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From Broken to Better: The Story of Branded Group

Editor’s Note: Michael Kurland and Kiira Belonzi in 2014 co-founded Branded Group Inc., an Anaheim-based facilities management firm that in 2019 won a Civic 50 Award from the Business Journal. Kurland in July released a book, “Broken to Better: 13 Ways Not to Fail at Life and Leadership,” published by Houndstooth Press.
His company ranks No. 16 on this week’s Business Journal list of the Fastest-Growing Private Midsize Companies in Orange County, reporting two-year revenue growth of 61% to $54 million for the year ended June 30 (see Special Report, starting on page 27). Below are lightly edited excerpts from his book.

For 12 years, I worked in the greater New York City area, including maintaining more than 350 retail locations for the Jones Apparel Group and then as a VP at Empire Facilities Management, where I helped increase revenue from $1 million to $50 million.
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Coming out of a divorce and dealing with a job that did nothing for me other than provide a paycheck, I knew I wanted my life to be better. The question keeping me awake at night was “Is this all there is?” I had hit rock bottom personally and professionally.

As a child of an alcoholic father, I entered my 20s and 30s already broken. I thought I had done all the right things: college degree, good job, marriage. In reality, I was clueless about what it meant to be better, but I knew I had to make major changes.

My initial focus was on my physical health. I committed to healthier eating and regular exercise. I began meditating and journaling to strengthen my body, mind, and spirit. As my physical and mental health improved, I focused on my career and realized I wanted to launch a business with the concept of “being better” rooted throughout the entire organization.
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I grew up in Norwalk, Conn., by the beach that provided many fond memories. It’s my Zen place. When I had a bad day, you would find me at the beach, listening to the crashing of the waves.

I knew I wanted my business and my future home to be on the beach.

When I reconnected with a college friend who recommended I visit Newport Beach, I fell in love with the area and knew it was where I wanted to live and work.

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I saw a gap in facilities management in California. Of the nearly 1,000 facility management companies in the United States, New York had about 800. Other major cities across the country had approximately 50 or 60.

If you looked at the number of retail corporate offices in 2014, New York had the number one spot. California had number two. So, my question was: Why is no one opening a facility management company in California?

I saw a gap, and I knew I could fill it. I had the skills, the drive and the connections to get started.

My skills and strengths are in sales in the facility management industry. There was no sense in reinventing the wheel. I wanted to take all my life’s work and put it into my own company.
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Kiira and I had two goals in the beginning: 1. Get as many clients as soon as possible. 2. Don’t go out of business.

After we both moved to California, we looked for office space and began to develop our business plan, which focused primarily on operations and sales. I knew I could bring in at least four clients. It turned out we tripled that number in our first days of business.
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In the beginning, our hiring process was mostly trial and error. Initially, we would hire anyone who had relevant experience and who would accept the salary we could offer them.

The more we grew and learned, the more Kiira and I realized that knowing the facility management industry and possessing the “typical” hard skills were not necessarily required. Soft skills, such as being organized and being a good multitasker, were much more valuable.
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Even if you plan to be a solopreneur, you need to have an internal “board of directors” that includes, at minimum, a lawyer, a banker, an accountant, and a trusted friend or colleague. Let’s face it: we don’t know everything and relying on experts from time to time may prevent a lot of sleepless nights.
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My first tip is simple: show up well. What do I mean by this? Despite what you may have heard, first impressions are lasting. People rarely forget them.

Therefore, when attending an event or meeting, dress the part. In fact, don’t be afraid to “peacock it” a little to ensure you stand out. It sounds elementary, but I’ve been to hundreds of events, and I’m always surprised at the casual approach some people take.

Do your due diligence prior to the event to find out as much as possible about its attendees, format, and etiquette. This will be time well spent, as you’ll be prepared and confident when you walk through the door.

Inauthentic people can be spotted a mile away. No one wants to do business with someone they do not trust.
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Everyone always wants to know what makes a great salesperson. There are a ton of books with amazing tips on how to close deals. At its foundation, sales is about people.

If you don’t like people, you’re not going to be a successful salesperson. Solid social skills are a must-have in building lasting relationships with your clients.

A good primer for anyone who wants a career in sales is waiting tables or tending bar. These jobs help you refine your ability to talk to people you don’t know and learn how to cultivate relationships. If you do it well, they’ll be back. If not, well, being able to accept rejection is part of the sales process.
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My mother used to talk to me about my credit score. She would say, “All you are is your credit score. If you mess that up, it’s really hard to fix.” It’s the same thing with your reputation.
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The facility management industry is all about service. We don’t sell products, so we are only as good as the services we provide.

Our sales and customer service teams are the face of our company. Every day, they handle the complicated and time-sensitive needs of our clients all around the country. If we want them to treat our clients well, we must treat them well. If your employees are miserable, then guess what? Your clients will be too.

When asked why I think people choose us, I always have the same response: people do business with people they trust. Whether it’s an HVAC system that went south on a hot summer day or a security system that needs an overhaul, they can pick up the phone and know they’re going to get an answer.
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The first year for any new entrepreneur can be characterized as the “hair on fire” year. Working long hours and wearing many hats, Kiira and I were so busy we didn’t have a minute to think about anything other than securing more clients, making sure the work was getting done, and handling the operations of the business so that we could keep the lights on.

During our second year, our hair was still on fire, but things began to fall into a rhythm, and I had some time to reflect. I discovered I was feeling empty inside. I questioned why I was doing what I was doing.

I wanted to give back and make a difference. We started volunteering our time building and restoring sustainable homes for Habitat for Humanity of Orange County. Today, for every service call that we complete, we donate one meal to Feeding America; we’re on pace for tens of thousands of work orders this year alone.
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That’s how Branded Group went from being an idea in my head in a small town on Long Island to a thriving, award-winning organization in Orange County.

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