By Bill Thompson
Being an entrepreneur takes hard work, determination and healthy heaps of optimism, but hard work doesn’t always translate into success. Larry E. Fulton persevered, however, to build LEFCO Worthington from a small company that built wooden pallets to a manufacturer of custom wood crates.
Fulton, the president and CEO of LEFCO, was born in Cleveland, raised in South Carolina and attended college in Florida before returning to the city in 1993 to work for Key Bank. Ten years later, he bought a small company that made wood pallets A year after that, he acquired the assets of a crating company, merged the operations and eliminated cost redundancies to improve efficiency.
Now, 13 years into the venture, Fulton is poised to enter the consumer marketplace with WoodCratesDirect.com.
“(The website) is going to open a space that we’re not participating in at all,” he says, adding that retail consumers aren’t a significant opportunity for the company. “But it’s large enough that we should be playing in that space. People who ship valuable commodities—furniture, keepsakes, whatever—need to protect those items or a company needs to protect its million-dollar piece of equipment. There are not a lot of players that are participating in this particular space in a well-entrenched manner. We hope to provide that opportunity for the customer base and generate a significant amount of sales.”
Fulton speaks deliberately and concisely, which is the way he runs his company. Although he’s aware the consumer market for custom crating might not be large immediately, he’s willing to bet that it will grow as people become aware of its existence.
Slow growth has served the firm well. Most of the company’s commercial customers are located in Northeast Ohio, but their products—packed in LEFCO containers—are shipped around the world. If a person encounters a LEFCO container on the job and is impressed by its quality, they might think about buying one if they have a need for something similar at home.
But Fulton won’t rely solely on accidental encounters or word of mouth to raise awareness of the website, though. He has done his research for online marketing.
“One way would be pay per click, all of the kinds of advertising a firm like ours would need to do,” he says. “We’re not doing that today. It also opens the opportunity for us to sell or to advertise directly to companies that people (who need to ship items) are talking to, like a box company or a FedEx or a UPS, where people are going for ways to properly package their requirements and they’re not being fulfilled.
“Then they’re forced to go online, forced to look for different methods. If we can provide a product that the marketplace wouldn’t necessarily have right now, I think that would add some attractiveness to this investment opportunity.”
Fulton has always had big-picture overview of the end game, that investment opportunity, that put him on the original path.
“No, I didn’t grow up dreaming of someday owning a wooden pallet company,” he jokes when talking about his background. “But I knew years ago that I wanted to be fortunate enough to have an investment portfolio of various companies.
“I’m basically focused on LEFCO Worthington as my primary company. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to look at other deals to grow into. However, I’m now at the point that I’m starting to do that. I’ve always wanted a portfolio … and hopefully I’ll be blessed with the opportunity to do that shortly.”
Shortly is a relative term for Fulton. LEFCO is a lean operation with 25 employees. He has been able to grow the numbers by leveraging equipment and assets into efficiencies. But he also felt he was stretching himself a bit too thin with outside responsibilities. Fulton, who has three children (college freshman, high school freshman and one in elementary school), spent about five years as a board member of WIRE-Net, a nonprofit development agency that nurtures manufacturing. And he routinely speaks to different groups, including the Urban League, about his experiences and what he has learned.
“(But) I needed to focus 100 percent of my attention on LEFCO,” he says. “We were growing and experiencing some growing pains. Sometimes it’s really important for entrepreneurs and business owners to make sure they are all the way engaged where there are significant changes coming, just to make sure they are the person who is leading those changes, not someone else.”
LEFCO is Fulton’s company and he was determined to lead those changes, but he’s also smart and flexible enough to know how to take advantage of help when it’s available. The growth of the company presented challenges: production consistency, employee turnover, how to reduce scrap, among other things. So, Fulton turned to MAGNET (Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network), another Cleveland nonprofit organization.
“I had looked at the possibility of engaging a consultant for a while,” Fulton says. “I wanted a company that was local to Northeast Ohio, that knew manufacturing and could provide expertise that wasn’t necessarily specific to my industry. I wanted someone who ‘gets it.’ ”
Fulton got his man when he was paired with Tom Fuhr, who took the time to get to know the boss, the business and the employees. Fulton credits Fuhr with creating an accountability framework that helped incentivize everyone in the company to move it forward.
Those improvements took place in 2015, and this year, LEFCO will roll out its retail website. Fulton is thrilled to share the success not only with his employees, but with the people of his city.
“I love Cleveland,” he says. I love the East Side; it’s very dear to my heart. I love raising my family here.”