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How I Built My Family Business By Changing With the Times

How I Built My Family Business By Changing With the Times

While Madonna may be a master of reinvention in the entertainment world, Sam J. Cicero Sr. is no slouch when it comes to continuously transforming his family business, Cicero's Development Corp.

Cicero planted the seeds for his business as a young man working at a paint store. The owner had Cicero paint customers' homes when things were slow, and Cicero painstakingly built these experiences into a successful business as a residential and commercial contractor. "I was working with carpenters and electricians, and I had a lot of contacts," said Cicero, the company's founder.

The business he started in 1970 had grown to more than 30 full-time employees by 2008, and the future looked bright. Then the economy suddenly plummeted, and the 40-year-old company shrunk to a handful of employees, with few prospects on the horizon. "I had to quickly figure out how to turn things around," he said.

Cicero needed to continue interacting with potential clients, so he educated himself about strategies for businesses to improve their energy efficiency. "They were all looking for ways to save money and it was a way for me to keep my name in front of them and offer something positive," he said.

He would offer his "sensible green" approach when speaking to potential clients. Cicero told them how they could save money on their utility bills with simple things such as LED lighting and water-saving toilets.

He also did research about rebates for making energy-saving upgrades that businesses could receive from their local utilities. "They did not have the time to look into these things themselves, so we did the legwork," he said. "I was hoping that … when they had more money to spend, they would at least give me a shot to bid on a project."

The "sensible green" approach helped keep Cicero’s business afloat. Then, as businesses started to invest again in building improvements, he was poised for a comeback.

The company has carved out one niche for itself in hotel renovations. This service, Cicero said, dovetailed perfectly with his energy-saving mantra. "In a hotel, we are not just talking about one shower, but hundreds of showers, so something like a low-flow shower head can make a big difference," he said. "The corridor lighting is on 24 hours a day, so LED lighting can save them money and has a quick payback."

Today, Cicero Development completes hotel renovations across the country. "We just finished refurbishing at 450-room Omni Hotel in Indianapolis," he said.

Cicero also makes his business stand out in other ways. Instead of staffing the company with full-time employees, he now hires local tradesmen and laborers, and makes it a point to hire veterans. He also keeps on schedule and on budget by having crews work around the clock.

When it comes to saving his customers money and taking costs out of the process, energy use is only the beginning. During hotel renovations, crews must discard old furniture. To avoid taking this on as another cost, Cicero works with a group called Reset Ministries that hauls away the furniture for free. "Instead of going in a dumpster, the furniture is refurbished and sold to help the group," he said.

At 70, Cicero now focuses on marketing the business and looking for the next niche, while his son, President Sam E. Cicero Jr., handles the day-to-day operations. "But we will never stop building [and] looking for ways to help our clients save money and be more green. Green is good for the environment and good for the pocketbook."