Dell and NFIB Winner: Donald A. Gardner Architects

Out of 125 entries, the judges (members of the Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship of the University of Texas at Austin) chose ten finalists, and from the final ten they selected one national winner: Donald A. Gardner Architects located in Greenville, S.C. We take a look at the company, what it does and why it took the top prize.

The Company

Since1978, Donald A. Gardner Architects (DAG) has had one goal: “to be the most highly respected provider of pre-designed house plans in the country.” The 56-employee company designs, markets and sells house plans that offer a large choice of styles, square footage, amenities and custom features across the United States and in 18 countries around the world.

The company’s designs have appeared in magazines such as Southern Living, Better Homes and Gardens, Home, House Beautiful, Builder, Garlinghouse, and Home Planners. In addition to designing residential home plans, DAG also offers services in plan modifications, development planning, marketing products and assistance for developers and builders. The in-house marketing team also publishes a full-color magazine &#151 featuring the company’s newest and most popular designs &#151 three times a year.

Designing Excellent Customer Service
he company won the contest for its innovative use of technology to better serve its customers. In this case, the technology refers to DAG’s Web site. “We launched our site in 1997 primarily to showcase our brochures,” says Angela Santerini, the company’s president. “In 1999, we decided to make the investment and develop the site into a full, e-commerce package.”

The Web site is impressive, both for its scope and its ease of use. The company targets consumers, builders, developers and realtors. Any of these customer groups can quickly search for and find the information they need, 24 hours a day.

Dell/NFIB Small Business Excellence in Customer Service Award logo

You can search for house plans in a number of ways: based on square footage, number of bedrooms, number of floors or by category, plan number and name or plan style. Register for My DAG, a free online membership service, and you can save your plans and search criteria, compare and view plans on the same page and receive notification when new plans become available.

The site doesn’t just provide information to DAG’s customers &#151 it’s fully integrated with the company’s inside ordering and sales processes. According to Rob Davis, the company’s IT manager, the software lets them track what their customers buy and what features they’re interested in.

“Our DOORS (DAG Online Order Response System) program tracks all the information,” he says. “From the size of doors and windows to the plan that’s the current best-seller in any given part of the country. Our sales and marketing reps, architects, support team and shipping department can all access the information they need from one program.”

What’s Next
One of the prizes DAG won is a trip to Texas to spend a Day with Dell, including time with Michael Dell. “That’s very exciting,” says Santerini. “We’re going with open minds and lots of questions.” During their visit, they hope to improve the way they do business, network and develop relationships. “Dell’s the best at what they do, and that’s what we want to be.”

DAG has been a member of the NFIB since 1995, and will receive a lifetime membership as part of the award. “We received great feedback from [NFIB president and CEO] Jack Faris,” says Santerini. “He liked the fact that we weren’t a technology company, but rather a firm that uses technology to improve our business.”

And as for the $20,000 cash prize, Rob Davis says they’ll all sit down as a team and decide what they need most. “Our current server is co-located, ” he says. “That is, a third party gives us server space off site. We’d like to bring the server in-house so we have better integration with our DOORS software.”

Keys To Success
As most small business owners know, envisioning, planning and integrating technology takes time and commitment. Santerini credits her employees for their incredible teamwork, while Paula Powers, DAG’s writer and public relations administrator says, “Don, Angela and our executive team have always been excited by, and open to, information technology. They bring ideas to the table and support the ideas developed by their staff. Without this type of leadership, it would have been hard to achieve what we accomplished.”

At post time, Dell said it plans to hold this contest annually. You should find more information on the contest at Dell’s site starting in February.

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor at

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