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» Residential/Commercial

Not so fast, Rocky

June 6, 2007 at 9:54 AM EDT
Globe and Mail Update

Three years ago, Zion Shraiter, an Israeli general contractor, pulled up stakes and moved from Tel Aviv to Toronto with his wife, a documentary filmmaker. Soon after arriving, he found himself aghast at the sight of piles of recycling bins and garbage cans strewn across the front porches and driveways of every house in his new neighbourhood. "I was shocked," says Shraiter, a tall, sinewy man with a talkative streak. In Tel Aviv, builders can't get a construction permit unless their plans include an enclosed storage area for waste bins.

Settling into his new home, he decided to make a trash bin enclosure for himself. "Then my neighbour wanted one," he says, "and I realized I had something good." Only later did he learn how Torontonians loathe the nocturnal critters that feast off the cornucopia of gourmet scraps left in the green bins that are supposed to be scavenger proof. As Shraiter points out with a hint of a grin, "There are no raccoons in Israel."

Today, Shraiter runs BinSolutions, a thriving eight-person business that turns garbage into gold. He sells custom-made raccoon-resistant containers to house all those sloppy-looking trash bins. Made from a syrup-coloured cedar, the stylish containers open from the front and the top, and come in various sizes, depending on a customer's, um, output. Prices range from under $400 to more than $2,000.

Shraiter's story is a parable about why the fine art of intuitive marketing is an indispensable ingredient in any entrepreneur's growth strategy.

In an office redolent of the foresty scent of freshly cut planks, he fans out about a dozen glossy postcards on his desk. There's his first, home-made and functional. Here's one that looks like a one hundred dollar bill. Then he points to a series with cartoons: the first panel shows a family of ravenous raccoons upending garbage bins and making a huge mess. Next, they're stymied by two large wooden containers in which the trash cans reside. Finally, you see the chagrined raccoon family trudging off with their suitcases, deprived of a tasty meal.

Ever since the spring of 2005, Shraiter has "painted" selected Toronto neighbourhoods with thousands of these direct mail postcards. "It's a very expensive way to market," he admits with a shrug. "But people see you a few times and they remember you. The idea is to put the name Bin Solutions in their head."

After an initial mailing of 5,000 cards, Shraiter got to work filling orders out of his two-car garage. (He'd recruited an Israeli carpenter to spend six months developing the prototype.) Shraiter soon had to move the assembly line out to the driveway, then into an 1,800 sq.-ft unit in a suburban industrial complex, which has since expanded to 3,000 sq.-ft as orders flow in from around Greater Toronto and even other parts of Canada.

Shraiter is a natural and tireless promoter. The mini-van he drives has a trailer decked out with a model bin, which serves as a rolling billboard. When he started his direct mail campaigns, he focused on two categories of neighbourhoods: those where the houses have no driveways (meaning lots of cluttered porches), and those in upscale areas where every home has a large, and invariably junk-filled, garage.

Last year, he spent a hefty $150,000 on advertising, 90% of it on postcards. Each one is a bit different, but they all stress the brand and, lately, an image of his mascot, a cheeky, but thwarted, raccoon. Shraiter says he doesn't buy much newspaper and magazine advertising because the brand doesn't take. By contrast, people keep his glossy, heavy-stock postcards, and he knows this because customers show up in his showroom carrying earlier versions that are as much as a year old. "What I figure is that there's nothing like holding a postcard in your hand."

As he's built a critical mass of customers and brand awareness, Shraiter has begun to get steady referral business. So he's now reeled in some of the direct mail in favour of a new approach. Shraiter is networking with industry groups that represent landscapers and home organizers (who also do garages) in order to spread the word among professionals who might recommend his product to their clients.

Nor has he forgotten about transforming previous customers into repeat customers. Last winter, for example, he sent letters to his first 500 customers, offering them free "upgrades," meaning better anti-raccoon latches and repairs. Half of them responded, which gave Shraiter a chance to not only see how his bins were faring, but also to also remind customers of his other products, such as bird feeders and toy bins.

With others clients, he offers what is essentially an informal consulting service. Many homeowners are encumbered by an over-supply of plastic containers, thanks to the city's ever shifting recycling rules. "I tell them how to handle garbage properly and how to cut down on bins," Shraiter says. His bins come in all shapes and sizes and this advice often means the sale will be for a smaller, less expensive model. "It makes an impression on customers that I'm not trying to tell them a bigger unit than necessary."

Lastly, he never balks at requests for repairs, which he does for free, no questions asked. "It costs money, right?" he says. "But service is coming back big time to you."

Shraiter then tells the story of a customer who called up one day, saying his spouse has backed the car into the bin and totaled it. So he came out and fixed the thing for free. Shraiter now dials up an image of what happens next: there's a dinner party, and this owner wants to tell his friends a funny story, about how the bin was destroyed by the car and then rebuilt by the company that made it. Then the punchline: "`In five days,'" the owner recounts, "`they changed the panel at no cost.'"

It's as if Shraiter can already smell the rich scent of a new order.