Many successful businesswomen pick and choose among diverse opportunities to create a niche where they can prosper. Others, like Barbara Keffer, are simply born into situations that set them on a path to personal and professional fulfillment.
Keffer, who owns and operates Country Care Manor, a 75-resident personal care home in Fayette City, grew up around a nursing home run by her parents. She got her first job there and used that experience as a springboard to ownership of a similar facility.
"My mother and father started the Waddington Convalescent Home in 1954, and I was 12 years old when I started working there," Keffer says.
After high school, she trained as a licensed practical nurse and continued working at her parents' facility --rising to assistant administrator -- until 1986.
"Although it is certainly a business, personal care is also a vocation," Keffer says of her decision to follow in her parents' footsteps. "You must either have, or develop, certain ways of looking at life and other people. You must develop qualities like patience, compassion and respect.
"It's as much about attitude as it is about ability."
A place of her own
Keffer became an entrepreneur in 1986. With her husband as her partner, she built Country Care Manor as what she describes as a modern expression of the Waddington Home, where her husband had worked as well. Originally, the facility housed 12 residents; today, it accommodates nearly 80 and employs 40 workers. The grounds cover 12 acres in the semi-rural Fayette County countryside.
Keffer says most of the facility is configured as semi-private quarters, and it offers six private rooms. Additional expansion, in the form of free-standing, cottage-style private quarters, was under consideration two years ago, but those plans were shelved when her husband died.
Despite the loss of her husband, Keffer has followed the winning formula of family involvement that she learned growing up at the Waddington Home. Her two daughters work for her part-time, and her son, Jeff, a former accountant in Pittsburgh, has joined her full time.
Keffer explains that the so-called "nursing home" industry encompasses three distinct levels of care:
- Personal care, such as that offered at Country Care Manor, in which residents are largely autonomous and receive assistance only with certain aspects of daily activity;
- Intermediate care, which provides limited medical and nursing support in addition to assistance with "activities of daily living" (ADL);
- Skilled nursing care, which combines residential living with complete medical and nursing support.
Each type is closely monitored and licensed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and faces extensive annual inspections to maintain licensing.
"We may be very, very good or very lucky at what we do," Keffer jokes, "because in 14 years, we've never had a single issue with licensing or inspection. Seriously, though, that's a part of the business you absolutely must take seriously.
"We like to think that this facility operates like a very large family and that human values are essential," she adds. "But there are hard and fast requirements and responsibilities, too, and we have to conduct ourselves strictly within them."
If Keffer has done well with the main mission -- the provision of personal care -- she's been continually challenged by the business end of the operation, especially with personnel.
"The single hardest part of the business is attracting and retaining good workers," Keffer says.
Although her work force includes maintenance and food service workers, as well as a full-time registered nurse, the majority of her employees provide care to residents.
"I have several people who have been with me since Day One, but there's quite a bit of turnover, and it's not always easy to maintain staffing," she says. "Scheduling and recruitment are constant concerns. And we're competing for a limited pool of workers with some of the giant retail establishments in the area. Frankly, this work isn't for everybody. It takes a certain kind of person with special qualities.
"I'm sure it's much easier for many people to work at Wal-Mart."
Staffing and scheduling concerns are not peculiar only to Fayette County or to personal care homes. All types of residential operations -- including intermediate care, skilled nursing care and facilities specializing in mental health support -- are challenged to find a steady supply of dependable, willing and enthusiastic people to do the work for modest wages.
"It's a matter of revenue," Keffer concludes. "Our residents have modest and fixed assets, so there's only a limited amount of money in the system. As a result, we're limited in the financial incentives we can offer workers." But, she adds, "that doesn't mean we can't do the job -- and do it extremely well. It means we have to be flexible and adaptable. This is, after all, very much a 'people' business." How to reach: Barbara Keffer at Country Care Manor, (724) 326-4909 or firstname.lastname@example.org
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.
Some call it the "Eureka! experience," others the "Aha! moment."
Though few of us have known it first-hand, Melanie Patterson experienced it -- and she's changing the way babies are fed as a result.
Her simple invention, PIBS (paper bibs on a roll), does for parents, grandparents and caregivers of young children what paper towels did for cleaner-uppers: It makes the entire messy, but essential feeding business faster, easier and a little bit of fun.
Did somebody say "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?"
PIBS are sturdy, soft, one-size disposable paper bibs dispensed on a roll. PIBS goes on baby, baby slops food and other substances on PIBS, PIBS goes in the trash -- germs, mess and all.
Although it sounds like a natural winner and is almost as brilliant in its simplicity as The Pet Rock, Patterson says the inspiration was the easy part. Going from concept to product to distribution and revenue has resulted in a harrowing couple of years.
Innovation born of necessity
"PIBS is a product designed by a working mom for working moms," Patterson says. "My son, Cody, [now 5 years old] needed fluoride supplements, and if you've ever tried to feed an infant droplets of fluoride, you know it's a pretty messy ordeal. I was going through cloth bibs like crazy. To me, the perfect solution was a disposable bib.
"I thought, 'Surely somebody makes those.' But after searching high and low, I couldn't find them anywhere. That's when my husband, Bob, said, 'Why don't you make your own?'"
Why not, indeed?
"A little light bulb went on in my head," she says. "If we'd known then how complex a process it was going to be, I'm not sure I would have pursued it. But I did -- so here we are."
Now a full-time entrepreneur and still a full-time mom to Cody, Patterson was no slouch before Cody and PIBS came along. A native of the Belle Vernon area, she attended high school locally and earned bachelor's and master's degrees at California University of Pennsylvania.
She enjoyed a 10-year career as an educator, specializing in early development, and implemented federal grants to establish innovative pilot programs for young children in two suburban school districts.
But this is not your stereotypical kindergarten teacher. Patterson ran for and was crowned Mrs. United States in Las Vegas in 1993. She jokes, "When Cody was born, I traded tournaments and tiaras for diapers and dishes."
No substitute for hard work
The common notion is that one dreams up a nifty invention, tosses on a patent and sells the whole deal to an multinational corporation for eight figures and moves to Palm Beach. But it's just a notion.
"I learned quickly that the big companies are inundated with people's bright ideas," Patterson says. "Plus, they have their own employees hard at work to develop new products in-house. So if I wanted this to become a reality, I was going to have to do it."
The first step was meeting with patent attorneys and engineers to determine if the PIBS idea had already been accomplished elsewhere. When a patent search showed the coast was clear, Patterson began the long, tedious search for a materials supplier and a manufacturer to make the product. After searching North America, she wound up doing business with Berkley Medical Resources in Uniontown, just a few miles down the road. Berkley produces PIBS with the same high-quality, sterile paper used in surgical masks and hospital supplies.
For the past year, PIBS has been marketed via the Web and toll-free fax. This month, a regional television commercial debuts, and PIBS hits the shelves of Giant Eagle supermarkets in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Then, she says, she plans to roll out a national campaign and develop production and distribution capabilities to serve a wider market. Naturally, she will still entertain offers of eight figures if, say, Procter & Gamble comes calling.
She says advertising will stress hygiene and convenience and suggest PIBS as ideal gifts for young mothers, especially in welcome-home-from-the-hospital packages. Because of the low cost and convenient packaging, Patterson thinks customers will buy several packages and keep them in strategic locations -- car, home, grandma's house and day care.
Like one well-accustomed to receiving accolades and making gracious acceptance speeches, Patterson is quick to credit her supporters along the entrepreneurial trail -- from Cody and her husband to her banker, lawyers, suppliers, manufacturer, consultants and everyone else who helped make PIBS a reality.
Asked if there is any special quality about herself that brought the venture this far, she muses: "Two things -- sheer, utter tenacity and the willingness to let the experts use their expertise." How to reach: Melanie Patterson, PIBS Paper Bibs on a Roll, (877) 930-PIBS (7427) or www.pibsonaroll.com
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.
Though it isn't unanimous, a majority of entrepreneurs featured in this "Women In Business Series" got their start with a dream to enjoy work and family -- not an easy thing to accomplish when running in the rat race. Lucy Garrighan, president and founder of Business Alternatives Inc. (BAI), is one of the most compelling examples.
Ten years ago, when her oldest child was 7 years old, Garrighan did the unthinkable -- she quit her job of eight years, started her own company and went into business in direct competition with her former employer, the giant Xerox Corp.
Today, Business Alternatives is two businesses, with more than 40 employees and projected annual revenue in excess of $8 million. More important, though, Garrighan says, is that she's had the opportunity to be an excellent mother to her four children, including a 1-year-old toddler, and still has 98 percent of the customers she started with in 1990.
"I didn't want to juggle work and family," she recalls, "but I never imagined it would go this well. I am so fortunate to have assembled such a wonderful staff and such quality customers. I think it's a measure of our success that we have such low turnover of both workers and customers."
The Garrighan decade
Garrighan, a former Xerox Education Market executive -- and her husband, John, then a corporate service manager -- started the company with two technicians. After starting by offering service contracts on Xerox large-volume duplicators, Business Alternatives went on to the remanufacturing and selling of Xerox high-speed copiers.
Garrighan says Business Alternatives offers full-service maintenance on these products at a cost that is at least 30 percent less than what the manufacturer charges. Its response time for Xerox equipment averages two hours or less.
In 1993, the company acquired a larger facility and became the largest independent Xerox remanufacturer and service company in the Northeast, and one of the top three Xerox independent companies in the country.
To address the mid- and low-volume needs of its existing customer base, BAI became an authorized Minolta dealer in 1994. Over the years, it's added products from Gestetner, OkiData, Samsung and Standard.
Although Garrighan's core business is sales and service of analog, digital and color copiers and fax machines, she created BAI Printing three years ago. The second business does about 3 million copies a month, much of it one-color outsourced material from organizations that don't want the trouble and expense of maintaining and staffing their own print shops.
Lurking in the eastern suburbs
Born in North Versailles, Garrighan was educated at the University of Pittsburgh and lives in Penn Township with her husband/partner and their four children. The businesses are located in Plum Borough.
"You might think I don't get around much with a geographic history like that," she jokes, "but the businesses cover five counties -- and so do I."
Garrighan says the key to her businesses is "knowing our customers and their needs. ...Unlike the giant companies, we're not bloated with bureaucracy and overhead costs. So we have partnerships with our customers -- the whole thing is geared to maintaining their satisfaction.
"Our incentives are customer driven. Our technicians are paid monthly bonuses based on clearly established objectives which are customer oriented, not bottom line oriented."
The printing business alternative
BAI Printing offers a line of services including large-volume and high-speed copying and printing in one-color and full-color, plus tabs, laminating, shrink-wrapping, binding, folding and stapling, two- and four-color offset, and graphic design.
Says Garrighan, "We also offer customized copier facilities management programs providing on-site personnel to manage and monitor copying programs. We can also manage mail, records, micrographics and engineering duplication services."
The printing business is technologically robust, she adds. In the decade she's been in business, printing has moved from hard-copy master art prepared by hand through traditional means by pencil- and knife-wielding graphic artists to fully electronic and paperless input. What once involved careful handling and messenger delivery of master keyline art is now accomplished by simple transfer of sturdy diskettes or direct electronic transfer of design and text files.
"I can remember when we thought the personal computer and business software would usher in the paperless society," Garrighan recalls. "Well, fortunately for Business Alternatives, people seem to like to have something in their hands, and not just on their screens." How to reach: Lucy Garrighan, Business Alternatives Inc., (724) 325-2777 or www.busalt.com
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.
Call it recreational diversity or quality of life or urban sophistication every winning metropolitan area has it.
Unfortunately, robust technology, willing venture capitalists and capable workers cannot by themselves drive a community to national success or prominence.
The notion often is debated, but lets face it its often the nonbusiness businesses that provide character and spirit to a community and create a regional image that attracts people, ideas and investment, fueling an upward spiral of growth and prosperity.
For a city of its size, Pittsburgh has an unusually deep and diverse selection of such invaluable assets, and they play a major role in the vitality of the Southwestern Pennsylvania region.
Creating cultural treasures
One of the most influential of these organizations is The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, a nationally celebrated collaboration of civic, cultural, political and philanthropic interests that together have changed the face of downtown Pittsburgh.
The Cultural Trust specializes in the creation, recovery and renovation of showcases for the arts.
Through a number of capital projects throughout the Cultural District Allegheny Riverfront Park, Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, Byham Theater, Harris Theater, Agnes R. Katz Plaza, OReilly Theater and Wood Street Galleries, as well streetscaping, facade restoration and public art, The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust has helped to transform a blighted section of the city into a world-class arts and entertainment district, says Carol Brown, president of The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust.
But its not just about turning a blighted section of the city into an entertainment district, she stresses.
This is a catalyst for commercial development as we build critical mass within the Cultural District, attracting more than 1.2 million people to more than 1,200 events a year at the theaters and galleries, she says. Attracting more people to downtown creates a positive economic impact for the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County through sales tax, real estate and parking revenues as people shop, eat in local restaurants and spend dollars in addition to the cost of a ticket.
Such attractions are drawing more people from outside the county. Says Brown, Our last economic impact study showed that the number of people from outside Allegheny County has increased from 25 percent to 39 percent of our audience base, which reveals that Pittsburgh is becoming more of a destination for visitors, which can only benefit the local economy.
Preserving and adapting historic resources
As befits a city that was an economic powerhouse during the 19th and early 20th centuries, Pittsburgh has an embarrassment of fabulous and fabled historic assets, so many that nobody can protect and preserve them all.
But one man is trying. Arthur Ziegler, president of the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation (PHLF), is an advocate for the ancient, doggedly seeking to preserve the citys architectural treasures and, in cases like Station Square, adapt them to contemporary use.
In that role, Ziegler is often at odds with developers who want to bulldoze and build new. Hes leading the opposition to Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphys controversial plan to demolish and redevelop parts of the Forbes & Fifth Avenue corridor downtown.
Despite the sparring with City Hall over commercial and retail development in the heart of the Golden Triangle, Ziegler is upbeat about the Landmarks Foundations agenda for the new year and its comprehensive offering of upcoming historical events.
We plan to continue to revitalize historic neighborhoods and increase our efforts to revitalize downtown Pittsburgh with a number of educational tours and related activities throughout the region, Ziegler says.
He describes the organization as a nonprofit preservation group serving Allegheny County. We are dedicated to identifying and preserving the architectural landmarks, historic neighborhoods and historic designed landscapes of Allegheny County, and educating people about the regions architectural heritage and urban landscape design history.
Says Zeigler: Through its Preservation Loan Fund, brick-and-mortar projects, architectural surveys, feasibility studies, tours and events, and educational programs, Landmarks has been able to prove the economic and cultural value of historic preservation and articulate a realistic vision for Pittsburghs future based on an understanding of its past and an appreciation of its built environment.
Baseball steps up to the plate
Although it lacks a National Basketball Association franchise and doesnt get the attention it deserves from professional golf, Pittsburgh is blessed with major league sports that attract people, money and attention. Those factors favor the economic and recreational vitality of Southwestern Pennsylvania and bolster business efforts to recruit and retain skilled workers.
Kevin McClatchy, managing general partner and CEO of the Pittsburgh Pirates, says the Major League Baseball team turns a triple play on behalf of the local economy:
- Construction of the Pirates PNC Stadium during 2000 and 2001 will pump more than $200 million into the economy, he notes. The majority of those dollars will go to local subcontractors, suppliers, craftsmen and laborers. And the presence of all those well-paid workers gives a hefty boost to restaurants, taverns and retail establishments in the stadium area.
- Ongoing baseball operations both at Three Rivers Stadium and PNC Park after it opens in April 2001 will provide continuing support for a variety of businesses that serve the stadium and the ball club. About 2 million fans attend Pirates home games in a typical year, spending money on parking, food, drink and other diversions as part of the experience.
- Its generally conceded that civic and urban authorities swung and missed when Three Rivers Stadium was developed in an urban vacuum with no amenities other than parking lots. With the new baseball-only ballpark as a catalyst, the surrounding Northside and North Shore communities have another chance to re-invent themselves with housing and businesses piggybacking on the general prosperity and infrastructure improvements centered on the ballyard.
Says McClatchy: Aside from the economic benefits caused directly by baseball, the construction process at PNC Park alone is a major factor in the quality of life of the city particularly in the immediately surrounding area. We hope to be a catalyst for development and see many of these buildings and properties bought up, renovated and adapted for better use.
In the national spotlight
Take everything good about the Pirates stadium development and baseball operations and double it to calculate the impact of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Most everything that applies to the Pirates and PNC Park holds true for the new Steelers stadium adjacent to the baseball park, scheduled to open in August 2001.
In addition to the dollars spent at and around the ball parks, there is a significant though intangible impact by major league sports that gives the city remarkable exposure in the national media during major sporting events.
Many marketing professionals in the region believe that the Steelers prominence on ABC-TVs Monday Night and Thursday Night Football telecasts has done more to repair Pittsburghs Smoky City image than all the local civic and tourism initiatives put together.
Al Michaels, the don of Monday Night Football, seemingly never tires of guiding viewers through spectacular footage out the south portal of the Fort Pitt Tunnels, zooming in on Pittsburghs magnificent, brilliantly lit nightscape. Those introductory shots, married with the breathtaking aerial views provided by the hovering blimp during the three-hour telecasts, have left an indelible positive impression on the hearts and minds of tens of millions of viewers.
Do those impressions turn into business and tourism dollars? Thats impossible to say. But it certainly cant hurt.
William McCloskey is a free-lance writer living in Pittsburgh.
You likely would find as many paths to business success as the number of successful businesses. Increasingly, these tales are told with a generous peppering of modern acronyms such as IPO, MBA and URL.
Other stories such as that of Antonette Paliotta are told in warmer, more traditional terms such as family, perseverance, tradition and apprenticeship. Hers is the American dream story that one rarely encounters in todays success-obsessed culture.
If you saw Paliotta, 44, dashing around the South Hills dealing with dozens of business details, getting her three young children to and from school and tending to family matters, you wouldnt think of asking her to demolish your railroad pier or build your retaining wall. But as president of Speria Construction Inc., shes just the person for the job.
Speria Construction, named after a relative in Paliottas native Italy, is a traditional small business based in Library, near the Allegheny-Washington county line. Paliotta is the boss in charge of operations, developing business, bidding on jobs, personnel and equipment and other matters.
Speria employs 18, but doesnt own a garage full of equipment. Instead, Paliotta assembles teams of workers and equipment under innovative financing arrangements depending on the job. Day-to-day details are handled by a foreman in the field.
Recently, Speria, which specializes in demolition and structural construction work, removed some formidable bridge piers of The Monongahela Connecting Railroad Co. on Pittsburghs Southside as part of a riverside development project. Another specialty is the construction and refurbishing of small bridges thousands of which carry traffic and pedestrians over the valleys and ravines of southwestern Pennsylvania.
From Ellis Island to East Liberty
Paliottas story would make an excellent Sunday night movie. She was a young woman of 12 living in a small village in Italy when her mother and brother sailed with her to the United States in 1968. Her father had arrived earlier and was working as a landscaper in Pittsburgh.
When his family cleared U.S. Customs in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, they settled in East Liberty. Paliotta became a seamstress.
She later married Carmen Paliotta, who owned and operated Carmen Paliotta Contracting Company, and worked for him without pay. Her seamstressing diminished and her contracting responsibilities grew as her husbands company prospered.
Speria Construction was established in February 1997, Paliotta explains, after my husband decided he wanted a break after 25 years of nonstop business. He held an auction in December 1996, and scaled back his business dramatically.
At that point, Id been in the business for 20 years, slowly, gradually learning every aspect of it. I decided it was time I had something for myself so I could use everything Id learned and actually run a business. It was my time.
Learning by doing
Paliotta remembers no single defining moment in her ascension to ownership of a construction company. Rather, she says, Any success I have is a matter of hanging in there, always learning, paying attention and doing whatever was needed.
Asked if she considers herself an entrepreneur in the modern mold with, for example a college degree in engineering or business administration, she laughs.
No, I have no formal education like that. I learned everything the hard way by doing it. When you think about it, that makes the tuition pretty expensive.
Business hasnt been entirely smooth for Speria as the company recently marked its third year. One of its major projects, the replacement and exact replication of a historic covered bridge in Indiana County, went well, Paliotta says, and came in three months ahead of schedule. Still, she faced payment issues with state and county governments, and had to go to arbitration to get paid.
Nonetheless, she continues to press onward. Asked if her goal is to build a business which she can turn over to her children, she pauses.
Gee, thats a little premature, she says. The twins are only 9 1/2 and my youngest just turned 7. Ask me again in a few years.
How to reach: Speria Construction Inc., (724) 348-0611
William McCloskey is a free-lance writer living in Pittsburgh.
About this series... The SBN/PNC Women in Business Series is a monthly series, sponsored by PNC Bank, showcasing the achievements of some of the regions top women business owners and the obstacles they have overcome.
PNC Bank continues to expand its commitment to women business owners. In its latest initiative, the PNC Bank Foundation offered a $250,000 grant to Seton Hill Colleges National Education Center for Women in Business to create a Web site resource for women business owners. Its Web address is www.e-magnify.com.
For those who think all entrepreneurial success stories must be filled with loops and whorls and fits and starts, consider the laser-straight tale of Elaine Jewart, who started something at age 6 and is still doing it 49 years later.
Jewart, owner of Jewarts School of Gymnastics, literally grew into the business from a wee-tiny tot in a leotard, enrolled by her parents in a gymnastics school, to the tailored-suited matriarch of a successful family business devoted to the training and education of gymnasts and their parents.
Jewart started the school in her basement in 1969; by 1999, the company boasted a world-class 17,000-square-foot facility and was awarded the 1999 Family Business of the Year award in her size category by the University of Pittsburgh Katz School of Business.
Recalling her start-up in 1969, Jewart explains: Actually, the business didnt have a name at that time. But it did have a purpose to teach dancing lessons to the neighbor kids. I had a preschool program and several classes for elementary school-age kids. Tap, ballet and acrobatics were the roots. Modern jazz and toe were soon added.
My goal was to have a school that gave kids the best things that I had learned from my 12 years of dancing lessons, my four years as a Slippery Rock University dancer and gymnast, and my three years of teaching physical education for the Los Angeles City School District.
She insists that she has always wanted only the best for her students, just as she had growing up.
To me, the best meant that it would be really fun, only the best technique would be taught, it would be creative and we would show off our skills to get recognition, Jewart says. There was an unwritten mission statement in my heart.
Tied to the Olympic cycle
Jewart expresses herself in terms of four-year time frames because Olympic competition defines her business.
In 1972, she says, the year that Olga Korbut dazzled the world with her innovative routines, we expanded to the Dance/Gymnastics School in a commercial space. We grew as needs arose. For example, when one of the girls broke my nose while I was spotting her back handspring, I asked my brother Paul to join me.
The 1972-era gym was 1,400 square feet, with brick pillars in the center of two rooms and 10-foot ceilings. In 1976, Jewart added a second location on Route 8 above Andersons Car Wash and hired more employees.
In 1980, we built the 7,000-square-foot gym on Wildwood Road [in Hampton Township], she says. We were expecting the Olympic games to give us a lot of publicity as it had in previous Olympic years, but the U.S. decided to boycott the Moscow games. Fortunately, our new facility was a great drawing card, and we weathered the boycott and the recession.
In 1984, with the Olympic games in Los Angeles, we added 4,000 feet to the side of the gym.
Becoming a business
It wasnt until 1990 that the business had a formal business office, Jewart says.
Its hard to believe that we had survived for over 20 years without that important office position, but we moved into the 1990s with a real office manager, a computer and an answering machine. The gym took a significant step to become a business.
During the early 1990s, Jewarts sons, Randy, Alex and Ben, joined the business. In 1992, during the Barcelona games, the family built yet another addition. They added a rock wall pit area in 1993, followed a year later by a cave climbing area.
Jewart says the combined influences of her 50th birthday, the career commitment of her family members and a desire for continuity led to her joining the Katz Schools Family Enterprise Center in 1995.
I would say that was a defining step, she says. We learned from experts about contemporary business theories and practices. We learned our strengths and weaknesses. We learned how to work toward the future while excelling in the present.
And, most important for the future of the business, we learned techniques for succession and continuity.
Says Jewart of her business experience: We are proud to be a work in progress, to be leaders in bringing the world of gymnastics to Pittsburgh, and to have the opportunity to coach such great kids.
How to reach: Elaine Jewart, Jewarts Gymnastics, (412) 487-5999 or by e-mail at email@example.com
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.
One of the true pleasures of studying and chronicling the careers of highly successful, self-made business people is enjoying the sheer unusualness of many of their stories.
Ideas and undertakings that would never occur to the average person seem almost commonplace for those who strive to make their mark in business.
Take Julie Dean. She runs a large custom welding firm, employing 27 skilled workers and utilizing massive and sophisticated ultratechnology equipment. Her firm, J&T Welding, Inc., is situated on 100 acres in Jeannette, a sleepy little burg west of Greensburg in Westmoreland County. J&T makes almost anything a customer wants, from mining cars to anchor bolts to structural members.
So what's the big deal about Julie Dean? Well, for starters, she was born in 1947 in Nicaragua -- not one of the world's great industrial centers. She left Central America 34 years ago and has been working in a variety of steel fabricating and welding jobs ever since -- learning by doing as well as through formal training and education.
"I left my homeland 34 years ago because I met a wonderful man," Dean says. "We were married and we worked together. We traveled, we learned this business. But most important, through it all, he is the best man I've ever known, and he has always been my best friend. That is a major part of our success -- the support we've always given one another."
After all those years of working at all kinds of jobs for all kinds of companies in many parts of the world, Dean says, "I decided I wanted something for myself. I love this work. I find it fascinating and demanding. I wanted to gain the benefits of all my enthusiasm and effort -- I wanted to be the owner."
Woman of steel
Julie and husband Rockie Dean moved to Jeannette 18 years ago and built a house on one acre of land, There, Julie founded the business that would eventually grow to cover an adjacent 99 acres.
Jeannette was a good location, she says, because it was near Pittsburgh but was without the urban clutter and confusion. In addition, she notes, land was inexpensive, the town was small and safe, and the semi-industrial character of that part of Westmoreland County provided a generous labor pool.
Says Dean of her chosen career path: "I'm the boss. I run the place. I work two shifts if I'm not careful."
Although she's the head honcho, Dean says, it's a family business. Her husband works as a supervisor and is a key employee. The couple's son, Jerry, is a skilled technician who specializes in operating a $500,000 cutting machine, said to be the only one of its type in Pennsylvania.
The couple also has a daughter who is in college but who fills in at the company when she's on break.
Honesty before all else
Asked about the reasons for her success, Dean is unequivocal.
"Honesty is everything," she says. "You must be honest, first, last and always. I always tell customers, 'We're expensive, but we're excellent.' And you know, I'm not really joking when I say that.
"Other than that, it's been a matter of just working hard and persevering and always trying to make the proper connections. And, of course, I've been very fortunate to have an excellent relationship with my bank -- to get the lines of credit and all the other financial moves we've needed to grow as we have."
But a good banking relationship isn't the only one she credits for her company's success.
"Besides being blessed with a wonderful husband and family -- as I've already mentioned -- I also owe a lot of credit and sincere gratitude to two people," she is quick to point out. "My dear friend and associate Barbara Fisher taught me what I needed to do to get business with the Army Corps of Engineers. This was after years of trying on my own without success. That business relationship was a real turning point in our growth.
"Finally, a wonderful man named Richard Gilman joined us as an engineer about seven years ago," she adds. "I can't say enough about Richard -- what expertise he's brought to the company and what all he's permitted us to accomplish." How to reach: Julie Dean, J&T Welding Inc., (724) 527-5317, or by e-mail at JTWeld@helicon.net.
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.
This continuing series is called "Women In Business," and one of the ways Pittsburgh-area women- and minority-owned contracting businesses get business is to meet Lorna Nicholson, president of Contract Management Services.
Nicholson's firm is a catalyst, melding the needs of prime contractors for skilled subcontractor specialists with the expertise and services of aspiring small businesses -- all in the women and minority arena. Nicholson's business arose from the fact that big contracting companies routinely hire smaller firms to perform specific tasks within a larger project, such as installing bleachers in a high school sports complex or providing contracted security services at a juvenile detention facility.
This happens for at least three reasons. First, most publicly funded projects mandate that prime contractors award a percentage of work to minority-owned or women-owned businesses. Second, many revenue packages include incentives for prime contractors to adopt these practices. Third, many contractors pursue such policies as a matter of good business.
Established in 1993, Contract Management Services offers:
- Assistance to qualified and professional minority-owned and women-owned small businesses in competing for contracting opportunities in the government and private sectors.
- A "top-down and bottom-up approach" for connecting businesses with mid- to large-sized companies and prime contractors in the building, construction, professional and service industries.
- Assistance to government and private-sector companies to help them increase minority- and women-owned business participation.
- Expertise for planning and implementation of Minority and Women Business Enterprise (M/WBE) initiatives.
Based in Crafton, the company is made up of five women who circulate among revenue sources, prime contractors and aspiring subcontractors to learn every detail of what's happening and what's possible in getting small businesses a break.
Nicholson's firm may work for any of the players in this complex scene -- funding sources looking for successful M/WBE policy implementation, prime contractors seeking appropriate M/WBE subs or the small firms themselves.
Says Nicholson: "As part of our outreach function, we ensure that minority, women and small businesses are contacted and informed about projects on hand and subcontracting opportunities throughout the region."
The printed word
One of her most powerful tools is a simple newsletter called the "Bid Sheet." The secret is in the content, an inside view of what business is available for potential subcontractors, as well as the means to pursue it. The "Bid Sheet" is free and is issued weekly via fax. A recent issue ran three pages and identified 52 contract opportunities.
Nicholson gives full credit for the success of her 7-year-old business to her staff -- associates Kathryn M. Beardmore and Lisa Nicholson Craig, certification specialist Maryellen Kunkel and administrative assistant Eve St. Clair.
From Jamaica to Pittsburgh
Nicholson, a 1982 business administration graduate of Pace University, is a native of Jamaica who worked for years for the New York City Transit Authority before moving to Pittsburgh in 1989. She established her businessin 1993.
Asked about the difficulty of being a minority female dealmaker in the traditional male-dominated, union-oriented Pittsburgh market, she replies graciously, "Well, yes, it is a challenge, certainly. And the first meeting sometimes is difficult. But we're very, very good at what we do, and businesspeople quickly recognize that."
Meanwhile, she has been her own best client, building her firm and its public visibility through frequent op-ed publications and speaking engagements. She has also achieved several high level, high profile consulting projects. Among them are:
The city of Pittsburgh. Project manager for the city and five of its public authorities for the completion of a Disparity Study in the areas of procurement and contracting, as well as a companion study in employment practices.
PNC Park. Professional consulting services for the development and implementation of a minority business plan for participation in the construction of the 38,000-seat baseball stadium.
Board of Public Education. Consulting services to assist the Equity & Compliance Division in identifying disadvantaged businesses to increase participation in projects bid by the board.
Oxford Development Co. Professional services assisting with the development and implementation of a minority business plan regarding the renovation of the Lazarus Building in downtown Pittsburgh.
She has achieved her success with a simple formula.
"We do things our way," Nicholson says. "We're all women and we take, perhaps, a slightly different, more nurturing view of small business involvement. For me, for the firm, I think our greatest thrill is watching somebody succeed and prosper and move along to higher levels of skill and participation in significant projects." How to reach: Contract Management Services, (412) 922-6835
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.
Theres a saying in health care education that holds: First, become a nurse. Then, you can be anything.
Well, maybe not the pope, or CEO of General Motors, or chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff but modern American life is filled with people who have taken the common-sense, can-do, caring attitude that characterizes nursing and used it in thousands of diverse health and business endeavors.
In the Pittsburgh area, a prime example is Bridget Chufo, Ph.D., R.N., who first became a nurse and then pursued masters and doctoral degrees in nursing and applied her expertise to the field of weight loss. She has thousands of clients and operates a headquarters office in Wexford, five offices in Greater Pittsburgh, and three on Long Island, N.Y.
Operating as a franchisee of the national Fit America organization, Chufo enjoys the benefits of having a large national company at her back and the autonomy of running her weight-loss programs according to her own style and insight.
From Pittsburgh to New York and back
Chufo, a native of Pittsburghs North Hills suburbs, attended a local private high school, and then, in her words, blossomed.
Perhaps Im fortunate that Ive always had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to do and a knack for finding opportunities for doing it, Chufo says. Then, if I found something I wanted to do even more, I just went and did it.
That attitude took her to Villanova University in Philadelphia for a BSN degree, back to Pittsburgh for an MSN degree at Duquesne University, and eventually to New York University, where she earned her doctorate in 1986. Along the way she put her nursing skills to direct use working at UPMC Health Systems Presbyterian University Hospitals heart unit, then in hospice care in and around New York City.
In all, Ive been in weight loss for 21 years, Chufo says. From 1979 to 1985, I was an employee of a weight loss company. Then, from 1985 to 1995, I had my own business with nine locations in New York and New Jersey.
Married, with two young children, she and her family returned to Pittsburgh in 1995 and set up Fit America shops in North Hills, Monroeville, South Hills, Washington and Greensburg within several months. She retained three of her offices on Long Island.
A multidisciplinary approach
Chufos Fit America organization operates out of offices, not gymnasiums. The core of the program is a healthy eating plan with a higher-than-usual protein content, plus herbs, vitamins, minerals and fatty acid supplements.
Stage two involves behavioral considerations examining how clients feel about their progress, their motivation and problems that emerge along the course of losing weight. This counseling aspect of the plan is free-form, Chufo explains, and may be daily or weekly, depending on the clients needs. It can be done face-to-face, by telephone or via the Internet.
The third leg of the Chufo tripod is activity.
Thats right, just activity, Chufo says. I encourage them to move, but there is no prescribed routine, and the emphasis is on steady, gradual progress.
Chufo says her two decades of experience in the field have shown her conclusively that people do best when they do not dread their weight-loss activities.
This whole program is about common sense, she says. If you ask somebody to give up ice cream totally and forever that might break their spirit. For some people, ice cream or Pepsi Cola might be a central and cherished part of their daily routine. We might suggest moderation, but we dont forbid. Remember, theres always another way to get there, even if some ice cream stays in the eating plan.
In the same way, Chufo adds, if somebody is told they must run a certain distance or do a certain number of sit-ups, that might turn them off in the early, critical stages. We might suggest simply that they park further from their building at work and walk a little extra. Maybe they can use the stairs instead of the elevator.
The big pay-off
So how do Chufo and Fit America make money with such a low-key, common sense approach?
We provide relatively low-cost products and services to a large number of people, she says. Counseling and assessment are our services, and dietary supplements are our products. Between Pittsburgh and New York we serve about 50,000 people. Our locations are counseling and distribution centers. We dont sell meals like some of the plans do. Theres no overhead baggage from massive floor space or utilities and capital costs for workout equipment, saunas and the like.
Adds Chufo: Our clients dont get hustled the way they might have been by other plans. They appreciate that and they stay with us. Like I said, were simple and were effective.
Partnering with a physician
Chufos nursing instincts help her discover new applications and referral methods and shes developing associations with orthopedic surgeons and other physician specialists whose patients typically would benefit from weight reduction as part of their overall health or recovery from sickness or surgery.
The wraps are still on the plan, but Chufo expects that her Fit America centers may soon become partners with several specialized medical and surgical centers around the Pittsburgh area to serve as preferred providers for weight loss. These services would cover children, adults and seniors all of whom may have special weight-control needs and strategies.
Asked if this planned hospital affiliation may be the next big thing in her life-long campaign to make people lighter, Chufo quips, Well, why not? It makes sense.
How to reach: Bridget Chufo, Ph.D., R.N., Fit America, (724) 933-6110
Work was what she needed concerns outside the home, they told her. Thus was born Bugel Kids, one of the region’s leading off-price centers for top-of-the-line children’s clothing.
“In the early 1980s, I’d have made Martha Stewart look like a slouch,” says Bugel. “I had a wonderful home, a tremendous husband and three great children. I was a champion homemaker a housewife goddess.
“Then my oldest boy was very seriously injured,” she says. “He needed multiple complicated operations and very intensive therapy. So I threw myself into that, and also got involved in home instruction for him.
“But my loved ones and my doctor saw that it was taking its toll. Things had changed and I wasn’t myself anymore.”
A career prescription
“My doctor talked me through it,” Bugel recalls of her entrepreneurial initiation. “I said, ‘What kind of job can I possibly do? I was a key punch operator after high school.’
“‘Well, what are you good at?’ he asked.
“‘I’m very good at shopping,’ she responded.
“‘So, be a shopper for a living,’ was his advice.”
It wasn’t the most specific prescription, but Bugel took it to heart and opened a second-hand children’s clothing store. Boom just like that she bootstrapped it with personal money, personal energy and the shopping savvy she’d honed as a consumer.
“That was 1984. I had a little shop, and I was pretty good at finding merchandise, preparing it, displaying it and selling it,” she says. “But I knew pretty soon that I was in the right field, but the wrong niche. That was a shop, and I wanted a business.
“So I shifted my focus and became a factory-direct outlet.”
The direct approach
“Look, I didn’t know what I was doing, but I wasn’t stupid,” she says. “I knew that factories sometimes overproduce and that they’re looking for places to unload surplus. So I just drove up to the factories what did I know?
“I bypassed the salespeople, walked in and told them what I was looking for. They were happy to deal with me strictly first-rate goods, no seconds or irregulars. So I went back to my shop in Coraopolis, waited for the truck, and bingo I was in business.”
Bugel, an admitted hyperactive overachiever, tells her business history in less time than it takes Joe DeNardo to do the evening weather forecast. But it wasn’t all that simple.
At one time Bugel Kids had four stores the original Corapolis location, plus stores in Beaver, Butler and Wexford. Over time, the locations and sizes of the stores changed as the business grew and matured. Along the way, Bugel says, she had stores throughout the northern and western tiers of the Pittsburgh metropolitan area. Many were in major malls, where she found national chain competitors and mall management offices were none too happy with her upstart approach.
“You can imagine I’m there in a new thousand-square-foot [store space] and some giant chain wants to come in and be a major tenant and sell the same merchandise at full price who’s going to win that battle?” she asks.
There were many disappointments and obstacles strewn in her path, she adds, sometimes in the form of last-minute doubling and tripling of lease rates by mall managers eager to court big tenants.
“All I can say is Whew!” Bugel jokes.
Now 55, this Munhall native and graduate of Steel Valley High School who “didn’t have time for college” enjoys her home in the Wexford area with her husband, who owns a successful electroplating company.
“I think it’s just the way I want it now,” she says, describing the current Bugel Kids single location in the Pines Plaza along Route 19 in Ross Township.
It’s close to home, has the park-right-in-front style of site that’s appropriate for an outlet, offers extended hours, and has 13 employees, a 6,500-square-foot floor space and an equal-sized stock space.
Bugel herself, with her guerrilla shopper skills, remains the prime ingredient in this small business formula. Her ability to find the best deals on the best merchandise is what makes it work.
And her son who inadvertently set all this in motion is now 34, recovered from his injuries, and doing well in Lake Tahoe.
How to reach: Gaye Bugel, Bugel Kids, (412) 364-6401
William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.