In 2003, Stoner, Inc. from Quarryville, PA won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the small business category. A leader in manufacturing of bulk release agents for plastics, lubricants, and electronics cleaning, more and more household consumers are becoming familiar with their Invisible Glass product available in many major chain stores. President Robert Ecklin, Jr. is the grandson of founder Paul Stoner and has led the company since the 1980s.
During a recent visit to Watkins Glen International raceway for a Continental Tire Sport Car Challenge series race, I noticed Invisible Glass signs posted around the track and found a Stoner booth with products for immediate sale directly to race fans. Staffing the booth was Stoner President Rob Ecklin, Jr. and two of his daughters. Curious to learn the Baldrige “how” this came about, I requested an interview and Rob graciously accepted.
Combining Racing and the Main Branding Effort
Rob says it was a bit of a process; he started with hobby racing with Skip Barber [Driving School]; then began to figure out how to combine the main branding effort (the Invisible Glass product) with road racing. In 2009 he met a gentleman who was building BMW race engines for Turner Motorsports and then had to decide which road racing series to join: ALMS (American LeMans), Grand-Am, or World Challenge? He got background on each series and picked Grand-Am because of the national television exposure, the Grand-Am series is financially stable, and the high percentage of female viewers which is the target market segment.
Starting a race team involves acquiring and maintaining many different pieces: the cars and all of their parts and replacement parts, trailers, pit crews, insurance, etc. so it seemed a better strategy to sponsor a team that already existed. So Rob asked if there was a team that needed sponsorship, found Automatic Racing and a team was formed.
You Want to Do What? Leadership and Communication
As a leader, how did you communicate the auto racing initiative to employees (team members), the Board of Directors and stakeholders?
Racing is not well-received in general except by those who understand racing, Rob explains. Racing is about cars but really as much if not more about marketing. He first proposed the idea to leadership Stoner then to team Stoner and it received mixed reviews. Of course racing has its well-documented dangers. Stoner has a succession plan should anything happen while he is racing but he does not want to implement it because of what some might term “frivolous” racing. At first he didn’t plan to drive the race car but when the opportunity was presented this year at Daytona he went for it and is now a Continental Tire series driver.
How do you balance running the company and running the race team, both of which have time, administrative, and travel obligations?
It is difficult to keep the balance but if not managed properly the racing effort can lead to time management issues. There are always requests to do more; get a Twitter feed, do radio and newspaper interviews, have free ticket giveaways, and various other meetings and promotions in the race track’s local area before a race.
What were the specifics around choosing the auto racing segment to directly market Stoner products?
The goal is putting some energy around the brand vs. the competition. Having an understanding and a passion for the brand has differentiated Stoner from others racing in the Continental Tire series. Stoner was one of the first to do a national consumer product on the side of the car. Sponsors on other cars do not have products that race fans would recognize as a product they could purchase. “The number one challenge is brand awareness; once people try Invisible Glass they return to purchase”, Rob says.
Marketing at the Track
There is a phased plan for expansion of marketing products at the track. Currently the two cars racing have the Invisible Glass name on them; next will be for one of the cars to promote the Invisible Glass with Rain Repellant which has a similar but slightly different color scheme.
Of course nothing works as well for promotion as the car with your brand on it winning the race. With Rob’s team, their immediate goal is to achieve top ten, then aim for the best TV coverage which is when the car runs in the top five for much of the race.
Putting cars on the track was first, Rob says, with selling product directly at the track second; eventually they will have a semi-trailer going from track to track selling branded clothing, hats and products.
The other marketing piece is having branded billboards at the strategic points around the track as they had at Watkins Glen, as this will get your brand TV coverage no matter how your cars are doing during the race. Rob says they are also considering sponsoring inside car cameras which ensures TV coverage and multiple sportscaster mentions, but each of these takes money so the budget has to be considered.
Workforce (Race Team) Engagement
Teamwork is obviously a key component in racing preparation and success; can you give examples?
For engineering the race car setup, Rob defers to team owner Dave Russell. Rob is driver/sponsor so he is constantly working with engineer on car setup while at the track; working with pit crew on pit stops; and working with data acquisitions personnel to get lap times down. Each team member performance can lift the spirits of the rest of the team; for example, if the driver can deliver a competitive lap time it lifts the crew and if the car is turning well throughout the course it lifts the driver.
While driving he will constantly be asked by the crew “What can we do to make the car faster?” Racing is about constant feedback and a constant cycle of improvement; each team member is involved with figuring out how to make the car better and boost the team’s performance.
As an example of teamwork, Rob talks about when at Daytona this year he hit a tire wall and caused damage to the car. To repair it they needed parts they didn’t have so the team went up and down pit road and purchased parts from other teams, exhaustively worked on the car to get into the race, and ended up finishing 18th the next day.
One of the Baldrige core values is management by fact. How do you measure the results of your marketing and racing efforts and determine if it is a success?
While direct measures are difficult, there are some methods available. Rob can find out how many fans visited the booth and received samples by looking at the number of email addresses obtained. Rob receives Joyce Julius Reports that gives TV impressions (number of times your car / brand is shown) related into dollars. This indicates that for Stoner’s investment of X it is getting back in advertising dollars.
Voice of the Customer
You are obviously a “hands-on” executive, working the booth and driving the race car. How do you take what you learn from these experiences and integrate it into decision-making in the organization?
“It’s amazing what you can learn from meeting your customers”, Rob says. By working at the booth, he can answer questions about the product and find out what they are thinking. Because of this he always insists that booth staff to be knowledgeable about the products. The Fan Walk before a race is another way to meet customers and potential customers, as race fans have an opportunity to ask questions about the car, the drivers, or the sponsors.
“The Baldrige discipline teaches you about process, checking and adjusting, systems, teamwork, measurements (you cannot hide the data), and what he learns at the track you can bring back in the workplace”, Rob states.
Blogrige readers, what are some new and innovative marketing methods you have developed using Baldrige?