Published: Sunday, June 03, 2012, 2:00 PM
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — John Paul Strong is riding a national trend — growing his automotive advertising business in a retail segment that has bounced back from hard lumps it took during the economic downturn.
Strong is chief executive and founder of Birmingham-based Strong LLC, specializing solely in providing advertising and marketing services for the automotive sector. Strong LLC has seen dramatic growth this year as the auto sector rebound. Over the past six months, Strong LLC has boosted its client base from 38 to 73 dealers in 16 states, with 68 of them located outside
Alabama. The growth has allowed the firm to nearly double its staff from 21 to 39.
Strong is the son of Mike Strong, who spent three decades in the industry and is well known in the area’s advertising sector. (Mike Strong sold his business, Strong Automotive Advertising, to Intermark Group about a decade ago.)
In an interview, John Paul Strong called his father his biggest mentor and described how Strong LLC has built a client base by focusing on being a one-stop shop for auto-related advertising. Every quarter, the agency produces an average of 350 commercials, 1,200 art jobs, 600 media buys and 750,000 pieces of direct mail. He also discussed perks the company offers to retain employees such as decorating offices for birthdays and flying in Graeters Ice Cream from Ohio.
Describe Strong LLC and what sets you apart.
We are a company specialized in promoting one thing only — cars. We only work for one client — car dealers. Our motto is focus on one thing and strive to be the very best at it.
We currently work in 16 states, providing all types of advertisements to increase retail buying traffic to our dealerships. We understand everything about new and used cars, as well as the people buying them.
Chances are that you have seen a commercial for a car dealership in any of the states we work in. About 95 percent of our work is done outside Alabama. Out of our 73 dealers, only five are in Alabama — Limbaugh Toyota and Brannon Honda in Birmingham, Benton Nissan in
Anniston, Bill Penney Toyota in Huntsville, and Pat Peck Nissan in Mobile.
The advertising industry, as well as the automotive sector you specialize in, was hit hard by the recession. Though you are growing now, did it affect Strong LLC as well?
When the economy tanked in 2008, we lost four clients. But we didn’t give up or doubt ourselves and our work.
How have you managed to grow so fast this year, doubling your client base?
The key to our growth has been our people. They are very process- driven, and know how to create campaigns that generate traffic for our clients.
You started your business at age 26. What advice can you offer other young business entrepreneurs?
Everybody needs to have a mentor. You will make mistakes; it’s a matter of how many and when, and what you learn from them. I was blessed to have my dad as my biggest mentor. He is like my quarterback. I may make the plays, but I depend on him to help me with the calls.
Tell me about some of the interesting perks you use to retain employees.
They work hard, but we try to make it fun. I want them to feel an ownership in what we do.
We celebrate new clients. For example, we picked up a client in West Palm Beach and walked into our offices decorated with palm trees. During the Christmas holidays, we play “12 Days of Christmas.” We receive a gift every day for 12 days all the way down to one fun gift at the end.
We have very fun Christmas parties. This year the theme was “It’s been a wild year.” We had a catered lunch at Woodrow Hall with large, wild animal cutouts decorating the space for a wild, thematic atmosphere. Monkeys hung from the chandeliers, a “bug juice” cocktail was served and jungle music played in the background.
Maternity leave has been expanded from six weeks to 12 weeks this year. A nurse is brought in every fall to give all staff a flu shot, so that employees don’t have to make a trip to the doctor. Flex hours are provided to employees who live far from the office.
What has been the feedback from employees?
They’re appreciative. My main worry is about what is the next thing I can do for them. My name is on the company, but they create the success our company has seen the last few years.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I love when our dealers succeed in selling lots of cars, and I like being able to help our employees achieve professional success. Our receptionist for the last five years is now a media buyer. We have people who came in as account assistants, who have gone on to become account executives.
Your dad, Mike Strong, spent 30 years in the auto advertising business. What lessons have you learned from him that you still count on today?
My Dad taught me that the person who tries the hardest will win. My job is to motivate and energize the team so they know their efforts mean something and are not going unnoticed. Your people have to see you as the hardest worker in the gang. I also believe and say, “The speed of the boss is the speed of the gang,” and that is why I show my team that I am willing to work in a relentless manner just as they are.
Title: CEO, Strong LLC
JOHN PAUL STRONG
Education: Bachelor’s degree in communications studies and advanced public speaking from University of Montevallo
Work history: Worked for Martin Advertising from 2002 to 2005, overseeing direct mail, promotions and events. Handled tactical marketing efforts for General Motors dealer marketing groups, working primarily with Cadillac, GMC, Pontiac and Buick dealers. Owner and partner of Strong LLC since 2006.
In my iPod: “I like everything from Metallica to Merle Haggard, and any type of country/rock. No rap, no hip hop, but anything that gets played on six strings.”
Hobbies: Skiing, hunting, fishing or working outside. “I love the water and anything to do with boats. I raced cars as a hobby for a couple years before I ran out of time to do it. I guess you could say I like anything except stopping.”
Family: Wife Amy, who is expecting their first child in July
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