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Child’s play is serious business for this entrepreneur

Strong processes allowed Park N Play to expand across Canada

5-minute read

Michelle Poffenroth

By the time Michelle Poffenroth’s kids had started elementary school, she was ready to fulfill another dream and get into business. The Rocky View County, Alberta resident admits that buying a company that designs and builds playgrounds was not the first thing that came to mind.

However, when Poffenroth learned about Park N Play Design, she jumped at the opportunity to get involved.

“I just thought this was the best thing ever,” she says. “It was so exciting to see little kids’ faces when a park was done. They think you’re a hero.”

Since purchasing the company in 2003, Poffenroth has grown the business from about $15,000 in annual sales to $9 million in 2017. She now leads a team of 13 people who design and build playgrounds, splash parks, nature parks and other public spaces.

Too few women entrepreneurs in the construction industry

While women leaders remain outnumbered in business in general, only 6.1% of construction companies were majority female-owned in 2014, according to Statistics Canada. An early challenge for Poffenroth was establishing herself in a male-dominated world.

“I had a lot to prove,” she says. “I had to learn to talk the talk and walk the walk. I would go and do installs. That’s how I built a reputation.”

Women entrepreneurs often face a different reality from their male peers. For example, they can have a hard time accessing the financing and support they need to grow.

To ensure women entrepreneurs have the resources they need, BDC is committed to lending $1.4 billion to women majority-owned businesses from 2018 to 2021. It is also collaborating with organizations that provide women entrepreneurs with coaching, networking and mentorship opportunities.

Poffenroth is a great example of the kind of strong businesses women can build with the right support.

“I was a single mom,” she says. “Even though it was hard and we all had to make sacrifices, it all was worth it.”

A steep learning curve

Park N Play’s growth and success have not come without challenges. There was, to start, a steep learning curve.

“I didn’t know anything about business, and I sure as heck didn’t know anything about construction,” she says.

Poffenroth was working out of a rented 18.5 square-metre (200-square-foot) space during school hours and going back to the office late at night once her kids were in bed.

She eventually became a certified playground inspector, designed spaces using computer software, installed playground equipment and handled sales herself, all while drawing on childhood memories for inspiration.

Park N Play

Diversify to lower risk

She eventually hired several staff members and expanded to Saskatchewan. Unfortunately, her company hit a road bump as Alberta’s economy took a nosedive when oil prices dropped in 2008.

Alberta was still her largest market and developers put projects on hold while schools faced budget cuts. This was coupled with the weak Canadian dollar, a major difficulty for Poffenroth who mainly works with American suppliers. It was a worrying time

Yet Poffenroth saw an opportunity to expand Park N Play in Manitoba and Ontario. Such a major expansion seemed like a daunting task, but she knew geographic diversification was the best way for her to strengthen her business.

Systematize your processes

Poffenroth turned to BDC to finance her growth. She also worked with BDC to systematize her processes and handle the increased workload generated by the national expansion.

She admits she found it difficult to let go of control when her company started growing. But the systematic review of her processes helped her realize she was part of the problem when it came to delays.

“My team told me ‘you are holding up the process; things are done, ready to go, but they’re waiting for your approval.’ It was an eye-opener,” she says. “It had been my baby for so long that it was hard for me to say ‘Okay, I don’t need to review every single document that goes out the door.”

Create a professional brand image

By 2015, Poffenroth was ready to focus on Park N Play’s image. She once again reached out to BDC to help create a marketing strategy and identify suppliers. The exercise gave Poffenroth insight into how to present and position Park N Play as the professional company it is. She then designed a new, user-friendly website.

“For an organization as streamlined as ours—we don’t have excess staff and we all wear multiple hats—I don’t have time to do a request for quotes for a website,” she adds. “They took that off my plate, so now I can get that up and running sooner rather than later.”

Lessons learned

1. Be open to change

Poffenroth was able to scale up her business by establishing repeatable processes. But these documents need to be changed and optimized regularly to keep up with what you are doing

“I tell my team that all our processes are living documents,” she says. “If there’s something you’re seeing that might be improved, bring it to me. The door is wide open. You don’t ever want to get stagnant.”

2. Know your strengths and weaknesses

Being self-aware will help cover your weaknesses. Poffenroth gives the example of social media as something she does not see as a strength. Instead of ignoring the issue altogether, she reached out to an external expert for help.

“Capitalize on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses,” Poffenroth says. “If you’re weak in one area, find someone who’s strong in it.”

3. Have the right attitude

“There is no ‘can’t’,” Poffenroth says. “We will do whatever it takes to make things happen. One time I was out in Calgary with my installer securing a playground in December; it was -37°C. I had icicles on my eyelashes. We did what needed to be done. That’s what we do.”

4. There is no substitute for hard work

“If you were to read a book on how to start your own business, I did everything wrong”, Poffenroth says. “What I did do was work hard. If I said I was going to do your install, I was there. If you had a problem, I was there within 12 hours to fix it.”

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