Suddenly You're the Boss

What happens when fate puts you in charge of the family business? These four women decided failure wasn’t an option

By Andrea Atkins
Despite having minimal business experience, Myer rescued her late husband’s company from near bankruptcy.
Photograph: Ian Allen


From | Stay-at-Home Mom

To | Moving-Company Owner

On a steamy morning in June 2005, Cindy Myer wandered around the warehouse of Ridgewood Moving Services, the New Jersey–based company owned by her husband, Rob. Only days earlier, he’d died of a heart attack, leaving her in charge during the busiest season. By sifting through the files stashed in Rob’s office and questioning the 15-person staff, Myer, then 45, tried to figure out the procedures he’d used to run the business. As far as she could tell, a system didn’t exist: There was no paperwork showing who was assigned to a move or how income and expenses flowed. Myer had once worked as a manager at Saks Fifth Avenue and as a buyer for retail catalogs, but for 17 years she’d been a full-time mother of two daughters. She’d taken little interest in her husband’s world of moving vans and customer service. Now the family business would be her only source of income, and she was determined to keep it going. “We buried Rob on Saturday, and I was in the office on Monday,” she says. “I wanted to send my daughters a message that we have choices in life and you should never give up, even if you don’t know what the heck you’re doing.”

Over the next few months, Myer learned the business from scratch. “My signature was on the checks, and I wanted to see where the money was going,” she says. But the employees were uncooperative. “I’d request something from the operations-support woman, and she’d say, ‘That’s not my job.’ ” Myer soon discovered that the drivers had been doing moves on their own time, using Ridgewood’s equipment. “I’d notice a truck was missing, supply boxes were disappearing,” she says. “That’s money flying out the window. I told them using company equipment is stealing, and anyone caught would be fired immediately.” Six months later, on a holiday weekend, she got a phone call from a friend.

“Are you doing a job today?” the friend asked.

“No. Why?” Myer answered.

“Because we’re driving in Pennsylvania, and we just saw a Ridgewood Moving truck in front of someone’s house.”

Myer immediately drove to the warehouse, saw that one of the trucks was missing and spotted one of her workers’ cars. “I was so angry, so upset,” she says. She called him several times; eventually he answered. Myer demanded to know where he was.

“Where do you think I am?” he snapped. “I’m doing a job—for myself.”

Myer stood in the hot parking lot, sweat rolling down her back, feeling very alone. She phoned the police, and after a standoff, the employee returned the truck. That was the last Myer saw of him. (A week later he opened his own moving company, and continues to be one of her competitors.)

Other labor problems surfaced, and the business was losing money. “I’d put on a big show at the office, and then I’d go home and cry,” says Myer. Friends pitched in for free, doing job estimates and calling suppliers to win time to pay bills. Against the advice of experts, she pumped her husband’s life insurance money into the business. She joined an entrepreneurial association, the Women Presidents’ Organization, and members there gave her the advice that helped her move forward: Fire fast and hire slow. “The day I fired the last of the original -employees—two years after taking over—was the first day I was able to exhale,” she says.

In 2008, Myer became one of the first female members of the New Jersey Warehousemen & Movers Association’s executive board. Initially, the men there gave her a less-than-enthusiastic welcome. But in the fall of 2010, at its annual dinner, the group honored her with a special service award. “It really touched me,” she says. Last year, sales increased 17 percent over the previous year, and by the end of 2011, her cash flow had improved by 300 percent. “I am so proud of this company,” she says. “We’ve survived the recession. And we’re in such a different place. I’ve really accomplished something here.”

Jayne Millard, 49

From | Dance-Company Fund Raiser

To | Electrical Business CEO

Jayne Millard was sitting at the kitchen table in her cottage overlooking the hills of Marin County, California, one morning in January 1999 when she got a call from her mother, Suzanne. “The business needs you,” said Suzanne, referring to the family’s New Jersey–based electrical and industrial--products distribution company. “I want you to come back east and prepare to run Turtle & Hughes.” Millard felt a chill. All her life, she’d hoped that this moment wouldn’t come, that one of her siblings would take over the CEO spot from their mother. It wasn’t the first time Suzanne had raised the subject, but Millard’s heart had always called her in another direction.

Millard had spent the previous 12 years as a marketing consultant and fund raiser for the choreographer Martha Graham and, after her death, as a trustee for the Graham company. “I loved working for an American genius,” she says. “Every day was like reporting to a shaman.” Millard and her husband, a software engineer, and their children were attached to California’s laid-back lifestyle, and Millard didn’t want to give up her flexible schedule.

A part-time MBA student and a member of Turtle & Hughes’s board of directors, Millard had a basic understanding of the company. Still, listening to her mother, she says, “I felt conflicted and scared. But my mother is forceful, dynamic, full of conviction. She said to me, ‘You’ve got so much experience in marketing and sales; you’re the right one.’ ” For the first time, Millard heard something else in her mother’s voice: She was getting old and needed help. “What finally pushed me to say yes was having the chance to be part of something bigger than me, something that my great-grandfather had started,” says Millard. “Now I would see where I could take it.”

She packed up the family and moved to Connecticut, near the company’s satellite office, where she was assigned to the marketing department (her husband eventually took a position in IT). The 550-employee firm, where her father served as chief operating officer, sells engineering services and products such as generators and fiber-optic cable (they’ve providedthe lights for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree). “At Martha Graham, I’d been immersed in a world inspired by artistic creativity,” she says. “Now I was in a world where profit was the inspiration. I didn’t know if I had the right qualities.”

Millard faced her first test within months of arriving when she noticed interdepartmental conflicts that were hurting productivity. “The electrical-sales division had highly trained, very technical people who sold high-tech equipment, while the industrial division sold things like adhesives, cutting tools, abrasives, even toilet paper. It was like putting students of the Cordon Bleu in a group with fans of McDonald’s,” she says. “We needed some sort of team intervention.” Gradually, she discovered she had a knack for managing people. “I sat everyone in a room and opened the floodgates, and people started to talk,” she says. After several sessions, Millard recommended changes, and the two divisions started to get along much better. Her self-doubt dissolved. “I just love that stuff,” she says. “That’s my forte, digging into conflict and coming to a resolution.”

Six years later, she was promoted to VP of marketing, and in 2009, at age 46, she became CEO. “In the past year, revenues have grown from $400 million to $450 million, about 13 percent,” she says. But her biggest reward has been working alongside her parents. “My mother was my mentor,” she says. “At first, I wondered how I could ever fill her shoes. Now I feel honored. I’m carrying on a tradition across generations.”

Tillie Hidalgo Lima, 51

From  | Pharmacist

To | Concierge-Company CEO

In April 2002, Tillie Hidalgo Lima’s husband, Dave, asked her to take over the concierge company he’d founded in Cincinnati. “I’m burned out,” she remembers him saying, “and the financials are bad. I need to find another source of income for our family.” A former pharmacist, Hidalgo Lima had zero executive experience, but she was already working in the company and knew enough to fear for its future. Best Upon Request, which provides services for hospital and business employees—travel planning, errand running—had recently lost its largest client. “They represented 74 percent of our business,” she says. “And we hadn’t yet replaced them.” Hidalgo Lima had been drafted by her husband six years earlier to take charge of customer care. “We need someone with your numbers and people skills,” he’d told her. Now Dave was asking her to run a business on the brink of bankruptcy.

“I was scared,” says Hidalgo Lima. “But I said I would do it.” Before leaving, Dave took out a $350,000 loan from the Small Business Administration (SBA) so that the company would have some cash flow. The couple’s home served as collateral.

In the next few weeks, with a growing sense of urgency, Hidalgo Lima, then 42, reached out for advice. Through the peer-to-peer advisory group Vistage, she signed up for monthly consultations with a coach. Dave taught her how to read their financial statements. That fall, she called all 13 of her employees into a conference room for a meeting. “Guys, I need your help,” she said. “This ship is sinking. We’ve got to increase revenue and decrease expenses. Do you have any ideas?” They suggested that she set sales targets and incentives, and she quickly began putting their recommendations into practice.

Hidalgo Lima applied for Minority Business Enterprise certification. She was born in Cuba, and her parents escaped to the U.S. when she was nine months old, “with just one suitcase and 10 pesos,” she says. The certification would help Best Upon Request seek contracts from companies with a mission to do business with minority vendors. But progress was slow. “There were nights I didn’t sleep,” she says. “At one point, I called my bank and said, ‘Please, can you float us so we can make payroll? Please?’ The banker said, ‘Tillie, this is the last time.’ And it was.” The first year she took over, the business turned a small profit.

But as the company recovered, Hidalgo Lima’s marriage struggled. “Dave was my greatest cheerleader,” she says. “He believed I had it in me to become CEO. But he also felt unhappy about no longer being part of the team. He was working on consulting projects. I couldn’t talk to him about the business for fear of hurting his feelings, and at home I was still doing the grocery shopping and all the cooking.” One night, she straggled in after 8 pm, hungry, exhausted and loaded down with her briefcase and laptop. Dave and their three daughters were watching TV. They smiled at her and asked, “What’s for dinner?”

Hidalgo Lima carried her resentment around for months, until she insisted that she and Dave go for couples therapy. “It was amazing,” she says. “We learned to communicate better, and we’ve completely reversed roles. He does all the shopping, and when I get home, dinner is ready.”

In 2010, Best Upon Request paid off its SBA loan. The company now employs more than 100 people at over 200 client locations in 12 states. Hidalgo Lima has received many honors, including the 2008 Brillante Award for Entrepreneurial Excellence from the National Society of Hispanic MBAs. Two of her daughters have joined the business. “I’m very proud of the company. There’s energy and a positive outlook here,” says Hidalgo Lima, who likes to think that her CEO title stands for chief encouragement officer. “But lots of people helped me. There’s no way I could have done this alone.”


From | Insurance Agent

To |  Feed-Store Owner

Sandy Hansen had been married for less than 15 months when she lost her husband, Randy, to leukemia. Days after the funeral, Hansen, an insurance agent living in Watkins, Minnesota, sat at Randy’s desk, went through the financial paperwork and saw for the first time that her husband’s -animal-feed store, AgVenture Feed & Seed, had racked up almost $500,000 in debt, much of it secured by the equity in their home. “There was no way I could have sold the business and broken even,” she says.

She decided to fight to turn the company around. “I’m going to try to learn the business,” Hansen told the staff, “and we’ll work things out.” She extended the leave of absence she’d taken from the insurance job and headed to AgVenture every day, her stomach in knots. “I kept wondering, Would this be the day that we have to declare bankruptcy?” she says. With no background in the business and no idea why it was doing so poorly, she spent hours with an accountant and a banker, trying to figure out ways to make the store more efficient.

The company had always ground most of its own feed, a costly process, so she decided to eliminate that step and sell preground feed. She began to contract out some parts of the business, such as deliveries. “I made it up as I went along,” she says. She never let on to the farmers who shopped at the store that she was near bankruptcy, never told her parents or siblings what was happening. The experience reminded her of an undergraduate internship she’d had at a nonprofit. “My boss threw me into roles where I was completely lost. But I always got the job done,” she says. “That taught me to take limited information and just go for it.”

Hansen soon discovered that some of her freelance sales representatives were selling feed directly to farmers, which was cutting into her business. Hansen invited the reps (all men), one by one, to her back office for a chat and let them know flat out that this would not be tolerated: “I had to be stern and direct and establish myself as a force. I had to let people know, ‘I’m not going away.’ This is what women have to do in business. We have to work twice as hard as men to establish credibility, and only then do we get to play in the game. But in the end, being a woman is a blessing because once you establish yourself, you stand out.”

Since Hansen took over in 2003 (she quit her insurance job in 2004), she’s paid off all of AgVenture’s debt. It took three years of nearly 24/7 devotion to stabilize the business, but annual revenues have risen from $1.4 million to $4 million. Hansen donates at least 10 percent of her profits (and 10 percent of her personal wages) to local charities each year, leading the community to root for her success. “Some huge miracles have happened because I had to take over the business,” says Hansen. “That I had the tenacity to get through this is a miracle in itself.” 

Andrea Atkins, a frequent contributor to national magazines, lives in Rye, New York.

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First Published Mon, 2012-04-02 12:29

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