India Coleman had worked at Wood-B-Nice Manufacturing for six years before she became the owner of the Santa Ana wood products firm. She learned that as the boss, her priorities and relationships with co-workers and customers had to change dramatically. Coleman was interviewed by Karen Kaplan.
I started out at this company as controller. In 1995, I became a half-partner. Later that year, the original owner decided to turn the rest of the business over to me because he owed me a lot of back pay.
It was hard to think of myself as a boss instead of as an employee. I did the same work I had always done. The only time it would hit me was on payday.
After I became the owner, the quality of our product went down a little. I think the workers didn't sweat it as much. They didn't think I would get mad because I'd always been pretty submissive with them.
The employees and I were all very friendly. So when I needed to say anything critical to them, I wanted to say it in a way that would still be friendly. In the past that was easy because if there was ever a problem, they would just blame it on the original owner. But now when I would say a product wasn't good enough to ship out, we would have arguments about it. People just stopped working because they didn't respect me.
At first I tried very hard to maintain friendly relations, but then I realized that had to change. There's no need for me to be unfriendly, but I shouldn't bend over backward for their sake. The employees had it in their heads that I needed them, and I had that in my head too. But I learned that I could hire new people and train them and keep going and produce a high-end product.
When I hired more people, there was less bickering. I didn't realize how much a burden that was until I had all new people and I would go in the back and say, "I need this made," and they'd all say, "OK."
Now I have a new crew and I don't have to worry as much about being friends with my employees. My bottom line is to worry about the product and make sure it gets made right.
Now I understand why people who buy companies turn over the staff. With a new crew, they have no reason not to respect you. Plus when you're teaching them what to do, you build respect and loyalty.
We all came in as a team, but you can't be a team. You have to have a boss.
I've also learned to be totally honest with customers. I always wanted to make all of my customers happy, but sometimes there are circumstances beyond your control. It's better to be upfront about that. It's scary to tell clients that you'll be late with an order, but most businesses have gone through this before and they appreciate when you are honest.
Sometimes when I got burned out I would just say, "It's not my problem." But when you're the owner, an attitude like that can have a negative effect on your business.
Now I feel really good. I make the decisions and I know that payroll will be taken care of. I make a wonderful product that makes my customers happy. It was a real learning process.
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AT A GLANCE
Owner: India Coleman
Nature of business: Wood products manufacturing
Location: Santa Ana
Owner since: 1995
Number of employees: 6
Annual sales: $218,000