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Balancing Act: When business is slow

Some women who own businesses are laying off staff. Others are turning away less profitable work. While yet another is taking only clients who pay in a timely fashion. Entrepreneurs, the backbone of our economy, realize that these tough economic times take strategy to survive.

In the worst economy since the Great Depression, many female business owners are more vulnerable. Most of them self-fund their businesses and have a lot to lose when things don't go well. For some, it's income their family depends on.

"Women tend to make assumptions that they've got to pull it all off on their own. A lot have the capacity to ask for help or additional capital, but they don't,'' says Elaine Szeto, a senior vice president of Global Treasury Mangement with National City bank.

What they are doing is supercharging their brain power.

Maxine Clark, founder and chief executive of Build-A-Bear Workshop, considers her business her legacy. Her chain of more than 400 teddy bear stores, has made Clark a role model for women and young girls. Clark has created a warm and fuzzy corporate culture that has inspired loyalty in her staff. But even she is making tough calls as her stock price has dropped below $4 a share from above $9 a share six months ago.

At Build-A-Bear's corporate headquarters, as employees leave, their jobs are eliminated. "We are looking at every single job, every trip, every expense as if it is our last dime to spend. Fortunately, it isn't.''

Clark suggests others entrepreneurs do the same.

"Look at the economics of the business you are in and what you can cut back on, maybe people, maybe services, maybe space. As hard as it is, if you don't do it, you are going to say you wish you had because your business would still be here,'' Clark told more than 300 women who attended a luncheon Friday in Miami for The Commonwealth Institute South Florida.

Clark, the majority stockholder in her company, doesn't foresee improvement in the economy until the third quarter of next year. "Until then, you have to make sacrifices and hard decisions.''

Meanwhile, business owner Ariela Balk has another approach to survival. As the CEO of a privately-held lingerie company, she is focusing on existing customers rather than dealing with new business that may or may not pay off.


"While new may seem more exciting, what you have and know is proven,'' she says.

Mostly, she is making sure her biggest customer is happy. And for Balk, that customer is Wal-Mart. Her line, Smart & Sexy, sells for under $10 an item in 2,700 Wal-Mart stores.

I met Balk at a roundtable in Miami sponsored by The Women's Alliance. Balk, chief executive of 100-employee Ariela-Alpha International has a vacation condo in Miami, a home in New Jersey, a solid business and eight kids to motivate her.

Balk's husband is head of operations and with both in the business -- and financial pressure intensifying in the retail industry -- the temptation for work to overwhelm home life is huge. "I work really hard to make sure my two worlds don't collide,'' Balk said. Of course, with eight kids around (including two sets of twins) it's hard to talk shop at the dinner table. "The kids are very vocal,'' she says.


Some entrepreneurs find themselves doing the unthinkable -- turning away business as a survival strategy.

Coral Gables caterer Sarah Davidoff says she used to jump at any type of affair. But as food costs continue to rise and profit margins get slimmer, she tries to look at the big picture. "I used to feel like small parties would lead to big parties. Now I realize that sometimes small parties are more work than they are worth.''

Davidoff is putting in more hours to personally oversee areas of her company, Fare to Remember, that she used to delegate to her staff. "I have to make sure we are not being sloppy because every dollar counts in this economy.''

Like most female entrepreneurs, Davidoff has a large personal investment in her business, which she says leads to lots of agonizing in her off hours. As I talked with Davidoff, her son sat on her lap, sent home sick from his day care.


Davidoff will head home with him but keep close tabs on what's going on in her corporate kitchen. "I spend time thinking about how I put my heart and soul into this company for 10 years. I worry. Are we going to make it through? Will it get better?''

Martha Galindo is worried, too. Galindo runs a 15-year-old Coral Springs translation company, Galindo Publicidad, but sees competition sprouting on the Internet.

After moving to a smaller office and suspending the company newsletter, Galindo took a careful look at new ways to reduce expenses. Her solution: Use more overseas subcontractors as translators. "It was the only way I could make it here.''

Galindo says she's had to give up the community involvement that not long ago earned her recognition from Viva Broward as a Hispanic of Distinction. "It's taking me longer to close deals,'' she says. "I need to spend more time with my business.''