As the old adage goes, “Word of mouth is one of the best forms of advertising,” and that rings so true with Exhibit Network that they haven’t had a salesperson in years! It is the quality of their work, the care in which they give their clients, and their family values that set them apart. They never look at exhibitors with dollar signs in their eyes and it is not uncommon for them to offer help to anyone who needs it on the show floor. Exhibit Network has had its ups and its downs but has weathered through those times to become the great success they are now. They are celebrating their 25th year in business, scooting along and growing strong!
Here is how it all began:
Kathleen Maartens grew up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania as one of eight children. Her father worked at the PPG factory for 43 years and her mother was a full-time homemaker. Immediately after graduating from Indiana University of Pennsylvania with a degree in Psychology, Kathleen moved to Houston to begin her career. Realizing she needed more business education, Kathleen went back to college in Houston and took courses in accounting, business law, management, and real estate. Eventually acquiring her real estate license, Kathleen began working for a property management company in Spring, Texas. Money was tight and she didn’t own a television so she frequently visited her neighbor in the apartment complex to watch his television. One night, a friend of Kathleen’s neighbor came for a visit while she was there. Initially, she didn’t like him but eventually her feelings must have changed because she ended up marrying him! That person was Lenny Maartens.
Lenny had grown up in Long Island, New York with six siblings. He helped the family financially with a newspaper route and a part-time job after school. His older brother worked for a cabinet shop and at age 14, Lenny began manufacturing kitchen cabinets too. After graduating early at 17, Lenny continued working in the cabinet business full-time.
At age 19, Lenny was in search of something more challenging and also was considering joining the Coast Guard. He had taken the test for the Coast Guard and completed all of the requirements short of signing on the dotted line when he saw an ad from a company in need of a cabinet builder for creative cabinetry. As it turned out, the company was outfitting a Silver Eagle bus to be used for a rock band. In addition, the company designed and built custom trade show exhibits. This was right up Lenny’s alley so he applied for the job and was hired.
After working there for several years, Lenny left New York in 1983 and moved to Houston, Texas. Almost immediately, he was employed by a cabinet shop that made custom cabinets and millwork for car dealerships throughout Texas. It was during this time that Lenny visited his friend while Kathleen was watching television and the two met for the first time. Lenny gave a big smile and greeted her with, “Hello there!” Kathleen brushed him off. Eventually, the two of them became friends and, in due course, they were married.
Fast forward to May of 1989, Kathleen and Lenny decided to start their own business because they had three children and Lenny wanted to have more time with them. Their vision was to create a company that was “family friendly.” Lenny had been working for an exhibit house at the time and met a colleague who had extra space in his warehouse and offered it to Lenny. So Lenny quit his full-time job and Exhibit Network was born! At the beginning, Lenny worked part-time installing exhibits for his colleague when needed and used the warehouse space to build cabinets for Exhibit Network.
All of the company phone calls were forwarded to the house where Kathleen was home with the children. Sounding very professional, Kathleen would answer the phone “Exhibit Network!” no matter who was calling. When the calls were important, Kathleen would “beep” Lenny on his pager so he would know to call in and get the message to return the client’s call. When Kathleen needed to pick up checks from clients, she would load the three children in their old Chevy Blazer and take them along.
Exhibit Network bootstrapped from the very beginning. After each job was completed, they would use the profits to buy another piece of equipment. After two and a half years, the colleague who had offered them space in his warehouse asked if they wanted to take over the entire lease space. Since they were already using every inch of space that they could, they were more than happy to take over the entire place. Little by little, Exhibit Network grew and they began hiring employees. With the children in school and in daycare, Kathleen started working at the business full-time. As the company continued growing, systems were created and implemented that boosted the business even more.
Lenny met a graphic designer who worked at a young energy company called Enron Corporation. In a short time, Enron was doing a million dollars in business annually with Exhibit Network. In addition, other natural gas companies who saw Enron’s exhibit on the show floor were impressed and called Exhibit Network. At one Houston annual trade show, Exhibit Network had 27 to 30 clients there! They traveled all over the U.S. and Canada setting up exhibits for their clients. In early 2001, Kathleen saw signs of troubles ahead when Enron’s payments took longer and longer to arrive. In December 2001, Enron declared bankruptcy, owing Exhibit Network about $216,000. During that same year and shortly thereafter, the United States experienced 911, the SARS epidemic, the beginning of the Iraq war, and the downsizing of many natural gas companies (many of whom had been Exhibit Network’s primary clients).
Lenny and Kathleen tried to be optimistic but the financial consequences were brutal. Exhibit Network went from 25 to 6 employees. Some were laid off and others left on their own accord. Lenny and Kathleen were so determined to keep their business alive that they worked without paychecks for almost nine months, doing whatever they could do to keep the remaining employees productive and the lights on.
In 2004, Exhibit Network’s full-charge bookkeeper approached Kathleen to inform her that they couldn’t afford her any longer. Kathleen asked her, “Well, who is going to do the books?” The answer was short and to the point. “You are.” Kathleen was upset to the point of tears. She said “I can’t do this. I’ve taken accounting classes; I understand the concept, but I never practiced it.” The bookkeeper graciously offered to stay for two weeks and show her everything she needed to know. For those next two weeks, Kathleen cried and cried, then cried some more, but learned how to do the accounting. The bookkeeper was also kind enough to come back for the first two payrolls and help Kathleen run them. Then she came back the first two quarters to help Kathleen prepare the quarterly reports.
It was during these times of greatest stress that the most valuable lessons were learned. “You don’t know what you are capable of until you have to do it,” stated Kathleen humbly. Although this was a difficult period, both Lenny and Kathleen are glad they went through it and persevered.
In time, Kathleen became comfortable in handling the company’s finances even though she felt there was something else she was missing. She would stare at the numbers on the profit and loss and balance sheets for hours and even talk to them. She’d ask, “What do you mean? What are you trying to tell me?” The first time she had to do the tax return with a CPA, she went over it with a fine tooth comb and even found mistakes and made corrections. Kathleen recalled, “One day, the numbers started talking back to me. Things began to make sense and I started to see a pattern.” She continued, “A profitable year has a certain percentage of cost of goods sold compared to revenue. A profitable year has a certain percentage of overhead expenses compared to revenue. Anything less than these percentages are undesirable. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Now Exhibit Network has a gold standard based on these desired percentages although we are always striving for improvement.”
At least twice a year, Kathleen shares the company’s revenue, cost of goods sold, expenses, and bottom line with the employees. During this presentation, they discuss who the top 15 clients are. Kathleen states to them, “These are the clients who are making your paycheck. It’s not me. I get my pay from the same place you do.” Kathleen always tries to make the employees a part of the process. She says to them, “Here’s where the money comes from. If this is our biggest client and we lose them, look how much money we are all losing; it’s not just me – it’s part of you. It’s the clients you are serving.”
A lot of Exhibit Network’s success can be attributed to the fact that Lenny and Kathleen are as much concerned for their employees’ well-being as they are their own. They recognize that their employees entrust them with their livelihood. They believe in keeping the atmosphere as family-oriented as possible but also believe in keeping their clients’ needs first and foremost at all times. Lenny explains, “It is a business and I think we all are doing our very best to provide the client a very good product and a great service. We’re all on the line every day and we can’t sit back on anything. We may have done a good job last week but we still have to do a good job this week. That never changes. Our goal is to always be looking for ways to improve as best we can all the time.”
Kathleen rarely works directly with clients. She leaves that up to her capable team. “They do it very well and they know what they are doing – more than I do.” says Kathleen with pride.
Kathleen is a firm believer in staying on top of her game through education and affiliations. When she participated in the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program in the Fall of 2012, she was able to take her business to a higher level than ever before. Kathleen explained, “They reaffirmed all the things I had previously learned and they threw in a few things that were very illuminating.”
Kathleen is part of a CEO Roundtable made up of participants from her Goldman Sachs Cohort 5 group and is a member of the powerful WBEA (Women Business Enterprise Alliance). Kathleen is also enrolled in the Organizational Leadership degree plan at the College of Biblical Studies and attended classes while working full-time from January 2010 to December 2013. Last but not least, Exhibit Network is a member of the E2MA (Exhibit and Event Marketers Association).
Kathleen believes in giving back to the community and teaches ESL classes every Tuesday evening. In their spare time, Kathleen likes to work in her garden creating new landscaping designs and Lenny likes to hunt and fish.
Kathleen and Lenny have done quite well working together. They have used their positions as polar opposites to their advantage. Most important to them is their marriage and they have never let their marriage take second place to the business. Lenny expressed it well, “I think because we both know our jobs well enough, we respect each other’s talents. I think it gives us an advantage when to leave each other alone. I don’t want to do her job so I don’t dare interfere. The older I get, I’ve become a lot more supportive. I’m now more patient and more willing to listen than in the earlier years when my brain-train was moving way too fast. I was more worried about the projects that I had to complete and I couldn’t gear my mind towards future growth or different marketing aspects which Kathleen was so well-attuned to. So she got the short end of the stick sometimes. I can tell you that.”
“Kathleen has the vision. That is her greatest strength. I’m trying and she is dragging me along,” laughed Lenny. “The greatest thing I learned from my wife is the ability to say ‘No’. And that took a long time for me to learn. Early on, I missed too many Little League games and dance recitals because I was insecure. I was involved in too many projects that, in retrospect, were not worth the money compared to the family events I missed. My most important goal now is to try to find that right balance between work and family.”
During the last five years, Exhibit Network has invested a lot of time and money on rebranding, rebuilding, and remodeling their 45,000-square-foot facility. Their striking conference room is truly a showcase of their creativity and talent. Now that they have worked so diligently to become more efficient, organized, and systematized, they can take on double the work.
One of the greatest things that was thought out in the new design of Exhibit Network’s headquarters and drives home their regard for family values is the multipurpose room they built upstairs. Not only was it designed as a hurricane evacuation room for employees needing shelter during a hurricane, it was also designed as a “working overtime” and “sick child” room. Every exhibit house in Houston knows that preparing for Houston’s Offshore Technology Conference in May requires long hours. Exhibit Network provides a set of bunk beds and a kitchenette where employees can spend the night or take a nap. If one of the employee’s children is ill and home from school, they can stay upstairs and watch videos on the big screen television. The room also has computer games and toys for the children. Also located upstairs is a workout room complete with professional-grade gym equipment. Last but not least, babies are welcome to come with their parents to work as long as they can safely remain in a crib or playpen. It’s truly family values that keep Exhibit Network scooting along and growing strong.