Leadership and Business Savvy Pave Road to Success

Leadership and Business Savvy Pave Road to Success

by Denise Vermeulen

Bates began her journey after dissolving a small business she had started. In search of a part-time job, she landed in the role of secretary at Block Tops, Inc., a wholesale countertop and cabinet manufacturer. She stuck with the young, very small company, learning the business and growing with it. Eventually, Bates was named general manager.

After several years, Bates left the company to study full-time. She was, however, sorely missed at Block Tops, and soon began consulting for them. After graduating with her M.B.A., Block Tops made her an offer she couldn't refuse.

Today, as president of Block Tops, Bates heads up the multi-million dollar corporation and owns a significant portion of it. She is also part owner of a granite manufacturing facility purchased,
she explains, because

"granite was eroding our market share."

Initially, Block Tops served customers within a 125-mile radius of Anaheim. Currently, the company is celebrating its 25th year in business with the opening of its fourth location in Vista, CA. The firm's other offices are located in Phoenix, AZ and Sacramento, CA, with the main office in Anaheim.

Block Tops has supplied the industry with custom-sized maple or oak butcher-block countertops since 1977, and now offers a complete mix of solid surface, granite and quartz surface installed countertops. The company also supplies custom-sized butcher-block counters and chopping blocks for self-installation.

With approximately 4,500 installed kitchens and baths annually and revenues that have doubled since 1998, Block Tops knows something about being doing and being "tops." The company has learned to minimize the effects of economic downturns by diversifying products and seeking a broader customer base.

The fiscally conservative Bates also tries to look ahead at the economy and positions the company "to weather the storm."

Unlike many of her competitors, says Bates, "I don't let my fixed asset base get too big."
A positive attitude and an eye for opportunity may help, as well. "When interest rates go up," says Bates, "people remodel they don't sell. When interest rates go down, money is cheaper and they still remodel."

Bates defines Block Top's number one specialty as "customer service." Not surprisingly, she begins with education and takes employee training seriously. Monthly training sessions for management employees focus on improving the work flow. An apprentice program ensures quality as well as a supply of well-trained craftspeople who understand the company and its products.

At Block Tops, which produces products in the medium-high- to very-high-end range, even the customer is trained. "We've created training models to help the customer understand the product and the process," explains Bates.

An emphasis on "controlling the customer's expectations" is an essential part of customer service at Block Tops. Bates explains the importance of setting appropriate expectations for its customers, which include contractors, designers, architects and national design centers. She emphasizes the importance of the basics, such as training all employees to provide the customer with accurate information.

Timing and reliability are key to the Block Tops' success story, as well. "On-time delivery is critical," says Bates. She claims that Block Tops will do everything in its power to be on time, training back-ups and providing clear-cut standards.

"How we manage our mistakes is important to us," Bates adds. "Managers have the authority to make customers happy." They are also trained to decide how to "rescue" a job gone awry. They can, for example, bring in a weekend crew.

Bates nurtures a corporate climate that demands the best. "Leading by example is a good way to lead," Bates explains. "Our [corporate] culture is to get the job done for the customers. You don't whine and snivel because it's 3:30 p.m. and you want to go home!" she adds emphatically.

Although Bates demands a lot from her staff, employees enjoy generous benefits, including annual profit sharing. Bates explains that taking care of staff in this way "creates a more loyal employee base." Apparently, she's right: Many of her employees have worked for Block Tops for more than 15 years.

It comes as little surprise to learn that Bates does not intend to sit back and relax. "Sitting on our laurels doesn't work for me," she says. Remaining "static or falling back is not healthy for any business that wants to be competitive," she adds.

Although she believes Block Tops, Inc. has a life of its own beyond her, for now it is Bates who leads the way. 

Block Tops, Inc.

PRINCIPALS: Vanessa Bates, president; Kenneth Christopher, corporate secretary
HOURS OF OPERATION: 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
MAJOR PRODUCT LINES: DuPont Corian, Granite, Butcher Block, Avonite, Fountainhead, Surell, Zodiaq.
SPECIALTIES: Business emphasis is on customer service.
BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY: "a business is successful because there is strong leadership, a consistent presence and consistent delivery of the message and the product."