WHAT started as a terrible day at the office turned out to be a terrific career move for Michael Berk. The president of Carol Stream, Ill.-based M&M The Special Events Co. recalls the momentous occasion this way: “One day in 1980 I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, went to my comfortable corporate job and had a bad day. I walked into the president's office and told him that I quit. I hadn't planned this. I didn't have a job lined up.” What Berk did have, besides a family to support, was his experience handling trade shows, conventions and employee events in his role as vice president of marketing for a major coffee company.
Parlaying that experience, Berk and his wife started planning events for local clients and wound up purchasing an event rental operation in 1993. From that point forward, Berk has made it his mission to find out what clients might feel they are lacking from other rental vendors and fill in the gaps.
Now serving events out of three locations — in addition to its Carol Stream headquarters, M&M has operations in Naperville, Ill., and Dallas — the company offers turnkey event services from decor to floral to rental and more. Filling gaps in the market has meant morphing into a make-your-own enterprise as well: “In 1997, we started designing our own equipment and having it manufactured to our specifications in China and Eastern Europe,” Berk notes. “This dramatically improved the quality of our rental inventory and significantly reduced our cost.”
Smart business moves like that haven't just allowed M&M to turn out events such as a grand opening for a new Dallas-Fort Worth Airport terminal, complete with dinner for 1,500 guests and a symphony orchestra performance. They've also helped transform the organization into a 150-employee powerhouse with $18 million in annual sales, serving nearly 2,000 events per year company-wide.
While he takes pride in his company's success, Berk points out that growth hasn't come without challenges. “We have 150 personalities who all need various degrees of attention, direction and ‘stroking,’” he says. “When we were smaller, it was easier to know everyone and their families, but as we have grown and now have multiple locations, it is harder to maintain that close ‘family’ feeling, even though many of our employees have been with us since the beginning.”
To keep things cohesive and forge a feeling of mutual respect between frontline and back-of-house staffers, Berk has initiated such morale-boosting events as the twice-a-year breakfast that takes place at all his company locations. “We come in at 6:30, and the front of the house makes breakfast for back-of-house people,” he explains. It's a great way for the people who handle sales to show their respect to the drivers and setup crews who fulfill the orders, Berk notes. And it's also a meaningful way to remind everyone on staff that, as he puts it, “Everything is interdependent.”
M&M The Special Events Co. 493 Mission St., Carol Stream, IL 60188; 630/871-9999; www.mmspecialevents.com
“I think these are exciting times. There is a lot of change coming on. For instance, there are so many things happening with LED lighting and effects. And costs have come down; the same way computers used to be $10,000, and now you can buy one for $400. Events being done for corporations on million-dollar budgets can now be done on a more cost-effective scale. The only limit to what can be produced today is the imagination.”
“I'm saying to clients, ‘Tell me your goal, what you want to achieve, and I can give you the overall effect by combining the right amount of linen, floral, the shape of the tables, the kind of glassware.’ We're not selling rentals, we're selling ‘wow!’”
“I try to make my salespeople the heroes. If one of them says to me, ‘I need to do a 10 percent discount on this sale,’ I say to them, ‘You go tell the customer that you fought for it. You be the hero.’ You have to let people on the firing line be responsible for the everyday dealings. I don't need to pump myself up to be successful. They should be successful. If they are successful, I will be.”