Set goals for yourself with a timeline. Hold yourself accountable. No one is going to push you, so stay motivated. I knew exactly where I wanted to be in the first five years. Every six months, I evaluated myself and the status of the company to make sure I was on track. By three years in, I had met my five-year goal.
As a part of our series about “dreamers who ignored the naysayers and did what others said was impossible”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diana Rodriguez-Zaba.
Diana Rodriguez-Zaba, President of ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba, stands as a pillar of strength for her staff, clients, family and community. In the middle of the 2008 recession, she launched two ServiceMaster brands. Her business has grown to become one of Illinois’ most successful franchises, proudly serving one of the largest territories in the Chicagoland area and Suburbs.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know you’ a bit better. Can you tell us your ‘backstory’?
“You’re too bossy! You need to be your own boss!” That’s all I heard from my mom when I was a kid. I had three brothers, so being bossy was my defense mechanism. I laugh about it now, but it kept them in line. I also gave them chore assignments on Saturdays so that I wouldn’t get stuck doing everything by myself. I’m still amazed thinking about how they listened to me, but my mom was right.
I always pictured myself running my own company and making a difference. Being a leader was second nature. Growing up, I usually took the initiative, so some would call that bossy. I was a high school dropout, although not by choice. I made some dumb mistakes, but I got back in school. I made up the lost time, went to college and paid for it on my own.
Right out of high school, I started buying and rehabbing properties. By the time I was 24, I had acquired three multi-unit properties. At the same time, I attended college and worked, assisting with franchise setups for McDonald’s.
My next move was to a job in the government sector. It wasn’t long after that I met a union carpenter who became my husband. Before we married, we both got layoff notices. That was in 2008, just before the economic downturn. It was scary, but it was also the wake-up call that motivated me. I started my business that same year. Today, I’m president of ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba.
Our disaster restoration brand is nationally recognized. We cover a large portion of Chicago and the suburbs. I employ a great team of people, and we continue to grow every year. I especially enjoy hiring women. It’s important for them to know they can do the same field work as my male employees. They’re tough, and they work hard. It’s great to see them grow and feel secure in a male-dominated industry.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! We just purchased a 30,000 square-foot facility which will allow us to expand and add services. Currently, we provide emergency restoration services for commercial and residential clients. Now, with our warehouse space, we can also offer pack out services in-house. We’ll be expanding our emergency content restoration services with a new cleaning lab in the facility.
Our construction services have also increased, so we designed our new facility to showcase that. Clients can see the different types of work we do. That helps them get a better idea of what they’d like in their restored homes and businesses. We’re currently developing a small showroom as well. I love design and remodeling. This expansion has really helped me put my skills to work.
We’re especially excited about our training room. It’s a beautiful space that will allow us to host classes for individuals who work in this industry. For example, we can host insurance adjusters or restorers pursuing IICRC certification. We also plan on hosting insurance agents earning EC credits. There aren’t many facilities in the City of Chicago that offer these certifications. Right now, you have to travel to the far suburbs. I’m very happy that we can start offering this specialized training here in the city.
In your opinion, what do you think makes your company or organization stand out from the crowd?
We definitely stand out because of our staff and our customer service. My management team and technicians know how to discuss the work process with clients. They’re very thorough, answer questions and make each customer comfortable.
It’s important for a customer to understand exactly what to expect. We get so many compliments from regular and new clients regarding our staff. It’s always good to hear that kind of positive feedback.
We’re also ambitious. We thrive on obstacles that help make us a better team. One of our goals is to develop customer service classes once our new facility is up and running this spring. I believe we should help each other, even if we’re competitors in the same industry. I want us to represent and showcase our skills and knowledge. We look forward to coaching other businesses.
Ok, thank you for that. I’d like to jump to the main focus of this interview. Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us? What was your idea? What was the reaction of the naysayers? And how did you overcome that?
I learned at a very young age how it feels to disappoint your parents. I wasn’t a bad kid, just a bit of a rebel, if that makes any sense. Long story short, I got caught up with a bad crowd. I dropped out of school when I was 14. My parents didn’t mess around. They put me on the first flight to Mexico.
That lasted for almost eight months. In Mexico, at the age of 14, you’re selling merchandise on the streets, working with carpenters, running a household or running a farm. I had to grow up fast. I learned my lesson, but understanding the pain I caused my parents haunted me. When I finally got back home, I promised them I would make them proud every day.
I went back to school and started working full time. By the time I was 18, I was ready to buy my first investment property. Some relatives laughed at me, but at the age of 22, I bought my second building. By the time I was 24, I owned three buildings and rehabbed them myself.
At 25, I had already graduated from college. I paid for it without getting loans and landed a job with great pay and benefits. Then, the 2008 economic downturn happened. I was about to lose everything, even my job. Banks weren’t loaning money, companies were closing their doors, and people were getting laid off and losing their homes. That’s when I decided to start a business with my fiance.
At the time, we were both about to be jobless. Friends and family called us crazy, but there was no way I would let my parents see me fail again. I never once thought that it wouldn’t work.
With my rehabbing background and my fiance’s construction experience as a union carpenter, we started our own restoration business, and we did it out of our basement. Who would think to start a restoration company when people could barely afford to keep their homes or businesses? We did! We refused to focus on the negative. Instead, we focused on the possibilities and our faith.
In the end, how were all the naysayers proven wrong?
By 2009, we were able to purchase a ServiceMaster franchise. We knew the economy was going to take a while to recover. Backing up our business with a Fortune 500 name brand would help us gain recognition and credibility. It would enable us to grow at a faster pace.
Six years later, we purchased an additional license, making us one of the top five largest franchises in the City of Chicago and suburbs! Not only did we start a company and survive the 2008 recession, we were able to grow our vision!
As I mentioned, we’re expanding services with our newly purchased facility. It’s three times larger than our first location. We also operate a second location in the suburbs. We’re doing all this during a pandemic, so we feel like second-time survivors.
We’ve been able to keep our great team of 15 staff members employed during the pandemic, and I can still offer generous benefits and health insurance. By now, I’m sure we’ve proven all naysayers wrong.
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 about that?
My parents taught me early on that you must work hard. We didn’t have a choice. My mother taught me independence. Nothing could stop her. If we didn’t have money for clothes, she’d make something amazing out of curtains. My father taught me how to work with my hands. He showed me how to rehab my properties and work with a budget. He also was the source of my belief in the importance of being humble and respectful.
During my time in city government, I worked alongside an amazing woman. Her name was Vanessa Rich. Sadly, she passed away recently. Over 10 great years, she taught me so much about being understanding, kind and loving. Vanessa mentored me and pushed me out of my comfort zone, even after I started my own business. I learned how to be a good leader by following her example.
Vanessa made it very clear to me that you have to be a good role model. Otherwise, you won’t get ahead. You need to inspire loyal employees to work for you. Her picture is on my office desk. I think about her every day. She made such a positive impact on me and continues to do so. I want to be that person for someone.
It must not have been easy to ignore all the naysayers. Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share the story with us?
As I noted earlier, I had issues during my teenage years. Dropping out of school made it easy for people to judge and criticize me. My parents never cared about what anyone thought, and I learned from that.
When I started my company, my parents gave me their blessing. However, they said failing wasn’t an option, regardless of the circumstances. They said that entrepreneurship is one of the hardest challenges to take on and not to worry about what others think. Someone will always judge you. Prove them wrong, and the naysayers will eventually want to work for you. My parents were right.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 strategies that people can use to harness the sense of tenacity and do what naysayers think is impossible? (Please share a story or an example for each)
1. Set goals for yourself with a timeline. Hold yourself accountable. No one is going to push you, so stay motivated. I knew exactly where I wanted to be in the first five years. Every six months, I evaluated myself and the status of the company to make sure I was on track. By three years in, I had met my five-year goal.
2. Learn to tune out negativity. They say it’s lonely at the top. You can surround yourself with other entrepreneurs, but it can feel as though no one really understands. People see how hard you’re working, and they still judge you. They say things that make you feel discouraged. Get rid of them. If someone can’t stand by you when things are tough, they never will.
3. Hire good people! You can’t do it all by yourself. Don’t just set the example, be the example. Do your best. Every day, when you go to work, give it 100% even when you’re tired or disheartened.
4. Setbacks are a part of growth. You don’t have the answers to everything. Learn to identify roadblocks, and be quick to solve problems. Ask for help. You have resources, so use them. Your banker, accountant and professional groups all want to see you thrive.
What is your favorite quote or personal philosophy that relates to the concept of resilience?
My father taught me a lot of lessons and always gave me great advice. One of the best things he shared with me is this: The more successful you become, the more people are going to question your success and criticize you. This only means you’re doing everything right. Don’t focus on them, except to know that their judgement is a validation that you are successful!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
When I started ServiceMaster by Zaba, I included an Act of Kindness policy in my employee handbook. All my team members know that I’m a strong believer in showing kindness to everyone. They understand that I expect the same from them. When they’re on a job, they go out of their way to help the customer.
We provide emergency services to people who are overwhelmed by their circumstances. An act of kindness can be something as simple as taking out the garbage. Sometimes, my employees will buy coffee or lunch for a customer. It gives them an opportunity to connect with clients and make them smile again.
Our Act of Kindness policy has been in place for more than 10 years. The whole team truly loves it. I also encourage them to be kind to each other. I strongly recommend that other businesses implement something similar.
It’s too easy to feel disconnected these days. Our attention can shift so quickly. For a while, there was a “pay it forward” movement, but it seems to have gotten lost somehow during the pandemic. That’s why, right now, it’s more important than ever for all of us to be kind and courteous to one another.
Can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you for these great stories. We wish you only continued success!