How A Burned Out Owner Got Back Into The Game
By John Grossmann
Published October 29, 2013
Last week, we published a case study about a business owner who sought a better work/life balance in her early fifties by downshifting — cutting back on her hours and working two to three days a week from home. But then, two years closer to 60, Bibby Gignilliat, founder of Parties That Cook, a San Francisco company that offers cooking classes as employee-appreciation and corporate team-building events, had a change of heart. She had spent 14 years building her business to $2.2 million in revenue, but she knew she had more work to do if she ever wanted to sell the business.
She decided to step back into a more active role, first sharing that plan in a budget meeting with two crucial managers late in 2012. She announced an ambitious sales goal for 2013 and a plan to double revenue in three years, and she scheduled an all-day strategic-planning session for her entire staff for early January to embark on those goals. In an interview that has been condensed and edited, we followed up with Ms. Gignilliat after the case study was published to learn more about how she is doing and to see what she thought of the advice offered by our commenters.
Q. You say you pride yourself on your collaborative management style. Yet your return sounds a bit more like stepping back in with a bullhorn. Was there any employee backlash?
A. Yes, there was. First off, in last November’s budget meeting with my two managers. I wanted the 2013 sales goal to be $2.7 million, but my two managers and then my chief financial officer expressed concern. We ended up with a goal of $2.5 million to present at the January meeting. At the meeting I also scaled back my three-year-goal to $4 million and presented the strategic plan of how I thought we were going to get there. I had a vision statement and objectives and strategies. When I presented this to my team, they did not like it.
Q. What did they say?
A. Some thought it was too aggressive. Someone said, “Why do we have to grow? Why can’t we stay the same?” I went home that day devastated. I realized I had made a big mistake. I had just sprung this on them. They didn’t feel part of it. So the next day I apologized for not giving them some participation in it and said anybody who wanted to meet with me on Monday at 9 a.m. can help re-craft the vision statement. Five or six people came, and at the end of the day, we changed it slightly.
Q. Were there any other surprises when you returned?
A. Yes, two big surprises. As things settled down after a busy January, I discovered that my bookkeeper was committing fraud. My controller was away for a time and with that layer missing I got more involved in the bookkeeping. I asked to see the credit card statements. I saw some inappropriate charges, about a thousand dollars, and confronted her. She admitted it and I let her go. In the spring, we lost our $200,000 line of credit with Wells Fargo. We’d managed it impeccably, but over the course of the last couple years, our retained earnings had diminished because we had not been that profitable. Plus, we had taken out a $100,000 S.B.A. loan to hire a business development person, so our debt-to-equity ratio was not looking good. Wells Fargo pulled our line of credit with hardly any notice. But things like this tend to have a silver lining. I’ve always been a business owner who’s focused on revenue and not enough on profit. It was a wake-up call for me to really focus on profit. I’ve got everyone in the company, including the dishwashers and chefs and servers aboard — it’s now open-book financials, everybody knows where the company is coming from, where we’re going, and we’ve made a ton of changes.
Q. Prominent among the advice from our advisers and readers were suggestions to focus more of your own efforts on sales and marketing. Have you?
A. I definitely have. I’ve taken a number of customers to lunch this year, which I’d never done before and I’m having phone conversations, and I participated in our customer appreciation events we did this year. I’m going to more networking events and speaking on more panels. I now focus my time doing what I do best: being the face of the company. My greatest weakness is I don’t like thinking things through to the nth degree. So I’ve hired people who have opposite Myers-Briggs preferences from me. Many of them are very methodical and detail-oriented and process-oriented, while I’m very much a visionary.
Q. Does it look like Parties That Cook will meet your goal of a 20 percent sales increase for 2013? A. It’s looking like we’re going to do it. We brought in 18 bookings last week — one for 150 people for Google in Seattle. We have an incredible November coming up.
Q. What are you doing to maintain a healthy work/life balance and not slip back into old patterns?
A. As a business owner, your business is with you 24/7. But the difference now is I am working on the things I love, as I have delegated the things I don’t like and am not good at. I set boundaries around my work hours and try to exercise and see friends regularly. I rarely work on weekends. I travel and have time for a personal life. It still is stressful, but I have a smart, solid, cohesive and hardworking team to rely on that treats the business as their own. I’m now working from home one to two days a week. I recently moved to Marin County, which allows me more time in nature, away from the stress of the city. I find I am more productive and more creative.
Q. Back when you barely had a life outside work, you once bristled at being called “the owner of a lifestyle business.” That shoe now fits?
A. Yes. And it’s a Prada.
A version of this article appears in print on 10/31/2013, on page B4 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Owner Returns To Her Business.
Read the Blog: boss.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/23/how-does-an-owner-who-stepped-away-reassert-control
Read the Case Study: nytimes.com/2013/10/24/business/smallbusiness/a-burned-out-owner-who-backed-off-tries-to-step-back-in