In the 1970s, Veronica Le-Bert’s father and brothers started a business exporting parts for the massive mining machinery that excavates copper, gold, lithium and other minerals in South America and the Caribbean.
For 13 years, Le-Bert International chugged along as a family-run company, becoming a well known name in the industry.
Then George Le-Bert decided to move to Chile and raise cattle.
Veronica Le-Bert, however, had found a career. She followed her father to Chile, where she landed a position with a mining company. In 2006, when the company shut down, she returned to South Florida, revived Le-Bert International Export and once again operated it as a family-run company, providing parts for everything from excavators to crushers.
Le-Bert, along with her daughter, Michelle, have done well enough. They expanded exports for parts on Caterpillar, John Deere, Hitachi and other machinery to Chile, chiefly, but also added Turkey, India and the Philippines.
“We really don’t say no to anything we can ship,” Le-Bert said.
Now she would like her son, Mike, to move home from Atlanta and join the company. To do that, she needs to get bigger. And that means making some changes.
Enter Juan Lorca, a counselor with SCORE Miami-Dade, the local office of the national nonprofit that has more than 12,000 volunteer business counselors nationwide. Lorca has degrees in both mechanical engineering and business, as well as more than two decades experience in the building manufacturing industry that includes a mining company.
Lorca found two chief problems: First Le-Bert operates on speed, but her bookkeeping is getting in the way.
“For me to ship overnight is gold,” she said.
Explained Lorca: “Mines run 365 days a year, 24/7. When you’re running, it may be $5,000 an hour, or $20,000 or $50,000 depending on the size of the mine. So if you’re down a part and you can’t continue the line, a thousand dollar part is nothing to them. They’ll buy a thousand dollar part and pay $3,000 to ship it overnight because they’re losing money.”
To improve efficiency, Lorca said Le-Bert needs a better accounting system. While Le-Bert has been using QuickBooks, a staple accounting system for most small businesses, she was not using it efficiently.
“They’re winging it, doing kind of trial and error,” he said.
The second major hurdle, Lorca said, involves how Le-Bert views her client base. By narrowly defining her customers to the mining industry, she is severely limiting the company, he said.
“A Caterpillar tractor is a Caterpillar tractor whether you’re bulldozing roads or farming,” he explained. “For her to increase, she needs to get away from parts for the mining industry.”
To a lesser extent, Lorca is troubled by how Le-Bert has grown the business. Le-Bert said much of her sales have been based on contacts and referrals, particularly in Chile where her father is still remembered. So Lorca encouraged Le-Bert, who travels often to meet with customers, to work harder at networking. To do that, he said, she’ll need to transfer some responsibility and with it, some authority. That will also force her to draft a plan for the succession of the company, her main goal.
To help solve the bookkeeping issues, Lorca recruited SCORE consultant Richard Raby, a Coral Gables Certified Public Accountant and Certified QuickBooks Pro Advisor.
Le-Bert confessed to Raby that she was using QuickBooks, “but in my own primitive way.” While SCORE offers a two-hour seminar on QuickBooks, Raby was able to easily formulate a better system that would show Le-Bert her inventory and provide an overall picture of her financials.
He explained: “A lot of it is setting up....to do what you want it to do and not make a mess of your books,” he said. “What I’m going to do is make it cleaner.”
And by having a more efficient system, Le-Bert will be able to invoice orders more easily and then keep track of shipments and payments.
To expand sales, Lorca also recommended asking customers to look at their annual budgets, rather than their immediate needs. From his own experience, Lorca said he found if he did not use his parts budget for the year, it would often get cut.
“If you’re not using your budget, you’re losing your budget,” he said.
So he suggested Le-Bert provide customers with a list of parts they had purchased over time as “wear parts,” that is parts that typically need replacing over the year. If she could convince them to buy in advance, she might be able to increase the size of her orders to suppliers. And in some cases, she might then be able to convince suppliers to give her a discount on the larger orders.
“In this line of business, there are so many competitors that even a one percent discount can make us lose a sale, so we have to be very careful,” Le-Bert said.
Expanding her customer base might also enable her to expand orders. More importantly, it would provide a path to growing the business, Lorca explained.
“She needs to get away from parts for the mining industry to parts for mining, maritime and farming,” he said. “She needs to look at what she provides and what she’s selling and look at the lateral markets.”
And to do that, she must pass on day-to-day responsibilities, like providing quotes for parts and extending credit, to her daughter.
“When you’re moving material this fast, maybe moving on a weekly basis, the more quotes you provide, the more business and the more sales,” he said. “It’s always a juggle of input and output, but the more you juggle, the more you make.”
Following her meetings with Lorca and Raby, Le-Bert was enthusiastic about implementing the suggestions and kicking their plan into action. She is currently negotiating with vendors to secure discounts on large orders. She also works with a company in England to provide parts in more diverse European markets at a competitive price. Finally, she is handing off duties to her daughter so she can concentrate on marketing and expanding her customer base.
And after one trip to Chile and Peru in September, Le-Bert returned with good news: “It worked. I got a couple of leads” that resulted in two new clients.