Steve Little, former president of ERB Industries, was probably the highest-rated speaker at the recent Safety Week 2006, held in late June at the Chateau Elan Winery & Resort outside Atlanta. Attendees enjoyed his energy, safety industry experience, and “real-world” reminders. Now a senior consultant for Inc. Magazine and author of The 7 Irrefutable Laws of Small Business Growth, Little offered the safety industry audience these basic strategies for growth:

Rule 1: Establish and maintain a strong sense of purpose
Rule 2: Thoroughly understand the marketplace
Rule 3: Build an effective growth planning system
Rule 4: Develop customer-driven processes
Rule 5: Put the power of technology to work
Rule 6: Attract and keep the best and the brightest
Rule 7: See the future more clearly

Little made it clear to attendees that he has learned more about small-business growth since he got out of the practitioner role, immersed himself in the study of entrepreneurial opportunity, and made a career of speaking and consulting on the topic.

Little cautions entrepreneurs not to believe in Hollywood-style myths of empire-building, but to focus on careful planning, weighing the risks of a venture, and creating systems to attract the best and brightest people. As someone who led several fast-growth companies, he stresses the need to maintain a macro view of your market and the overall economy to be aware of coming opportunities and threats.

He urges small business owners to step back and look at the big picture if they want to grow. His premise is that opportunities and answers are not just within a company, but external as well.

Gaining superior market intelligence — an organization’s ability to recognize and adapt to macro changes in the marketplace — is something small businesses on the whole “are pretty lousy at,” Little wrote in a recent Web posting.

“We become so myopically focused on our day-to-day operations that we don’t take the time to regularly consider the important fundamental shifts taking place in the general or macro market.

The apron story

Little relates this personal story to make his point: “In the mid-80s I became president of a small company that manufactured aprons — not the type of aprons consumers buy at retail stores to wear in their kitchens, but the kind you see employees wearing in bars, hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, etc.

“These garments serve the dual purpose of protecting an employee’s clothes and serving as an identity tool for the business. For example, are you ever unclear about who the employees are when shopping at a Home Depot? Aprons serve as a highly effective uniform look at a relatively low cost.

“The lowly apron became the perfect uniform solution for the service-based economy, where employers were looking for a low-cost way to protect and identify their unisex, short-term, decentralized employees. It was a fundamental shift that anyone who had a vested interest in aprons or uniforms should have seen early. Yet very few did.

“The two leading apron companies that we competed with directly were small businesses, although they were many times bigger than we were when I took over the management of the company.

“Looking back, it is now apparent that neither saw a macro view of the changes in the overall market and the opportunities they presented. One would have described his company as ‘making tea aprons for maids and waitresses sold through specialty retailers and department stores.’ The other would have described his company as ‘manufacturing sewn products made of woven fabrics (including aprons) that could be sold to screen printers.’ But neither would have said: ‘We provide the growing service economy with a low-cost substitute for traditional uniforms.’

“Thanks to our ability to see and react to the macro changes taking place in the general market, sales at our small apron company grew more than 2,000 percent in less than seven years. I’d argue that it was my relative ignorance regarding the ‘proper’ day-to-day operation of this kind of business that gave me the time to see the macro view. Had I known more about fabric utilization software or the latest sewing machine attachments, I might never have taken the time to consider the fundamental, near-term future of our company and industry.

“Ultimately, ‘seeing the macro’ proved to be our most important competitive advantage.”