As a teenager, Carolyn Labatt dreamed of a career in investments.
To be sure, it wasn’t a typical “What will I be when I grow up?” sort of vision, especially for a girl coming of age in the early 1970s. But her grandfather had been a stockbroker, and she was attracted to what seemed like a dynamic and lucrative career. She studied finance in college, getting her degree at age 19. She promptly called upon a local brokerage where she’d interned as a student, anticipating a start on the trading floor, an intense, fast-paced job she loved as an intern.
Instead, her meeting with the brokerage’s chief trader, whom Labatt regarded as a mentor, held disappointing news. The investing world had changed dramatically, and nearly all of the jobs once performed in local brokerages were now done on Wall Street. “There’s only one job in San Antonio like the one you’re describing, and it’s mine,” he told her, as he advised her to look to another career. He pointed out another barrier that Labatt hadn’t considered: her age, gender, and lack of experience. “You’re 19. You’re a woman. Who’s going to take investment advice from you?” he asked. It was the first time Labatt had run smack into a wall, and she felt devastated. She didn’t want to forsake the financial industry, so she did what she would do many more times over the years: She picked herself up and moved on.
She didn’t think she’d fit well into a large, impersonal corporate setting, so she focused on smaller businesses, one of which was a medical billing services company. “It doesn’t sound exciting, but it made sense with my accounting and finance background. The size of the company appealed to me, and I liked the people,” she says.
The new job also presented a learning curve. Labatt had taken only one computer class in college, and her job was to help doctors’ offices convert their paper-and-pencil ledger entries to automated accounting and billing systems. Computers were new and intimidating to Labatt’s clients, and a big part of her job was helping office staff get comfortable with a completely new way of working. Instead of trying to explain the technical aspects of the computer, Labatt opened the door by showing her clients what the technology could do for them. “I was able to help them see a whole new level of detail, and suddenly, they were able to see where they were losing money,” she says.She was enthusiastic about her job and saw a career path, so much so that she approached the company’s executives after several years on the job and told them she wanted to be on a shareholder track. It was a bold statement.
“They looked at me like I was crazy,” she says. “I was all of 23 years old, and I just told this old boy network that I wanted to be one of them.” Their rejection was clear, and it was time for a change.
She moved to New York City to follow a boyfriend who was trying to break into the publishing business. After several years of working in accounting and billing systems, it didn’t even occur to Labatt that she could look for an investments job on Wall Street. Instead, she quickly found a job similar to the one she’d held in Texas. After a year, she was homesick for San Antonio. At that point, love intervened. Her boyfriend became her fiancé, and they decided to come home and get married. She continued working in accounting and billing systems, and she was taking a class at UTSA to better understand a client’s industry when she saw a new kind of computer — a PC. She was awestruck by the possibilities. She knew the ins and outs of hulking, refrigerator-sized computers. “And then I saw this small PC that could do what those huge computers did. The scale was incredible to me,” she says. Labatt had an edge: She knew how to use computers in a business setting. She started thinking about how to turn that expertise into consulting work and began talking to potential clients. One such prospect was a computer and electronics retailer called ComputerLand. She suggested that she could be a consultant to the store’s customers after the sale, helping install computers, load software and train new users. The store’s owner explained that she wouldn’t get much work, since he felt that’s what his salespeople were there to do. “He offered me a job in sales,” she says. “I was horrified. I never saw myself as a salesperson; I was a technical person.”
Labatt took the job, and she quickly saw that her approach to helping customers was a world apart. “A customer would come in, and the other salespeople would ask questions like, ‘How much memory do you want?’ Back then, our customers didn’t know what that meant,” she recalls. Labatt took a different approach: “I sat down with my customers and asked questions about their business and what they wanted a computer to do for them.” Labatt grew frustrated. “They had it all wrong. They were selling PCs the same way they would sell televisions and stereo equipment,” she says. She felt that retailers like the one she was working for were missing the support and service needs of their customers, which she saw as a source of ongoing and repeat business. She knew she had the right idea, but as long as she was working for someone who didn’t see the same thing, she was limited in what she could accomplish.
Labatt decided that running her own business would give her the flexibility she knew she’d need, because she and her husband were trying to start a family. Getting pregnant proved tougher than they’d counted on, though, and she began to accept that kids might not be in their future. She moved forward with starting a business selling computers and found a partner. They wanted to be licensed dealers for IBM, the leading manufacturer of PCs at that time. Their plans fell flat when they learned that manufacturers did not want to work with new companies, so they quickly switched gears and found an existing business to buy.
Computer Solutions was an Apple dealership. It was a good company, but it was struggling financially when Labatt and her partner made the offer to buy in 1984. For Labatt, the pieces were finally starting to come together, but the day they signed the papers to close the deal, she felt ill. She interpreted it as a sense of foreboding, and started to second-guess her decision to buy a business.
A week later, Labatt understood why she wasn’t feeling well: She was pregnant. “I didn’t want anyone to know at first,” she says. She kept her secret for a few months and focused on work. “There was so much to do, even with an existing company structure there,” she says. At the top of the list was their goal to sell and service IBM computers. The existing relationship with Apple and a fledgling deal with HP sustained the business as Labatt and her partner worked to secure the IBM license.
Business success was modest that first year, but they managed to post $1 million in sales, and Labatt and her husband, Joe, now had a daughter, Roxana. With a growing business, the coveted IBM deal and a new baby, everything seemed to be falling into place for Labatt. Three years into the business, her second daughter, Camilla, was born. In Labatt’s social and neighborhood circles, women were stay-at-home moms and couldn’t identify with the complexities of being a working mother. Now with two young children, she was all the more protective of her family time. When she returned to work, she learned to set more boundaries, and she delegated more responsibility to her core team. “I couldn’t work 60 to 80 hours a week and raise a family,” she says. “I told my team they’d have to step up, and they did.” Labatt was confident that the company would be successful by focusing on local relationships. “I wasn’t interested in going all over the country, or even across the state,” she says. She knew that meant that business growth would come about slowly, and she was comfortable with that decision. She also resisted the pressure to sell “clones,” cheaper, generic versions of name-brand PCs. Companies found the bottom line attractive and were eager to save money, but Labatt held her ground and refused to purchase them for her customers. That decision proved to be pivotal for Computer Solutions. Sticking with name brands won loyalty from the manufacturers she represented, and it opened the door to her first big-company clients.
Then the economy took a nosedive. When their bank was taken over by the FDIC, the company’s credit line disappeared overnight. Labatt struggled to keep the business together as she searched for a bank to take the accounts and to extend credit. “The one thing that saved us is that we were small, and we weren’t carrying large debt or lines of credit,” she says. The company weathered the storm. It was the early 1990s, and Computer Solutions had a growing roster of local customers. The company was now in a position to make the kinds of strategic hires that would attract more local business, and Labatt added a service that was relatively unknown at the time, but would quickly revolutionize computers in the workplace: systems networking. By the time her son, Joseph, arrived in 1991, Labatt felt more secure in her roles as business owner, wife and mother. Although her business was successful, blazing her own trail had caused her to miss out on the mentoring and collegial relationships that are common in more traditional corporate settings. She joined the Young Presidents Organization and quickly found herself surrounded by like-minded people she could rely on for advice, knowledge and support. When the local chapter found out what she did for a living, she was quickly tapped to be the board’s technology chair and, eventually, president.
Computer Solutions had a steady stream of income from its role in Apple’s program that put computers in classrooms. Labatt had computers in most of the city’s school districts when Apple cut resellers out of the program. Individual school districts were small slices of the company’s pie, but putting them all together, Labatt realized that it made up about 35 percent of the business. It was a significant loss, and she had to quickly find a way to replace that revenue stream. Although Labatt was in a male-dominated industry, she never felt a need to make her gender an issue, but manufacturers began approaching her with a question: “Are you the owner of the company?” She learned that companies were pursuing benefits offered by creating partnerships with minority-owned businesses. She had never considered that being a woman meant she was a minority, but she researched and saw value in becoming a certified Women’s Business Enterprise, which enabled the company to bid on government projects. This quickly narrowed her losses and sustained the business while she rethought how her company was set up.
Coming of age
Labatt knew a few things: She wouldn’t compromise by selling cheap clone computers. She didn’t want to rely on government contracts to move the company forward. She also knew that the IT industry was maturing, and whatever she did next needed to respond to that coming of age. Again, she looked at what her customers needed from her to make their businesses successful. Labatt’s plan was a four-pronged business model. Computer Solutions would always sell computers to clients, but evolving technology had taken her customers’ needs to new levels. The company diversified to offer service in three additional areas: engineering, application development and managed services. The latter is an emerging trend for small to medium-sized businesses, which need the same technology and systems expertise as larger companies, but aren’t in a position to dedicate resources to create an internal IT department. In this role, Labatt works directly with her clients to help them use the right technology for their business needs, much as she did when she started her career. Labatt’s family has also come of age: Her husband, Joe, owns Corona Publishing Company. Roxana, now 21, is a senior at Princeton University, and Camilla, 19, attends Wake Forest University. Son David, now 15, attends St. Mary’s Hall. “My family keeps me grounded, and my time with them restores me,” she says.
To Labatt, success goes beyond the vendor/supplier relationship. “It’s more than which company you buy from,” she says. She values face-to-face relationships, which might seem a bit old-fashioned in this age of virtual work teams, text messaging and video conferencing, all enhanced by the very technology she sells to her clients. She is convinced that in a city where businesses grow on the strength of personal relationships, just being here is key to her company’s success: “People in San Antonio value relationships. I like to see local companies doing business with each other.”
Author: Susan Sheffloe Speer
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams