Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Princeton business goes global [With Video]

By BOBBY BURCH, Herald Staff Writer | 10/1/2012

PRINCETON — Sometimes the result of an accident can pay great dividends.

Ask Ralph Cassone, president of Sensor-1, an agricultural electronic business in Princeton, and he’s likely to say the same thing.

Eighteen years ago — when Sensor-1 was headquartered in the basement of his Overland Park home — Cassone experienced a mishap at a real estate auction that has proven to be a beneficial blunder.

“We were [in Princeton] at an auction with my supervisor — the guy who was in change of my basement at the time — and he hits my hand and says, ‘You should get [the facility],’” Cassone, originally from Stamford, Conn., said. “When he hit my hand, it went up. I thought, ‘Someone will outbid me. Someone’s got to outbid me.’ And that’s how I got it — totally by accident.”

Not only did the acquisition move Sensor-1 out of Cassone’s home, but it also has helped to multiply his company’s sales by almost 100 times — to nearly $5 million annually — in the past 20 years, Cassone said. And while it’s been a tough journey, Cassone said, he’s happy with the current direction of his company.

Sacrifice for success

Sensor-1, established in 1991, is a manufacturer, designer and distributor of agricultural electronics for clients around the world, including patrons in Australia, South Africa, Finland and Brazil, Cassone said. Among the thousands of its available products, Sensor-1 specializes in the design and manufacture of GPS equipment, planter monitors and a variety of sensors for seeding, he added.

But before its sales exceeded six figures, Cassone said launching Sensor-1 was quite a challenge. While working a full-time job in Kansas City, Kan., Cassone would spend evenings advancing his business model, researching the industry and developing marketable products.

And although he’s content with his chosen business venture, Cassone said it’s his entrepreneurial spirt that led him to the agricultural industry.

“I wanted to have something that I manufacture, sell and engineer myself,” Cassone, who graduated from Kansas State University in 1983 with a degree in mechanical engineering, said. “It’s nice now, but you forget very quickly how hard it is in the beginning years. Banks won’t lend you money, and you rely on family money and credit cards. There were many times that I had to call my dad up for $50,000.”

For the first five years after its founding, Cassone said, he didn’t receive a salary from Sensor-1. After that, Cassone took a reduced paycheck for five years, redistributing much of his personal earnings into the company. Frequently, Cassone said, banks refused to loan Sensor-1 money, and he was forced to borrow from credit companies with up to 21-percent interest rates.

Finding a niche

Eventually, Sensor-1 began to find its niches in the agricultural electronics market, Cassone said, which increased profits and expanded the company’s offerings. When a certain product is dropped by a competitor, Cassone said, Sensor-1 will manufacture the product for a lower cost.

“Sensor-1 is up against several multi-million dollar companies, so we just have to pick and choose our product ... because some of these [competitors] spend millions [of dollars] on research and development,” Cassone said of his business’ competition, which includes such companies as Dickey-john, Outback, Raven and Micro-Trak. “We capitalize on what they want to drop because if [the competitors’] sales are low on a certain item or they are obsoleting an item, we’ll make it and our [sales] don’t have to be as big as their numbers. So it brings in maybe $250,000 sales because they aren’t selling it any more and that customer comes to us for it. ... We pick our battles.”

Now, about 21 years later, Cassone has added 15 full-time employees and a solid base of clients, which has presented more flexibility with his company’s loan negotiations.

“After you’re established and have money, everyone wants to lend it to you,” Cassone said, adding that the company could expand further, but he’d like to limit its overhead costs. “We’re very fortunate the banks will now work with us.”

Despite challenges with finding good labor, Cassone said his company has performed well through the past few years. Similar to his business, Cassone said the agricultural electronic industry has been steadily improving in the past decade.  

“The last four years have been great for us,” he said.

Big three months

Although the company is somewhat busy dealing with early orders, the summer and early fall don’t present much business for Sensor-1, Cassone said. In fact, about 75 percent of the staff’s time is spent preparing for its busy season in March, April and May.

During that time, Cassone said, farmers are sowing their fall crops, which primarily includes corn and soybeans.

“That’s the hard part,” Cassone said. “We do most of our business in those three months and the rest of the months getting organized.”

In addition to growing his staff and product line, Cassone said, the company also has expanded its client base. Recently, Amazon.com approached Sensor-1 to offer its products online, Cassone said, and placed a more than $100,000 order with the company. The transaction, Cassone said, marked the first such deal between Amazon and an agricultural business.

Although his company has continued to grow through the past few years, Cassone said, its small size leaves it vulnerable in spots. Its size, he said, necessitates that Sensor-1 strictly limit its mistakes, or its results can be detrimental to its future.

Sensor-1’s relatively fragile size is linked to one of Cassone’s business principles: perseverance.

“Our business philosophy is do what you can to survive,” Cassone said. “[And] you’ve got to give a good product, good customer service, hire good help and it will happen.”

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