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

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.

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