Hold 'Em

An Entrepreneur's Uphill Climb

Road To Garden-ville

Witheridge is what you might call a reluctant entrepreneur. At 41, she was an upper-level executive at Waste Management Inc., a garbage collector in Oakbrook, Illinois. Her perks included limos to the airport and first-class accommodations. Five years later, she's sitting in an unadorned two-person office at the end of a San Antonio, Texas, dirt road. A wood sign bears her company's name: Garden-ville.

Garden-ville sells mulches, composts and fertilizers to landscapers, distributors and individual gardeners. Witheridge's enthusiasm shows when she describes ingredients in her company's compost: "We take animal bedding from race tracks and the zoo: the heavier and wetter the better. Paunch, that's the undigested contents from cows' stomachs, comes from the packing plants. We get guano from the largest bat cave in the world, just down the road. All this organic matter mixed with dirt makes the best compost in the world."

Her trip from Fortune 500 executive to Garden-ville started with the realization that there was money in garbage. As vice president of strategic operations at WMX Technologies, which owns Waste Management Inc., she analyzed numbers and predicted the future. But her advice that sales could be made from garbage fell on deaf ears, so she opted to capitalize on the idea herself.

She quit her executive job to purchase companies occupying unique niches in serving landscapers. "We needed $3 million to $8 million to buy the companies and install the efficiencies," Witheridge says. "Over a hundred capital providers turned me down." But she regrouped. "I looked at the four companies we had letters of intent with and chose the one with the best brand name."

They've been with you through thick and thin-the "Friends & Family" section will tell you how you can turn to loved ones for financing.

That company was Garden-ville. In late 1998, she renegotiated the deal to buy it. For $500,000 upfront, the seller would hold the note for the remainder of the equity. "Where was I going to get the cash?" she remembers. "I was able to pull in a favor from a friend, who got me a second mortgage on my house for the upfront payment."

After closing the deal, she still faced the balloon on the company debt. "I needed a bank," Witheridge recalls. "A local bank saw the asset base of land and buildings. They took a risk, taking out the balloon and extending us a line of credit. That was a very happy day."

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This article was originally published in the July 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Hold 'Em.

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