Creating comfort for customers

Sun Comfort is driven to build value in a niche construction market during a tight economy

Story by John R. Ingrisano

According to Malcolm Forbes, “If you don’t drive your business, you’ll be driven out of it.”

People who know Bernie Bos, founder, president and relentless driving force of Sun Comfort, Inc. in Neenah, also know there is little likelihood he will be driven out of business anytime soon. Starting his multi-season room construction business in early 2008, right when the construction and housing bubbles were starting to burst, Bernie has shown relentless determination, a principle-based value system, clear vision, and quality advisors can take a business from start-up to seven figures in just three years.

Starting with a total of five employees three years ago, Sun Comfort grossed $750,000 in sales its first year in business.

“Now we have 20 employees and approached $1.75 million in 2010,” Bernie explained in an interview with New North B2B magazine. The company also opened a second location in 2010 in Sun Prairie, just outside of Madison.

Bernie points out that one of the advantages that make Sun Comfort special is it sells and builds its own sunrooms. 

Many other companies sell the project and then subcontract the construction. Keeping everything under one roof “makes us fairly unique,” he said. “We have control over the entire process from sale to completion. This cuts down on problems.”

How do you build a multi-million dollar business in three years? You might say Bernie was an overnight success, but it took the 61-year-old businessman 50 years to get there.

“I started in construction when I was eleven years old, working with my father,” he said, adding that he also spent some time handling heavy construction equipment, as well as selling cars. This helped him acquire the skills to both sell his sunrooms and build them.

The combination has worked well. Sun Comfort is a dealer for Sunspace, a Canadian company with more than 250 U.S. affiliated dealers. In 2010, Bernie’s Sun Comfort became their No. 1 U.S. dealer. “This business has grown past my expectations. I give a lot of credit for this to my employees and my wife, Sharon.”

Planning is crucial

Determination is also a major part of the mix. Bernie readily admits he is driven.

“I am very intentional about what I do. I spend a great deal of time working on a plan and budgeting. I believe, like (Coach Vince) Lombardi said, if you do not have a plan, you have a plan for failure.

“Every year we sit down and put together a plan and go over it with my manufacturer (Sunspace). I have a five-year plan and adjust it as we go along.” 

The marketing plan is simple in design, built around the 22 home shows at which they set up display booths each year. “We obtain about three-quarters of what we sell from home shows,” he said. “Our Web site is probably responsible for another 15 percent, and then TV ads make up the final 10 percent, though it can be hard to measure since the TV ads generally drive prospective customers to the Web site.”

A team of quality advisors

Just as important to Bernie’s drive and determination is his reputation for seeking the advice of qualified financial and business professionals.

“One thing I’ve been grateful for all along,” he stated, “is having a support team of people that are willing to challenge me and make sure that whatever I am setting up will pass the acid test, that it’s for real.

“It has been an almost unbelievable ride,” he said, and then added, “I attribute that to the people around me. I sit down with my good advisors. They keep me very human.”

He constantly seeks input and runs ideas past qualified people. “I think I’ve got one of the best teams going. However,” he points out, “when I do something, the decision is mine, but I listen to them. Having people there that are willing to make me justify and prove that what I want is right is crucial.”

One of those advisors is Gary Vaughan, owner of Guident Business Solutions in Appleton, who has assisted Bernie with writing operations budgets and implementing those budgets over the past few years.

“I give Bernie a lot of credit,” explained Vaughan. “Even with his years of experience, he understands he doesn’t know everything there is to know about running a business. 

“He has identified his strengths and recognizes his risks as a business owner,” added Vaughan. “More importantly, he has actively sought out qualified advisors to help him achieve his goals at Sun Comfort. I am privileged to be one of those advisors. One of the guiding principles we work with is that every decision in the business has a financial consequence, either positive or negative.”

Bernie said his most important advisor is his partner and wife, Sharon. “We sit down almost daily to see where we are and where we are going.” 

How do husband and wife handle working together? “We established from the beginning that there can be only one boss,” Bernie said. “I listen to her, but when a decision has to be made, I make it. When I make bad ones, she reminds me. When I make good ones, she compliments me. In that respect, we complement each other.”

More than just money

Still, Bernie is not just a hard-driving, money-oriented businessman. Far from it.

“I never set out to become rich,” he explained. “Just comfortable. I’m a fairly religious individual. My pastor says everything belongs to God; we’re just stewards. I believe that everything I have belongs to Him. I count my blessings every day.”

He also admits to being challenged by many of the day-to-day struggles that go with running a business. When asked about the biggest challenge of running a business, Bernie doesn’t hesitate: “Personnel. A lot of folks want a paycheck, but don’t understand they have to earn it. If I had one big heartache, it is letting go people who are nice but not doing their jobs. That’s the toughest part of my job.”

The best part about being in business? That question also gets a quick response: “Dealing with the public. I enjoy serving my customers and fulfilling a need.”

One of his proudest days as a business owner was “when we stood up and received the award for being the largest (Sunspace) dealer in the U.S. It was great to get recognition for a job well done. Sunspace has approximately 250 dealers in the United States and about 400 between the U.S. and Canada.”

What’s next?

Sun Comfort has already opened a satellite office in Sun Prairie. “Bigger is better,” he explained, “because it allows me to command more support from my manufacturer.” As part of this, Sun Comfort is looking at adding two additional satellite sites, one on the east side of Green Bay.

“I plan to be part of the design team for Sunspace,” he added. “That will enable me to better respond to customers’ needs and keep growing my business.”

Final advice

Bernie agrees that business owners tend to be worriers. However, he also believes that is not all bad. In fact, it’s a good thing.

“I worry about selling a project; then I worry about getting it built. However,” he added candidly, “if you take on the attitude that everything is wonderful and don’t worry, then your days in business are numbered. There are so many things in today’s business market that you need to pay attention to.

He also shared a general rule of thumb about business: “However much time you believe it will take, double it. However much you believe it will cost, triple it.”

John Ingrisano is a Wisconsin-based business journalist and marketing strategist who helps clients recognize, maximize and realize their competitive advantages. For more information, contact John at john@thefreestyleentrepreneur.com or call 920.559.3722.