Julie Savitt found her life turned upside down when her Guatemalan-born husband was deported, leaving her with a business to run in the male-dominated construction industry and three teenage kids to raise alone. She soon learned her now ex-husband had racked up $250,000 in debts taking out loans from customers that didn’t want to pay her or work with a woman even though she’d launched and helped run the business. The 46-year-old president and founder of Lake Villa–based AMS Earth Movers Inc. shares her story of transforming the company into a successful enterprise. The business recently expanded to a new 30-acre yard and launched a new venture selling limestone aggregate, part of her plan to build a $25 million enterprise in five years.
The fallout: “When people started finding out [about her husband], the drivers, some of them… thought that it was their job to take over the business. Some wouldn’t show up to the job in the morning. Some left the company. I had customers who said ‘I don’t work with a woman’ and I’m like ‘You’ve been working with me for three years, you just didn’t know it. I always ran the business operations. My husband’s sole responsibility (had been) to drive the truck.’”
Revamping: “I learned how to drive a truck. I began going to our vendor sites to learn about the products. I put myself through schooling — construction, trucking and stone. I really invested to learn.”
Restoring confidence: “I always was honest with anybody I worked with. So the first thing I did was pick up the phone and call people and say this is my situation. This is what I can do. I’m going to be good for whatever my word is and either you’re going to trust me or you’re not, and I just hoped that honesty would prevail and that people would trust me. I refused to go bankrupt. I did whatever I could to make sure every vendor was paid current, everybody that worked for me was paid, however the means it took to do that.”
The means: “Sometimes it was credit cards. Sometimes it was take from Paul and give to Peter or whatever I had to do to make sure that I didn’t lose my relationships with my vendors and I didn’t ruin my relationships with my drivers, and thank God we worked through it. The biggest thing was I had to sell, sell, sell and just keep the money flowing in so that I could continue to pay whatever was outstanding. I decided that the only way I was going to survive was if I had cash flow, so I outbid myself from a lot of my customers that I felt were a risk to the business. I only worked with clients that paid me in 30 to 60 days, where there was mutual respect, their companies aligned with what I believed in and wanted my company to be. By doing that, it gave me the cash flow I needed. So 2010 was a year that we started to turn around. The money was coming in a little better. It was a sad year because a lot of other businesses were going out of business. We captured some of those opportunities.”
What keeps her up at night: “Collections. Construction is tough, and if there’s a delay in our customers collecting, then there’s a delay in us collecting. The second is that one of my gages of success is to become one of the best places to work. One of my challenges is that I never had employees until a couple of years ago. I did everything myself, and so to learn to develop that culture and to inspire people to be passionate about their positions at work and to be happy in the environment to me is a great challenge and as I grow it’s important to me that the people who work for me gain better life opportunities. How do I create that environment? That keeps me up at night.”
Planning for growth: “I took a class with the Cycle of Success Institute and participated in E200 (a U.S. Small Business Administration Emerging Leaders executive training initiative). The COSi class helped me build my policies and procedures. I have policies and procedures for everything that we do in or business, so it leaves little room for error. It reduces the risk in my business. As I’m growing, I have a system on how do I develop different positions, define the position, hire for the position. I have tools to use for growth. E200 focused on developing a business plan, but also on developing relationships in the government arena. It helped me to develop this vision of doing something more than the trucking.”
Diversifying into limestone aggregate sales. “Trucking is very raw. It’s expensive. You have to really work hard to make money. For every $25 in construction, $1 is allocated for the stone that they need on a project. Anytime you dig up dirt, in order to build whatever is being built, you need to have stone to replace whatever they dug up. So I saw this market as opportunity. It was a natural next step because here I’m always delivering these products. I knew about the products, but there were no women-owned businesses that could offer this product [for sale] for participation for government contracting. I felt that this was something that was really needed. I’m the only woman in Illinois that’s certified as a women-owned business to sell stone for construction.”
Difficult encounters as a woman: “I’d walk on a job and they’d say ‘Hey baby, looking for your daddy,’ or I’d have drivers call me sugar and honey. That was so degrading.”
Dealing with it: “When someone said ‘I don’t work with women,’ I would say ‘Oh well, I’m the only one in the company right now. You have to make amends.’ So I would try and use humor, but I had to stand my ground, and I had to make parameters of what I was going to tolerate and what I was not going to tolerate. I’ve seen an improvement, but I have to say women in construction still deal with these issues at different levels. We hope for it to get better. I don’t know if that’s around the corner. I think it’s going to take a lot of time. But I feel that by having a voice and being involved through the Federation of Women Contractors or supporting organizations like the Women’s Business Development center that eventually there will be change.”
Lessons learned: “If you really believe in something and have a passion for it, anything can be possible. Everything happens for a reason, and you have to trust that. You may not know what it is at the beginning, but later it becomes apparent. I also have this belief that I was put here to do something. I think through the business I’m finding out that I love to help people. I feel that the challenges I went through, I went through alone because I didn’t know there were people out there that could help. I learned how to ask for help, and now I have the opportunity through my business [to use it] as a catalyst to help others. For me that’s the true joy.”
Giving back: “One year I was part of the Heartland International program. We worked with young entrepreneurs from Africa. I had someone that was with us for six weeks. He worked with me in my business while he went to school. Then I went to Africa and worked with him to see his progress and what we could do to help [him] do better in Africa. We also worked with 20 other young entrepreneurs to help them write business plans and grow and develop.
“I have become an expert on certification and how to navigate the system, so I do panels. I’ve been on a panel for the National Association of Women Business Owners, for the Small Business Advocacy Council. We have a lot of great resources out there, but people don’t know it, and they don’t know how to access them, how to go about the certification process. It’s complicated. I worked so hard to figure it out, that that’s a great thing that I can give back to others.”
Milestones: “Finally getting into the aggregate [site] is one. The other is being an advocate to help for positive change in this industry. Every time I reach out to help or to make change and the change happens or I see that somebody has excelled because of something I said or I did, to me that’s the greatest reward. It’s not always about business itself and the dollars you earn. Sometimes those milestones come in just very small ways. To come from somebody who was so insecure and knew nothing about construction and be somebody who could help advocate for others and help make positive changes in such a hard industry, for me is a huge thing.”
THE STATS: 2012 revenues: $3.2 million. Projected 2013 revenues: $5 million Employees: 9 Services: Hauls construction materials and heavy equipment for roadways, parking structures and other government and private-sector job sites. Also sells sand, topsoil, road salt, stone and other construction aggregate.
Photo by Sun-Times Media/Tom Cruze TOP: AMS Earth Movers president Julie Savitt on the company grounds in Lake Villa.
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In for the Long Haul Behind the Resolve of an Extraordinary Leader