What Recession? Business owners thrive in a down economy

We’ve all seen the headlines that scream “Economic Crisis” and “Recession.” We read about declining housing markets, broken health care systems and small business owners being driven to close up shop. It isn’t a pretty picture.

But while it’s true that we are living in an uncertain economy, the outlook isn’t all gloom and doom. Take these three risk-taking entrepreneurs who have built successful businesses from the ground up. It wasn’t always easy, but rather than react impulsively to changes in the economic climate, these women have all taken proactive measures to weather the storm. As a result, their businesses not only survive but thrive because of the determination of these three strong women, who are adept at turning economic challenges into opportunities to discover new ways to grow.

Kathleen Kuper
Founder of Kuper Sotheby’s Residential Division

A slump in the real estate market? Don’t tell Kathleen Kuper. This grand dame of San Antonio’s residential real estate market has seen and heard it all before.
“At the time, everyone said the 1980s were bad for real estate,” Kuper recalls. “But looking back, I sold more than $11 million in volume in 1989 with 17 transactions.” Kuper, whose son Charlie started Kuper’s commercial real estate and development, began the residential side more than 30 years ago as a way to do something on her own. She made her first sale by connecting two friends she encountered in the local H-E-B and wrote her first contract on the hood of her car. Before she knew it, Kuper had grown residential real estate into the premier branch of Kuper Sotheby’s Realty.

“Charlie told me, ‘If you don’t like it, you can get out of it,’” she chuckles. “I think he expected me to call him after a month or two, but here I am 31 years later.” More than three decades in the business have taught Kuper how to successfully ride the continually rising and falling waves of the real estate market. Her secret? Don’t panic! “In adversity lies opportunity,” she says sagely. “You simply must stay focused.” For Kuper that focus was, and always has been, relationship building. A self-described people person, Kuper doesn’t believe in selling a house and then walking away. Instead, she and her agents work hard to cultivate relationships with clients that result in an enormous amount of referrals and repeat business.

“Kuper is focused on selling one house at a time and making sure that we have a customer for life,” she says with pride. “We have sold homes over and over again to the same families.” Part of that relationship building includes a fair amount of hand holding and guiding clients through the buying and selling process. Kuper and team educate sellers on how to stage the home and, most importantly, price the home — an area in which she says sellers often make the biggest mistakes. “We educate our sellers with the trends of the market through charts and graphs, and we urge them to work within the price we suggest, particularly in a slower market,” she explains. “We want our clients to understand the market as well as we do,” she adds. That also means making agents available 24/7 to answer questions and address concerns. It is part of providing that level of consistency for which Kuper has become known. “We have 31 years of integrity here, and I don’t want to see any quality suffering,” says Kuper, who refuses to buy into the notion of reinventing the wheel when times seem challenging. “We are being and staying consistent.” Being consistent doesn’t mean being complacent. On the contrary, Kuper has implemented several strategies over the past 30 years that have allowed the company to grow and provide the levels of service for which it is known. “You have to have open-mindedness and flexibility,” she advises. “You can’t stay still in the same momentum.”

That is why, when Sotheby’s came calling, Kuper jumped at the opportunity to join forces with the prestigious company. Through Sotheby’s, Kuper’s residential listings are shown all over the world. “What Sotheby’s does is huge, and they came to us to do it,” says Kuper. “We now have the best marketing exposure in town.” Perhaps the biggest adjustment she has had to make over the course of her career is to utilize the ever-expanding world of technology to her benefit. “Technology is the biggest change to our field that I have seen,” says Kuper, who recalls the days when MLS books came out twice a year and were filled with tiny photos.

“Now we get full-color pictures of listings on our phones!”

Kuper and her agents understand that 90 percent of today’s buyers have gone online and done their homework. Virtual photos and tours allow them to look at a home before even contacting an agent. But even with all the advances in modern technology and the success of Kuper’s residential real estate division, Kuper herself is not content to simply watch from the sidelines or the computer screen. The daughter of Lone Star brewery founder Harry Jersig, she was raised in a hard-working environment where the words “I can’t” simply weren’t an option. It is that determination and work ethic that puts Kuper in the front row of company sales meetings and in the car with agents attending real estate previews — regardless of the heat. By remaining hands-on, this once aspiring school teacher has realized the high growth in various parts of the city and has expanded her company, located in zip code 78209, to include offices in Boerne and The Dominion.

But regardless of how big the company gets, there is one thing that will stay the same, and that is the commitment of its founder to providing the highest quality service available. “We will never substitute for quality and integrity,” assures Kuper. “No one has ever forgotten that it is our family’s name on those awnings.” And her advice to those concerned about the slower housing market? “I have learned you must never give up,” she says with the wisdom that is gained only through experience. “This too shall pass.”

Valerie Gonzalez
Owner of Delicious Tamales

A $500 loan, an old family recipe and a dream were the only things Delicious Tamales owner Valerie Gonzalez had when she and her former husband decided to go into the tamale-making business in 1980. The couple used the money to buy a tamale machine, and together they worked around the clock making dozens upon dozens of the Hispanic holiday staple in the back of their 1,300-square-foot shop. The first Christmas that they offered their pork and jalapeño pork tamales to the public, the lines stretched for two blocks. “We had to ration the amount that people could buy so that we wouldn’t run out,” Gonzalez recalls. “That’s when I realized that this could actually work.” She was correct. Today, the award-winning Delicious Tamales is a San Antonio tradition that has crossed cultural barriers. Gone is the modest 1,300-square-foot location, and in its place is the 30,000-square-foot production headquarters on Culebra that boasts a restaurant and a convenient drive-through. Then there are the five outlets scattered throughout the city that make acquiring a bag of Delicious Tamales fast and easy.
Some may wonder how, when other mom-and-pop businesses are cutting back or closing up altogether, a company that makes a product that you can get at countless restaurants throughout the city manages to thrive and grow. Gonzalez credits the quality of the product as well as lots of elbow grease and long hours.
“Our tamales are very close to homemade,” she says. “We cook our own corn and grind it to make our own masa, and we use only the freshest ingredients.”
In the beginning, Gonzalez and her husband did everything from making the tamales to taking the orders, wrapping them up and handling the sales transactions — all without any prior experience.

“I learned everything on the job,” she laughs.

Part of that on-the-job training included understanding the importance of providing not only the highest-quality product, but the best customer service of any place in town. “You always treat the customers the best that you can, and you never forget where you came from,” advises Gonzalez, who came by that philosophy as a result of her own humble background in Laredo. “My parents always told me and my siblings that education was the only way out of the barrio,” says Gonzalez, who received her master’s in social work from Our Lady of the Lake University. She never forgot her parents’ advice, and she uses her success to give back not only to the San Antonio community but also the barrio where she was raised. “I go back to my high school every year and give a $500 scholarship to anyone who wants to pursue a business career,” she says proudly. Gonzalez also participates in the annual Cowboy Breakfast, the Tamale Fest at Our Lady of the Lake and the Tamale Art Auction at Sunset Station to benefit the Children’s Shelter. “I try to stay focused on the community and keep my name and product out there,” she explains. Daughter Herlinda Lopez, vice president of Delicious Tamales, has helped her mother keep the company name in the public eye by moving into the world of computer technology and social networking.

“I am old school,” laughs Gonzalez. “I still use a pencil and paper.”

Thanks to her daughter’s know-how, Delicious Tamales now boasts fans from all over the country and ships its products nationwide. Surprisingly, some of the biggest clients are located in New York, Florida and California. “My daughter took us on the Internet two years ago, and the first day we had only one or two orders,” she says. “By the fifth day there were 50!” It was Lopez who also introduced the vegetarian, sweet and atomic beef tamales to the menu in keeping with the changing times. Younger sister Iliana, fresh from UT Austin, is joining the family biz, and it is that family work ethic, commitment to education and pride in what they do that has kept Delicious Tamales the No.1 name in tamales for the past 30 years. In fact, it is not the recession that has caused them concern, but rather the ongoing construction right outside the door of their Culebra location.

“We will spring back,” assures Gonzalez. “Christmas will help.” She explains that while she enjoys a steady business all year, it is the holiday season that sustains Delicious Tamales, and she has found a way to ensure that she will be able to keep up with the demand and never be caught unprepared. Her trick? She begins preparations in September on the 1.5 million tamales needed for the holidays. How? By freezing them raw and cooking them fresh as needed. Just another way that Gonzalez provides the best in food quality and customer service. With so much accomplished over the past 30 years, where does Gonzalez see the next 30 taking her and her delicious tamales? “I would like to open outlets on the South Side,” she says with enthusiasm. Expansion seems like a lofty goal in today’s uncertain times, but her philosophy is simple: “No matter what, people will always eat tamales,” she says with assurance. “It’s comfort food.”

Shawn McCormick
Founder, Summit Home Medical Equipment

When Shawn McCormick opened Summit Home Medical Equipment in 1995, she learned some valuable lessons in business, not the least of which was “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Summit Medical Equipment has offices in both San Antonio and Austin, with plans to branch into Corpus Christi within the next year. And it all started because this busy Registered Respiratory Therapist and director of patient care services at Santa Rosa Hospital wanted to spend more time at home with her three young children. “I wanted the flexibility to spend more time with my kids,” she explains. “I felt like I was missing out on their childhoods.”
McCormick did some research and set up shop in an 1,800-square-foot office with her husband, a registered nurse, and one receptionist and began by selling oxygen and ventilators. “I remember thinking that it’s going to take a lot of oxygen patients to even pay my own salary,” she chuckles. “It takes a lot of equipment to get started.” That’s where McCormick learned her first lesson in business ownership: managing her cash flow. “I learned that you have to mirror your buying to how you get paid,” she says gamely. “I thought it would be easier than it was.” She began cold calling all the doctors, home health agencies and hospital discharge administrators she knew to try to get referrals. She even wined and dined and became good friends with one home health care nurse, but still there was no referral. That’s where McCormick learned her second valuable lesson: Ask for what you want.

“I finally asked this woman why she had never referred any business to us, and she simply said, ‘You never asked me to.’” Armed with this information, McCormick changed her approach, and business started rolling in. The company grew in both employees and equipment sales before McCormick learned her hardest lesson in 2004. “From 1999 until 2004, we let one client make up more than half of our revenue,” she explains, adding that the client grew exponentially and, as a result, so did Summit Home Medical Equipment. “They grew so fast that they decided to handle the medical equipment end in-house. It was a giant setback for us.”
Rather than throw in the towel, McCormick regrouped and hired a financial consultant who gave her the unlikely advice to spend more money and hire a sales team.
“He told me to quit being a service organization and become a sales organization,” she says. “I hired a sales manager, and he doubled my revenue in three months. From then on we developed an incentive program for our staff that drives the business that we want.”

Today, Summit is one of the largest home medical equipment providers in San Antonio with more than 8,000 active patients. McCormick has expanded to include wheelchairs, hospital beds and even diapers for sick children. But more than medical equipment, she and her team provide an extraordinary level of service that addresses the needs of the patients almost before the patients know they have them. “We learned early on that we must provide a value to the referral service,” she explains. “We know the big things that land people in the hospital, and we found ways to treat those things at home.” One example is Congestive Heart Failure (CHF). McCormick and her team provide a free scale for the CHF patient and teach the importance of weighing at the same time each day. “If the patient is gaining, then he or she knows that the heart is not pumping effectively,” she says. Summit also provides educational training on the equipment, and a staff member goes into the patient’s home every day for the first two weeks to make sure everything is going well.

When someone needs a hospital bed, Summit not only provides the bed but also a free set of sheets that are made specifically for hospital beds. “We go above and beyond to be more caring and compassionate to people,” McCormick says. “I try to think what I would want if the patient was my parent or my child.” Besides going above and beyond with her patients, McCormick goes above and beyond with her staff. Incentives for both the sales team and billing staff keep sales and collections high and denial rates low. Employees are encouraged to contribute and be part of solutions, and most importantly, they are encouraged to have fun.

“Fun is one of our core values,” McCormick says happily. “We love what we do and the way we do it.”

All three children that inspired McCormick to start this business work for their mom in various capacities. Her youngest son, an asthma sufferer, was actually part of the inspiration for one of her biggest launches: Zoey the Car with Asthma. McCormick wrote the story to educate families about asthma, and her nephew, a graphic designer, provided the illustrations. The books won the Benjamin Franklin award for excellence. The Zoey pack is marketed to doctors and hospitals and contains a storybook for children, a companion workbook for parents, a coloring book, stickers and crayons as well as a Peak Flow Meter and a Valved Holding Chamber. “When I was at Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital, asthma was huge,” relates McCormick, who served as the chairman of the National Asthma Educator Certification Board for two years. “I knew we needed to teach people how to manage it in a more engaging way.”

Under her watchful eye, Summit continues to thrive. Even with a 9.5-percent cut from Medicare this year, the company is growing at a rate of 30 percent. Not bad for an organization that lost more than half of its revenue just five short years ago. “When things happen, no matter how painful they are, you learn,” reflects McCormick. “It’s true that you don’t learn from success; you really only learn from your failures.”

Author: Bonny Osterhage

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams

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