A Conversation with a Veteran Business Owner: Making It Through Tough Times Starts at The Beginning

Darcella Craven

When clients seek out advice from the Center about starting a small business oftentimes they do not like the advice we share. The entrepreneurship road is not all sunshine, smiles and puppies. There will be tough times and what you do now in the planning stage can prepare you for the challenges you will face.

We wanted to bring you that message from a business owner directly. VBRC Intern Ted Murphy sat down with Veteran Denny Leary of Peak Promotional Products, Inc. to find out how his company made it through the economic downturn.

Denny Leary, founded Peak Promotional Group in January 2001. Before starting Peak, Leary was a photographer for the St. Louis Blues for over six years, worked for Delta Air Lines for 15 years, and ran his own travel company for 11 years. He is also president of not-for-profit Gateway Warrior Foundation, which has raised thousands of dollars to support wounded servicemen. Leary was drafted into the Vietnam War at age 23, his son served in the Marine Corps, and his father was a fighter pilot in the Navy.

Leary’s Peak Promotional Group offers a wide array of services for clients looking to promote a new product, strengthen their brand, or who just need customized items for a project—whether that be specialized watches, rings, pens, or bronze statues. “When people say what do you do, I say ‘what do you need?’” said Leary.

One of Leary’s largest customers is the U.S. military for whom he has made millions of brochures, a couple hundred thousand backpacks, and other items such as challenge coins and lapel pins. Other large customers include Scottrade, Lexus, and Honda. In addition to local clients, Leary does business around the country, as far out as California from his small office in Maryland Heights, Missouri.

In the more than 14 years that Peak has been in operation, Leary has had to adapt his business strategy to keep the company strong. “We got hammered pretty good in 2008,” said Leary. The Recession hit businesses like Leary’s especially hard. “It’s been a struggle because of the economy. What we sell are the first things that companies cut from their budget—promotional items.”

Leary did not want to simply sit and wait for the economy to improve. To fight through the tough economic times, he decided to take advantage of this country’s demographics and develop new services to cater to the growing elderly population. Leary established the Long Term Care Division within Peak to offer products such as pill cards and custom labels for pharmacies.

Another challenge for Leary has been competing with larger companies. “We have to be pretty good at what we do or we don’t get the business,” said Leary.  In both customer service and quality of the product, Leary seeks to outperform the competition. “We try to exceed the customer’s expectations.”

Proximity has helped Leary attract some major local clients, such as Scottrade. Leary recalled one afternoon when Scottrade called Peak to request 300,000 envelopes. Peak had delivered them to Scottrade’s offices by the following morning. “We react incredibly fast,” said Leary. He believes that this expediency is another factor that helps Peak steal business away from out-of-town competition.

Leary has also taken business away from competitors through his bold, sometimes risky, business tactics. For instance, when Cadillac was looking to create promotional collector pins for the company’s centennial celebration, Leary created twenty samples and sent them to Cadillac. His competitors, on the other hand, simply sent Cadillac virtual renderings of their designs. Leary knew that his was a risky strategy. “If we didn’t get the order, I had twenty very expensive samples.” Cadillac liked what they saw and commissioned Peak for the job. “People were shocked that we got the order because we were so small.”

It has been this determinism that has guided Leary to success as a business owner. “When people say you can’t do it, I tune them out,” said Leary. “I say to myself, I’ll figure out a way to do it.”

Leary believes that positive attitudes such as this are essential to a productive business operation. He stresses the importance of filling the office with employees who will bring positive energy. “You can’t change a bad attitude. Bad attitudes are contagious and you really have to weed them out. I don’t care how smart a person is, I don’t care how much experience they got—a bad attitude will destroy any small company.

Another piece of advice Leary offers aspiring business owners is to conduct an honest and realistic review of your business plan. “You can have all the degrees in the world, but if you do not do your homework, you are not honest with yourself, you are not honest with your banker and have a realistic plan you are going to fail.” Leary credits having this positive, transparent and honest approach to his business from the beginning as the most important thing they had in the company to make it through their challenges.

Leary also says continue to dream.  “Dream—there’s nothing wrong with it,” said Leary. “It’s amazing how many people get criticized for being dreamers. Without the dream, there is nothing. Without a dream you are not going anywhere.”

The VBRC and the fourteen other centers like ours across the country are here to assist you dreamers.  Reach out to us or visit our site for a center closest to you to help you solidify your dream into a plan so that you can make it a reality. We look forward to being a part of your team.

Darcella K Craven has over 20 years of experience in corporate, government, non-profit and military organizations. She is currently the Executive Director of the Veterans Business Resource Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting Honorably Discharged Veterans, National Guard and Reservist and Active Duty personnel and their families with transitioning back into civilian life with starting and expanding businesses. An Army Veteran, she holds a Masters of Arts in Management from Webster University and is currently pursuing her Doctors of Management focusing on impact of military experience on small business decision making. Darcella has been featured in numerous articles for her transition from the military and the welfare system to an accomplished business woman and is actively involved in many civic organizations.

Article co-authored by Ted Murphy.

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