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She Cashed in $100K of Her Retirement Savings to Start a Business. Here's What Happened. Keri Gardner got laid off in her early 50s, she thought, "Why not roll the dice?"

By Kim Kavin

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This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Sometimes, building the life you want requires a big risk.

That's what Keri Gardner realized when she cashed in $100,000 of her retirement savings to buy a franchise. It was November 2020, and she had just been laid off from her executive role at a health company. A franchise recruiter called her and asked, "Do you want to work for anybody else?" Gardner replied, "Absolutely not. I work really hard. I want to do it for me."

She was passionate about the environment, so was drawn to Filta Environmental Kitchen Solutions. The company, which has 127 franchisees in 348 territories, cleans fryers in commercial kitchens and filters impurities from their cooking oil so it lasts longer, swaps out the oil when it's spent, and recycles oil for use in biofuels. Gardner used the money from her 401(k) to buy two territories on Long Island. Six months later, she was getting so much business that her husband quit his job to join her. Now the couple owns six territories. Here, she shares what the transition was like — and why the risk was worth it.

Related: The Role and Responsibilities of a Franchisee, Defined

Why'd you decide to cash out your 401(k)?

It was terrifying. I thought: If I don't get another job that I deserve, and I can't keep padding my 401(k), then it's really not enough to retire on anyway. So why not roll the dice? I didn't want to have loans. I wanted the first year [of the franchise] to be fully paid for, so we could jump in and run — and that's what we did.

How did you find Filta Environmental Kitchen Solutions?

I worked with a franchise coach. He asked what I was interested in, and I said the environment. I also looked at mobile dog grooming because I love dogs, but there are a lot of mobile dog groomers out there, and nobody was doing this oil filtering on Long Island.

How does it help the environment to filter oil from a restaurant's fryers?

Instead of just dumping oil and getting rid of it, we're saving so many things. We're saving on the plastic jugs. On fertilizer. On all the farming of all the soybeans. We take oil out of the fryers to be processed into biofuel, so it can be used in planes and things like that. It's double revenue and double environmental impact.

How hard is the work?

We're filtering all the impurities out of the oil, and we're vacuuming all the crumbs and junk out of the bottom of the fryers, so you have more consistent quality for cooking for a longer time. It is hard work. It's not for the faint of heart. The equipment is heavy, and you're moving this equipment in and out of places using loading docks. But my husband tells all the guys who work for us that his 55-year-old wife is outworking them right now.

Related: He Opened a Pizza Restaurant to Serve the Native American Community. It Was So Successful He's Opening 20 More.

Who are your clients?

During the pandemic, we went after the big guys because everything else was shut down. Filta has contracts with companies that run arenas and stadiums: UBS Arena, Citifield, Hofstra University. Once those guys get to know you, and they know you're here, the sale isn't as hard as you think. You just have to get the right person to talk to.

Do you plan to keep the focus solely on those larger clients?

We're trying to build out more of the smaller businesses now. If something happens to one thing, you want to have yourself covered with something else. If I'm going after smaller accounts, they're probably right near my bigger accounts, so it just makes the route more profitable.

Kim Kavin was an editorial staffer at newspapers and magazines for a decade before going full-time freelance in 2003. She has written for The Washington Post, NBC’s ThinkThe Hill and more about the need to protect independent contractor careers. She co-founded the grassroots, nonpartisan, self-funded group Fight For Freelancers.

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