Transforming: How companies diversify and make the pieces fit
Indoor Comfort Magazine: January/February 2017 Issue
Robison Elmsford, NY
Daniel Singer, – Co-President
Robison, previously known as Robison Oil, is a third-generation, family-owned business in existence for over 80 years. Starting out as a coal and ice provider, it had to transition to oil in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
Since its inception, the company had been open to diversification. In fact, the company has also been selling other lubricants and solvents aside from oil in the beginning.
Combining all offered services-oil, natural gas, HVAC, energy efficiency, remediation work for mold, fire and water, air quality products, duct and carpet cleaning, etc.-Robison touches somewhere close to 22,000 homes.
For Robison, the main factor in business direction comes from the needs of the customer.
“Rather than expanding our footprint, we made a strategic decision back in the late 90’s to deepen our footprint-leverage the trust that we have from our customers and ask them what they want us to do,” said Daniel Singer, Co-President of Robison. “If we get four or five referral requests from customers, we start exploring going into that business ourselves. They’re calling us because they trust us.” Singer believes that if the customer is asking for recommendations, listening to them will benefit the growth and profitability of the company regarding what directions it should explore.
Cross utilizing employees, which seems to be happening in other companies, is not a common thing with Robison. This is mostly due to oil drivers and HVAC technicians being unionized and finding jobs through the union in off seasons. It happens on a limited basis-such as an oil technician being cross trained to deliver natural gas. However, Robison understands that, with cross training, more opportunities are afforded to technicians, such as more compensation and job security in the future, due to the changing industry.
“Who knows what the consumer’s going to want to have to heat and power their home five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. The more diversified someone’s skills are, the more suited they’re going to be for the homeowner of the future,” claimed Singer.
The most challenging thing in diversifying at Robison, according to Singer, is internal culture issues. Similar to the previous companies mentioned, the culture in the company is quite important. With over 200 employees working across different product lines at Robison, it is essential that every employee is aware of the product lines being offered and not just familiar with what they do specifically. For example, in the past, an oil driver was asked about a plumbing issue and he advised the homeowner to call a plumber, except that Robison had its own plumbing business. Educating workers is significant; even a comprehensive marketing plan doesn’t work if the culture isn’t on the same page.
Since then, a certification process has been set in place. Every single employee, even seasonal workers, go through training for each area of diversification and are aware of every product line Robison offers.
Another challenge for Robison is “Trying to figure out what we don’t know,” according to Singer. Having preconceived notions about how something is working and how it is supposed to work is useless. It is necessary to allocate resources and time to step back and see what is happening, assess the situation of each area of diversification, learn from it and make adjustments to affect change, if applicable.
Employee buy-in to diversifying the business was rocky. Robison understands the reality that natural gas is a market that is necessary for them to tap into. It is understandable that union oil drivers can see it as a potential threat to their jobs, but it is a reality that not selling it could be detrimental to the business.
“We’re not actively trying to convert people from oil to gas-we’re just out there saying if they’re going to do it, why should we lose them as a customer? Why should they lose the benefit from being able to do business with us just because they found something that they felt was a better fit for their home?” said Singer.
Marketing is key for Robison to cross sell-services. The company focuses marketing on observing and pinpointing the specific needs of customers. They have a mascot, Robidog, which is put onto promotional cards sent to customers suggesting services based on their previously observed home needs. Whenever a delivery is made, customers receive a bag with literature, depending on the season, along with their delivery ticket. There are incentives and bundle services provided to customers to encourage using Robison as a one-stop-shop.
“Don’t be afraid of the unknown,” suggests Singer. As someone who grew up in the oil industry, he admits that oil used to be more comfortable because it was the fuel of choice-but the industry is shrinking. He points out the reality that if a company wants to keep what they have, and grow, they need to accept that the industry is going to look different in ten years and beyond, and adapt. He claims that many of the business and services haven’t even been invented yet, and it is up to current industry businesses to figure out what they are. ICM