retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Content Guy’s Note: We get a ton of business books sent to us at MNB World Headquarters – so many, in fact, that it is difficult to figure out which ones deserve attention and which ones do not.

This one does. Definitely. Because it not only hits the ball out of the park in terms of its message, but also offers concrete examples that can be emulated.

But because we know some of the businesses and personalities profiled in the book, we wanted to get a more objective opinion…so we turned to Kate McMahon Upson, a former staff reporter at Money and reporter/editor at the New York Daily News, and asked for her expert assessment.

At first glance, tales of regular folks striking it rich by peddling bicycles, manufacturing sports socks, scooping ice cream, baking cookies or running the family supermarket would appear to be more rooted in nostalgia than reality.

But such real time success stories are at the heart of author Donna Fenn’s lively and informative new book, Alpha Dogs: How Your Small Business Can Become a Leader of the Pack (Collins, $24.95).

Fenn, a 20-year-veteran of Inc. Magazine, focuses on eight entrepreneurial ventures, all low-tech, established start-ups that with under $100 million in sales and impeccable reputations. Her profiles are eminently readable, and each case history provides practical, how-to advice from the founder and further commentary from other established entrepreneurs.

But this is not just a manual for a would-be mini-mogul. In fact, it should be recommended reading for anyone actively involved in starting, running or nurturing a business, from a sole proprietor to the CEO of a multi-national company.

Fenn zeroes in Alpha Dog DNA: passion, a zealous commitment to customer service, community involvement and employee development, a willingness to take on Goliaths (i.e. Wal-Mart, eBay, Kroger’s) and an urgency to continually reinvent and grow their businesses.

“Companies make the leap from ordinary to extraordinary when their leaders step back from what they do and focus on how they’re doing it,” writes Fenn, whose command of the subject matter is impressive throughout the book.

In a chapter titled “Seducing Customers,” we meet Chris Zane, who was a 16-year-old fixing bikes when he got into the business in Branford, CT. Founded in 1981, Zane’s Cycles now has revenues of $6.1 million ($4.4 million in corporate sales, $1.7 million in retail) and is one of the biggest bicycle dealers in the country.

Zane knew he could not beat the competition on price alone, so when Wal-Mart rolled into town in 1996, he ratcheted up his customer service efforts, stretching his one-year service guarantee to a lifetime service guarantee, as well as 90-day price protection, a coffee bar and numerous other perks.

“Wal-Mart gives you the kick in the pants you need to get to the next level,” says Zane. “And if you don’t want to get to the next level, you shouldn’t be in business.”

Meanwhile, in Dayton, Ohio, Norman Mayne steered his family-owned Dorothy Lane Market Inc. out of bankruptcy in 1967 and into a three-store juggernaut that is the city’s premier upscale food outlet with revenues of $60 million, and a nationally-recognized specialty food store. His profits have run as high as 4 percent, which is more than double the industry average.

Mayne’s secret weapon? His employees, and a sophisticated, top-to-bottom employee training program that starts at the first job interview and doesn’t quit. He credits his 250 full-time and 457 part-time employees with giving him the loyalty, ingenuity and flexibility to compete with the Goliaths in his industry. “We focus on creating faster than the competition can steal,” says Mayne.

Among the other highlights:

• The profile of Jim Throneburg, CEO of Thorlo sport-specific socks, revenues of $40 million, based in Statesville, N.C. Throneburg does not see Thorlo as just a sock maker, but rather an innovator in the “foot protection business.” He “aha moment” occurred when he figured out that adjusting the amount of padding in the sock eliminated his foot pain, and his product was transformed.

• Life in the kitchen with Trish Karter, a co-founder of Boston-based Dancing Deer Baking Company, with revenues of $5.8 million and a case study in establishing a brand and maintaining integrity while taking it national. The reader can practically taste her Deep Dark Gingerbread Cake.

• More taste treats await in the chapter on Amy Simmons, founder of Amy’s Ice Creams, 12 parlors, all in Texas. The magic ingredient to her success, and $5.3 million in revenues, was establishing Amy’s as a hometown business and becoming an integral part of the community. That, and the Key Lime Pie ice cream.

Fenn’s book is a well-researched, enjoyable read that provides plenty of winning strategies for those aspiring to Alpha Dog status, or simply running a better, more responsive and innovative business.
KC's View:
Buy this book. (You can it at a 30 percent discount on But if you do so, be prepared to take its lessons to heart, and put them into action. Because just giving them lip service isn’t nearly enough.