Ever since Mike and Debbie Disbrow were married, owning horses has been a part of their lifestyle. As newlyweds they bought and kept a one-acre horse farm until, years later, they traded up to the 20-acre farm of their dreams.
“We bought the place ‘as is,’ including a hodgepodge of old and deteriorating pasture fencing,” recalls Mike. “There was a mix of split rail, oak board, barbed wire, and woven wire fencing. So we did a lot of research in deciding on a new fence for our property.”
The process was arduous and difficult. “Back in 1988 when we bought the farm,” remembers Debbie, “fencing companies didn’t advertise very much. When you called, they didn’t provide much information about production options, installation, or warranties. So we listened to what the fence company told us we should do, since they claimed to have horse experience.”
Soon, however, the Disbrows learned two things the hard way. First, the fence supplier did not have the equine experience it claimed. And second, within a year the fence needed to be replaced.
Out of the couple’s experience an idea was born. “There needed to be a fencing company that was willing to work with its customers and answer their questions,” says Mike. He had a background in business and finance, while Debbie had a passion and knowledge about horses that she had cultivated since getting her first animal at the age of five. So in 1990 the Disbrows founded RAMM Fence Systems Inc. of Swanton, Ohio.
“Lots of businesses start on a shoestring,” laughs Mike, “but we started on half a shoestring!” At first the Disbrows ran the business from their dining room table, and then the family basement. Debbie worked in the business full-time from the beginning, and a year later Mike joined her full-time. “We worked out a deal with a local printer for a small tri-fold brochure, and then we went to every horse show that we could drive to,” he recalls. “That’s how we got the company off the ground.”
For her part, Debbie believes an important factor in the company’s early growth was its willingness to give female customers the attention they needed. “At the time we started our business,” she notes, “most fencing companies were run by men. Since they came from an agricultural or construction background, they were used to dealing with male customers. But by the early 1990s, horse barns weren’t just for farmers anymore. The woman of the house was often the person who dealt with contractors and equipment suppliers.”
By 1994, Mike reports, RAMM Fence Systems was generating enough earnings “to stop living from hand-to-mouth and start investing in growth and expansion.” A dozen years later the company now employs 40 full-time and 12 part-time staff, operates a distribution and call center in Swanton, and runs a manufacturing facility and additional call center in nearby Bryan, Ohio. And its product line includes horse fencing, stall systems, and barn equipment.
Though horse owners can buy directly from RAMM Fence Systems, the Disbrows believe their company also has much to offer rural builders. “The reason horse barns are so popular,” explains Debbie, “is that people are so busy today, they want something that can be relaxing and recreational for them. They’re too busy to build the barn themselves or act as their own general contractor. So builders can tap into a big and growing market if they’re able to provide equine customers with turnkey projects.”
To serve these rural builders, Debbie says her company strives to be a “one-stop shop” where contractors can get all the equipment they need — fencing, stalls, and more — to finish out a barn project. Contractors who are entering the equine market will also find that RAMM and its staff “will answer your questions and provide you with information and advice, based on our expertise with horses and barns,” she adds.
Getting advice from an experienced manufacturer is also helpful for veteran equine builders, Mike believes. “The barns being built today are evolving differently than the barns built in the past,” he points out. “More people want to keep their horses at home, rather than board them. That means fencing and safety are really important, because you can’t let your horse get loose in a housing development.”
Keeping horses at home, continues Debbie, has brought other changes to barn design. More emphasis on architecture and aesthetics is one result, she says, as well as more focus on interior comfort. “The old idea of a barn was a place to hold and feed your animals until you could put them out to pasture,” she explains. “Now people want to enjoy being in, and even living in, their horse barns. You might have living quarters and a laundry. Sometimes the barn is better than the house! People are so busy, they want an escape.”
The clientele for equine construction has also changed, Mike observes. “The equine market is growing at an enormous rate,” he reports. “We deal with a lot of people who are new to horses and who are thinking about a barn for the first time. That wasn’t true 10 years ago. Back then, we didn’t talk to very many people who were newcomers.”
Whether the Disbrows and their staff are working with horse owners or with builders, Debbie explains, “Our goal is to explain fencing so that customers can understand it and do it right. That’s how we differentiate ourselves.”
To illustrate his wife’s point, Mike remembers a phone call he received in October 1996. “The fence business slows down in the fall and we’re happy to get some work that time of year,” he says. The call came from a nationally known corporate executive who had picked up a RAMM brochure and wanted a fence installed at his corporate headquarters. Given its visibility, the project would be a year-round advertisement for the Disbrows.
“But when we talked to his people and found out they were determined to do the project a certain way, we knew their plan wouldn’t work and so we turned down the job,” Mike recalls. As much as RAMM needed the income and visibility, the company did not want to be part of a project that was not properly executed. As it turned out, he relates, “Six months later they called us back and wanted to follow our recommendations.”
Change and Opportunity
One reason that horse barns and horse owners are changing “is that the rural market is being impacted by the city,” Debbie points out. Builders who a generation ago served a strictly rural environs and agricultural economy, she notes, now find themselves surrounded by exurban development.
“As the suburbs grow and as more jobs become located in the suburbs,” Debbie believes, “people are moving further out where it’s less dense, so they can have the lifestyle they want and escape the rat race.” Rural contractors can either travel increasing distances to find agricultural jobs, she says, or must build the types of projects their new neighbors want. For that reason, she advises, “Horse barns are great projects for rural builders!”
The Disbrows want to help builders tap into the equine market. “If your company grows, so does ours,” Mike points out. “And the actual construction techniques for a horse barn aren’t that different from other projects you’re already building. The difference isn’t in the structure, but mostly on the inside of the building.”
To learn about those differences, Mike counsels builders to “go around and look at barns and see what other people do.” RAMM provides information on equine construction, as do other manufacturers and distributors. “It’s also good to learn about the horses themselves. For example, they’re outdoor animals and so they need good ventilation when they’re indoors. And since they spend 50 to 75 percent of the time outdoors, your customers need to be sure and budget enough money for a good fence system. Sometimes customers can pay so much attention to the barn, the fencing is an afterthought.”
RAMM has built its business through referrals and repeat customers, which account for 67 percent of its business. “As an equine builder, you can do the same thing,” Mike suggests. “Go to the major shows, get yourself established, and build a reputation for helping the owner and the architect through the entire process. Horse barns are more upscale today and so you can really add value to your customers by helping them get through the whole project.”
Even when owners have a spare-no-expense mentality, horse barn projects can still go awry. “Probably the most common mistake builders make,” Mike relates, “is poor placement of the barn. We’ve seen barns that have been placed according to aesthetic considerations but, due to the placement, they don’t function very well.”
To help overcome such pitfalls, Mike advises rural builders to do their homework in selecting a supplier — whether they choose RAMM or another legitimate manufacturer or distributor. “Check out the supplier’s finances and references, and ask those references how the supplier handles warranties,” he urges. “There are a lot of fly-by-night companies who put up great offers on the Internet and then they go away.”
An Effective Team
At home, the Disbrows continue to be active in the horse community. As Debbie explains, “We’ve owned everything from draft horses to ponies, including warmbloods, thoroughbreds, and quarter horses.”
Over the years, the couple has been active at various times in showing and boarding horses. “But now we mostly do pleasure riding and teach our grandkids how to ride,” laughs Mike. And though horses have been a longtime passion for the Disbrows, Debbie says the couple also keeps “reindeer, goats, miniature Jerusalem donkeys, and one pig!”
The couple also forms an effective business team. “Mike is good with the business side and with the finances and long-term vision,” explains Debbie. Her husband returns the favor by saying his wife “is great at working with customers and with people in general, and with the public relations and education aspects, because her passion really comes through. It’s a passion she’s been able to spread to all our employees and throughout the operation.”
Despite their longtime involvement with horses, the Disbrows are decidedly not set in their ways. “As a company,” notes Debbie, “we’ve got to grow with the times. We do extensive employee training to keep up with the latest research. And our manufacturing department continues to increase in people and technology, so that we can fabricate the customized items that people want to have in today’s sophisticated horse barns.”
Unlike some other manufacturers, RAMM focuses only on the equine industry and not on fencing for other livestock. Yet as equine research and manufacturing technology advance, the Disbrows believe the values on which they founded their company are even more important. “People today appreciate old-fashioned, one-on-one customer attention,” says Debbie, “more than ever.”