“For the love of the game” neatly summarizes the outlook of Carl Lathrop, co-owner of Rainbow Play Systems of Central Illinois. And while Lathrop’s affable demeanor and savvy sales skills are largely responsible for the business’ success, it wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the help of his daughter, Shannon Henry. She was the determining factor in Lathrop’s original decision to purchase the business, and more recently, to continue it. Together, the father-and-daughter team has nurtured a customer-centered business that can endure any hardship.
Buying Into Rainbow Play
Having devoted most of a 40-year career to selling process instrumentation, Lathrop was no stranger to customer service. But when he was asked to abandon his loyal customer base and uproot to a different region, he knew it was time for something new. “When you are a salesperson, your customer is your most important person—not the supplier, not even the person you work for,” he says. “The customer is always right, and that was a disservice to the customer.”
With the idea of owning his own business, Lathrop approached several business brokers about existing firms that might be available for purchase. One broker, aware of a unique company going up for sale, presented the option to Lathrop. The business, a seller of residential playground equipment, caught his attention. Though struggling, it had potential, and Lathrop thought he could put a little magic back into Rainbow Play Systems. But he was only willing to buy if his daughter was on board.
Having moved to California to attend a small Christian university, Shannon Henry was working at the Orange County Rescue Mission, where she had risen through the ranks to become director of its outreach program. When she and her husband decided to start a family, she decided it was time to move back to Peoria. Though her background was not in business, she agreed to help her father, and became the company’s bookkeeper.
“He felt that it would be better to have some kind of moral support behind him—not just family encouraging him, but someone actually involved,” she recalls. “And that’s how I got started doing the books.”
Getting Down to Business
“I am not an entrepreneur,” Lathrop claims, noting the difference between the roles of an entrepreneur and a business owner. “An entrepreneur will start up a business, and may go someplace else and start up another. I didn’t want to start from ground zero.” Nevertheless, both Lathrop and Henry understood that they would be investing copious amounts of time, money and effort to get the business on track. Keeping faith, they embraced the challenge.
Rainbow Play Systems of Central Illinois distributes Rainbow Play Systems playground equipment. With a reputation for safety and durability, these play sets have more than proven their quality to Lathrop, who notes that “if you don’t believe in the product, you aren’t going to be successful.” Made of North American Douglas fir, the equipment is generally impervious to insects and dry rot. If an issue does arise, it is resolved immediately, as the manufacturer offers an exclusive lifetime warranty. “[Rainbow Play] stands behind all of the wood components of the product,” confirms Lathrop.
The company offers two main styles of play sets: a castle and tire swing combination, and a clubhouse with either picnic table or sandbox. Each comes in four sizes and can be expanded by attaching various accessories, such as monkey bars, swings, rock walls or spiral slides. With each purchase comes the promise that the equipment will be installed within three weeks, and the company’s two landscape architects ensure that it is set up in a way best suited for each individual yard.
The Rainbow Play experience is about more than the product; it’s also about the brick-and-mortar store. “We are here,” says Lathrop. Unlike buying on the Internet, “you can touch and feel [the product].” In the showroom, a variety of play sets are available for children to try out, so parents can see which appeal most to them. Lathrop encourages groups of parents to bring their children for play dates, and for more exclusive gatherings, the showroom can be rented out.
Lathrop is a strong believer in the personal touch, always catering to the needs of the customer. Admitting that he will sometimes strike a deal with someone who can’t quite meet the list price, Lathrop smiles and adds that he then has to contend with Henry’s questioning why he didn’t hit margin. These differing styles are key ingredients in their overall success.
Bridging the Differences
Lathrop and Henry are well aware of the contrast in their respective approaches to business. “He is much more of a people person, and I am much more of an introvert,” states Henry. “I am more methodical. I go a little bit slower. I am much more of a devil’s advocate. That helps us balance each other out.”
“When you get into family business,” adds Lathrop, “you have to respect [each other]. She respects my marketing skills and personality skills…I respect everything she does. She’s got to have the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed. It’s got to be to the penny.”
Henry concedes that the balancing act is rounded out by the characteristics they share. “In some ways, my dad and I are very much alike. We are both very driven. We want to do everything the right way. So when it comes to how our company communicates who we are to people, we are on the same page completely. We want to have the best products and the best customer service.” This partnership helped carry Rainbow Play through the recent downturn and the challenges that followed in its wake.
Battling the Recession
With the downward spiral of the economy, Lathrop and Henry needed a new strategy to increase revenue and stay competitive. The use of social media was incorporated into the overall business strategy, but that alone was not enough. Lathrop decided it was time to break into a new market.
To complement its residential line, the company now sells Adventure Playground Systems, a commercial line of playground equipment for churches, day care centers and the like. By incorporating the new line, Lathrop and Henry managed to stay a step ahead of the recession. In fact, business has never been better. It’s hard to believe that just this past December, Lathrop questioned whether or not to keep it.
When Rainbow Play’s previous building was sold by its owner, Lathrop had three months to look for another location. After much consideration, he realized that the decision ultimately hinged yet again on his daughter. “If we were to stay open, she had to play a more active role.”
In a manner reminiscent of her father, Henry took on her new responsibilities with confidence. “As he phases himself out,” she says, “I need to phase myself in…I need to at least know all the things that he is doing and be able to pick them up if I have to.” Her first and most pressing job was to find a new location for the showroom, and she found just the place, moving the business to 2916A Alta Lane in north Peoria earlier this year.
“Had it not been for her,” Lathrop confides, “I probably would have pulled the plug.”
Loving the Game
Through all of these changes and challenges, Rainbow Play has never lost sight of its core values. At the heart of the business lies the old adage, “The customer knows best.”
Beyond that unwavering focus, Lathrop and Henry have established bonds in the community by supporting not-for-profit and charitable organizations, from Neighborhood House and the Cancer Center for Healthy Living to Wildlife Prairie State Park. Most recently, they donated a billboard to the Center for Prevention of Abuse to advertise its Duck Race this August.
For Lathrop, Rainbow Play means more than money. “You do it for the love of it,” he counsels. iBi