Surviving A Business Turnaround – Suzanne Ameche

Welcome to Part 3 of the Turnaround series. You will not have had to listen to the other two parts to have an intact experience with this interview, although all three tell an interesting story when put together. This week I’m zeroing in on a client of the Rettig Corporation, one of those organizations that these groups of masterminds have brought back into life form. Suzanne Ameche is the founder and CEO of American Made Make Be-Leaves. It’s a 33-year old company specializing in crafting magnificent artificial flowered and landscaped environments. These are massive environments, and I will defy you to determine what’s real and what’s not. That’s how incredible the quality of their landscaping is. It has been said that turnarounds are as much about the psychological transformation of the CEO as they are about the corporation fix. In fact, those of us in the business of turnarounds know that the return to profitability is depended on the deep-seeded change required in the very being of the CEO. While medium to large corporations tend to do this shift by replacing the CEO, small businesses do not have such a luxury. It is the owner that has to make the shift. Suzie talks about her return to her Christian faith as a pivotal driving force in her business as turnaround. Some of my listeners may directly relate to the strength that can be gained to the church and its community, but others of you may not find this in any way relevant. The point that I see Suzie raising for us is not about Christianity, but rather a fundamental shift in her belief system that allowed her to see, seal and experience her situation from a different way of being. Making a fundamental change in our lives and in our businesses requires a deep and powerful transformation in our belief system. We have to start with digging deep and understanding what belief took us into the downward spiral. You know, events are not what cause a business to fail. They fail because the owner holds a belief about either themselves, their business, their staff, their market, their competitors, you name it, that triggers leadership decisions and behaviors that undermine the success and performance of their organization. Whether this belief is about, well the clients are still going to want our products no matter what. Or, our current staff has the natural ability to adapt to the changing market demands. Or, you don’t have any control over the market. Or, you know, up-to-date financial records are really not necessary to make quick and critical decisions to cut, pull back, etcetera. Whatever that belief is, you have to uncover it so that consciously you’ll realize the crisis point was brought on by behaviors that reflected these beliefs, and then you have to face the music that this is where the transformation work begins. So I ask you, listen to Suzie’s attribution of her turnaround as a fundamental shift in her beliefs, and the practices that went with them. In her case, it happened to involve embracing her life as a Christian. For you, it may be something completely different, but make no mistake that change and deeply held beliefs is at the heart of every business turnaround. Now, let’s jump in and meet Suzie.

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Lesley:  So, Suzie, do you go by Suzanne? Which one do you prefer?

 

Suzanne:  I really go by Suzie. When I hear the name Suzanne which is my formal name, it reminds me in grammar school with the nuns because that’s what they call too especially if they were keeping you in line.

 

Lesley:  So we’re going to go with Suzie because not at the moment anyone in that habit around us. Um, so, I first of all want to congratulate you for being in business for 33 years. Can you give me a snapshot of the business that you’re in?

 

Suzanne:  Yes. We manufacture custom artificial landscaping. I mean all types of projects but most commonly we work with the hospitality industry for hotels, casinos. We also do a lot with healthcare hospitals, senior living facilities, corporations. I also do churches, synagogues and residential, so I really kind of cover it all.

 

Lesley:  Well, I’m going to be obviously giving the URL for your site because they are amazing. I saw the Hyatt casino, and I was stunned to thank that those who are not live, living, breathing plants off the exterior, the interior. I mean, you do an amazing job. So, congratulations for such a high-quality product. But over 33 years, I mean, this is a multiple lifetime in a business. So tell me, this is the third actually in a series of three in turnarounds, and we started with Patrick Rettig and then Julie was the second interview which talked about what work she does in the turnaround. And you are one of the people who have been a part of this process, so I’m dying to talk to you about what it’s like to be part of the Rettig turnaround Experience. So, what was it six years ago that started the process where you realize that something had to change?

 

Suzanne:  Well, I was at kind of a desperate moment in my life. I had been married for over 30 years. I’m really at the end of my marriage but didn’t have an exit plan. My business was out of point. I mean, I loved it but I just felt stuck that I couldn’t go any further, it was very frustrating. You know as I mentioned earlier went to catholic school, so I was raised catholic. But as a young adult I shamefully decided to become an atheist, so I was an atheist for 25 years. So when I reached this desperate point, I just tried whatever lame way to reach out to cry for help, and just an odd circumstance as I’ve met Pat through his associate at the time. And so, I was married at the time, my ex and I, we hired Pat on and it was just an amazing whirlwind what happened almost immediately. As soon as I said okay we just plowed forward. You know, my ex really didn’t want to be a part of the program. It was always a problem having him work. So within several months, I was able to successfully file for divorce and Pat was great at keeping me on track during that whole process.

 

Lesley:  So just before you go on with that because what Julie has said and what Pat has said is that he fixes the person as supposed to fixing the business. Can you tell me, because when you said you are at the end with the business, had sales dropped? Had inventory accumulated? What was the status of the business when you realized that?

 

Suzanne:  I mean I wasn’t at the end of my business. I was at the end of my marriage, but I was so frustrated with my business that I just felt I couldn’t push it to the next level. It was so frustrating.

 

Lesley:  So the level you were at when you realized you couldn’t push it to the next, how would you describe the level that you had achieved to that date?

 

Suzanne:  Well, it was greatly disorganized. I mean it was crazy in the back. I had so much warehouse space and so many more employees than I have now, and things were in disarray. They weren’t organized. Things just kept getting more and more out of control. We really did not have control over our bookkeeping, and we do not have like financial reports to see where we were at which was a huge thing that Pat requires. But it’s true that when Pat came on even though I had felt that my marriage was just at the dead end. Pat has lied to us that if we worked on our business, that we fix the business and we would fix our relationship. So I said to my ex, I said, “You know, we have nothing to lose, if we work on our business we’ll make it more profitable.” I said, “In doing that, it revitalizes our marriage.” So, anyhow, but within a few short weeks it was determined that my ex really didn’t want to be a part of it.

 

Lesley:  Well, I understand that part of Pat’s process is to ask tough questions, and he doesn’t stop until he knows that he’s getting the answer that’s real. So, even though we think we’re giving the real answer right away, there’s always a deeper answer usually waiting to be offered. And so, what was it that started to become evident for you that you knew that part of the turnaround was going to be a divorce?

 

Suzanne:  Part of the turnaround was going to be that I was going to divorce my husband; I think that he just refused to be a part of it. He refused to be told what to do and do the work that was required.

 

Lesley:  Can you just go back into that time for just a second?  I mean, deep inside of you, you knew something was going around anyway, but how do you feel when it became clear that the journey forward was not going to include your husband? What went on in your mind at that point?

 

Suzanne:  It wasn’t a huge surprise for me. As I said, I had realized it before I met Pat. I mean, we’ve been off for many years and I just knew that things were… I did not think things would ever change. So that wasn’t a surprise really. But the beauty was and it’s so interesting one of the first things that Pat told us to do, our first project. Everything was in such disarray. I mean our offices, the warehouse, you name it. He said, “I want you to and you choose very little money. I want you to clean up your bathrooms.” So we redesigned our bathrooms for really cheap. I just found, just went to home depot about a few things and we painted and we stuck over whenever. And he said, “I can’t tell you why but by doing this, this will start transforming things.” And it did. Because once you got that cleaned up, you know, because it’s something that everybody goes to everyday and whenever. And I think they’ve got like, “Oh geez, this is a nice place.” And they were started focusing on art. “How can we do the offices the same thing without hardly any money but we got to clean this up.” So, we did the offices and then focused on the warehouse, and so that was a beautiful change but on much deeper and more important level. Pat had talked to me about my faith, and I said, “I was raised catholic but I had found a way many years ago.” And he said, “You need to get back to church. You need to get back where I would.” So, I said okay. Because everything he’s told me in the last six years, every piece of advice has been right on. So, I went back to church and it’s… I mean I feel like I have a much deeper faith than I did back even when I was growing up a catholic.

 

Lesley:  He gave you the faith that you so much needed at a time when everything around you is in disarray, but that belief can really hold us sacred. And whatever that belief is in, it keeps the rudder on our sheep from letting us go over.

 

Suzanne:  And then I could clearly see looking back that all those years when I turned away from God, that as soon as I just put my hand out to ask for help he was right there. And he said, “Come on, let’s get rocking and rolling.”

 

Lesley:  Well I’m so happy that there was this type of finding that solitude, but also that inner peace at a time when everything else around you is not crashing but shifting on you. It’s like a quicksand when we go through these experiences. So, what was the relationship if you don’t mind me asking between you and your husband from the business point of view? What was the construction of the company in terms of that?

 

Suzanne:  Well, I was the one who mainly ran it but he oversaw the bookkeeping. As he said he wasn’t a bookkeeper. I mean, you know, he did sort of handle it but we did nothing as far as like really pulling together weekly financial reports so that we could forecast and see exactly where we’re at. I mean, typically, what would happen is when there was money then it was great, we pay the bills and then the loan. And then suddenly when he didn’t have money to pay the bills, he called me in the office and say, “You know, you need to get extra amount sales right now because I can’t pay the bills.” And I said, “Well, with my type of business it’s not like going toward the door and clean, or there’s something where I could go out today…”

 

Lesley:  These are huge initiatives that you do.

 

Suzanne:  Yes. And it takes time from working with typically that’s specifying, providing a quotation, you often times has to go through approval of whoever is purchasing. It’s a process.

 

Lesley:  Yes. What would do typical sales cycle be? So from initial contact to fulfilling the contract, how long would one of those typical cycles be?

 

Suzanne:  Well it’s interesting because it still continues to the stay. It could be anywhere from a week to sometimes it might be nine months down the road. Because sometimes, imagine if they’re doing a major hotel renovation or new construction, they want to have all their budgets set. Even though they’re not going to purchase anytime now, but they still need to know what that overall budget is and decide exactly what’s going to be approved every step of the way in the guest rooms, in public spaces and whatever. So, we need to know what overall dollar amount is.

 

Lesley:  And those can change. And so, as you say, I mean particularly in the economic time that we’re in, and so one of the things about six years ago is that the economy was in the midst of its major shift. And one of the things we know about Pat is that he says, “Come on, it’s not the economy. You know, you can blame the economy but it’s actually something else is going on in the business.” Aside from the organizational issues that you had and the lack of financial oversight, what did you see was part of the story of the nature change?

 

Suzanne:  Well, it wasn’t really structure. I mean, when I started this business I mean nothing about business. You know, I’ve never picked up a driller, a glue gun, or whatever and start to like making a tree. I had never really done sales. I knew nothing of bookkeeping or any of that. So, we all kind of just bloom by the seed of our plants, really. And initially we had a small house that time and my son was five years old at the time. And I have a couple of high school girls that I hired that would work in the garage, and drill and glue filled with trees. My living room was boxes of raw inventory. My diamond table, we threw a furniture pot over that and that was plant production. My backyard was full of piles of wood, and my son would complain and say, “Mom, I can’t see the cartoon because I have trees lined up in the family room ready to be delivered the next day.”

 

Lesley:  So I’m fascinated by this. So, you haven’t picked up a glue gun. You haven’t done any of this. What made you go into the whole notion of this artificial but silk, I mean very beautiful product, but what made you get into it in the first place?

 

Suzanne:  You know, it’s interesting, at the time I had just a little business I was doing called “Corporate Figures,” and I was teaching aerobic kind of classes at the corporations. And this friend of mine that I knew from elementary and high school, and said, “My sister, she’s building these ficus trees now that are built on natural wood trunks” Back then it was just all plastic, very plastic. So, I went and took a look, it was beautiful. My parents have a horrible looking plastic tree in their living room, so I bought one of these for my folks. And then as I would be walking through the lobbies of these corporations where I was teaching aerobics classes, I would see these real ficus trees that most of them are half-dead. And I started thinking there is really a market for these, so that’s kind of how it got started.

 

Lesley:  Well, this is the true story of an entrepreneur, right? I mean, you’re doing one thing and you see opportunity right there, and you say, “I’ve got to do it,” and off you go. So how did you grow from your small house and every item blocking your son’s vision to the television, to having a warehouse and growing the business to the stage that I was at? What did you do to do that?

 

Suzanne:  To start, when I was working on my house, my neighbor who has three young kids, she had an older station wagon and I had a big Cadillac. Mine was older but it was a better can than hers. So, I asked if we could swap cars because I could fit three trees in her station wagon to deliver and she love driving my Cadillac with her family. So, we did that for a while until I could afford an old fox truck. So we continued I would say for about a year working out of our house until I finally lend it, because I would just go through whatever people would maybe give me ideas of who to approach. So I started going after interior designers and I did a big job, it was like a 25,000-dollar job in Las Vegas all out in my little house.

 

Lesley:  Yeah, because now there’s real risk on the line. You know, it doesn’t work out, well then the house is going to be cleared up, but now you’ve got some investment that you’re doing. And, how did you start to grow your employees? What sort of happened for you to start adding people to the mix?

 

Suzanne:  Well, I think just a sales increase. You know, very initially I sold it, built it and delivered. Then as I started to make a little money, that’s when I hired a couple of high school kids that we knew were very good in building the trees, very artistic. Then as business grows more, I was able to pay someone part time to help drive the trucks so that I wouldn’t have to always be out on delivery. You know, as we made a little more, then we hired a little more to handle that capacity.

 

Lesley:  So it’s organic and you listened to the organic page, I mean you added as you could and as you needed to. So you kept on growing. So at the point that you were six years ago, were you had to face the fact that something had to change? What were your sales at that point?

 

Suzanne:  I clicked on around a million a year. It wasn’t that I didn’t have sales. It was just that it was out of control. You just felt like it was just chaotic and it was exhausting. And I think between that exhaustion of feeling like the business was chaotic, and having a marriage that was, like I said sisters trust will be at the end of that.

 

Lesley:  Oh my gosh! You know what I empathize so much with what you’re saying. And so, take me now to today and then we’ll go back to six years but where are you today? Describe the status of Suzie’s life.

 

Suzanne:  Well, certainly, I have absolutely the most peace of mind that I’ve had in my whole life. And it’s not to say that I still don’t have challenges with my business, because over the last six years as you know the economy is still then all over the place. And also, because I’ve been in business so long and I’ve had a wonderful following of customers that love making these, but a lot of them that are older. And when things got so tough with the economy they retired. It did something else because it was just wide when things are that rough. Plus, a lot of companies have gone out of business, too, over the last six years. And it’s talking to me actually how many even in my industry and some of my competitors that were much larger and older than my company that went out of business.

 

Lesley:  I mean, of course, as you say the economy has been going in and out, back up and down and a lot of downside, so what have you attributed your sustainability to?

 

Suzanne:  Well, I think, all of Pat’s principles have played into it. First and foremost, I’m just going to say I think having faith, and working on my faith,  I’m trusting a guy and asking for his help every day. You know, when I look back it’s certainly has been a zillion miracles that have kept my business going these 33 years.

 

Lesley:  No that 33 years has a chock-full of miracles going on. But, just tell me, what are the top three principles that come to mind when you think of that principles?

 

Suzanne:  Okay. Well, I love the saying “Everything is everything.” So, he believes that we need to keep our lives in balance always everyday –mind, body, spirit. You can’t let anything slide. We tend to want to do things that we like to do, and things that were good at, and things that comes easier for us, but we can’t pick and choose whatever is on or list today on what to do. We have to do it all otherwise it wreaks havoc with our business. It’s just constant diligence. You know, when I get up in the morning and I’ve got my list, it’s a struggle. It’s all kind of big struggle to do it all, but I’m determined to do it all because that is the way to be successful.

 

Lesley:  So aside from this interview today, what’s on your list for today?

 

Suzanne:  Well, already this morning, I mean I typically start my day, before I get out of bed I pray and I go through the list of things that I’m grateful for, because I do have such an incredible rest life and I think we all need to live that way. And I try to read a little from the scripture which I did then I got up and started working on a few quotations. And then I try to go to daily mass so I went to 8:30 mass, and then came back and made a few more sales calls, check in with the office and then talk to you. So the rest of the day I have a ton of work.

 

Lesley:  Ok. So, there’s a discipline to how this list gets created. Does it get created in morning or the night before, or is it an ongoing running list?

 

Suzanne:  I think it is an on-going that I have to kind of keep revising throughout the day, so yes. And I’m just going to say, “So in my day, I’m going to work real hard through the day, but tonight I’m going West Coast Swing dancing because you need to mix it up.”

 

Lesley:  West Coast Swing dancing girlfriend. My goodness, you are going to be hot tonight. Well, you know, I think that the journey of the six years as obviously paved a much more profound path for you in this timeframe. And, what would you give as advice to somebody who’s out there listening, who’s running a business, who’s experiencing the same type of “Oh my gosh, I can’t seem to get control of this ship and I need help,” what advice would you give them in terms of recognizing that and in terms of the next steps they need to take?

 

Suzanne:  Well, I don’t think I could’ve done this without Pat quite frankly. So I think that anyone who has an opportunity to meet Pat and work with Pat, I think it’s just a blessing from God. And I think that because it’s very hard being a CEO, we have so many challenges, we have so much responsibility. It can be overwhelming at times, it can be discouraging. Sometimes Pat is constantly giving us wonderful lessons. And one of the reasons why people can stray from getting their list on is that things are really great. Because things are going really great, you think okay, put your feet up but you’re going to pave for it down the road. With human nature, I think we do need someone to help keep us accountable.

 

Lesley:  And so the nature of the relationship is how often do you speak with him, how often do you meet with him. Here we are, six years later and you’re still in a relationship, so what’s the ongoing nature of that relationship?

 

Suzanne:  Well I check in with Pat every morning. He has his incredible bible studies we can call in on Tuesday mornings, that’s 7:30. I also when I can’t, there’s another one Wednesday mornings. Second Sunday of every month, we have bible studies out of his place, out in the desert. So I do that. Pat continually gives you advice and information almost daily. I mean, even though with all the knowledge that I have of having worked on my business for 33 years, I still make mistakes. There are so many mistakes that Pat helps me to navigate through that to keep my company safe, you know. When I’ve had certain situations where I have to get a lawyer involved and how that happened right away, and how to be done a certain way to keep me safe and he’s always been there for everything. But I want to say too that one big piece of advice he gave me too while I was going through my divorce. I have a sister lives in Chile, she was one who went on the Camino and she was visiting while I was going through a divorce and we all went to lunch. And he turned to my sister, and he said, “I want to tell you something: if your sister ever starts to complain or whatever she want to discuss for a divorce, I want you to say this sentence to her “Shut the blank up then get back to work.”” And I’m going to tell you that it was such a wonderful advice because I personally saw, at least two maybe three companies, compared in the same industry of mine, bigger, older, that were because of long drawn out nasty divorces, because it can be such a distraction from what you’re supposed to do.  Sometimes you feel like Pat’s being tough on you, but it’s really what we’re supposed to do. It’s really a gift.

 

Lesley:  Well, it comes from a deep understanding of this faith and it comes from a deep understanding of human nature. And it comes from this belief that people have come into his life for a reason, and he has to be accountable for that reason and make sure that they’re safe. And I think that what you said is so critical, is that we as human beings know how to be safe. We do, we’re naturally built to be safe, but we let it overcome us when things start to go alright or things get really good. I mean, as you say it’s the ups and the downs that challenge us in terms of staying safe, and that’s the advice that I think is so paramount in what you’re saying.

 

Suzanne:  But I will tell you one thing too. In my entire life, I don’t think you’ll ever find someone who will be as big of an advocate as Pat. I mean, a hundred percent of his advice is nothing but the best for you. There will never be any ulterior motive and it’ll only a pure correct advice and taking care of you.

 

Lesley:  Well, you are the first person I’ve ever talked with… I’ve talked with thousands of people, who started their turnaround by changing their bathrooms. So I think that goes to show just how unique this form of advice is. And on that note, Suzie, I am out of time and I’m so sorry because I know there’s a lot of advice underneath this conversation but thank you for joining me today.

 

Suzanne:  Oh thank you, it was great fun. It’s so nice to meet you.

 

Entrepreneurship is as much a personality trait as it is a business category. We don’t take the cloak off and leave it at the office; we bring it home, to the ballgame, to the school concert, the dinner table and into the bedroom. Small business is led by people who experience little to no boundary between their personal and professional lives. This means that when a business is in crisis, so as the family and the relationships that define the owner. Executing a turnaround strategy is therefore very tricky business, as Suzie tells us the pressure of her business’s stall in the market exposed the fault lines in her marriage. Not only do this entrepreneur have to fight for her business and way of livelihood, she had to do so by saying goodbye to her business partner and husband. I’m in no way suggesting that such severe actions are the norm, but I can say from both my personal and professional experience, turning a business around is much like pruning a rose bush. You have to cut right back to the very core so that new life can unfold. Every weak element will be exposed and the decision will have to be made whether to nurture it back or cut it off for the good of survival. In small business, this action applies to the intricate interwoven all aspects of the owner. Now, one of the highlight I’d like to point out is the use of the tipping point strategy called “broken windows.” In Make Be-Leaves’ case, this involved fixing up the business’s bathrooms. Such maneuvers are terrifically strategic in nature. They can springboard the turnaround or stall it, such as the reason for expert advice on where a leader must expend their precious energy for the best return in sending the message that a new chapter is about to be written for the business. To find out more about Suzanne Ameche and Make Be-Leaves, go to makebe-leaves that’s M-A-K-E-B-E-hyphen-L-E-A-V-E-S.com. To find out more about Patrick and the Rettig Corporation, go to T-H-E-R-E-T-T-I-G-C-O-R-P-O-R-A-T-I-O-N.com. And, to find out more about me, you just head over to Lesleysouthwick-trask.com, womenwholead.co and The Women Who Lead Radio Show on Facebook. I’m really keen to have conversations with you, so check me out and remember this is your show. I am your host Lesley Southwick Trask. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

2 Comments

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