The Biz

As soon as you walk into Shoji Retreats, a local mountaintop spa, the owners want to make sure that when you walk out afterward, you’ve experienced bliss.

And the winners are: Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Lutovsky gets ready to honor six local firms at the “We’re for Business” awards Feb. 20. Photo By Jonathan Welch

And, truth be told, it’s kind of hard to imagine that a soak in a hot tub, a cleansing sauna and a deep-tissue massage—all delivered in a beautiful, Japanese-themed setting—would not create at least a hint of that.

Still, Shoji—a recipient of one of this year’s We’re for Business Awards from the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce—doesn’t take anything for granted, said Spa Director Mike Krizek, who accepted the honor at a Feb. 20 awards luncheon held at the Grove Park Inn. Shoji, one of two winners of this year’s “Over the Top” Amazing Customer Service Award, takes great pains to ensure that customers are not only pampered but listened to, said Krizek.

According to the Chamber, a business winning this particular award is one that “excels in recognizing and addressing their customers’ needs through unique employee training programs, customer-service policies and other customer-satisfaction models.”

“Each and every guest that comes to Shoji, we encourage them to fill out our survey,” noted Krizek. The data, he added, is instrumental in helping determine what the company needs to do to keep customers coming back. That extra effort is a primary reason Shoji won the award.

“Some [comments] would be great; some wouldn’t be so great,” he said. “We would analyze these things, so everybody on the team—right down to the people cleaning the facility—is brought into our meeting [to correct problems].” Out of this process, he said, has come a family dynamic that’s centered on the customer. “We are very, very close; we have created a very family atmosphere, and that’s what exudes when you come visit us.”

The other winner in the category, the Charlotte Street Animal Hospital, works to make not only the animals, but also their owners feel loved and taken care of, client Ann Weber said in one of the many videos spotlighting the winners in the three main award categories. “We feel they are a part of our family, our extended family, our friendship network,” she said about the facility, which is owned by veterinarian Mark Ledyard. “We’re related through dogs.”

The staff’s warmth, the facility’s general pleasantness and the camaraderie are things “we’re continually astonished with,” she said, recounting how she felt apologetic about wanting to spend time with her dog when it was time to put down the animal. “They said: ‘Don’t you worry. Take all the time you need. We will be right here.’ And they left us alone so we could say goodbye. I look back on that and, for a difficult experience, I can’t think of a way it could have proceeded any more compassionately, more kindly. And that just made all the difference for me.”

While customer service is paramount, many companies realize that to stand out—and to share their success—there must be also be service to the greater community. That was the lesson cited by the two winners of this year’s “One for All” Outstanding Commitment to Community Awards—Diamond Brand Outdoors and The Buyer’s Agent of Asheville.

Such a business, the Chamber says, “emphasizes community involvement within its business model and among its employees, and … demonstrates this philosophy on a day-to-day basis among employees, clients and the overall business community.”

Diamond Brand’s folksy leader, Will Gay, said “Diamond Brand has been a part of the local community since 1943.” The store places a premium on helping children experience the outdoors, he noted. Since its inception, Diamond Brand has been a major outfitter and supporter of local Boy Scouts and, in recent years, has helped support camp-bound kids in the area who couldn’t afford their own gear. Because it’s an outdoors store, the company has also been a leader in helping clean up the French Broad River. In addition, the business has worked through the American Red Cross to aid Hurricane Katrina victims with such things as sleeping bags.

“It’s working with people, it’s not selling stuff” that has made the store sucessful, said Gary Eblen, outreach manager for Diamond Brand. “What we have is a true love of the outdoors.” And that love is reciprocated by customers, he added. “One guy told me, ‘Diamond Brand is the adult toy store where you can park in the front,’” Eblen said to a gale of laughter from the couple of hundred of people in attendance.

Fellow honoree The Buyer’s Agent of Asheville not only commits itself to community service, but that commitment has become a hallmark of its employees, said Managing Broker Jason Ingle.

“As we grew and started adding people to our company, we actually instilled, as part of our compensation plan, that in order to move through our compensation plan you have to be a part of the community at least so many hours per month,” he said. Over the years, the company has established relationships as volunteers and contributors to United Way, Big Brothers Big Sisters and local schools, among other organizations.

The success of this approach has resulted in the company’s attracting and hiring philanthropic-minded employees, so that rather than the prospect of simply making more money, service is now the focus among staff, said Ingle.

The third and final honor, the “Out on a Limb” Exceptionally Innovative Business Award, went to Advanced Composting Technologies in Candler, and Palmer Wahl, a thermostat and thermal-imaging manufacturer that serves various industries, including the defense industry. The award recognizes a company that has “discovered consumer needs and, through creative innovation, has been able to meet those needs. To qualify for this award, a business may also demonstrate how creative problem-solving led to new policies, processes or applications to better serve the needs of its customers.”

Among other things, Advanced Composting Technologies was honored for bringing forced-air composting technology to swine farmers throughout North Carolina, helping clean up one of the state’s most polluting industries. And as diesel prices continue to rise, the practice is also seen as a potentially less costly alternative to incineration. The company not only consults on the technology, it also sets up the expansive facilities used to compost the wastes, explained President Keith Warren.

Palmer Wahl was cited for continually meeting client needs for new and improved products. One of those products is a new thermometer used on fighter jets in Iraq to monitor temperatures inside the cockpit. Previously, said President Stephen Santangelo, thermometers used by the military in such craft were not designed to register the high temperatures experienced in such places, creating a potential hazard for both pilot and aircraft.

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