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Dennis Pitselis, founder and president of Zone Marketing Group, seen in his company office. (Tim Fraser/TIM FRASER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Dennis Pitselis, founder and president of Zone Marketing Group, seen in his company office. (Tim Fraser/TIM FRASER FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE CHALLENGE: ZONE MARKETING GROUP

How to turn down time into productive time Add to ...

Every week, we will seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue it is facing in its business.

For six months of the year, Dennis Pitselis's business moves faster than a Lamborghini on a racetrack. The rest of the time, it slows to a crawl.

Zone Marketing Group conducts and analyzes contest data for most of the big car companies at auto shows, hitting its busy season between December and April, with the month leading up to that period filled with planning.

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The rest of the year, the company's six full-time and five part-time staff don’t have nearly enough to do.

“We need to keep everyone [having]billable hours throughout the year,” says Mr. Pitselis, the founder and president of the Aurora, Ont.-based company, which expects revenue of $2.5-million in fiscal 2011.

“That’s tough to do in our business.”

Zone runs contests, such as draws for a free car or gas, for several car companies at a half-dozen auto shows across Canada.

Contest ballots provide consumer data that Zone analyzes for clients, generating customer profiles that help tell car companies who might be buyers in the next year.

Outside of auto show season, the company develops and executes “mall tours” for car companies, sending an employee to malls across Canada to conduct similar contests for a couple of clients.

That’s not enough business to keep everyone busy.

But Mr. Pitselis needs all of his staff on board. Much of Zone’s work requires experienced pros who know nuanced details about the auto industry and clients, he says.

In the past, he’s tried hiring contract employees for busy months, rather than full-timers, but it didn’t work out. He also was forced to let some people go that he now wishes he’d been able to keep on.

“What we do is so specialized. It’s difficult to plop someone in,” he says.

Mr. Pitselis has also tried to market his services to non-auto-related industries, such as the financial sector, but has struck out. He’s also looked at the boating industry, but found the Canadian market too small.

His staff take vacations during the summer, and do a lot of planning for the busy months, but even so, there’s still a lot of down time.

“We have to find them other opportunities,” he says. “But how?”

The Challenge: How can Zone Marketing turn down time into productive time?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Michael Denham, Toronto-based managing director at Accenture

He has a very interesting value proposition he can offer employees: A lot of people would happily take two-thirds salary and have their summers off. You can still get high-quality employees. You would employ them full-time [but] they’d work nine months of the year.

There’s also potential to expand the business in related, but different areas. Boats, RVs, snowmobiles – companies that sell these products also have marquee trade shows and events where new product lines are introduced, and many take place in Zone Marketing’s slow months.

Or approach car companies in the southern hemisphere. They have similar trade shows and need this expertise, but it’s all done during Toronto’s spring and summer.

Harold Taylor, president of Toronto-based Harold Taylor Time Consultants Inc.

People are so busy that there’s no time to be creative. So when work is slow, use that time for brainstorming, creative innovating and improving procedures. You can get the best ideas on a retreat, where employees get away from the hustle and bustle.

Slowdowns are also when companies can improve efficiencies. Staff can take courses dealing with self-development and stress management, so they’ll be better prepared for the busy season. It’s also time to update a website or get staff on social media.

Brandon Frimit, president of Toronto-based Nutcracker Sweet , which does most of its business between October and December

I make my 10 full-time employees accomplish something new every day. It can be anything from using social media to coming up with a new way to make the business more efficient.

We don’t allow people to just sit around – we have to focus on ways to get us ahead in the busy months.

I get the staff to work on new product lines, too. They also run contests during the summer to bring in more business, and we have a lot of meetings to talk about the previous year and how we can make the upcoming seasons different.

THREE THINGS ZONE MARKETING SHOULD DO NOW

Explore new, but related opportunities

Instead of finding new business outside of the auto sector, look for work with other types of vehicle manufacturers. Or work with companies in countries that have different trade show seasons.

Take a brainstorming retreat

Rather than let employees sit around, take them away to unwind and share ideas about how to take the company forward.

Find efficiencies

Spend the off months analyzing what went right and wrong during busy times. Ask employees to offer ideas on ways to improve processes during more hectic times.

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