In December 2010, Trainers Warehouse founder, Michael Doctoroff, passed away after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Mike’s warmth, creativity, playfulness and intelligence became the core values of his company, which he and daughter, Susan Landay, worked tirelessly to grow into a valued, recognizable brand.
For almost a dozen years, Trainers Warehouse, a direct marketer of innovative and playful tools that enhance learning, has maintained a relationship with the MSBDC’s Central Regional Office at Clark University and its director, Larry Marsh. “It’s been a relationship of mutual respect and support,” says chairman Michael Doctoroff, who founded the company in 1990. “Early on, Larry helped us focus our business plan in order to secure bank financing. But over the years, we have sought him out as a sounding board on new marketing initiatives and financial challenges as well.”
Based in Natick, Trainers Warehouse thrives with a direct marketing strategy (full-color print and website catalogs and trade show appearances) that offers trainers and educators hundreds of innovative products that combine educational and entertainment value. Doctoroff, his daughter, Susan Doctoroff Landay (the company’s president), and twenty employees offer 25,000 repeat customers worldwide an eclectic assortment of 350 products, many of them developed in-house. Some of the product categories include games for active learning; trainers’ icebreakers and comic relief props; document holders and certificate frames; and books, videos, and e‑learning software. Best sellers developed on the premises include the DocU-Pocket—a thin plastic Velcro-backed frame for displaying certificates of merit; the Who’s 1st? and Me 1st wireless game buzzers; a hand-fan sized white board on a stick; and a sound effects box that offers (think game show soundscapes) introductory fanfares, closing codas, applause, and accompaniments for cogitation and correct and incorrect answers.
Steady Growth From the Beginning. For much of its history, Trainers Warehouse has enjoyed spectacular growth. “We doubled every year for our first five or six years,” recalls Doctoroff. “From then until 2004 we grew annually by 40 to 50%, and until 2009 by 10 to15%. In 2009, with the economy in recession, we were able to hold sales steady,” adds Landay. “Until the economy improves, we plan to grow as much as possible while breaking even.”
“Early on, Larry convinced me to pursue financing through debt rather than equity. He helped me to present a plan that the banks would buy,” Doctoroff recalls. “I was convinced that we would grow aggressively—more aggressively than Larry thought the banks would accept. So I set more modest goals for my presentations.” Marsh and Doctoroff, it turned out, were both right. With its hedged numbers, Trainers Warehouse got its bank loan, but growth hit Doctoroff’s previous ambitious targets anyway. As the company grew, the MSBDC helped it prepare for new rounds of financing. As late as 2007 the MSBDC helped Trainers solidify its credit line with TD Bank.
Strategic Decisions. “We’ve regularly sought the MSBDC’s advice in our annual performance reviews and every quarter we’d get its input on various aspects of our business—financial, operations, marketing—you name it,” recalls Doctoroff. “We’ve valued Larry’s insights on new product development (including his participation in focus groups) and on business strategy itself.” (Through the MSBDC, a graduate student team from Clark University explored areas of expansion for one of the company’s key products.)
In the late 1990s, the firm expanded beyond its original market of corporate trainers to embrace educators in general. To that end, Trainers Warehouse began producing a special catalog for educators for mail and trade show distribution.
“We’re always on the lookout for innovative materials with graphic and humorous appeal for K‑12 teachers,” notes Landay, who may be the only woman on the planet to hold both an MBA degree from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and an MFA (Masters of Fun Arts) from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College.
Having avoided selling more commoditized products like overhead transparencies, projectors, and flip charts, Doctoroff exults that “we don’t have a lot of competitors in this space.” Instead, the company’s relentless focus on developing one-of-a-kind tools that help make teaching and learning more effective and fun contributes to its customers’ perceptions that Trainers Warehouse is the expert in interactive tools for brain-based learning. At the same time, Landay is quick to credit those customers for the firm’s success: “Dad and I wouldn’t be where we are without our customers’ input. Their suggestions and enthusiasm are our lifeblood.”
Larry Marsh is no less enthusiastic: “Mike and Sue are unusually creative, innovative and inspirational managers of a truly successful family-owned, niche business. They are very aware of their markets and pay close attention to their customers. They are superb “marketeers” and very diligent in managing their financial health. Just as important, they are wonderful people. I am honored to be part of their support team.”