What does a global business look like today? Gone are the requisite business trips and expensive conference calls. Companies can now video chat over Skype, hold meetings at the virtual office and keep up with branch offices in real time. However, the same business savvy, hard work and determination from yesterday still apply today. Local businesses looking to expand their horizons can turn to husband-and-wife team Michael and Deborah Sowards for advice.
Local to Global
As Chairman of the Board and Office Manager for HME Providers, Inc., Michael and Deborah are responsible for leading a multimillion dollar company that has a presence in 13 different countries. Founded 26 years ago in Titusville, HME Providers is a member services organization (MSO) for a nationwide network of home medical suppliers. They are one of only three MSOs in the home medical industry, but differentiate themselves from the competition by offering specific territories to their customers and savings to only one medical supplier per area.
“Over the years the company evolved from a mom and pop business with annual sales of $120,000 to a multimillion dollar enterprise with factories located in Asia and offices located in multiple countries,” says Michael. He and Deborah are now responsible for managing the rapidly expanding business.
“In the next century,” adds Deborah, “it is expected that 13 percent of the world’s population will either own one of the products we manufacture or will have had the option to do so.”
As HME Providers globalized, Michael and Deborah saw their fair share of obstacles. Cultural differences, religion and politics were the biggest barriers to entry they faced.
“For the first ten years, only U.S. citizens comprised management of our company and it was quite simple – we set standards and pay according to the employees’ performance,” explains Michael. “However as we expanded to other countries like Korea, China, the Philippines and Indonesia many other factors played a big part in managing a project and/or managing the personnel. Trust is … the most important management tool, respecting their culture is another … and honoring their style of business.”
The Sowards’ focused goals and dynamic business model enabled them to work through the setbacks and obstacles, and they have become part of the growing trend towards globalization in smaller businesses. Recent survey results from Network Solutions Small Business Success Index show that about 19 percent of American small businesses sell outside the United States.
“We live in a world that has shrunken to the point that we can manage multiple factories and view them with simply a laptop and Skype,” emphasizes Michael.
While it may be easier to manage a multi-country company, the compounded stress factors associated with global business present an additional challenge to an already difficult situation: managing and leading with one’s spouse. Michael and Deborah have found a way to diffuse the stress, though, and offer advice to other couples that are in business together:
All in the Family
“The marriage has blossomed over the years because we have so much in common and so much to talk about,” says Deborah. “Even when Mike and I travel to Asia and the flight is so long we never experience a dull moment. I am just as interested in his success with his negotiations as he is mine.”
Of their own business practices, Michael adds, “Each person has separate positions within the company and they never answer to each other.”
Although it is best to not answer to each other, husband-and-wife teams still believe that their most trusted business advisor is their spouse (2009 FamilyPreneurship Survey). The same study found that the majority of family-owned businesses consult multiple stakeholders during the decision-making process. For the Sowards, this means communicating with their children, who are also leaders within the company. Aron Sowards, their eldest daughter, is President of HME Providers, Inc. Bryan, their middle child, is CEO of HME Providers’ sister company, Infopia USA, and his wife Amy is the Investor Relations Manager. Troy, their youngest, is the International Product Development Manager and his wife Jennifer is the Chief Operations Officer/COO.
“By owning the business,” explains Deborah, “[It] entitles us to maneuver our children around until they find a place that they can excel in and that they enjoy. We didn’t force our children to work for the family business; they do it because they want to.”
Michael and Deborah have also allowed their children to work their way up within the company.
As Troy explains: “I have been working for my dad’s businesses almost my whole life . . . since I was 13 working in the warehouse. I went away for college, then came back and took on a sales position within the company. I have since had various positions learning the ins and outs of the company and have found my strengths to be in developing new products. I also love to travel overseas, so it gives me the opportunity to do that.”
His wife Jennifer adds, “One thing most people don’t realize about running a family-owned business is it takes a lot of supporting each other’s ideas, appreciating individual strengths and finding a way to work through obstacles as a team.”
Looking to the Future
The Sowards are part of a small percentage of businesses that make it to see the second generation take over leadership. They are also part of an even smaller percentage that sees business owners’ children share the same passion for the company that their parents do. In order to maintain their business and grow it into the global brand that it is today, they have followed a clear set of goals.
“The goals of our business model go through changes every six months,” says Michael. “We have set goals throughout the past 26 years and have succeeded in all of them. Firstly, [our goal] was to break even, then our first $100,000 order, next was our first $1 million order, next was seeing our product displayed at large retail outlets. We are now focusing on marketing worldwide and have successfully entered into 13 countries.”
Bryan Sowards adds: “It’s really a balancing act between growing profits and reinvesting into the organization. You have to practice discipline and remember where you ultimately want to take your company, because it’s very easy to justify spending your profits and not rolling them over.”
Because the Sowards are always reassessing the goals they set for HME Providers; they know exactly where they want their company to be in 10 years. Michael says that they “intend on going public with one of [their] companies in 2013 providing that the economy is strong enough. The influx of working capital will create the highway to reach [their] ultimate goal of being a Fortune 500 company.” Jennifer adds that they hope to “expand into other markets and introduce affordable telemedicine to other chronic illnesses.”
With the rapid growth and success they have seen over the past 26 years, they are well on their way to reaching their end goal.