With a laser-like focus on superior service and fast fulfillment, Terri Alpert has grown Professional Cutlery Direct from zero to $11 million
Business New Haven
By: Fiona Phelan
Typically, a business earns local recognition and then builds up to regional, then national and maybe international renown as the company grows. Professional Cutlery Direct (PCD), however, has achieved honors in reverse order.
Earning Business New Haven's Small Businessperson of the Year award may seem like relatively small potatoes for PCD founder and CEO Terri Alpert, especially after being ranked in the prestigious Inc. magazine 500 (which charts the fastest-growing private companies in the nation - for the second year a row.
The North Branford-based business was selected as a winner in the Innovators in Customer Service category in the Inc./Cisco Growing with Technology Awards Program last year.
But to Alpert, the BNH award is special because it is recognition from the community.
Most of our recognition has been national, says Alpert. That in some respects is anonymous; it doesn't tie us to our community.
While admitting that she doesn't do much networking in and around New Haven, she says she appreciates the BNH award because the company is part of the greater New Haven community and it is recognition for the people who work for the company.
Why all the accolades? Well, Alpert started her business from home in 1993 with an initial investment of $8,000. Last year, the company recorded sales of approximately $11 million - phenomenal growth for a company that began as an outgrowth of a personal quest to find a professional culinary knife for the home chef.
Every year of its life, PCD has approximately doubled its revenues from each prior year and been profitable, while financing most of its growth from internally generated cash flow, according to Alpert.
I am somebody that knew I had to have my own business, says Alpert. This was my own mountain to climb - to see if I could create something from nothing.
After working on Wall Street as an information technology manager, Alpert left to take care of her first child. Her time on Wall Street had left her jaded, she says.
People were taking money for granted, she recalls. There was no respect for the number of zeros involved.
Leaving New York during her maternity leave was a career safe time for Alpert to look toward creating her own business, she says. It was also ego safe, she adds, noting she had nothing to lose.
Alpert stumbled on her product of choice by chance. She and her husband were shopping for a professional quality knife for the domestic chef (he's the cook in the family) and were frustrated by the lack of choice and lack of knowledge of businesses selling knives. They ultimately purchased a knife from a restaurant supply company.
Alpert left that shopping trip with an inkling of an idea. That idea began to collect momentum when she learned that major knife manufacturers and distributors such as Forschner and several others were located in the Connecticut/New York/New Jersey area.
That geographic closeness meant that I could get products to my customers quickly, Alpert notes. I knew I had to sell to consumers but wanted to do so in a way where I wouldn't have receivables, only payables, so I could generate cash through growth.
While that was not quite the way things turned out, the philosophy led Alpert to start a mail-order company. She began by running ads in national publications such as Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, the New Yorker, Smithsonian and the Wall Street Journal. The ads simply listed PCD as a place to purchase professional knives. Slowly the company added some other items and then published its first catalogue.
Today, the four-color 100-page catalogue is printed nine times annually and mailed to more than 600,000 existing and potential customers nationwide. Copy for the catalogue is written in-house, the layout is done in-house and everyone, from the on-staff chef to the customer service representatives and Alpert, tests the products.
Unsurpassed product knowledge and customer service are what Alpert strives for. The key to her success, she believes, is that every employee is capable of answering questions about every product PCD sells. Employees touch and handle all the products and Chef Will Cook demonstrates how to use the equipment by actually cooking with them in the test kitchen.
Responding to customer questions and providing superior customer service are at the forefront of Alpert's business philosophy. In addition to showing every employee how to use each piece of equipment, every employee is also trained to answer customer phone calls - Alpert included.
If a caller is in queue for a customer service representative for more than 30 seconds, a buzzer goes off throughout the 17,000-square-foot facility on Branford Road. That signals that a customer is waiting and any employee not on the phone must pick up and take the customer order. During a recent visit, the staff copywriter was overheard taking a customer's order. Warehouse workers, packers, Chef Cook, accounting personnel - everyone is trained to handle customer phone calls.
Since its early days as a catalogue company, PCD has branched out to add a Web site (www.cutlery.com) that offers on-line shopping along with recipes, cooking advice and product maintenance tips.
The Web has offered PCD another means to provide superior customer service. When a customer places an order - whether by phone or on-line - within five minutes of the order placement an e-mail confirmation is sent to the customer. This, Alpert, notes, allows the customer to quickly verify the order and make any changes or additions immediately.
Another nice touch are the company's gift cards. Someone actually handwrites personal gift cards. On the bottom of each order invoice an employee also adds a handwritten note to enjoy the purchase - a practice that Alpert started when the company was a one-woman business out of her home.
Between 15 and 20 percent of the company's overall revenues originate over its Web site. Of those sales, approximately 40 percent are for knives.
Technology has played a major role in PCD's success and ability to provide superior customer service. Through a series of computerized checks and balances, orders are gathered and shipped with virtually 100-percent accuracy, asserts Alpert.
Products pickers (those employees who remove the ordered item from the warehouse shelves) check off their product selection with an on-screen bar code scanner. The completed order is then furthered verified by computer before the packers seal the box ready for shipment. The boxes are weighed automatically and the computerized scale automatically determines the best way to ship and prints a postage label.
Ninety-five percent of our orders ship out of here within 24 hours, Alpert boasts. No orders get to our customers with the wrong item.
In addition to Alpert, the company employs Jay Alpert (her brother-in-law) as president and between 50 and 60 other employees (many are part-time and more are hired during the holidays). Jay Alpert joined the company in 1996 to help bring the company to the next level says his sister-in-law. And, it seems, they have done just that.
I'm inclined to be very goal-oriented, says Terri Alpert. I put on blinders and go like a heat-seeking missile toward my goal. I think of all the things that can go wrong and shoot for success. I try to think through the whole process from customer order to shipment and delivery and have tried to build a better mousetrap.