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Expanded Horizons

Expanded Horizons

MS Unlimited Heads in a New Direction,

While Maintaining its Core: Highway Safety Products

 

What do attenuator trucks, work boots, arrowboards, gift baskets, epoxy coatings and portable toilets have in common?

            They can all be obtained – at reasonable prices and with excellent service – from Marybeth Sbaraglia, the “MS” in MS Unlimited, Inc.

            Actually that short list doesn’t even begin to cover the range of products MS offers its customers.  The firm, which Ms. Sbaraglia subtitles “Industrial Products,” offers a list of products that covers a wide range of industries and fills more than a dozen pages.  And the list keeps growing.

            On a recent summer morning, MS Unlimited received a phone call from someone looking for T-shirts for lifeguards.  After a brief discussion about quantity, material and sizes, Ms. Sbaraglia ended the conversation with “sure, we can do that for you.”  Once she hung up the phone, she confessed, “we’ve never actually handled lifeguard T-shirts before – we have done vests and things – but I know we can do it.”

            It’s that confidence, combined with Ms. Sbaraglia’s enormous talent for research and detail, that has propelled MS Unlimited from a one-woman company at its founding in 1985 to a firm of 14 employees, and growing, just 16 years later.

            Just looking at the facts, it seems unlikely that a girl from the Oneida/Rome area who went into TV directing would found and own a successful industrial products firm.  But Ms. Sbaraglia says the same drive that made her a sought-after TV director has propelled her to her current success as an entrepreneur.  “People said I would never make it,” when she started MS Unlimited with $800 and a determination to sell work boots.  She said she chose work shoes when a friend who owned a construction firm encouraged her.  At the time, she was tired of TV’s never-ending demands on her time and talent.  In addition, she had an ill mother with whom she wanted to spend more time, something her TV career wouldn’t allow.  So she walked.

            Ms. Sbaraglia’s tales of her beginnings in the highway industry sound like something out of a book: there she was at the Endicott Johnson offices, having been just denied the credit she needed to go into business selling their shoes when she ran into two vice presidents, one of whom knew and admired her mother.  Shortly thereafter, credit in hand, Ms. Sbaraglia was off to expand her horizons.

            Enter Morrison Knudsen. “I was sitting in a doctor’s office, reading a magazine when I saw Morrison Knudsen had just got a multi-million dollar contract in Watertown.”  Stymied by their lack of a local phone number, Ms. Sbaraglia headed to Watertown with $100 in her pocket.  On her way, a flat tire cost her the $100 and she arrived in Watertown out of cash and still looking for Morrison Knudsen. 

            “I went into the bank but they wouldn’t cash my check.  Finally, I told the bank manager my problem.  Not only did I get the check cashed but the manager said, ‘come with me.’  He took me upstairs over the bank, where Morrison was moving in.”  She said five buyers showed her a job they wanted: a complicated numbering system for which they were only willing to pay $250.

            Ms. Sbaraglia agreed to tackle the project, finishing in a week.  During that week, she says, the firm called every day asking for the price of a single item each time: one traffic cone, one roll of fence, etc.  When she returned with her completed project, the men “handed me a purchase order for $30,000 worth of items.”  When she said her quotes had been based on quantities of one, not bulk, they replied that they had needed the numbering system and “no one would do this job, so you’ve got this order.”

            From that early success, she has learned: “You just never know.”  And so she treats every customer – big or small – as if they will become huge customers. 

            Ms. Sbaraglia does not refer to her job so much as “sales” as “making marriages” between customers and products.  For instance, she says she recently bought some equipment in Great Britain for a client in the States.  She says she has gotten into product lines simply people have asked her to supply them.

            One of her many fliers – the firm has a mailing list of nearly 50,000 – states this MS Unlimited fact: “Just Because You Don’t See It – Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Sell It!”  MS usually mails a flier a week, targeting a different audience and product line each week.  “We try to do something no one else is doing.”

            Her product line includes:

·        Gift baskets with specialty foods

·        Building-size (6-10 foot) Christmas wreaths/ decorations

·        Arrowboard and Messageboard repair

·        Home Sweet Home portable toilet rentals

·        Janitorial products

·        Sports and exercise equipment

·        Office supplies and accessories

·        Snow plowing

·        Work and leisure attire, including uniforms, T-shirts, sportswear

·        Hand tools

·        Electrical Supplies

·        Heat and A/C Supplies

·        Plumbing supplies

·        Welding kits and equipment

·        Camping supplies

·        Imprinting & Embroidering T-shirts

·        Pipe

·        Precast

 

But don’t think MS Unlimited is bound by that list.  Ms. Sbaraglia studies markets, trends, and needs constantly, looking for what she and her dedicated band of employees can provide.  She says her employees are asked to fill out a form when they are hired that lists all of their talents, interests, skills, and hobbies.  And, once a year, they are each asked to update that list.  Additionally, Ms. Sbaraglia searches theYellow Pages for businesses that could use a little competition. 

            “My resources are my people.  They’re the best.”  So Ms. Sbaraglia’s always looking for expansion areas that will utilize the talents of her existing staff.  Particularly, MS is always looking for winter jobs, because the highway construction industry – her first love – is so seasonal.  Of course, her highway safety products are all DOT-approved, “We sell only what’s approved.”

            All new product lines or businesses are carefully researched before launch. “I go to shows and I make appointments at shows to see manufacturers.”

            Her “Home Sweet Home” business, under which she rents portable toilets, is a prime example of the exhaustive research she conducts.  Before she committed to buy some 100 or so portable toilets, Ms. Sbaraglia attended shows, went to workshops. “I spent two years on research.”  When she did commit to the business, she feels she has found the top-of-the-line manufacturer.  “I talked to sales people all over the country.”

            The firm’s toilets are state-of the-art, some with flushes and hand-wash units.  Two are truly like home, the “presidential trailers” that come equipped with paneling, vanity, and ceramic tile.  Not content with simply offering a first-class product, MS Unlimited adds its own touches, with decorative paintings, coordinated soap dispensers, and flowers.  In fact, if someone rents a toilet for a wedding or a high school graduation, Ms. Sbaraglia asks about the colors of the event, so she and her staff can decorate with flowers in the appropriate colors.  “Everything we do, we try to go the extra mile.”

            She tells the story of being at a family gathering with her sister and two nephews when her pager went off.  It was a Syracuse bank executive who was holding a large party at his house and the toilets stopped up.  Without hesitation, Ms. Sbaraglia left her party, went to the shop, loaded up a portable toilet and delivered it to save the day.

            She says hers commitment to her firm has been difficult on her personal life; she still lives in a very small apartment because it’s so convenient to her business in an industrial park just off Thruway Exit 35 in Syracuse.  But she knows delivery, availability, and customer service are very large parts of MS’s success.  “We like to say we ‘do the impossible’ around here,” says Ms. Sbaraglia, adding proudly, “When all else fails and no one else comes through, we get called.  We’re the miracles people.”

            Her firm regularly ships all over New York State, including Long Island and New York City, and further extends to Canada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina.  “We’ve next-day-air-shipped a gift basket to Texas…  We do things that no one else would touch.”

            As yet another sideline, MS Unlimited will pick up and deliver parts or other goods for people. 

            Ms. Sbaraglia is very proud of the role she has played in helping other people.  She says she partners with AGC members, such as Lane Enterprises, Syracuse Castings, and Binghamton Precast, offering their products first.  “We like to try to make other people money, too.”  And fostering long-term relationships helps the industry as a whole, she feels.  She says her used equipment business has actually made money for manufacturers; people will buy used equipment, like the product, and later upgrade to a new model from the same manufacturer. 

            Ms. Sbaraglia also says she likes to help build relationships between people who, for one reason or another, would never speak to each other.

            However, she also believes very strongly in the value of competition.  Ms. Sbaraglia has actually gone to manufacturers and persuaded them to go into competition with people who have a monopoly, so prices will come down.  “We think competition is healthy.”

            In the future, Ms. Sbaraglia expects her firm to be competing in some new ventures, possibly a restaurant.  She says survival is often her goal for the day, particularly in this era of late and flat state transportation budgeting. “We have to work extra hard.  It’s a struggle every day.”

            However, her commitment and dedication to the industry, her employees and her dreams would seem to bode well for the future, no matter what happens to the industry.

           

 

Family Comes First at MS Unlimited

Family Comes First at MS Unlimited

 

Mary Beth Sbaraglia doesn’t have to think too hard when asked to name the best part of owning her own company.

            “Not having a boss telling me I can’t go when my family is sick,” she replies.

            Her answer comes quickly.  In the years before she started her company, MS Unlimited, Inc., Sbaraglia’s mother was in a bad car accident.

            “My mom was the best thing in my life,” she says, “She was a saint, never had a bad word to say about anyone.”

            Even though Sbaraglia had six weeks worth of vacation coming, “my job said I couldn’t go to her operation,” she says, “So I quit my job and went to my mom’s surgery.”

            Sbaraglia says the lesson sticks with her as she manages the company she founded 25 years ago.  Sbaraglia says her company’s gotten to that point from hard work, a seven-days-per-week schedule, and an extremely diverse company portfolio. 

            Head over to MS Unlimited’s Web site, www.msunlimitedinc.com, and all 22 of the company’s services are listed.  Be it the sales of waterfront property or the creation of fully decorated toilets, MS Unlimited’s business arms stretch in multiple directions.  The crux of its work is in the realm of construction: road construction, signals and lights, signs and material handling, and safety supplies. 

The company never loses its focus, even when it branches out into different sectors, Sbaraglia explains.  The core of its $6.5 million annual revenues comes from the selling, manufacturing, invention, and repair of highway safety products. 

            “I have planned out every move the previous year,” Sbaraglia says, “I’m a planner and a thinker.  I’m resourceful.  I’ve spent a lot of time at the library.”

            But even planners and thinkers have barriers to overcome when it comes to the creation of a new company.  And Sbaraglia is quick to say that the glass ceiling “most definitely” still exists for women hoping to make their mark on the business world.

            “I smashed it by finding a niche and working that avenue,” she says.  And even today there is a “stereotype when people call in and want to talk to the man owner.  I’ve been called stupid and told I don’t know anything.  Then when it costs them more money, they call back and tell me I’m right.”

            Smashing the glass ceiling didn’t come easily, says Sbaraglia.  She’s worked seven-day weeks and says she never gives up.  She also credits “having the best employees working alongside of me” for making the company’s success possible. 

            The drive to create her own company was partially fueled by her high school guidance counselors, Sbaraglia says.

            “My high school guidance counselors told me not to go to college, I would never be anything,” she recalls, “People, when I first started in business, said I would never last the first year.  Twenty years later, I crawled, I walked, and I’m ready to run.”

 

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