A Chat With Dennis Garvey, chief operating officer, U.S. Cavalry
© Profile of Success, Catalog Success magazine, February 2007
Interview by Matt Griffin
Catalog Success: When was the catalog established?
Dennis Garvey: The catalog was first established very early on in the company, about 34 years ago, back In 1973. The company started in retail and relatively quickly started a catalog business, which really was one of the first in this industry, the military and law enforcement equipment industry.
CS: Where are your headquarters?
DG: Radcliff, Kentucky. Right outside of Fort Knox.
CS: What is your primary merchandise?
DG: It’s primarily been military gear, but we’ve expanded into law enforcement gear over the past few years. We always had a law enforcement following because of tactical teams, such as SWAT because they’re equipment is much more like the military. But we’ve expanded into much more broad-based law enforcement offerings as well.
CS: What are your primary customer demographics?
DG: Military and law enforcement, and we get a lot of customers who are outdoor enthusiasts who use a lot of our equipment for non-official pursuits as well.
CS: When did you join the company?
DG: About three years ago. And you may not know this, but U.S. Cavalry has been around for a while, but in 2000/2001, the company had gotten into difficulties and filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A new ownership group came in March of 2003, and I came on shortly thereafter.
CS: Had you any experience in cataloging when you joined the company?
DG: I did not. I came from a distributor, and I had a lot of experience there, but none of it was with catalogs. So that was a learning experience for me. We had some folks here who had been doing it for a while.
CS: What was your biggest challenge in the first few years with U.S. Cavalry?
DG: The biggest challenge revolved around the fact that going through that bankruptcy process, you lose a lot of people. And the resources weren’t there during that period to keep up things like mailing lists and all the background things to be able to cost effectively mail the catalog and get it out to the right people. Across the board, it was a rebuilding experience. Getting our mailing list squared away, getting our customer profile organized so we could mail effectively. That was the biggest challenge with the catalog. We’ve always had a very outstanding art department and group here that was capable of putting together a first class catalog. The main problem was redeveloping and rejuvenating our mailing list.
CS: How did you deal with it?
DG: It was a combination of a lot of things. We had a lot of history on our internal databases that we went back and tried to farm creatively to capture some of our older customers who hadn’t done business with us in a while. We actually experienced a good deal of success with that. We also did a mix of renting mailing lists and other prospecting techniques that over time build the list back up. One of the things I’ve found with U.S. Cavalry, and I credit the original owner with this, he built up a tremendous amount of brand equity. And one of the things we found when we started getting back towards doing the catalogs properly is that there were a lot of people who wondered where we went. They weren’t aware of the bankruptcy process, but they very much had a lot of fond memories of dealing with U.S. Cavalry. It never ceases to amaze me that wherever I go, people seem to recognize the brand. I’ve had it everywhere. From walking into a Starbucks in the middle of Indiana, and having someone who wasn’t old enough to serve in the military but has seen the catalogs because their family shopped through them. Going through an airport, you always see former military folks with the TSA, and they see the shirt and let me know they come to the store or shop the catalog. I had a problem with my Blackberry, and when I called Cingular for assistance, (my Blackberry was a company phone and registered under the U.S. Cavalry name) and the service operator was familiar with the brand. I thought that was kind of a kick.
CS: What kind of employee turnover did you see as a result of the bankruptcy?
DG: I’m not sure because it was before my time. I know there was a significant reorganization that took place just to regain fundamental profitability. At the time there was a very large call center operation that was cut back. Most of the big impact was the management team. Many of them left. That was one of the biggest challenges, trying to maintain the business when its leadership is departing. That was before my time, but when I came on board, that was what I had to rebuild. I don’t know the numbers on turnover though, other than to say there was significant attrition in the call center. But the biggest problem was not the people who were laid off, but the loss of leadership and institutional knowledge that left. I looked back at some of the numbers, and the company peaked in 1997, and started to see a fall off in sales after that.
CS: Within the management team, who on the catalog team was still left when you came on board?
DG: There were a few people left, and while they didn’t go back 20 years, we were able to regain some institutional knowledge through the overlap of a few employees. We were fortunate in that we had a good art department, and our e-commerce department had some continuity to it. The consumer side of the business probably had the highest level of continuity, and we supplemented that a little bit and were able to rebuild it. One of the things that’s been interesting is that we have a lot of folks who come in and haven’t had a lot of experience, and I think that’s been a benefit because they don’t know what can’t be done. We’ve tried and gotten creative with things that maybe in other companies, people wouldn’t have tried.
CS: When you came on in 2003, what specifically were you tasked with?
DG: I’m the COO, so the main task I was given was the rebuilding of the organizational structure and the growth of sales. All of the staff departments report to me, and it was a rebuilding from the ground up. We had lost a lot of people, so a lot of the institutional knowledge had gone. And so it was both a process of rebuilding the organizational structure, figuring out what the structure should be going forward, and making purchases of equipment. A lot of our efforts have gone into making computer system enhancements to make us more efficient. We wanted to integrate a lot of our systems, specifically integrating our Internet capability with our ERP system, our retail software into our ERP system, centralizing the purchasing process. It was a lot of fundamental block and tackle type stuff, that becomes so important when you’re trying to rebuild an organization that’s slipped backwards because of its fall into bankruptcy. And then during the bankruptcy period working under such limited resources. First and foremost, I should say the biggest thing was getting the right people here. I’m a firm believer that getting the right people can make almost anything work. If you don’t have the right people, you can have the best systems and the best catalog, but it won’t do anything for you. The biggest task we had ahead of us was building the right team. There’s always more to do. The biggest thing that’s made the difference here is finding the right people.
CS: Getting out of bankruptcy is obviously a difficult thing. How did you get buyin from the folks who were left and the people you brought on board?
DG: They have to sense the potential. From the standpoint of Cavalry’s previous place on the market, and the brand awareness. I think people saw the raw potential in the organization because of what it had achieved in the past, and in the current marketplace what it’s capable of achieving. It comes down to bringing people on who have that belief and who see that the executive ownership and management has the vision of where the company is going. You have to hire people who buy into that. If they don’t, it won’t work from the get go. Recovery is the biggest challenge, certainly less so as we move forward.
We’ve made a lot of converts out of our suppliers as well. That was a lot harder in some ways. A lot of our employees saw it as an opportunity to capture something early on. We weren’t a startup, we were a restartup. A lot of folks saw that potential, and the dedication of the management team. The supplier base had been through some tough times with the old ownership and management, and we had to work harder to regain that trust. As much as you try to explain it to them, it was hard for some to recognize that this was not the same company in many ways. From the standpoint of ownership and management, we inherited a lot of sins of the past and we had to prove to our suppliers that things were going to be different.
CS: How did you repair those relationships?
DG: You can talk the talk, but at the end of the day, if you don’t produce results, you’ll go nowhere. If you don’t follow up your statements with actions, it’s meaningless. You have to grow sales, pay your bills on time, and be the company that suppliers will seek out because they know you’ll grow their businesses. It’s performance. And we had some suppliers who took longer than others to come around. And my statement to them was “If you’re not with us now, you’ll definitely be knocking on our door in a year, because you’ll the see the business we’re giving your competitors.” As a broad line distributor, our goal is to grow the lines of our suppliers. We don’t do any private labeling, we don’t knock off our suppliers stuff. We have an approach where we grow their brand recognition and distribution. It’s been about delivering results. Those that came back on board later certainly lost out on a lot of sales.
CS: What kind of growth have you seen since 2003?
DG: I split that into two separate categories. We’ve had some significant growth through some large contract business we’ve been able to obtain. But I try not to count that into normal growth, simply because it’s hard to repeat. You can’t plan on it. We treat those large opportunities as gravy. If we win those, great, but we don’t live or die by it. When I look at the core business, we’ve grown on average, 30 to 35 percent per year.
CS: What has been your biggest career challenge, and how did you deal with it?
DG: Coming to U.S. Cavalry has been the biggest career challenge, and also the most fulfilling. I spent most of my previous time after I got out of the service for a large corporation, and I had a lot to learn when I came to this small company where your actions are much more trackable to a bottom line. It’s a reality check. You are certainly accountable for your actions at a big company, but there’s so much structure around you that the impact of your actions often are muted by the size of the organization. That can be a positive as well as a negative. If you do something wrong, the company won’t go down the tubes because of one person’s mistake, but likewise, your ability to have a positive impact on the company and industry as a whole is a lot less as well. Coming to Cavalry, and rebuilding from bankruptcy probably the biggest challenge I had.
CS: When did you serve?
DG: I was in the Marine Corps from 1984 to 1993.
CS: How has your military background influenced the way you do business?
DG: In many ways, it was my military experience combined with my distribution background that made me ideal for this position. Military personnel are our primary customer groups. To be able to understand what the customer is looking for and how they think and what their interests are is critical in any organization. It always helps to have that first hand experience with what your customers are looking for. It brings a certain amount of credibility to my position and has been very helpful here.
CS: What is your current biggest business challenge and how do you plan to resolve it?
DG: Maintaining the growth. We’ve been able to attain some pretty incredible things based on the expectations that we’ve set up to this point. Every year it gets harder. We’ve got competitors out there who constantly are challenging us. We’re constantly looking at trying to capture new customers. Getting new customers, capturing new business, and expanding into new markets is always going to be a challenge. Our biggest challenge really is trying to find the best people possible. You’ve got to have the right people on the team. Find the best and brightest and motivate them to help take the company forward.
CS: What about the business appeals to you?
DG: I love the customers. That’s first and foremost. It’s a great customer group to serve. In my mind, there’s no better people out there than military and law enforcement folks that serve their country or community and put themselves on the line for other people. To be able to try and do something for that group, for me, and to have that be part of my everyday life, is a great thing. Being out of the military for several years, it’s reconnected me with a lot of the issues facing military.
CS: What’s your definition of success?
DG: From a business perspective, sustained growth, profitability, and providing a place where employees and members of the organization can come and feel challenged. At the end of the day, it can be a great place to work, but if it doesn’t make money, it doesn’t survive. When we look back at where Cavalry made its mistakes and got into trouble, those are things we don’t want to repeat again.
CS: And you’ve obviously taken steps to get there.
DG: You can talk about all the things that are important about running a successful business. You can’t do it without the customers. You have to have customer who want to buy from you because you offer and value and service. But all of those things are a means to an end. You need that to sustain growth and reinvest in the business to make it better. We’ve actually just completed building a new DC to support the growth of the business. It all comes down to the dollars. If you don’t take care of business, you can’t take care of people.