COLORADO WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS WITH ADVICE FOR THE LONG HAUL
DOT MECHTENBERG HAS A PICTURE OF HER 5-YEAR-OLD GRANDSON, CHARLIE, SPREAD ACROSS THE COVER OF A PROMOTIONAL BROCHURE FOR HER FINANCIAL PLANNING FIRM, ARVADA-BASED MECHTENBERG FINANCIAL GROUP INC. NEXT TO THE PHOTO OF the blonde-haired, blue-eyed little boy, the text reads, "My Grandma has started my college funding ... has yours?"
Advertising your status as a grandmother may not be typical of the owner of a company that oversees the portfolios of nearly 700 clients. But for Mechtenberg, 58, it's, part of a key business principle: Make people feel comfortable. It is a simple tenet that Mechtenberg has used for more than 30 years.
"I've taken clients away from big firms because they weren't getting the personal attention they wanted," she said. "Money is a scary thing for people. I just try to make it comfortable for them to come in and talk about their financial situation. It's not the pinstriped suit and downtown-office environment that people encounter at a lot of places."
Mechtenberg is part of an exclusive group of business owners on the ColoradoBiz Top 100 Women-Owned Businesses list: those who have run their businesses for 25 years or more. Their companies were founded at a time when relatively few females were in the workplace at all, let alone running their own firm. For some, it began with dabbling in a hobby while earning a little extra money Only a few set out to launch their own business enterprise, and even fewer imagined they would enjoy such staying power.
"It started as something to supplement my income and have some fun," said Sandra Tenenbaum, who, as a mother of four, started a catering service out of her home in the late 1960s. "But it became very competitive very quickly," Tenenbaum said.
Today, Tenenbaum's Englewood-based event-planning firm, Occasions by Sandy, is one of the longest-running catering businesses in the Denver area, with 200 employees and projected 2001 revenues of more than $4 million. Like her fellow veterans on the Top 100 list, Tenenbaum credits a strong work ethic and fastidious attention to detail as the underpinnings of her company's growth and longevity.
"Back when I started out, I would sell a party, plan the event, cook the food, host the party, bill the customer and clean up afterward," she said. "It was so much work, but I didn't even think twice about it."
Women executives say rock-solid business ethics are another key to success.
Deborah Baker, owner of Baker Interiors, a floor design and installation contractor in Littleton, said she has learned a lot from her peers mistakes.
"It's like when you sometimes look at the way other parents raise their kids and you think to yourself, 'I'll never do that with my kids,'" said Baker. Her company has grown from a small flooring installation operation in 1974 to a full-service interior design and flooring company reaping $5 million in annual revenues.
"Let's face it, there are a lot of crooks in the construction business. What sets us apart is our honesty -- there's not a lot of truly ethical shops around."
Because Baker is a woman who was trying to establish herself in what had traditionally been a male-dominated field, it took years to gain credibility. "Construction is still a man's field, and a lot of men have a hard time dealing with women in this industry," Baker said. "Some will flat out tell you that you shouldn't be out in the trenches. I felt like I had to work twice as hard to get half as far."
Mechtenberg encountered similar, if more subtle, gender discrimination when she started her career as a secretary at a brokerage house in Omaha during the early 1970s. "I would look across the street and see brokers drinking martinis, and I realized I was doing their work for them." She decided to study for her broker's license and eventually got it -- only to have her office manager decide he didn't want a woman broker in his office. "He said, 'I just don't think this would work out,"' Mechtenberg said. She later got hired at another brokerage house, becoming one of only two woman brokers in Omaha at the time.
Other longtime female business owners, however, say they didn't face much in the way of gender barriers. "I never ran into a glass ceiling, but I do think there is at least a perceived barrier there," said Deborah Williams, co-owner of Design and Image Communications Inc., a Denver-based graphic design and marketing firm.
"When I was starting out, I don't think women had been raised to feel like they could run a business," said Williams. She began her career as an entry-level graphic-design artist in the late 1970s and eventually became co-owner of Design and Image, which takes in more than $1.25 million in annual revenues. "We had to rethink our position in the business world before we realized that we didn't need to be secretaries."
Her advice: Trust your instincts. "I could have saved myself a lot of grief and second-guessing if I had known that I could trust myself and what I know."
Tenenbaum also says she didn't run into any discrimination problems when she first started out, although she concedes that Denver was "very much a man's world" 30 years ago. "It helped that I was in a business that related to women," Tenenbaum said. "I was able to establish trust quickly."
One hurdle all these women had to overcome, however, was a slumping Denver economy in the late 1970s and 1980s, which forced virtually all of them to revamp their business plans. The antidote for most: diversification, which trimmed the risk of reliance on clients in the energy sectors.
William's company, for instance, designed annual reports for clients in the oil, gas and mining industries. "We were nimble enough to diversify our client base, so we weren't dependent only on Colorado companies that were doing well," Williams said. "And we were forced to become more balanced by targeting the consumer and retail markets." Those moves, she said, have helped soften the effects of the current economic slump.
While others say they have begun to feel the sting of recent economic doldrums, none expect anything as dire as the energy industry's meltdown. "When the oil boom collapsed in the '80s, it was so drastic and so localized -- we lost customers overnight," Tenenbaum said. "So far we haven't felt anything like that. We're always cautious, but we're optimistic."
In the long run, the diversification of Denver's economy -- and its rapid growth during the 1990s -- has enhanced business for many woman-owned enterprises by bringing to town a savvier, professional clientele. For companies such as Williams' graphic design business, a more sophisticated clientele makes doing business easier, because the clients are more knowledgeable about the service offerings.
"Denver is a much more sophisticated city than it used to be," said Williams, a Denver native. "I always imagined that I'd leave here eventually But Denver's...