Do lawn mowers and chain saws make you think of a woman-owned business? Meet Kathy Mueller of Arco Lawn Equipment. For 30 years, she worked alongside her husband Steve as they developed their business and raised a family.
When a job opened up for her husband in 2007, the couple considered closing the business. But Mueller can't turn down a challenge.
This entrepreneurial woman manages to fit in full days at work as well as personal time, family time and frequent babysitting for her grandchildren. (My children, as it happens, because Kathy Mueller is my mother-in-law.)
So how does she run a business in such a male-dominated industry?
How did you end up running a lawn-equipment business?
When Steve took the job, I thought about it from a business standpoint: The business is here. The struggles that Arco was having were that [we] were burned out. We didn't have a good focus. So, I proposed to go ahead and run it instead of cash it in and call it even.
What was the situation at Arco then, financially?
Sales were declining. We had made $800,000 gross the year before. We had eight employees and lots of debt. My focus was to get out of debt. We had lots of leaks going on, just from not enough people working for us really.
The truth is you can't afford not to have the people there to do it for you. You start running more efficiently and you start making money.
Let's talk about how you tackled being a woman and running a business in the lawn-equipment industry.
I think it's real important that there's a … coach mentality. We had people in there who were not interested in being team players. No matter how valuable you may think that they are, you have to get rid of them, because they will ruin the team.
I had to fire a few guys because they weren't willing to be team players. You have to be willing to do that hard thing.
I want to relate to [my employees]… as a friend, but I need for them to become and stay good employees. There need to be lines. And I need to make them as clear as possible.
I want them to like me. But I also realize that if there's no one leading, they'll all just go astray. And I think that they respect me because they know that if there's a problem, they'll hear from me.
My position really is managing people. So when I look at people I say, "How would I want to be managed?" And I try to manage like that.
I care about people. Everything's not about the almighty buck. I'm into this to make obscene amounts of money, but not to the point where I'm willing to sacrifice my team players or my customers.
How do you deal with customer issues?
It's easy to want to avoid conflict, but you can't always do that. [With customers], there's nothing wrong with saying, "Do you really think that's fair?"
How about with employees?
When you're a team leader, delegation is huge. Huge. If you're going to micromanage people, they are going to resent that. But if instead, you delegate out, people will take that and they will own that.
I have checks in place. First they have to prove that they're trustworthy. My trust is earned. And I share what's important to me. I always, always bring it back to the team. I think that just reiterating that helps the team to feel like a team.
It's looking for those opportunities when they're really trying hard to do the right thing and praising them. It's expecting a little and getting a lot and praising a lot. It's saying, "I'm gonna give you this little piece. Show me that you are able to handle that."
Where is Arco now?
We've increased to 11 employees. Debt has decreased. And in 2011, we grossed over $1 million. Sales are increasing.
You have two teenagers, five grandkids, a few horses. How do you fit in having a life and running a business?
Well, it's real easy for me to walk away from business. When I'm done, I'm done. Not everybody's able to do that. It's a button that goes off. I'll be here tomorrow.
I make sure that I delegate time out for me. I could live on a real guilt trip, but I realize that taking that time for me makes me a better person all around. I always make sure on my day off, I do something for me. You've got to plug that time in, because if you don't, you'll never have it.
I think family time is important. I take mothering very seriously. I remember raising kids and always feeling guilty. I can still get that way about my dog!
We've worked it long and hard and didn't see progress. And there are times when we need to give it more. But overall, you've got to balance it, otherwise it gets ugly.
Annie Mueller writes about productivity in life and at work for online publications. Find her blog, AnnieMueller.com and on Twitter @anniemueller.
Photo credit: iStockphoto