Succession Lessons

May, 2009

In 1986, Helen Godwin was living in California and working as a school administrator. That summer, she began what she thought was a year-long vacation; instead she quickly found herself running a business in Hawaii.

In October, after her brother-in-law was injured and fell into a coma, she took over his copy and printing company, Professional Image. (He came out of it a year later but has been paralyzed ever since.) Godwin planned on selling the company, but no one would buy it. In fact, she invested her own money just to keep the company afloat.

By January 1987, the business was breaking even and by September she was handing out bonuses. Despite having no business training, Godwin learned quickly on the job and kept the business in the family. Here are her thoughts on accepting command of an existing business.

Maximize Facilities and Employees

“When I came on board and started working, we had five stores. I was appalled one day when one store turned down work because it was busy instead of checking in with another store that was slow. I immediately changed that and we started to get more business; and I closed a store that was doing very poorly and transferred people. The other thing I started doing was shifting bodies. If the work couldn’t be shifted I might pull an employee from another store. Within three months we weren’t losing money and we weren’t really making any … but at least we had enough business coming in to cover the bills just by making those few changes.”

Follow a Gut Feeling

“In 1987, Canon came out with the (CLC-1, the first four-color laser copier) and it was a huge thing. I was very surprised Kinkos, which was huge in Hawaii and even nationwide, did not jump on the bandwagon and order these color copiers. Perhaps because I was not in the business — I had only been on the job just a few months, my background was education — perhaps I was thinking out of the box, I don’t know. I thought, ‘Gee, this looks really nice, I think I will try this.’ So I was the only one on the Island that bought the color copier. … If I recall, the machine was about $35,000. At $2.50 a copy, that first month we made about $18,000 in copies. In the second month, we made $20,000 plus. The machine was basically paid off in two months.”

Put Cash in the Bank

“That color copier saved us. It allowed me to make a lot of money, and because I had struggled so much previously, having to put my own money in, the minute we started making money, I put money aside. When you have money in the bank, it allows you to make some decisions that other business owners could not have done. It gives you the freedom to say, ‘I think this will work, I’m not sure, but if I’m wrong, it’s not going to destroy my business because I have the money to pay for this mistake.’”

 

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