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

CINDY MYER, 52

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.

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