How to dress: I originally dressed as a secretary in pretty dresses and snappy pantsuits, which then didn’t qualify as executive business attire. In 1983 I attended a John Malloy lecture, How Women Should Dress for Success, and became one of his followers. He stated that a savvy female executive wore a mannish cut non-form-fitting jacket, a high cut blouse, and a skirt of below the knee length. The colors were to mimic the then muted or earth tone male suits. The appropriate shoes were closed toe one to two-inch high heels. The earrings were to be either pearls or small gold hoops. A purse was to be hidden within her briefcase.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alice Combs.
After a painful divorce, Alice took a variety of unrewarding jobs. She persevered through every obstacle; she taught herself to be a skilled entrepreneur and expert employer, and slowly developed her startup company, Vulcan Wire, into a thriving business. By Vulcan Wire’s forty-fifth year, it boasted 10 million dollars in annual sales. Now semi-retired, one of her ongoing missions is to empower women to pursue careers in business, especially in male-dominated industries.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Upon my first marriage in 1962, I had never dreamed of owning a business. Upon my daughters’ births in 1966 and 1968, I envisioned myself as a stay-at-home mother until their high school years. Then in 1971 I was traumatized by a heart-wrenching event.
I had nurtured an abandoned and neglected weak nine-month old baby boy with the development of only half his age. Three months later he reached his rightful maturity level and became a bright-eyed, pink-cheeked, bubbly one-year old; the pediatrician said he would soon be walking and talking. Sadly, though, I was legally forced to return him to his biological mother “for a second chance.” Five months later, I saw him briefly. Sallow-skinned and dull-eyed, he seemed lethargic and unhappy.
Because of this horrible transformation, I decided to complete my B.A., go to law school, and become a child’s advocate attorney. My husband wasn’t supportive, which was partly the reason for our divorce. Then a single parent of two daughters, financially struggling with assistance of food stamps and family loans, I halted my education upon achieving my B.A. in 1974.
My new plan was to become a clothes buyer for Mervyn’s Department Store. That ended when I was told I was neither corporate nor management material. The humiliation prompted me to seek a living in which no one person could ever again have power over my career.
I realized that I was good at selling but hadn’t found a product lucrative enough to support my two little girls and myself in comfort. In desperation I began to ask business owners and office and plant managers what they needed that they couldn’t get. A plant manager of a box material manufacturer said, “Honey, I need baler wire, and even the farmers can’t get it.” That was in 1975 and now forty-five years later my corporation, Vulcan, has annual wire sales of 10 Million dollars.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
Thank you for such an easy question because it leads to how I came up with the title to my book, The Lady with Balls: A Single Mother’s Triumphant Battle in a Man’s World. When Vulcan was only three years old and doing well, but not well enough to afford a loss of 5K dollars (20K dollars in today’s world), one of my customers, who owned his business, promised to have his overdue bill of 5K dollars ready by 11:00 AM. However, upon my arrival his receptionist didn’t have the check and said the president was in a meeting. I broke into that board meeting and loudly demanded payment. When told to leave, I sat in a chair and refused to budge without my money. The result was the president, himself, picked me up and dropped me down the stairs.
News of this drama spread to one of my favorite customers seventy-five miles away. He phoned to ask if I’d been injured, which I wasn’t. Then he said a lot of his fellow garbage owners wanted to meet me and were calling me “The Little Lady with Balls.” They, too, had business dealings with this slow payer and called him a son of a bitch. Delighted that I had stood up to him, they unanimously wanted me to become a member of their garbage club, The Royal Order of California Can Carriers. I happily joined, and my business expanded.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
I’m an optimist, so in my first twenty-two years of running Vulcan I experienced at least seven “tipping points” equating success. If I may list only the first one, it was in Vulcan Wire’s embryonic stage. That was shortly after my first disastrous sale of faulty wire. When my second wire sale performed flawlessly and my customer gave me contact names for several similar companies, I immediately felt successful — although not realistically so in hindsight. I hadn’t accounted for the waste factor, the cash-flow problem of exponentially increasing sales, and had an inflated idea of the usage each business needed annually.
Did I do anything differently? Absolutely! I had “good wire” samples tested and educated myself on the necessary properties. The big takeaway is that one must thoroughly know one’s product.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This breaking wire fiasco was also my funniest mistake. Again, the lesson I learned was to sample what works well and learn what those important specifications are.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m currently working on a five-minute video about business lessons for people interested in going into business for themselves. This could lead to webinars during our COVID-19restrictions. However, when the restrictions are lifted, I would prefer physical interactions.
I believe future entrepreneurs would gain valuable wisdom from learning about my experiences and the lessons I learned.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
I’ve already covered the fact that a CEO or a person beginning a shoe-string operation should have a thorough understanding of any product they sell, but I’ll add five more important items.
- The monetary angle covering 30-day credit terms: When I made my first wire sale, I expected immediate payment. My customer expected to accept the wire with an accompanying invoice which he would pass on to his accounts payable department where the invoice would be recorded but not scheduled for payment until thirty or more days later. However, I had paid for the wire with a check that would bounce unless I made a compensating deposit before the end of the day. This action, called kiting, was illegal.
Fortunately, because my customer was desperate for wire, he gave in to my plea for COD as well as my threat to otherwise take the wire back. He was not happy with me, as it took him forty-five minutes of telephone time to call his corporate headquarters in another state. He said he would never again do this, and any future wire sales would have to be on credit.
- The waste factor: Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought the whole fabricating process through. It hadn’t occurred to me that the initial 800–2,000-pound spools of wire would most likely not be perfectly divisible by 100 (my customers’ spool requirements) as a spool might weigh 849 pounds, a waste of 49 pounds. I also found out when I had cut lengths of wire, there was also a waste factor, albeit less waste than with the 100-pound spools.
- The monetary problem with exponentially increasing sales: I was blindsided when I discovered that my sales were increasing at an unhealthy rate. Before this happened to me, I had never imagined such a scenario. The problem was that I had to pay for the unfabricated wire I purchased eight to thirty-five days before my customer was scheduled to pay me. Without an eventual plateau of expanding sales, I would be bankrupt. I resorted to allowing my poor choice of a boyfriend to move in with me and pay rent, half the utilities, and more than his share of the groceries.
After I made him move out, for about half a year I substituted my Vulcan sales efforts for getting straight commission recycling contracts for a garbage company. During those six months my sales plateaued. Then I again focused on wire sales, and before they rapidly grew again, I secured a bank loan for additional working capital.
- Negotiating with suppliers: Before I discovered the need for industrial baler wire, I had never negotiated for any product or service, so it hadn’t occurred to me to do so with my suppliers. I was too slow to believe the words, “This is the best price I can give you.” I hated negotiating, but did what I had to do.
- How to dress: I originally dressed as a secretary in pretty dresses and snappy pantsuits, which then didn’t qualify as executive business attire. In 1983 I attended a John Malloy lecture, How Women Should Dress for Success, and became one of his followers. He stated that a savvy female executive wore a mannish cut non-form-fitting jacket, a high cut blouse, and a skirt of below the knee length. The colors were to mimic the then muted or earth tone male suits. The appropriate shoes were closed toe one to two-inch high heels. The earrings were to be either pearls or small gold hoops. A purse was to be hidden within her briefcase.
I had a love-hate feeling toward this new style of mine. I loved looking professional, but hated the androgynous jackets and the no-nonsense shoes.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
When I was on the verge of burning out, I had fortunately reached my goal of earning a comfortable income, but I was overwhelmed correcting my employees’ mistakes and solving problems that they couldn’t. I yearned for an office manager, but couldn’t afford one. I longed for time to enjoy fresh air and exercise. Then I devised a plan to carve out one hour a day devoid of business.
With an end in sight, I found the energy to work just a little harder to increase earnings so I could employ a super-capable assistant. When my only part-time employee, a college student, graduated and left for another company, I replaced her with a full-time office manager. Luckily, she was my dream employee, and gradually I achieved that one daily carefree hour.
Not everybody craves the same thing to remain healthy. Supposedly, people need only twenty minutes a day of exercise. I would suggest that everyone should make that minimum mandatory. They could just as well spend their additional forty minutes for more socialization, escapist reading, or a hobby. Another worthy goal is to be organized enough to enjoy at least one annual week away from business — then work up to more vacation time.
Above all, I’m a firm believer of healthful eating and sensible drinking — and definitely not smoking or using recreational drugs. Also, one should avoid sleep deprivation. Often, what initially appears to be an unsolvable problem becomes solvable after a good night’s sleep.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My first mentor was my boyfriend at the time. He repeatedly listed my good business qualities after I’d been humiliated by my previous employer. His encouraging words gave my low self-esteem a small lift. He taught me that upon speaking with a potential customer, the first words out of my mouth should be, “Hi. I’m Alice. How are you?” For some reason I had never before asked people how they were. He also taught me that it was more effective to telephone and request an appointment than to cold-call in person. His most important and last contribution was to ask what people needed that they couldn’t get.
It might be a stretch to say that my second mentor was my local Albertson’s produce manager, with whom I had regular conversations. When he heard how excited I was with my new business endeavor, he told me that all supermarkets had balers. Then he escorted me to the long back room with a relatively small baler which used differently configured wire than in the manufacturing plant. Now Vulcan sells a greater volume of wire to supermarkets than to boxboard manufacturers.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Having been in the recycling business for forty-five years, I first think of our nation’s dismal recycling efforts tied to our biggest long-time problems of the environment and homelessness. To combine these problems, I would have the government, established industries and charitable organizations put out feelers for efficient and lucrative usage of our plastics and rubber, which all too often lie dormant in our landfills — but would hopefully be transformed as inexpensive reliable building products. This should provide more employment opportunities, which will be very needed due to the ravages of COVID-19.
For retirees and others who can afford to work gratis, I would love to see a swelling of educators help toward overcoming the inadequate learning resources — especially now with COVID-19 putting the brakes on student attendance. Those who are good readers, understand phonics, and enjoy children and teenagers, should be able to teach reading, even if they don’t have a teaching credential or never had a teaching lesson. I was one of those tutors and attest to the joy of helping children learn. In fact, I’ve cried tears of joy over one of my student’s achievements.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Please check out my website, www.ladywithballs.com, and follow me on Facebook (@AliceCombs), Linked-In, and Twitter (@AliceCo04808816).
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.