A year ago, Ben Busko, owner of the Oyster Bay-based retail and wholesale company Ben's Garden, decided to delay the opening of two new stores. The reason: His company was experiencing rising demand from existing customers, so a major expansion could put a crimp in the company's usual standards of service.
"Customers being happy takes precedence over business expansion," Busko said.
As his company, which designs and makes home furnishings, gifts and garden ornaments, prepares to head into a period of rapid expansion, Busko, 29, said he is well aware of the pressures growth can place on a company. Expansion can be a tricky period, experts said, a time when many companies stumble and lose sight of their founding principles.
In Busko's case, pressing the pause button allowed him to create a detailed strategic plan to increase production and boost the number of stores from two to at least 16 by 2014. The company, with stores in Oyster Bay and Huntington and a 2,000-square-foot Oyster Bay production studio, is setting up a 14,000-square-foot production facility in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. In the spring, Ben's Garden is on track to open the Manhattan and Brooklyn stores that had been delayed. And by the end of next year, Busko aims to open shops in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco.
"A significant hurdle . . . is being able to have a business grow and be true to what your vision of the business was and maintain your relationships with customers," Busko said.
He has been building those relationships since starting the business in his family's Setauket home at the age of 8. Always avid about gardening as well as art, he exhibited a talent for decoupage -- the craft of applying and finishing cutouts to surfaces. His mother's cocktail table was among his early oeuvres. Soon Mira Busko was driving her son all over the Island and to Connecticut to make sales calls.
Today, his products -- framed original prints as well as decoupaged items incorporating vintage prints, maps and quotes from both the famous and the anonymous -- are sold online and at stores across the country, including retailers such as Nordstrom, Anthropologie and Barnes & Noble.
"We've seen people tear up or laugh out loud when they first see a new piece," said Tanner Moxcey, the buyer for Nordstrom At Home. Last week, Nordstrom hosted a special in-store event featuring Busko.
With his brand gaining exposure, sales have grown 63 percent year over year for the last three years, Busko said. His bensgarden.com website was once overwhelmed after one of his decoupaged trays was shown in a magazine photo spread of actress Jennifer Aniston's home.
Don't lose original culture
As any business grows, there's a chance the original culture could be lost, said Alana Muller, president of Kauffman FastTrac, a Kansas City, Mo.-based nonprofit that trains entrepreneurs. "The more palpable the culture, the more the founder has documented and communicated values to the staff . . . then the chances of that culture surviving growth are greater."
Stories of real examples that capture the founder's values can provide cultural cues to employees, added Damon Beyer, a partner in the consulting firm A.T. Kearney's Fit Transformation Practice. Ultimately, founders must realize they won't be able to replicate everything they used to do, he said.
Busko should determine the company's four or five "DNA elements," Beyer said. These can be translated into policies; for example, pick up the phone by the third ring, or don't let a customer walk away unhappy.
"Ben's challenge is not giving up service for becoming bigger, not giving up innovation and uniqueness and not giving up quality standards," Beyer said, "so that even when he is not personally doing it, it is getting done."
Busko says he feels confident he can clear those hurdles with the team he has assembled.
"I am disappointed that I don't have 200 stores at the moment," Busko said, "[but] I am completely satisfied leaving at the end of the day when a customer I have been speaking with is happy."
At a Glance
COMPANY. Ben's Garden, Oyster Bay
FOUNDER AND OWNER. Ben Busko
WHAT IT DOES. Make and sell decoupaged trays, picture frames, paper weights and other artwork designed by Busko. Items are sold in Ben's Garden stores in Oyster Bay and Huntington, and at other major retailers.
EMPLOYEES. 20 full time, 8 to 10 part time. (Part-time employment increases to 20 during the holiday season.)