Who Are You Calling Sugar?
Snapshot: Julie Savitt, President, AMS Earth Movers Julie Savitt has a pink construction helmet. She knows her way around a semi-truck and can talk “stone” with the best of them. She is a woman in a male- dominated field who drew on the business lessons she learned from her grandfather – who was also in the Chicago construction field – to build a new kind of construction company: one that is happy, healthy, green and discrimination free. Today AMS Earth Movers is an award-winning, WBE certified company that specializes in the haul-in and haul-off of a variety of materials including aggregate, rock salt, brick, broken concrete, asphalt and topsoil.
Savitt has built her business on a promise of delivering exceptional service with no surprises. Unfortunately for her, Savitt has encountered more than her fair share of surprises along the way.
Womenetics: Tell us how you ended up as president of AMS Earth Movers. Julie Savitt: I was married to a man whose dream was to drive a semi-truck, so we bought one and leased it to a trucking company. Unfortunately, he felt tremendous discrimination on the job, and then the company he was working for was going out of business. I was raised in a family of entrepreneurs so business was second nature, and I thought, “Let’s start our own trucking company and build something different. I can run the business, and you drive the trucks. We can work for ourselves and build a business that is fair and ethical.” At the time, he had a percentage of the business, but everything in our lives changed after 9/11.
When 9/11 happened there were 40,000-50,000 files of immigrants that were misplaced, and his file was one of those. For four years, his case was put on hold – or so we thought. We were not notified when the court cases came up, and his case passed appeal and became a federal case. To make a long story short, a couple years later a federal agent came to the house and took him away. At the time I felt like this is an injustice; the system is broken. My life had fallen apart.
At that point I had to decide if I should keep the business. There were rumors circulating that my husband was gone and that we were going bankrupt. People started trying to take advantage of the situation. I also learned that my husband had borrowed money from my customers, and I ended up $250,000 in debt.
My thoughts at the time were, “I can leave the business, go bankrupt or overcome and build a business like we had originally intended – a company with integrity and one that wanted to help our workforce do better in this country.” I felt like I had to do the honorable thing and that was to stay and to pay everyone.
Womenetics: And during all of this you were also caring for your three children? Savitt: Yes, that was the toughest part. Before construction, I was an assistant principal. I had the summers off, and I was home in the afternoon – available to my kids. But now, all of a sudden I was not available and not just because of the business demands but also because of the trauma I was experiencing. I remember every day, when it hit 4 p.m. I would think, “I made it. I survived today.” My kids were the ones that encouraged me “get it together.” I had these blessings, and I had to figure out the balance my life so I could take care of them.
Womenetics: How did you recover and regain a foothold in the business? Savitt: I started by learning more about the business’ field operations. I learned to drive a truck, how to pick up a load and drop it, how quarries operate. I had to learn about stones and what they were used for. I had to learn every aspect because I was running it alone. It was just me and 40 trucks on the road.
In the beginning, I focused on sales and getting rid of customers that put our company at risk – who cost me more than their project is worth. I got rid of the clients who aggravated me, who yelled at my workforce, which wasn’t uncommon. I was trying to build a happy workforce. I also looked at how we could do things better; how we could work with less and do more.
I took me three years to get out of debt and to build a new kind of reputation.
Womenetics: And what was your attitude like at the beginning? Savitt: I knew that I had to find a way to love what I did. I am a psych grad, so I knew I had to find a happy place if I was going to be successful. I started putting notes up on places like my mirror because I wanted to figure out what made me happy. At first I started with things like “I have a car to drive” and “I can pay the mortgage,” and I would scratch that out and get more and more specific. Finally, I got to the place where I understood that my happiness was about my health, my support system and my family.
It took me six months to figure out my happiness and how I could incorporate that into my business. One third of your life is spent at work, and I didn’t want to spend it being miserable. I wanted the people I worked with to want to be there, to want to do a good job. My goal is to have AMS Earth Movers be one of the 100 best places to work.
Womenetics: Now that you have re-established your business, what do you take from the last five years? Savitt: That you endure adversity, find strength and make a difference. I’ve realized that women who are most successful are those who overcome some kind of adversity. After I realized that, I didn’t feel so alone. It was an amazing realization.
We [women] weren’t programmed all these years to be entrepreneurs. In my family I have three older brothers, and my parents told me my job was to keep my family together. No one said you could be an entrepreneur. I was taught to always compromise and to work for peace. But everything that happened after 9/11 put me in a position that I had to do what I had to do.
Womenetics: Do you ever regret you decision to stay with the business? Savitt: Every Friday! Getting paid is still a tough thing and when that check doesn’t come in on time I’m thinking “Ugh, what did I get myself into?” Or when someone calls me “Sugar.” Who are you calling “Sugar”? But that's the industry; that’s construction.
There are still lots of perceptions I have to deal with. Men who say, “I don’t deal with women.” And I say, “You want someone to call you back who is a man?” That’s so degrading. I came from a white-collar world. I couldn’t believe people are like that.
Just this winter I went on a job with my fleet supervisor. We walked up to my client to introduce ourselves. He shakes our hands, and then he continues to talk with my employee. This is standard procedure. I know as soon as I bring a guy into a conversation, it is going to be eye to eye between them – and I run this business. I make the decisions, but that’s their comfort zone. A lot of what we do is figuring out who is the best person to send out to deal – not because I’m not qualified, but we have to ask if a male would be more successful.
You know it’s not just about the men in the field. When I tell women I know what I do they look at me with such surprise. I run a business. The principles are the same. Why does that surprise you so much?
Womenetics: I understand that you come from a family of entrepreneurs. Can you tell me how this influenced your work ethic? Savitt: My grandfather was a real estate developer. He had a huge passion for helping immigrants and for helping Chicago grow. You know, he was an immigrant himself from Poland. Mayor Daily used to say to him, “You should go into politics,” and my grandfather would respond, “How can I do that if I can’t run for president? You know I don’t do things halfway.” And then Daily would say, “Better you stay out of politics anyway, you’re too honest.”
My grandfather’s philosophies in general are the cornerstone of my business today. Our success in business gives us an outlet to do what really makes us happy – to make a difference, to have enough power or resources to be able to make change. It’s not about the trucking; it’s about everything else.
Womenetics: What would your grandfather think if he saw you today? Savitt: He would be so proud and I feel him every day in the lessons he taught me. There is a legacy being continued, and that is to create positive change in Chicago and to do business with integrity. That was his thing – give me a job and I’ll get it done…with integrity, nothing shady, just good business.
I was doing a job at the Waukegan Harbor. It reminded me of when I was young, and my grandfather took me to see the river project downtown that he was working on. I remember watching the cranes pile the sludge on the barge. The barge would come to shore and a line of trucks would be waiting to haul it off. Many years later, I was doing a Harbor Project in Waukegan, and I had 25 trucks waiting to be loaded in the same way, and I just had to cry. I thought, “This is his project.”