The accidental entrepreneur Featured

10:05am EDT July 22, 2002
When Joedda Sampson first saw the big, old Knights of Columbus meeting house on Western Avenue on the North Side, somehow she saw past the dilapidated brick facade, the ragged parking lot surrounding it, the asphalt tile floors and painted woodwork. She and her husband bought the place, moved in and transformed it back to its late 19th-century Victorian grandeur.

She discovered expensive wood trim under the paint, golden oak floors under the asphalt tile, and even the original working shutters in an old stable/carriage house out back. With the help of ornamental iron fencing and truckloads of topsoil, she converted the sprawling parking lot into a colorful Victorian garden with brick walks, trellises and antique statuary.

Then she bought a burned-out 19th-century mansion in Shadyside. And she moved again.

Now Sampson faced a dilemma: What was she going to do with the North Side home she so loved and transformed? She didn't want to sell it, yet she couldn't occupy two local homes. So, she did what any creative entrepreneur would do: She simply turned it into a business.

Another business, that is.

Her new venture, Victoria House Bed & Breakfast, joined the ranks of her advertising agency, women's clothing boutique, restoration company, urban-loft development company and even a so-called Victorian "celebration center." By all accounts, this high-energy, eccentric, self-proclaimed "hippie earth mother" is part artist, part visionary. Combined with a heavy dose of focus, discipline, unyielding attention to detail-and at least 80 employees, however, and she also becomes what one might describe as the consummate accidental entrepreneur.

Indeed, this isn't a story about diversification strategies or even extreme entrepreneurship, for in many ways she's an entrepreneurial enigma. Rather, it's about the philosophies of an eclectic businesswoman who has found a way to have fun bringing her marketing and sales skills to bear on a lifelong desire that has little to do with money or corporate success. Yet in many ways, her passion and energy have brought her both.

The aesthetic thread

Her desire seems almost too simple: "There's not really a thread there except that they all-and it's probably not one that most people would see-incorporate an aesthetic value of things," Sampson, now 47, says.

You certainly don't have to search far to find examples of her passion come to life. Every room in the bed-and-breakfast inn, for instance, offers intricate Victorian details, from the paint and wallpapers, to the ornately carved furniture and other decorative props. Similar details prevail throughout her other buildings as well-all details introduced by Sampson herself, according to those who work closely with her.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of her artistic passion for aesthetic detail can be seen within the framework of the company she formed with her husband, Ben Sampson, who also is president of the Sampson Group, a third-generation family-owned real estate development company. His company develops about 100 lots a year and also manages 2 million square feet of industrial and office park space that it owns and leases.

Together, they run Frontier Lofts Inc., which is developing an old brick warehouse in the Strip District into a residential condominium complex called The Strip Lofts. Their company also is transforming a 19th-century schoolhouse on the South Side into another residential loft complex. On any given day, then, she worries about color schemes for her buyers, ceramic tile styles and colors, whether a particular loft is ready enough for her to do her faux painting-which she does herself-on pillars and walls.

"It's an obsession," says Sampson's husband, Ben, about her. "She's obsessive about the details. She's eclectic, innovative and artistic. I think she's extremely talented."

What seems most unusual, though, is the fact that she spreads that same passion for detail over at least six businesses-most of which she started, almost accidentally, out of her aesthetic passion. Take, for instance, Victoria Hall, a sprawling 19th-century mansion in Bloomfield, which spent a century as a private girls' school, Ursuline Academy, and convent. Sampson says she used to drive past it frequently to admire its potential grandeur.

"It was just the most incredible piece of architecture-it knocked me out," she says.

Then one day she garnered the courage to approach the nuns in the now-defunct school about seeing the place. She told them she wanted to buy it.

"One of the nuns asked me what I'd do with it," Sampson says, "and I told her, 'when you call me, I'll think about it.'"

When the nuns did call, Sampson purchased the building and converted it into a lavish Victorian-style celebration center with a ballroom and dining hall, six banquet rooms and a chapel that can seat 160 people for weddings and other events.

Sampson formed her advertising agency, JMS Advertising, after her restoration company, Allegheny City Restoration, renovated another small building. She initially had trouble selling it, she says, so she put the ad agency in it. And she says she opened the Station Square-based women's clothing boutique, Full Moon Rising, because she was tired of having to travel to New York City and elsewhere to find the eclectic mixes of clothes she likes to wear (she says she also happened to grow up in a retail environment, which gave her some knowledge of the business).

Getting past the details

With such scattered interests-and her obsession for detail, you would expect Sampson to maintain only a peripheral grip on her many businesses as she tries to grow each one. As Jack Roseman, associate director of the Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University, says in general: "Business is too difficult for most people to be part-time entrepreneurs. There are entrepreneurs who do that, but most aren't all that successful.

"To be successful, you have to have the uncanny ability to focus," continues Roseman, who has never met Sampson. "You have to spend 18 hours a day, six days a week, focusing on just that business."

Sampson admits to being a workaholic who puts in her 18 hours a day, but she says she can't see herself picking just one business and running with it.

"My personal mission is to maximize every minute of my day because I think life is so very short, and there's just so much to do," says Sampson. "The reason I keep going from one thing to another is because it's all 'me-driven,'' Sampson says. "I'm a big hippie earth-mother, it's true. So I'm a provider, a facilitator. That's my job.

"Everything I've done professionally has really been me-driven," she says. "For instance, I find a building and it's condemned and going to be torn down. The only way I can justify buying it and pouring lots of money into it is to find a use for it. So the use for it usually requires opening that business because nobody else wants to. I started the construction company because I found a building and couldn't find people to work on it. I thought, this is stupid. How does anybody ever get anything done? So I put together a construction company."

How she does it

How she manages it all, though, seems to be what sets her apart. So far, her formula for success has served her well, with few exceptions. This is how she does it:

1. Hire energetic, loyal employees and take care of them. "She always has our best interests at heart," says Rebecca Ezykowsky, who runs Full Moon Rising for Sampson. "She loves her work and she loves her life, and you can see that come out in her. She takes an interest in us. She instills quite a bit of loyalty in us."

Sampson's personal assistant, who calls himself only Charles and lives in the Sampsons' carriage house on the Shadyside property, adds: "I have found it amazing what she accomplishes-and how much she puts her people first."

Taking care of those 80-some employees, Sampson admits, can be a challenge, given th e diversity of her staffs, not to mention her customers.

"Certainly their problems are diverse," she acknowledges. "It's a little different to deal with potential brides and their problems at Victoria Hall, and chefs and their problems, and construction people and their problems, and women on shopping excursions who have a very different set of attitudes and demands. So I think the most challenging part is switching gears and knowing who I'm talking to, what I need to say to them, and what they will hear."

Maintaining such a close relationship with her employees, though, is crucial to her success, Sampson says. "A big part of everything I do is the people who help me do it," she says. "If I didn't have them, let me guarantee that I wouldn't get through the first hour of my day. I couldn't do any of this.

"I hope the reason I have them-and I certainly don't pay them the big bucks-is we communicate well, and I have some consideration for their work lives. I give them space."

2. Stay consistent in your management style. Sampson describes her management style as "really easy" and, contrary to the stereotypical high-energy entrepreneurial spirit that seems to dwell in her, she says she's terribly consistent and predictable.

"I think I truly do wear a lot of different hats, and I probably have some different mannerisms, but I think I'm an extremely consistent person," Sampson says. "I think that, if you interview any of my staff, they will tell you that, after you work for me for a while, you can pretty much predict what I'm going to say. I think I'm pretty consistent in what I will expect and what I won't deal with well."

When asked about what she doesn't handle well, she quickly offers two situations: lying and stealing. "It just incenses me to have someone lie to my face about anything," she says. "I really would like to think I can trust all of my employees."

3. Delegate, delegate and delegate. Given her array of daily responsibilities, Sampson says she has had to learn to delegate many of her tasks.

"I'm not a control freak," she insists. "If someone says, 'hey, I want to be in charge of this,' I say, 'hey, that's a great idea. You go for it.' And when I give someone authority, I never say, 'you shouldn't have done that without asking me.' When I give someone authority, I give them limitations-you know, when you get to a certain point you've go to call me. But I've never admonished someone for making a decision in my absence."

Ezykowsky agrees. "Joedda lets me make my own mistakes," she says. "She's not always happy about it, but she's very patient. For instance, when I would buy a line of clothes that then wouldn't sell well, she was, like, 'did you learn a lesson from that?' She's definitely not a hoverer.

"She likes to be involved, and you can't slide anything past her," Ezykowsky adds, "but she's amazingly focused on the big picture. That's why we work well together."

And how do Sampson's employees accomplish so much for Sampson? Says Rita Formhals, who does the bookkeeping and accounting for Sampson's many businesses: "God gave us wings."

4. Learn to decisively solve problems. On a recent workday, Sampson had to decide where her landscapers were to put shrubbery around her property-before 8:30 a.m. Then she faced a dilemma about a customer's request for stainless-steel appliances. Then it was off to a tile store to choose ceramic tile and grout for a loft buyer who wanted his space to stand out from others. Then she gently confronted construction subcontractors about potential delays in laying hardwood floors, completing the main stairway, getting air-conditioning units to all of the floors before the elevator was removed and what to do about old wooden shutters that didn't adequately fit the windows in her Bedford School loft project. Yet she never once paused for fear of becoming overwhelmed. She merely made decisions on the spot.

"I get about 20 calls a day saying such and such happened, and what do I do about this?" Sampson says. "So I have to have a very good ability to problem-solve."

5. Work hard, play hard. While Sampson does put in the time at work, she says it's just as important to feed her creative side by playing just as hard.

"I think I'm extremely high-energy, consistently and constantly," Sampson says. "However, I am very definitely of the work-hard, play-hard ethic. I'm a creative person, so it's really mandatory for my ongoing good nature to play hard, vacation and rest and feed that creative energy. I'm not a person who hasn't had a vacation in five years."

That, she says, is what it takes for people like her to avoid burnout. "A lot of people of my nature tend to burn out and tend to become difficult to live and work with because they are just so completely strung out on the power and the energy that it's not fun anymore.

"I don't think I ever got to that wall," she adds. "I have worked with people like that and realized that it's not fun for them or the people around them. The creative part of my brain is the most important to me. I don't function well creatively if I don't have some new input-seeing new beautiful things somewhere else."

6. Know when to say when. One of Sampson's biggest challenges continues to be knowing which ideas to follow and which to leave alone. This is one lesson she has learned the hard way.

Case in point is her Cafe Victoria, across the street from Victoria House B&B. For several years she had watched a 19th-century residence deteriorate from bad to worse-directly across from her inn. "It was absolutely a flophouse," Sampson says. "It had been student housing for 18 years. It was dirty, in tremendous disrepair, noisy, and transient-everything you didn't want for a neighbor when you've put a lot of time, energy and money here. So it made me nuts."

Of course, she then bought the dwelling, which turned out to be the first home of the man who started American Standard Plumbing back in 1875-76. In typical Sampson style, she then found a use for it: She partnered with someone who always wanted to run a restaurant, invested in restaurant equipment and a liquor license and turned it into a fine-dining restaurant. Six weeks later, she says, her partner walked out-and three days before Sampson was to leave for a vacation to Tahiti.

Six years and much frustration later, Sampson finally decided she was trying to do too much. She recently closed the restaurant and now has it for sale through restaurant and tavern broker Terri Sokoloff and Specialty Tavern Restaurant Brokers in the North Hills.

Sokoloff says she is glad for the listing because she loves working with Sampson. "She's vivacious and a mover," she says. "She knows exactly what she wants and goes about it in a more creative way than most entrepreneurs. She's a doer, and I admire that. In my business, I meet with a lot of talkers and a lot of dreamers. But she does what she says she will do."

Even when it means running a restaurant for six years. "Six years is a long time for a business that you never had any desire to have and you're not particularly enamored of," Sampson says. "I can't say I every really enjoyed it. I found it a very difficult one since I have a family and can't be there for dinner every night to run the place. And it wasn't financially a good thing for me. It wasn't rewarding for me.

"At this point, I really am doing as much as I feel I can humanly do," she says without regret. "I decided that this was the one business that brings me the least pleasure, brings me the least money and requires a lot of tending. You need a full-time persona to keep it going, and I don't want to be there full time."

The lessons she learned from that are twofold: First, she says, don't take your next step until you're "100 percent into it emotionally, physically and financially. If you're on the edge and it doesn't feel quite right but it seems like a great idea, then don't do it." Second, she suggests that entrepreneurs shouldn't pursue new ventures without making sure they are doing the best they can with their current ventures first.

"If you're still floundering and working out the kinks and having problems with your staff and your finances, you probably shouldn't move on," she says.

In most cases now, Sampson says, she tries to put her ideas-and she says she has lots of them-into more realistic perspective rather than pursuing every one, like she did at one time.

"I think I was like that maybe 20 years ago-and I probably drove a lot of people crazy," she concedes. "I probably lost friends, husbands and relatives over that. But I would like to think I have evolved, and I try to harness and focus. I realize that some of my ideas are best left on the pillow the next morning. They're not all great ideas. They're not all feasible."

But that doesn't always mean she won't at least try, which gets back to the passion that makes her stand apart.

"It's really hard-it's one of my greatest challenges trying to think about those things that will really bring me enjoyment," she concludes. "I am definitely a confessed workaholic. I love to work. So it's really important to me that I'm enjoying what I'm doing. If I'm not, then I would just be a really pathetic person with a lot of money."

And a large collection of restored Victorian homes. SBN