“Find efficient and lucrative usage of our plastics and rubber” With Candice Georgiadis & Alice Combs

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, […]

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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.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alice Combs.

After a painful divorce, Alice Combs 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 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 doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

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.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

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 ($20K in today’s world), one of my customers, who owned his business, promised to have his overdue bill of $5K 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.

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?

My funniest mistake was that I neglected to ascertain what wire qualities were necessary for my customer’s needs. He told me that he needed 12 gage annealed wire, and that’s what I presented to him. Unfortunately, the wire broke because it didn’t have the required tensile strength and elongation. I should have taken a couple of 18” segments for testing, which I did after this failure. The second wire sale was a success, resulting in leads and endorsements.

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 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.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Bicycling was my original main Vulcan stress reliever — secondarily, completing boring and mundane, but necessary, tasks. However, when Vulcan expanded beyond my home to an office, my bicycle wasn’t convenient. I joined a gym for access to its Olympic-size lap pool and swam daily. When my regular swim wasn’t enough, I would make the seventy-five-mile drive to Modesto, where life was slower and more friendly than in the San Francisco Bay area, where my home and office were. Due to scant traffic, the drive was relaxing, and I always found welcoming customers there. I would alternate lunch dates with the biggest customers, many of whom told me juicy secrets that to this day I haven’t revealed.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

An ideal corporate team is a reflection of its customers, but even then, I believe in merit rather than giving a job to someone less qualified.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

I don’t believe in quotas which may harm the more deserving. However, I would like tax money spent for additional training, education, scholarships, tutoring and mentoring of low-income adults and their children. I think that the best assistance might be from unpaid volunteers who do this as a calling. I wonder if our population has enough qualified, altruistic, and energetic people willing or able to spend enough of their time to make a difference.

In 1999 I began tutoring (without monetary compensation) five children, three of them regularly for several years. They became like family to me, and we also did extracurricular activities. We swam, took nature walks, and celebrated each of their birthdays at my home with a cake and presents.

My biggest delight, however, is my pretend grandson’s overwhelming gratitude for “changing his life” because he had been an illiterate third grader. The two of us worked diligently on reading — first with Captain Underpants and later with the Harry Potter books. Now he is gainfully employed.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

The buck stops with the CEO. If the CFO, or another higher up falters, the CEO can be blamed for being blindsided, as it’s the CEO’s responsibility to appoint or recommend to the board a trustworthy and competent individual as well as to dismiss poor performers. The CEO will study and react prudently to financial reports after the CFO presents and summarizes them — perhaps with recommendations.

The CEO is responsible for the team’s camaraderie and corporate attitude. It’s much easier to lead during good times, but during bad times he or she must present hope and positive aspects in addition to the dismal reality. Now, during our unsettling pandemic, top quality leadership is more important than ever.

The CEO must lead by example in every aspect — speaking, emailing, perhaps in social media (if the organization is large enough), dressing, open to and respectful of other (perhaps even contrary) opinions and attitudes, openly give praise to the deserving, and above all be honest. These qualities are necessary when dealing with customers, employees, suppliers, and board members. If the CEO is also a board member (the case with most small businesses), he or she has a fiscal responsibility toward every stockholder.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

One common myth is that corporations aren’t people. A corporation is the sum of its stockholders, employees, and board of directors — all of whom are people. When I have this argument with friends and acquaintances, they say, “Oh, I don’t mean you and your business. I mean the big corporations like Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft. To that I respond that the biggest difference between myself and Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, is that they were smarter and more ambitious than I. Therefore, they developed larger and more powerful corporations.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

It’s difficult for me to comment on the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts because I didn’t rise to the top via an already in-place corporation. Vulcan is the corporation I gave birth to, my baby. Before Vulcan had enough income to split away from my personal income and incorporate, I already had a reputation for providing top quality wire and service — and for running a tight ship. My reputation with suppliers and customers was already formed. Once I dressed like an executive and was confident and knowledgeable in my field, I experienced perhaps a 2% female discrimination. The negative affronts seemed to be from both sexes. I don’t think this was a big deal because anyone should be able to handle 2%.

Even though I consider myself very feminine, I primarily thought of myself as the owner, president and CEO — not as the female owner, female president and female CEO. I was too busy to capitalize on being unique as a woman in a man’s world. Now I have the time and have written a book to make a production of being a woman in a man’s world. Perhaps the biggest difference was that I had to work harder and therefore appear smarter and more competent than if I were a man.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

When I discovered the need for industrial baler wire, I assumed that within months I’d be earning $40K per year (nearly $200K per year inflation adjusted). Before I reached my monetary goal about three years later, I had discovered unanticipated costs: wire waste, warehouse space, office space and equipment, office supplies, insurance, interest for borrowed money; business fees and taxes, and needed employees along with their payroll taxes.

I had under-estimated the amount of working capital Vulcan needed. I was so green that I was initially shocked upon learning that all reliable businesses expected 30-day credit terms, and even worse, rarely mailed their payments as early as the 30th day. I was flummoxed when Vulcan sales grew exponentially, and taken aback that such rapid growth nearly imploded Vulcan.

I didn’t realize all the paperwork and calculations that would be needed to smoothly run a business. Until I was desperate for clerical assistance, I didn’t realize that I needed a foolproof system in place before I could delegate. Then once I delegated, I thought everything would flow smoothly. Ha! I discovered those human beings made even more mistakes than I did, and until I could afford an office manager, I had to continuously trouble-shoot. I also discovered that dishonest people were more numerous than I had imagined.

I hadn’t dreamed that it would sometimes be necessary to work 50–70 hours a week, and until I’d been in business for ten to twelve years, I’d have hell to pay for any one week or longer vacation. Upon return, I would have to fix all sorts of loose ends and tangles. Today it’s exhausting to merely remember all I had to do forty-five years ago.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Foremost, an executive must have perseverance because there will be many disappointments and rough periods, and she will make lots of mistakes. She must be determined to endure and change the negative, so a positive is eventually reached. This kind of challenge will likely be draining, so one must propel oneself by envisioning a sunnier future after this and that is done. Unless she can reinvent herself to become an optimist, a pessimist should not aspire to be an executive,

Ideally, she has a corporate and personal nest egg set aside for emergencies. In the event of extreme corporate financial setbacks, she must lead by lowering her salary a greater percentage than that of her employees. After Vulcan lost its largest customer, along with some smaller ones, I gave myself a 17½% pay cut. My most difficult business task ever followed: I had to announce 10% pay cuts for everyone else.

She must have a quick mind and be able to summarize a financial statement within a minute or two. One who can’t do quick calculations in her head would be too challenged to be an executive.

She must be able to listen and carefully read between the lines, whether interpreting a conversation, business letter, or even a contract. People who take everything at face value would make too many blunders.

An executive must be willing to do things she doesn’t want to do. I’ll always remember my brother, a partner in an embryonic part-time startup, was asked by his partners to help a potential client move from one house to another. My brother refused because he thought it would be disingenuous to do what he wouldn’t have done except for hopes of gaining this person’s business. I was horrified that he refused this simple request. I explained that I took all sorts of people to lunch and wouldn’t have without Vulcan’s interest at heart — and I was sure these customers knew that. Understandably, my brother never accomplished his dream of being self-employed.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

On top of the same advice I’d give male leaders, I’d advise women to not think of themselves as primarily women, even if they are the sole woman in the company, room, or corporate board. They should exude confidence and genuinely like and feel comfortable with both, or all, sexes, as well as all colors and ethnicities. Their mindset shouldn’t be, “Oh, I hope they will respect me,” or “Which ones might sexually harass me?” or “Will they expect me to serve coffee or do secretarial service?” However, after an inappropriate comment or request, every woman should be prepared with a snappy, professional retort.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I believe the world needs entertainment of all sorts, so please allow me to indulge in my latest enthusiasm, spreading the word of my book and bi-monthly blog posts. I’m a bibliophile of historical fiction, memoirs and biographies. People like me savor good book stories more than TV or movies. We love to escape into other lives and share laughter, joy, worries and tears with the written characters. I’ve been told by many that they’ve experienced these emotions from reading or listening to my book, and others who want to learn about business can absorb valuable lessons from it. Those who savor tales of perseverance and personal reinvention will enjoy The Lady with Balls and my website’s blog posts.

I hope that what I’ve written and continue to talk about will give valuable knowledge to aspiring entrepreneurs who later prosper as corporate owners. I also hope my story prevents others who aren’t cut out for such stress and diligence to realize this before they would otherwise learn that a self-directed business is not for them.

To return to the business I founded in 1975, I’ve given employment to people of all ages, which for some have been lifetime careers, for others a job that taught them about business and assisted them financially as they completed high school and college — or even became entrepreneurs themselves. Vulcan has been a fair, flexible and profitable place to work. Vulcan’s wire assists in the recycling effort and contributes toward jobs with non-Vulcan employees such as truck drivers, wire mill workers, grocery store workers, service workers processing payroll or computer goods and services, machinery suppliers, etc.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

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.

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.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My number one favorite quote is from Thomas Alva Edison, “I failed my way to success.” In fact, I listed this quote above my sixth chapter, Wire Breaking Right and Left. As I stated earlier, my first wire sale was a literal bust. Now I’m the founder of a company annually manufacturing thousands of tons of excellent quality baler wire.

Before that, I failed to meet the standards of my pre-trainee clothes buyer job which was the impetus for my successful career. Previous to being fired, my first marriage was a failure, and I bounced from one ill-suited boyfriend to another. Now I’m about to celebrate thirty-one years of a wonderfully happy marriage. I could list many other past failures that led to great successes.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 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.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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