What’s special about women-owned businesses? Do certain businesses—and not others—lend themselves to female proprietorship? NorthBay biz takes a look at six local businesses that have something special about them—something you can’t see, or won’t find on a ledger. But chances are you can feel the difference when you walk in the door. Whether it’s a clothing boutique or a sheet metal company, we found an essential set of qualities that these diverse business women share. These qualities, in new and well-established careers, bring forth success, customer loyalty and employee dedication. Here are six women, in six very different businesses, who offer insight into their success.
Suzanne Brangham, owner and developer of MacArthur Place Hotel and Spa, in Sonoma, launched the first stage of her career during the ’70s in San Francisco. “That was a time when a lot of women were interested in buying, renovating and selling because they had salaries and could afford to buy their own houses,” she says. By 1984, having renovated and turned 72 houses in San Francisco, Brangham took a few years off and wrote a book, Housewise: A Smart Woman's Guide to Buying and Renovating Real Estate for Profit. Women loved it. “The book was on the best seller list for 14 weeks, and I was lecturing all over the U.S., which was great fun,” she says. After the book tours, she thought she’d move to Sonoma and retire. But her instinct as a developer, her love of design, and her passion for making things beautiful intervened.
“One day I drove by a dilapidated 19th century Victorian house on West Spain Street,” Brangham recalls. “I thought, ‘That would make a fabulous restaurant.’” Soon after, out of the dilapidation, she brought forth The General’s Daughter restaurant. “It was only a side job, in my retirement,” she laughs. But then, next to the General’s Daughter was a property, zoned for 10 houses. Her idea was to create a first-class culinary school next to the restaurant. The town agreed and once again, retirement would have to wait. “I really wanted Sonoma to have a cooking school,” she says. Brangham acquired the property and designed and built Ramekins Culinary School, which opened in 1998.
About the same time, on the other side of town, Brangham acquired and developed a 19th century estate and transformed it into what is now MacArthur Place Hotel and Spa. The inn, nestled in a cozy Sonoma neighborhood seems, at first glance, like a small, intimate country retreat. But it is, in fact, a 64-room complex of charming, individually decorated cottages; a warm and friendly conference space, a luxury spa, an expansive pool in the garden, and an award-winning western-themed restaurant, Saddles Steakhouse, all tucked amid a dense, meandering network of heirloom gardens and trees. “I didn’t plan to do three commercial ventures in my retiring years, but I couldn’t resist,” says Brangham. “Sonoma needed hotel rooms and we needed conference space. That was 18 years ago.” MacArthur Place Hotel and Spa is now a place where you feel good the moment you enter, because of the warmth of the design and colors and textures in the rooms. When thinking about her long career, what comes into focus as the common denominator in all of her projects is good design. “That is important,” she says. “And I’m a person who loves the ‘Wow Factor,’ giving people small surprises along with a very memorable experience.”
There’s nothing quite like walking to the movies in your own town, settling in to a cozy, century-old theater with beautiful plush seats, state-of-the-art technology and locally-made goodies, and watching the owner hop up on the stage to announce the coming films as well as talks with visiting directors, classes for kids, dinner-movie combinations and a heads up about a movie that blew her away. After almost 10 years, Cathy Buck’s joy in welcoming you has not flagged, and the Cameo, a neighborhood movie house since 1913 (woman-owned from building to business) has created a unique spot in the modern landscape dominated by multiplex cinema sameness.
When Cathy Buck bought the Cameo 2008, people questioned whether the town would still have its theater. The owner at the time, Charlotte Wagner, had decided to retire and was looking for someone to take over the business. Then along came Buck, a newcomer to town, and novice to the business, and ready for anything.
“I’m from Michigan,” she says. “I sold real estate for 21 years, then fell in love with the Napa Valley.” She came west without a solid plan. “I wanted something new,” she laughs. She got a little job in a winery, as newcomers often do, and then she heard Cameo was up for sale and thought owning a theater sounded fun. At the time, the economy was bad and neighborhood theaters were losing ground to the multiplex cinemas, but it didn’t faze her. “I decided I was going to give it a shot,” she says. “I didn’t have any money, but Charlotte Wagner and Lydia Money, who own the building, believed in my story and my vision.” Thus began what she laughingly says was the hardest job she had ever done in her life. “I cried a lot in the beginning,” she laughs. The movies, at the time, came in big canisters with eight reels that had to be spliced together. “If you put one reel on in the middle, upside down by mistake, the sound and the action would be backwards,” she says. “And if it jumped off the platter, it burned up.” Then there was the business end. “You can cry all you want, but I can’t compete with the big boys. They hold all the power in Hollywood. If you’re a single theater or a 100-chain theater, the same policies apply. You have to keep [a film] on screen the same amount of days and pay the high box office percentage of ticket sales. I don’t have a second or third screen to move it, so I can bring in another film. [It’s] always a balancing act.”
Buck meets the challenge with her innovative programming, help from the Friends of the Cameo nonprofit, and by staying on the cutting edge with state-of-the-art technology. “For that part,” she says, “I have a mind like a man. I’ve got to be the first, or I’m going to be the last.” She keeps a loyal following by maintaining a calendar of movies carefully chosen for her demographic. She regularly brings in special guests, directors and critics. “That’s something chains can’t do,” she says. “So little by little, we’ve built this wonderful community of trust. It centers in the Napa Valley, but it’s not just in the Napa Valley. The guests come in from all over the world.”
In the late ’60s, Jennifer Bice, founder and managing director of Redwood Hill Farm, was living the dream. Her parents started a goat dairy in Sebastopol in 1968, as part of their dream to go “back to the land,” be in touch with nature, have wholesome food for the family and make a little profit along the way. They learned quickly that dairy farming is labor intensive. Her father would bottle the milk and Jennifer would help her mom deliver it to stores. They made yogurt, kefir and cheeses at home. “We did a lot of experimenting with products we could make with the milk that the family would like,” she says. “Then we tried the products on others. They were grateful.”
In 1978, when she was in her 20s, her parents moved to Hawaii and let her take over the farm. She had learned enough about farming from her parents and through 4-H that she and her late husband, Steven Schack, launched into the business. At the time, goat dairy was a niche market. “Initially, we were in touch with customers personally at farmers’ markets,” she says. The business grew steadily. Now they have a customer relations team and a Face Book page, and a person dedicated to keeping up with their social media. “We always like hearing from our customers,” she says. “Most of the time, we get love letters, like this or that product has saved their child.” The health, purity and integrity of the product is important to her. “We believe people need to know how their food is produced, and how animals are raised. We have tours, so people can come and visit the farm. The farm, a few miles from the creamery, is 100 percent solar powered and holds the distinction of being the first goat dairy in the United States to be Certified Humane by Humane Farm Animal Care.
Does the goat dairy and creamery business benefit in any special way from being run by a woman? According to Bice, while women tend to like working with goats because they’re small, fun and friendly, it isn’t so much gender that makes the difference, as who you are as a person. “I want to farm sustainably, so I can live my values,” she says.
Today, Bice’s business includes 300 goats and 75 employees. A couple years ago, she began thinking about how she might retire while ensuring that the dairy and farm would continue in the style that she has maintained over the years. At the end of 2015, she sold the creamery—not the farm—to a highly-reputed Swiss company that intends to keep the Redwood Hill operating as it always has. She continues her work as manager of the creamery and farm until she retires, returning full circle to her life on the farm, the goats and her garden.
It’s not every day that you meet a woman who admits to a passion for sheet metal, and that’s what makes Barbie Simpson-Richardson so interesting. She’s a woman on fire and in love with the family sheet metal business that she grew up in, and took over as president and general manager more than a year ago.
Simpson-Richardson always knew that one day she’d take over the business from her parents. That day arrived a year ago, when their general manager retired. Having been groomed her whole life to run the business, she was ready to lead the company in accordance with her father’s example. Her father, Bill Simpson, instilled in her the company philosophy, which is, “We’re all in this together, and every person matters.”
Her mother, Nancy, is still a part of the business and says Barbie’s dad would be proud of the way she’s managing the company. “Barbie has the respect of the men who work for her because she’s been with the company long enough to have a thorough knowledge of our business. She treats everyone fairly and listens to what they have to say, which is important. The morale is great in our business and our employees are happy.”
“I believe everyone here has a voice now,” says Simpson-Richardson. “Once people felt heard, and they knew I was going to be evaluating and making decisions based on their input, they were all on board.”
Sheet metal may be the product, but what holds this business together is the network of relationships. “We have deep, embedded relationships in this community,” says Simpson-Richardson. “It’s an honor for me to work with such an incredible group of people, and I know my dad would be honored to know we’re moving forward as a team [that] respects one another and takes pride in this amazing business he established years ago.”
Drea Helfer, president of DH Wine Compliance, consults with wine and alcoholic beverage clients on how to obtain and maintain the permits and licenses necessary to produce and sell their product. It’s a complicated, detailed and fast-changing business. “Each state is going to have its own requirements and regulations around shipping,” says Helfer, “and regulations can change at any time, without warning. It’s always a moving target.”
But compliance consultants are not attorneys. “We don’t advise people on law,” she says. “We let our clients know what the regulation says and our experiences with the industry standard with each regulation.” When necessary, consultants encourage clients to refer back to their attorneys, much like a bookkeeper would alert a client to check with their CPA.
Helfer got into the field by chance. She grew up in Point Reyes Station and developed a passion for horses, which evolved into a career. After leaving the equestrian world, Helfer had a chance to take a compliance course. When Helfer mentioned to the teacher she was looking for a job, the teacher hired her almost immediately, and then she cried for the first week. “It was so complicated and confusing. I didn’t know what I was doing.” By the end of the month, she had fallen in love with the work and rose fast through the ranks. But she always dreamed of having her own company. In 2010, she started DH Wine Compliance, where the company culture promises true customer service, top-notch expertise, and more importantly, a work environment that honors employees.
“I let my employees know that I know what it’s like to be an employee. As an employer, you’re holding someone else’s goals and dreams in your hands,” she says. “It’s important to honor people and show them appreciation, so they show up every day and give me 100 percent. Then I’ll give them 150 percent.” This is the foundation of her company culture. “The reward that you get from rewarding your employees makes you feel good about being a human being.”
As for the relevance of gender to her success, Helfer notes that compliance does seem to be a primarily female business. “I don’t know why,” she says. “The wine industry has been primarily a male-dominated field, so at the start it was hard to have people take me seriously.” But she no longer feels a need to prove herself. “I think the world has changed in the last five years,” she says. “I’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that if someone doesn’t trust me [because] I’m a woman, then I don’t want to work with them.”
Ooh La Luxe is a business that seems to run on sheer love, enthusiasm and a unique sense of style. “We didn’t start out saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to have four stores and a website,’” says Cristina Wilson, describing how she and her twin sister, Michelle, got started in the fashion business. “The economy was bad, so it was scary, and we didn’t have any money, but then we kept growing.” When our lease was up, she says, we realized we should get a larger place and made the decision to go for it. Today, the company includes two stores, a thriving on-line business, and a network of loyal customers.
“We grew up ‘thrifting,’” says Cristina Wilson. “[We were] going to flea markets, seeing different styles. So when we started our store it was mostly with items we’d collected over the years.” But, as we started growing, and people started liking what we were picking to buy, people started saying, ‘Oh, you girls should have your own clothing line,’ or ‘Is there anything that you design?’” She and Michelle created a few designs and found a manufacturer in Los Angelos that would work on a small scale, so they added those to their line. “We’re self-taught,” she says cheerily. “Sometimes it worked out, and sometimes it didn’t.”
They shop widely, from Los Angeles and beyond, for clothes and accessories that catch their fancy. “We go to New York. We’ve picked up stuff in Morroco and Spain,” she says. Their customers like finding items you can’t get anywhere else. They also like the attention they get when they go into the store. “We do wardrobe styling,” says twin sister Michelle Wilson. “We trained all the girls to style. So people come in, and say, ‘I need help for some really cool stuff that’s ahead,’ and we style them. And it’s free! We style women of all ages. People love it.”
In addition, both sisters love to give back and contribute to community events. “Our customers are important to us,” says Cristina Wilson. “We do a lot of events and we donate a lot of [clothing and accessories] for schools and we put on fashions shows.” Wilson loves to inspire her customers, and encourage them to wear what’s comfortable and sometimes encourages customers to try something new.
These North Bay proprietors know that the art of maintaining good relationships, with yourself, your customers and your community, is key to success. What is their advice to women in business?
“Reward your employees,” offers Barbie Simpson-Richardson. It’s important to take care of your employees, she adds, and regularly acknowledge their good work.
“Create something [that embodies] your values—something that you can literally put your whole heart and soul into every day and still want to get up the next day and do it all over again,” says Drea Helfer.
“Life is too short,” says Suzanne Brangham. “So why stand still?"
And when it comes to dressing for the day, Christina and Michelle Wilson offer this advice, "Wear what's comfortable, but makes you feel good and confident. It's good to go out of your comfort zone once in a while."
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