With planning and a little bit of risk, Janet and Jerry Mayer have parlayed their business experience into a successful international company.
Janet and Jerry Mayer, owners of Merchandising Frontiers, Inc. (MFI), are not mere business neophytes who act on whim. They parlayed years of corporate management experience into purchasing the assets from a troubled business. Then, like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk, the Winterset company started growing and growing.
Still, there’s no magic moment that tells you when to expand, says Janet Mayer, chief executive officer of MFI.
“The biggest thing is how much risk you are willing to take, how much guts you have,” says Janet Mayer. “There’s probably a formula somewhere that tells you when to expand, but not in our case.”
Their expansion story starts in 1993 when they purchased the assets from an Adel company that designed, assembled and marketed vending pushcarts. Although the company had posted sales of more than $1 million in 1990, it later suspended production because of the owner’s health problems and a fire that destroyed the plant. Within a week of hearing through a business broker about the company’s availability, the Mayers purchased the assets. They formed Merchandising Frontiers, Inc., and in 1994 moved to a new 31,000 square foot building in Winterset. In February 1998, they doubled the building to 62,000 square feet – big enough for 1.7 football fields – because of space needed to build products for increasing sales.
Most people have seen and used MFI products, but they don’t know it. MFI custom designs, fabricates, and installs carts, kiosks, retail merchandising units, wall shops, and merchandise display fixtures for food service and retail shopping markets. The company also will purchase, warehouse and deliver any associated food service equipment, smallwares such as utensils or salt-and-pepper shakers, signage, menus, and audio-visual equipment. MFI technicians can coordinate and direct on-site installation.
More than 250 kiosks and carts are found in colleges and universities. Locally, Drake University students in Des Moines get Stone Willy’s® pizza and Summit Subs® in the dining hall from a MFI designed kiosk.
Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has a giant dinosaur skeleton by the merchandising kiosk for the Field Museum of Natural History. A second kiosk at the museum resembles a store: 1,600 square feet and a cost of more than $250,000. The museum kiosk features extruded aluminum, custom diorama signage, replica dinosaur bones suspended from the museum ceiling, tempered glass, and exotic metal finishes.
MFI also supplied all the food carts for the new Universal Studios Japan™ theme park in Osaka. Each cart unit is custom designed to fit a specific theme in an area of the park. In addition to overall design consultation, MFI has provided detail designs for each site location, fabrication, equipment procurement, installation and shipping. Two MFI employees worked on the project in Japan for three months, returning home every four weeks.
Although the 84 carts for Universal Studios were included in one contract figure, a couple units cost more than $100,000 apiece, says Mayer. Those were walk in concession trailers with heating and air conditioning. For comparison, simple entry-level carts start at about $4,800. All products are custom made for a specific order.
MFI also supplied all airport kiosks for Wilsons Leather. The relationship solidified so that Wilsons simply tells MFI where it is going to expand and MFI manages the project from design to installation. Kiosk sites include four in Chicago O’Hare, Toronto, Charlotte, Dallas, Midway, Newark, and London Heathrow and more.
Those clients would not have found MFI if it had stayed a Mom-and-Pop operation in the Mayers’ garage, says Mayer. “If you are working out of a garage, people think you can’t do much. Jerry (MFI’s president) believed the Field of Dreams movie saying: ‘If you build it, they will come,’ ” she says.
They evaluate risk with the help of professionals, input from employees, and their own analyses. She says, “Everything we do, we really think it through. I have to give my husband credit in his way of problem solving and analyzing. He takes all the what-ifs, follows those different paths, and finally comes to the best conclusion…Jerry’s a numbers guy and has spreadsheets nested in spreadsheets.”
MFI employees, though, are not regarded a numbers. People are such an important part of the company, Mayer says, and from beginning, the management style has been open, emphasizing teamwork. For example:
- Customers can walk unaccompanied through the plant anytime and visit with any employee.
- MFI’s books are presented each quarter so employees can see how their work affects the company.
- The company’s profit sharing plan is based on the number of hours an employee works in the quarter rather than on base pay.
Many employees are craftsmen who once had their own companies. When the Universal Studios order required many carts that looked old and rusted, the paint department manager who used to have a screen printing business, used his artistic background to design and achieve the look. Similarly, others, whether they are welders, plumbers, electricians, or project engineers, use their creativity, experience, and problem-solving skills.
The Mayers started their careers at Rockwell International in Cedar Rapids. Janet dealt with computer operations and software development. Jerry, an industrial engineer, became an expert in computer integrated manufacturing. He was director of operations for Rockwell’s Satellite and Space Electronics Division in California that produced global positioning satellites. He left Rockwell for Gateway 2000 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and helped the company grow from 450 to 1,200 employees.
Yet, both wanted to own a business with a product they enjoyed. The cart business was about eating and shopping, something fun that people will always do, says Janet Mayer. Compared with corporate life where getting an idea approved was like turning a big, slow battleship, MFI “is like drinking from a fire hose and you’re on a roller coaster. One day there’s a million-dollar order and then an employee slips on the ice and is hurt and something else falls through – all before the first cup of coffee,” she says.
She smiles, unfazed, and starts talking about how the plant could be expanded.