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Rebuilding American Jobs

Putting People Back to Work

by Michael David McGuire

As America struggles with putting the country back to work, I set out on an adventure to meet a young entrepreneur who appears to be bucking that trend. As I left New York's Grand Central Station and traveled up the Hudson River by train to meet Tyler Ackerman, CEO of The RTA Store, the stormy weather along the route was grey and quite symbolic, I thought, of the state of the nation and its rather somber economic outlook. Ackerman had come to my attention in entrepreneurial circles for taking a small online ready-to-assemble cabinet retail store from nowhere to more than $2M gross in just over a year's time. While so many other businesses are laying off workers, cutting back or folding altogether… how did this little Upstate New York startup so handily beat the odds? I suspected that answers at The RTA Store could have broader implications across the economy, which is why I called Ackerman and asked to travel north for an in-person visit and interview.

Dobbs Ferry, NY is Ackerman's home and his working headquarters for The RTA Store. Only 30 minutes north of the hustle and bustle of my Times Square office, this little Hudson River town is a world away and looks like something out of a late nineteenth century novel… with tiny downtown store fronts, large old mansions and the type of genuine friendliness that one only sees in small country towns. When I stepped off the train, Ackerman was waiting for me curbside… which was a real blessing given the torrential rain and wind.

Ackerman looks like a handsome college jock, but with a real sense of quiet self-confidence that one only sees with those who have already been quite successful. After handshakes and a very quick tour of Dobbs Ferry and its Hudson River overlook, Ackerman dropped me at a local coffee shop while he found parking a couple of blocks away.

With most of the young entrepreneurs that I meet and interview there is almost always an interesting backstory that sets the stage for later success. Ackerman's story was pretty much the same as I had heard before, but with an interesting twist that in my mind makes him and The RTA Store especially geared for success in these stormy times. His simple formula - find something that people need and that helps them increase the value of what they already own. I whipped out my note pad and started the interview.

"As people struggle to make ends meet, they are moving to building a more comfortable environment at home," Ackerman said. "And if they can increase the real value of their home… while making it more enjoyable in the process… that's a good thing." Ackerman pointed out that new kitchen cabinets can often do more to increase the overall value of an existing home than anything except maybe a complete remodel of the bathrooms, an admittedly expensive task. I knew this to be true from some of my adventures in real estate many years ago. "I also saw a change in the industry," Ackerman said, referring to home remodeling in general and kitchen upgrades specifically. "The whole ready-to-assemble category has changed just in the past few years… better service, higher quality, much easier to assemble."

For myself, having gone through the whole put-it-together-yourself cheap particle board phase at Ikea many years ago, Ackerman pointed out that the new ready-to-assemble industry is now a real grownup… replacing cheap particle board with more solid wood types, sturdier assemblies and easy-to-follow instructions. "The beauty of the RTA category now is that quality is as good as pre-built… made to last a lifetime… and at just a fraction of the cost."

Ackerman also talked about a valuable lesson that he learned early-on as a kid worker at his father's furniture store. "Customer Service," he said. "Its that simple. You have to build a strong relationship with every customer that is built on a strong foundation of truth, integrity and trust. Once you have that… the rest of business gets pretty easy." Ackerman also emphasized a key lesson from Business 101. "We get almost half of our sales now from new customers who heard about us from a friend or neighbor or relative. All of those people got to know us… knew we had a superior kitchen cabinet product and, in effect, became our best sales team based on how we treated them when they were remodeling their kitchen."

What does Ackerman worry about, I wondered? "Not much. My father taught me a lot about being a good businessman and entrepreneur. He also taught me and my siblings not to be complacent. He taught me to value people and relationships...put your heart into everything that you do… and always put the customer first."

How do we get America back to work? Ackerman thought for a moment, looked out at the rain and said that the real key will be to find a way to empower more entrepreneurs to build their ideas and dreams. "A few thousand dollars in grants or loans to people with good business ideas could jump start real job creation for the country. More so than anything else that I can envision. Small business has always been the engine of job growth in America… and it will be again given half a chance."

And what business categories should young entrepreneurs be scouting, I asked? "Find a need and fill it… which is a pretty broad category. Find a way to do things people need… then do it better and for less money. And… find a way to help people get more value out of their existing resources… much as we did by hitting on the ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinet category," he smiled. "And help your family, friends and neighbors have a better life in difficult times. We built our current success with The RTA Store that way… and others can do the same."

Personal goals, I asked? "I want to take The RTA Store to the top of the list in the ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinet category. And I want to show others how to be their own boss and help get our country back on track by getting everyone back to work. There are tremendous opportunities out there… we just need to roll up our sleeves and go grab them."

As I dashed two blocks with Ackerman back to his car so that I could catch the 3:16 to Manhattan, the wind and rain kicked in especially hard. I was pretty soaked by the time I got to the station. As I hopped out of the car, Ackerman pointed to my notepad and said, "Tell people this - find a way to help someone make their life better and their home value higher. Then put other people to work helping you deliver superior Customer Service in every way. That's how you make money in a bad economy." Good advice, I thought… and an interesting day for me with the two million dollar RTA cabinet guy. I left Dobbs Ferry a bit wet… but convinced that Tyler Ackerman had hit on something not only with the emerging ready-to-assemble kitchen cabinet category… but also in the ready-to-assemble economic recovery category. It was really good advice from a good guy who had the guts to put his entrepreneurial theories and ideas into play. Other entrepreneurs could learn a great deal from Tyler Ackerman.

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