How This Small Business Owner Turned Around a Struggling Playground Company
In the world of playgrounds, a hidden revolution is happening, and Mark Magaro is at the forefront. EcoPlay Structures is transforming the playground industry with eco-friendly, durable, and innovative solutions made from post-consumer recycled materials, primarily milk jugs.
This article will delve into Mark's journey, his vision for EcoPlay, and how he's taking the business to new heights with the help of Scalepath’s tactical playbooks, vetted community, and expert contributors.
EcoPlay Unveiled: An Eco-Friendly Playground Manufacturer
EcoPlay Structures is not your average commercial playground manufacturing company. Mark's elevator pitch for his company is simple yet impactful: To create eco-friendly playgrounds using post-consumer recycled materials, including milk jugs. Eco-friendliness is in the name, but Mark emphasizes that it's not the primary selling point for customers. Instead, EcoPlay Structures offers a turnkey operation, ensuring customers leave with a fully installed and ready-to-use playground. This approach is crucial for their clients, who prefer this convenience, whether EcoPlay handles the installation entirely or collaborates with partners.
Mark's journey with EcoPlay began in 2020 when he acquired the company. What stood out to him was the unique concept of eco-friendly playground equipment. Growing up, he never had a deep personal connection to playgrounds, but he saw the potential and knew it would be a business he could be proud to own.
A Risk Worth Taking
When Mark took the reins of EcoPlay Structures, the company wasn't in great shape.
At the time of acquisition, EcoPlay was a small business teetering on the edge of closing its doors for good. Still, it came with two valuable assets—a warehouse worth several times more than the business itself and two experienced employees. The building, combined with favorable interest rates in 2020, made the decision a no-brainer.
Mark saw an opportunity:
Worst case scenario, the business went to 0, but I would still have had a big warehouse in a growing metro area, and that's worth something.
Navigating the Early Challenges
Since Mark took over the reins in 2020, EcoPlay Structures has seen remarkable growth, tripling in size and still growing at 25% per year. A lot of the success can be attributed to Mark's focus on sales and marketing. Initially operating without a dedicated salesperson and needing a marketing strategy, Mark invested in a hefty digital marketing course to boost the company's online presence. He also took a hands-on approach by leveraging networking events, conferences, and trade shows to increase brand visibility locally.
He candidly admits to some missteps along the way, saying: "Honestly, some of it was throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks." Nevertheless, the efforts paid off, and EcoPlay began gaining recognition in the local market.
Balancing a One-and-Done vs. Re-Occurring Market
Much of EcoPlay's business operates on a one-and-done model, serving clients like HOAs and churches. However, Mark quickly identified an opportunity for re-occurring business with school systems, production builders, and property management companies, where he is focusing more on building long-term relationships and targeting his marketing efforts.
While EcoPlay generates 40-50% of its sales through referrals, Mark recognizes the need to continue to boost marketing efforts. The company has the production capacity required to meet the demands of new clients; now, they need a robust client base to serve.
Transitioning from Manager to Owner with Strategic Hiring and a Solid Tech Stack
Mark is currently in a transition phase where he's aiming to be less of a general manager and more of an owner, allowing him to diversify and explore other acquisitions. He made key hires to achieve this, starting with a head of sales. Mark assumed this position for the first 18 months, in addition to running the business, where he admits he was doing it a bit haphazardly.
He also introduced systems (CRM and project management tools) that were missing to streamline operations. He aims to better understand the company's capacity and eventually delegate day-to-day tasks, allowing him to focus on strategy.
EcoPlay Structures' growth demands more hires, including a project manager/admin assistant hybrid. Mark emphasizes the essential but time-consuming administrative aspects of running a business that often go unnoticed. However, he acknowledges the importance of balancing change to avoid overwhelming the company.
EcoPlay's Unique Position in the Industry
EcoPlay stands out in the commercial playground industry. Unlike many competitors who rely on dealer networks, EcoPlay handles everything from manufacturing to installation. Mark notes this industry operates behind closed doors, with a few dominating players. While it's not well-known, commercial playground equipment can come at a substantial cost, with some projects reaching multi-million-dollar figures. EcoPlay thrives on smaller projects, offering not only quality but unmatched customer service.
In regions where eco-friendliness might not be the primary concern, EcoPlay differentiates itself with old-fashioned customer service and reliability. Mark emphasizes their commitment to delivering on promises and maintaining a quick turnaround. Their ability to manufacture locally in Georgia proved advantageous, especially during supply chain disruptions in 2021.
Pride in Ownership, Progress, and People
Mark's pride in owning EcoPlay extends beyond turning the business around. He values the company's commitment to environmental responsibility, with all products being 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. This commitment remained strong even when input costs skyrocketed after the acquisition.
"It's fun and fulfilling when you make progress," Mark says. "When you see your team start to make changes and progress, it's a significant thing. Even if they're small, like implementing a project management program, it's a testament to how good my people are." Mark believes having the right people in the right seats is essential for success. "Nothing can beat having the right people," he says.
I rely heavily on the expertise within the business. Two of my employees have been in that building making playground equipment for 27 years. They are experts but haven't always been listened to or treated the way they should be treated.
A Valuable Lesson: Joining Your Customer’s Industry
One standout idea Mark suggests is joining industry groups related to your customers. For EcoPlay, joining the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association provided valuable insights into customer needs and preferences but also significant networking opportunities. As Mark puts it:
One idea we’ve done differently, that perhaps other companies could replicate, is joining the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association. By joining this specific industry group, I can understand where development is occurring, and I’m able to have meaningful conversations with builders.
And you know how many other playground companies are in there? Zero.
Learning from Mistakes and Embracing SMB Insights
Challenges and transformative learning have been consistent in Mark's journey with EcoPlay. Early on, he admits to making hiring mistakes based solely on resumes, prompting a shift towards a comprehensive hiring process rooted in core values and training programs. This adjustment strengthened EcoPlay's team.
Transitioning from a consulting background, Mark aspired to escape corporate life, with fatherhood providing the needed push. Despite prior investment experience, the SMB world posed new challenges. He candidly states: "I would have never bought this business if I had known what I know now from Twitter in the last two years."
Small Business Challenges Are Universal
Reflecting on his journey, Mark notes many problems exist regardless of a company's size. The key lies in finding the right solutions and, most importantly, having the right people in your corner.
Mark's journey with EcoPlay shows how taking smart chances and making strategic hires and growth can pay off. EcoPlay's dedication to being eco-friendly and customer service is inspiring for small business owners who want to make a real difference in their field. With Scalepath as a resource, Mark's story proves that if you're determined and have the right support, you can achieve amazing results!
Learning from Peers and Playbooks: The Scalepath Advantage
Mark emphasizes the value he's gained from Scalepath, particularly in its tactical approach to everyday small business challenges. He quotes:
Execution eats strategy. Ideas are always easy, but the execution is the tough part. That's the part I want help with, and Scalepath is doing that. It’s so helpful to see how other people are solving problems. The playbooks are phenomenal; the concept is really good.
With Scalepath as a reliable partner in his business journey, Mark's story serves as an inspiring reminder of the power of learning from peers and leveraging valuable resources.