Maintain a healthy mental lifestyle: Take time to connect with loved ones whose well-being is important to you and are, themselves, interested in your well-being; expend mental energy — perhaps your job, as mine did, gave me enough mental challenges, but if you don’t have such a job, then read, work on stimulating puzzles, or listen to lectures (recorded or live).
In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.
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, she is the author of The Lady with Balls: A Single Mother’s Triumphant Battle in a Man’s World. Her ongoing mission is to empower women to pursue careers in business, especially in male-dominated industries.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
My backstory is bizarre. First, I was fired from my pre-trainee clothes buyer job. I supposedly wasn’t management material nor corporate material. Devastated, I wanted a career wherein nobody would have such power over me. My goal was to earn a comfortable living without a boss.
I tackled straight commission sales of consulting services, and then welding rod, neither of which was fruitful. In desperation I asked business owners, buyers and managers what they needed and 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 Wire, has annual sales of 10 Million dollars.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
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.
My takeaway from this bizarre happening was a lesson earned the easy way: be reliable, honest, and considerate — because your reputation can travel widely and quickly. My customer had soiled his reputation by pushing his customers’ patience with his slow pay habits, but my reputation was of maintaining a good product and reliable service. Consequently, my friendly customers chose my side of this brouhaha.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Vulcan’s team is second to none; we know our products and our customers’ needs with very helpful predictions reports. All orders are shipped out in a timely matter, excellent packaging and delivered on time. In addition, we provide, produce, and distribute top quality wire that meets or exceeds all standard wire specs.
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.
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.
My third mentor was a straight-commission female employee of a business brokerage firm where I briefly worked during a few months of Vulcan’s leanest times. I had promised the brokerage’s owner to remain at least two years. I had no idea, however, of how dissatisfied I would be while working for them. Four months later I was fired, and felt joyous about it. To continue for another twenty months was a deplorable thought.
I told my co-worker that I had just been fired. She became indignant for me until I told her my main emotion was relief. Then I told her my dream was to sell Vulcan because of its struggles and how I had cut my salary 17 ½% and my employees’ salaries 10%.
She asked how much my salary and Vulcan’s profit was, and when I answered she went ballistic: She said, “You’re the worst kind of business owner, the kind I hate — someone with a business not in desperate straits,” she said. “I prefer a business that’s in more trouble than yours, likely due to an ailing or deceased spouse or a fresh divorce. You’re not desperate enough to sell your business for what it’s worth.”
Her speech both depressed and uplifted me: I was depressed to realize I couldn’t sell Vulcan for as much as I’d have expected in the past and would therefore be stuck with its headaches, but I was grateful that my company was still afloat, with everybody healthy and working like dogs to keep it profitable — if only marginally.
My fourth mentor was a friendly competitor in Arizona who shared Vulcan’s key salesperson with me. He knew I was feeling burnt out and dreamed of selling my then twenty-two-year-old business. He showed me an employee ownership contract. When the troublesome competitor went bankrupt, and I gained its best salesman, I used about 50% of that form for an employee stock ownership plan giving a fifteen-year time period for Vulcan’s new salesman to graduate to be the majority stockholder and CEO.
My fifth mentor was my office manager who insisted I attend the Lotus 1–2–3 class. Ironically, however, she initially was averse to employing the predictions program I developed — thanks to the knowledge I gained from the class she recommended. Nevertheless, a year later she swore by my new system.
My sixth mentor was, and now is, Mike Graffio, Vulcan’s CEO since 2012 and unofficial president since approximately 2002 when he convinced me Vulcan should do its own manufacturing. He now understands Vulcan better than I.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
To me resilience is the capacity to quickly get up after being knocked down. It is the opposite of wallowing in defeat.
If the conclusion is that the loss was not self-imposed and that “You can’t win ’em all,” then mere perseverance should win the day. We all know that there are some valuable attainments that can be secured dependent on a multifactorial quantity of attempts. However, after a certain number of failed attempts, one must heed the esteemed Albert Einstein’s words: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” The sensible resilient person might then look reality in the face and analyze what kind of changes might bring forth the desired results.
If after every imaginable tactic has been tried, then the bravest move might be to accept that the initial goal was unrealistic and accordingly decide on a different goal. This might be heart-breaking, but resilience is the courage to swiftly accept the needed about-face. I ache for many of the owners of the various non-essential businesses during this horrible pandemic. Some no longer can afford to throw good money after bad and are sadly and wisely closing down their businesses, a very gut-wrenching but logical decision.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
I think of Hellen Keller, who lived from 1880 to 1968. Imagine having only a nineteen-month vocabulary with no seeing, hearing, or speaking ability. This scarlet fever affliction changed Helen into an angry and difficult child.
Twenty-year-old Anne Sullivan, schooled in hand alphabet signaled by touch into a student’s palm, entered Helen’s life when she was nearly seven. Within a month Ann helped Helen break out of her nightmarish dense fog when she enabled Helen to understand what the particular hand taps, w-a-t-e-r, meant. Helen then began to exhaust Anne as she demanded words for all the other objects in her Alabama farm environment. Later, through her special sign language, Helen said, “That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free.”
Within two months, with the assistance of raised words on cardboard, Helen could read, and only weeks later read complete stories. In addition to being adept with Braille, by age ten she learned to “speak” by feeling another person’s lips, tongue and throat.
By age twenty Helen enrolled at Radcliff College, and before her graduation at age twenty-four, she published her first autobiography serially in the Ladies Home Journal and later in a book. She graduated cum laude.
By age thirty-three Helen and Anne traveled around the world as Helen lectured primarily on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. She helped remove the stigmas and ignorance regarding sight and hearing disorders that then often committed the blind and deaf to asylums. She also campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, and antimilitarism.
When Helen was fifty-six, she lost her stalwart friend, holding Anne’s hand as she succumbed to coronary thrombosis. With the help of other companions Helen continued to write up through her seventy-fifth year. And during World War II Helen offered her support to the blinded soldiers.
In 1964, at age eighty-four, Helen was honored to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Lyndon Johnson. Helen died three years later at age eighty-seven. Assisted by Anne Sullivan’s devotion, Helen became a famous example of resilience. However, for decades after Anne’s death Helen continued her activities.
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
One of my biggest setbacks was in 1992 when Vulcan lost its largest and most important customers to a predatory competitor. As I stated above, that resulted in lowering the wages for my myself and everybody else. For five grueling years Vulcan continued to lose customers as we all worked harder than ever. Finally, the competitor went bankrupt and the competitor’s best salesman and I signed a contract allowing him to become the majority stockholder and CEO fifteen years later. It allotted me an annual inflation-adjusted salary up until my 110th birthday in 2052.
Vulcan regained most of its customers as well as some of the competitor’s I hadn’t even known about. Profits grew, and my husband and I began to travel the world. In the twenty-three years since that competitor’s bankruptcy, Vulcan has purchased manufacturing equipment now used by two shifts as well as two buildings.
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
My high school heartthrob left me for another girl. I was so devastated that I had to teach myself tricks such as mentally designing movie costumes to fall asleep. When I awakened, I hated remembering the reality that he no longer was sweet on me. I forced myself to laugh and smile and pretend I was having fun. After a while, I no longer had to pretend.
Years later, after I was still reeling from my ex-husband’s putdowns and shortly after I was fired from my first and only serious career-oriented job, I discovered that after repeatedly faking self-confidence, I was no longer a phony. Now one of my favorite mottos is, “Fake it till you make it.”
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
People say that I’m exceptionally resilient and wonder how I’m able to so quickly regroup myself. I may owe this to my father’s examples as well as having inherited his genes — he lived to be an active and mentally acute ninety-eight-and-a-half year-old until a freak accident led to his death. As Daddy had, I, too, have regular constructive habits which is helpful in coping with life’s setbacks: I pride myself on not indulging in food or alcohol binges, overdoing prescriptions or over-the-counter aids, sleeping my life away, or otherwise shutting myself off from the world. To be prepared for misfortunes, I suggest the following practices:
1.Stick to a healthy physical lifestyle in all good health categories: Eat balanced meals in moderate quantities; have a daily exercise routine; get enough sleep. Save your pain, anxiety, and sleeping medications for only life and death, and almost equally serious, issues.
Before Vulcan was substantial enough to afford a large bad debt, I interrupted a customer’s board meeting, loudly demanding he immediately pay me for his overdue invoice, and refusing to vacate his premises without the 5,000 dollars owed — approximately 20,000 dollars in today’s dollars. With no check in hand, I was carried out of the room and dropped down his long stairwell.
Concerned how I would make do without this needed money and certain that this disruption would give me a reputation as “the bitch of the recycling industry,” I felt defeated and depressed. Once home, I was too downtrodden to do any work, so I immediately changed clothes and took a bike ride. The exercise and fresh air helped more than any comfort food or medication.
2. Maintain a healthy mental lifestyle: Take time to connect with loved ones whose well-being is important to you and are, themselves, interested in your well-being; expend mental energy — perhaps your job, as mine did, gave me enough mental challenges, but if you don’t have such a job, then read, work on stimulating puzzles, or listen to lectures (recorded or live).
After my elderly mother had a brain operation, I telephoned her room to verify all went well. Upon answering her hospital extension, she repeatedly screamed, “Help me, help me, help me!” I felt helpless because I was 400 miles away.
Incapable and bewildered, I left a message for my mother’s surgeon and called my grown daughters. One of them dropped everything to drive over to my house. Just knowing that Julie was on her way, lowered my level of hysteria before the doctor returned my call to say that Mommy should be more clear-headed the next day.
When I ran Vulcan, I was consistently jumping through mental hoops. Now I’m an avid reader, frequently time myself on Sudoku and word puzzles, and listen to recorded college lectures when I fold clothes and do other dull and boring activities. These activities keeps me sharp enough for interviews such as this one.
3. Keep your personal and business finances in order by employing austere cost-cutting measures unless or until you have a sound monetary situation, which includes backup for a rainy day.
My longest and most difficult challenge to remain resilient was when Vulcan experienced five financially rough years of lost sales and shrinking profits, which was due to a predatory competitor who ended up going bankrupt before I might have. By then Vulcan was a seventeen-year-old business and substantial enough to weather some bad luck up through its twenty-first year. However, it was only able to do so with cost cutting measures: cutting everyone’s wages by 10% and my own by 17 ½%; moving from a stylish office near upper middleclass suburbia to an industrial area teaming with trucks; cutting out the warehousing middleman by renting a combination office/warehouse building, purchasing a forklift, and hiring a warehouseman to drive it and be our one-man band regarding all incoming and outgoing shipments.
All these measures enabled me to “hang in there,” during that depressing time, and now with a CEO younger than myself, Vulcan is stronger than my wildest dreams.
4. Have interests outside of work which provide enough escape from your responsibilities.
I joined a ski club that socialized year-round with weekly dinners and dancing, and many parties and field trips during the non-ski season.
When various business headaches came my way, these pursuits cleared my mind and helped refresh me enough to tackle those problems.
5. Get away from home at least for a solid week, but preferably two weeks, every year. Anticipation is a stress reliever, and if something gets you down after the trip, you can take a breather to recollect these happy, carefree times.
My escapes with my daughters were usually to Hawaii. Then after they were in college I remarried, and before our semi-retirement, we traveled to Mexico and Europe and on various cruises.
Sixteen months after Vulcan’s now CEO came on board, my husband and I took our foldup bicycles to Europe for a four-month self-directed tour. Once my cycling muscles shaped up, I had a free-as-a-bird feeling, especially when we were the only people on the public access pathways in the countryside. Now twenty-two years later, to detract from COVID and other disappointments, I draw strength by remembering that glorious adventure and other past travels in our wonderful world.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Having been in the recycling business for forty-five years, I first think of our 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 be transformed as inexpensive reliable building products.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born in Somalia fifty years ago, is one of the most courageous, intelligent, and persevering people alive. She currently is a fellow at the Hoover Institute and is the founder of AHA Institution, a non-profit with an anti-Muslin extremist agenda to protect women from female genital mutilation, honor violence. and forced marriages. AHA also supports freedom of speech in public debate and the work of Muslim reformers. Ayaan’s eloquent writing can be found in her books and the Wall Street Journal.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Please check out my website, www.ladywithballs.com, and follow me on Facebook (@AliceCombs) and LinkedIn.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!