As the busy founder and president of Latitudes International, a private-label designer and manufacturer of fragrance products such as candles, potpourri and room sprays, Jill Belasco may not be stopping to smell the roses every day. But she'll definitely do so now that she's been chosen as winner of the OPEN From American Express and Entrepreneur magazine's Woman of the Year Contest. While some would have found the twists and turns of her entrepreneurial ride too tumultuous to stomach, and her unexpected obstacles insurmountable, Belasco and her business have emerged successful.
Bankruptcy has been a running theme in Belasco's life, though the bankruptcies were never her own. She worked in the cosmetics and fragrance industry before a brief stint with an outside company that filed for chapter 11. While searching for her next job, she did a freelance fragrance project as a favor for a friend--and realized fragrance was her true calling. "From there, I didn't look back," says Belasco, 49. In 1994, Latitudes International was born.
Sales for Belasco's company grew steadily, but when its biggest customer filed for chapter 11 in 2003, it sent shockwaves through Latitudes. "[The customer] had always been a little shaky financially, but we'd always been careful about it," says Belasco. "We had some warning, but not enough to get all our money out of them." And although the troubled customer was bought out the same day it filed for chapter 11, Latitudes' revenue from the company dropped from $4.3 million in 2003 to $1.8 million in 2004.
Belasco had to make tough decisions. She rationalized, "We can either dramatically cut back staff, which will hamper servicing the customers we do have, or we can keep [serious] controls on expenses." Sitting down with her staff, Belasco announced the news. No raises or bonuses were given that year, and Belasco and her senior vice president took pay decreases. In their rebuilding phase, they sought out and gained new customers, and their former number-one customer became their fifth largest. Belasco is proud to say that Latitudes projects 2005 sales of $12 million.
While she doesn't consider it a mistake, Belasco does regret not "diluting" the relationship with that company sooner. Because a friendship had been established between the two businesses, Belasco let the customer stretch on payments a little too often. But that's no longer the case. "We stop shipping the minute we feel uncomfortable," says Belasco. The main lesson she learned from the experience was that her company and employees come first.
To be truly successful in business today, competitiveness, compassion and clarity of vision--our criteria for choosing the contest's winner--are entrepreneurial musts. Belasco embodies all three. "I come from a big family, so I grew up where a competitive environment was part of everyday life," says Belasco. "[With Latitudes,] we're willing to do just about anything to get a customer and make a customer happy." Belasco believes compassion for her employees and the charities Latitudes is involved with encourages those she works with to show compassion. "By nature, if you're a compassionate person, it shows in your everyday work," she says. Finally, Belasco believes single-mindedness is crucial in pursuing a company's vision. Her clarity of vision was apparent as she executed the plan to survive her client's bankruptcy.
Those three qualities have been useful to Belasco when she faced additional challenges as a woman entrepreneur. Initially, Belasco had some difficulty with the banks she approached for financing. One senior banking officer--a woman--suggested Belasco get a "sugar daddy" to make the financing work. From that point on, Belasco researched banks and lending facilities that advertised their friendliness toward women-owned businesses, and she queried other women business owners for referrals. Before she had built a track record, she brought her brother, Latitudes' attorney, to several meetings because it was easier to get her voice heard with him there.
Belasco has long asked her senior vice president to tear out three items from Entrepreneur every month that they can review together. "When I read about other people, that's when I feel entrepreneurial," says Belasco. This month, she's the entrepreneur inspiring others.
The potential for success is within each individual, according to Belasco's top five tips:
- 1. Be brave. "Don't be afraid to take risks or be the first to try something," says Belasco. "Don't be afraid to say no or yes."
- 2. Be committed to excellence. "That means excellence in your relationships with customers and employees, as well as in your product or service."
- 3. Be flexible. "[This includes] watching trends, changing what you do, trying new ideas. Also, be flexible with your customers--give them anything you can. And be as flexible as you can with your business."
- 4. Be involved. "If you're an entrepreneur, you need to be involved every step of the way, from the customer to the product to the service."
- 5. Be a family. "Hire smart. Hire people you'd want [to be around], since you're going to spend so much time with them."
--April Y. Pennington