profession, well that just goes to the heart of what we are doing here. Personal responsibility, corporate integrity and accountability all add up to a better-serviced client and industry.

Q: What do these “family businesses” mean to the economy?
To the overall economy, will be why fabricators will want to come to Michigan and Detroit Drafting to get their projects serviced rather than elsewhere. We take it personally. For Michigan, we can maintain our growth even in a stressed market if we make it a priority to train our staff well and be prepared to take advantage of opportunities – and there are many.

Q: It may not be the easiest of times for starting a small business, and maintaining one, here in Michigan. What kind of advice can you give to entrepreneurs and would-be business owners inside Michigan and Oakland County?
I would suggest that you should go back to the old “do what you know best, know what you do best” and access as much of the mentorship and assistance through your contacts — luckily for us through the state of Michigan — as possible. Confidence is great, and is usually in abundance when you start this ride. Back up confidence with content. It’s “content” that will keep you in play during the rough times. And definitely get your working capital in order. Know your business, know your industry, know your customer, identify what you don’t know and move decisively into your niche.

Q: How important is it to cultivate talent from inside Michigan?
Vital. To be a value-added partner in the steel industry, you’ve got to bring more than just CAD skills to the table. You’ve got to be able to get anywhere now days. Detroit Drafting sells itself well because our people are backed by practical understanding of the entire structural steel fabrication and erection process. And cultivation is exactly the correct word. When we couldn’t find the right staff, we decided to develop our own teams based on our unique philosophy. So we have an internship program that gives us an opportunity to assess professional aptitudes and team compatibility in what we view as perspective staff.

Q: Once that talent is cultivated, how do you plan on retaining it?
We make every attempt to provide a friendly and flexible work situation. Flex time including telecommuting, general modest benefits, a kids space within the office that serves as a safety net for our valued staff with children, as well as a stocked snack room and break room (complete w/ a gaming station) — these all are parts of our retention formula. But the biggest way to retain our staff is making sure that when we choose our staff, they are compatible with our office environment. We are a small, dynamic company. We need people who don’t let circumstances get in the way of getting a job done and done right. We will do whatever is possible to make the work situation a win, win, win for us, for our employees and for our clients.

Q: What does the future hold for Detroit Drafting and how do you see smaller, more “mom and pop” type companies affecting the economic landscape of Michigan?
The future holds steady growth opportunities for Detroit Drafting. We’ll keep providing excellent client servicing, set realistic expectations and over deliver. With that, we will be able to ride out any issues the national economy may face. With Michigan as our base, we can continue to expand our strategic plan to encompass international clients and further insulate our business. To date, this year we are working or have completed projects in 16 states. In our first year of business, we worked in 3 states, 11 the next year. So growth has been good when measured by market presence. Our clients come back to us because they are comfortable that we have their best interest in front of us at all times. That’s the mom and pop aspect, I think.