Editor's note: A pair of prominent Lee County entrepreneurs, Sandy Stilwell and Teri Hansen, were inducted into the Junior Achievement of Southwest Florida Business Hall of Fame in May. Hansen is the owner and president of Priority Marketing, while Stilwell is CEO and owner of Stilwell Enterprises & Restaurant Group. These interviews reflect on each businesswoman's career, and the lessons they've learned.
Sandra “Sandy” Stilwell grew up with hoteliers and restaurateurs in Fort Myers. By 10 she worked as a dishwasher at her uncle's restaurant. “I promised myself I would never go into the restaurant business,” she says.
Now she's glad she broke that promise.
Stilwell started a construction site clean-up business at 17. Then she sold it just out of high school for enough money to buy a small motel. She eventually sold that and bought a motel with a restaurant. The lodging end of the business made money but not the restaurant. Stilwell wanted to understand why.
“I decided to go to school to learn the restaurant business,” she says. That led her to summer classes at Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y.
She acquired the Captiva Inn in 1991, and in 2001 started her first stand-alone restaurant, Key Lime Bistro.
“Since then I have had as many as eight restaurants,” she says. “Now I'm down to six.”
Today, the Captiva Island restaurants owned by Stilwell Enterprises and Restaurant Group, with about 150 employees, do combined sales of more than $10 million a year. As a customer convenience, Stilwell operates trolley services to each of her restaurants.
What did you learn in starting your company from the ground-up?
I am accountable to God and my banker.
What have you learned about managing your managers and line workers?
Oftentimes, managers are stuck in the back office with piles of paperwork, bills and reports, and answering sales calls. They get overwhelmed. In our organization, we bring everything into my office.
What lessons have you learned in judging whether a restaurant concept will work?
Sometimes, you just need to learn the hard way, and that's when it's not profitable. I've learned that there are many components to owning a successful restaurant, and they all have to be aligned. If one is off, it's out of balance. And if several are off, it's time to stop.
How did you learn to match the atmosphere of a restaurant to the demographic to which you are catering?
It wasn't a very scientific approach, it was more toward the idea, 'What kind of restaurant do I like to go to when I'm on vacation?' I've tried to develop the restaurants based on needs as well.
What key lessons did you gain from classes at Cornell?
I focused on learning the economics of the restaurant business. It's really about counting the pennies that so often people don't even take the time to pick up. All those pennies turn into dollars.
What did you learn from your parents' operating hospitality businesses?
Oh, goodness, they taught me how to work. I was 13 when we moved into our business, a 39-room motel on Fort Myers Beach (later to become a Ramada Inn). In our household, there really wasn't a lot of sitting around doing nothing. I went to school, cleaned rooms and worked the front desk. My dad taught me how to repair toilets and fix locks. I paid for my own clothing and toiletries and saved my money for my car.
I wouldn't change a thing. Parents today make a dreadful mistake by not allowing their children to work and understand the true value of a dollar. The entitled era of today is frightening.
What lessons have you learned about knowing your market?
I've learned to spend more time on demographics and not necessarily trust my instincts on that one. Analytics are very important.
Teri Hansen's naming of her Priority Marketing reflects more than making a priority of a client's marketing needs.
The name goes back to Hansen's founding of the firm in 1992 after the birth of her first child and her belief that both family and her new business can be priorities.
“I was setting up the structure because of the priorities of my life,” says Hansen, who has led Fort Myers-based Priority Marketing from a solo operation in her living room to a 32-employee company specializing in marketing, digital marketing, advertising and public relations.
Hansen, who has a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of South Florida, launched Priority Marketing after stints as community relations director for WINK-TV and marketing executive with residential developer Westinghouse Communities, later to become WCI. Working for WINK gave Hansen expertise in promotions and special events. Westinghouse Communities gave Hansen strength in marketing residential real estate and real estate related enterprises.
What did you learn in starting an agency from the ground up?
What I see with a lot of people who want to start a business is they start it out of a skill or passion they have. But they don't really understand business, finance, human resources, hiring. If you don't have an understanding of these, you better hire someone who does. I felt it was OK to not know it all. I sought counsel and mentoring from successful business people. I chose well.
What have you learned about the care and feeding of creative people?
I believe everyone can be creative, given the right environment. I have learned creativity is very personal, because it comes out of their being. They feel a deep connection to their ideas and concepts. I think I have learned that it is really important to respect that but to also help them understand it is OK to fail. If your idea or design is not accepted in terms of the client, it doesn't mean it is not good.
What lessons did you derive from the emergence of the digital and cyber world and the opportunities to maximize their use?
When I started, the emerging technology was the fax machine. The fax machine was revolutionizing business.
I don't know of any other generation that will have such an acceleration, to have so much happen in 30 years. Opportunities and efficiency were so much enhanced. I learned to stay abreast of technologies and to find the smart people and let them help. I have learned so much from the smart people in the digital world.
We're continually looking for how to expand our abilities, competencies and capacities. We're doing strategic planning all the time.
What have you learned about taking risks, such as in deciding whether to expand?
I am not a throw-all-caution-aside kind of person. But I am a person who is willing to take calculated risks. I believe I try to make intelligent decisions.
What have you learned about taking risks with your agency's creative products?
We coined a phrase and trademarked a term many years ago. We call it 'creative logic.' We don't do creative without purpose. Creative is really what we consider a solution to a business need or to solve a problem. I don't necessarily see risks in that.