Fayette Woman Magazine Introduces Five Trailblazers
As published in Fayette Woman Magazine
Fayette Woman Magazine introduces five of Fayette County's most successful businesswomen for their very special cover story. They set out to find the secret of their success - see Nancy Balkcom's (MySupplies President) story below...
Nancy Balkcom - Obligate Yourself
FAYETTEVILLE, GA - Nancy Freeman Balkcom was just 15 years old when she began working in her father's business, Freeman Forms and Supplies. The south Atlanta company produced and distributed industrial business forms, as well as some office products to complement the forms line, and young Nancy did just about everything related to the day-to-day operations of the business, such as handling deliveries, billing and inventory, and working with distributors and customers.
But life took an unexpected turn in 1986, when Nancy's father decided to retire
and sell the business. Unfortunately, the mid-1980s were the beginning of the
era of "Big-Box" retailers, and consequently 60-70% of independent office supply
companies were failing. There was virtually no market for him to sell the
business, and the livelihood of Nancy's parents was
tied to the success of the company.
And that's where Nancy's success story really begins: at the age of 29, when she decided to take an enormous risk and purchase the company from her father. She was a young woman taking the helm of a business in what was (and still is) a predominately male-dominated industry, even as her small-business office supplies competitors were closing their doors. But her father, also her business mentor, encouraged her with a bit of advice that she still follows today.
"His words of wisdom were, "Nancy, you'll never get anywhere unless you obligate yourself," she recalls. "Make a commitment and follow through on it. Obligate yourself to complete your goals in life. Be passionate and patient."
And so Nancy did obligate herself, committing to the company's success despite tough times. In order to take on the Big Box retailers, she began implementing a few
changes, making major investments in technology and computer systems to gain efficiency and control expenses. She also had the foresight to acquire the URL www.mysupplies.com, which created a solid web presence and gave customers access to real time pricing, order tracking and specials. The MySupplies URL was so instrumental to the company's success, it eventually became its new name. And during a time that other office product distributors were closing their doors, Nancy's company was able to remain competitive and profitable through the 1980s and 1990s.
After 9/11, however, MySupplies faced a serious crisis. The company, which is located near Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, counted a significant portion of airline industry businesses (parking companies, rental car companies, hotels) among their client base. When the airline industry all but crashed after the terror attacks, MySupplies was severely affected as well. "We saw about 30% of our business disappear almost overnight," Nancy recalls, "and we were losing money rapidly." Nancy's father had passed away the previous November, and Nancy keenly felt his loss as she struggled with their situation; the company's solvency was at stake. She found herself deliberating over tough choices - layoffs? loans? across-the-board cuts? - as MySupplies teetered on the edge.
However, Nancy quickly decided that she would not conduct layoffs. "I had employees who'd been with me for over 20 years," she explains. "They were as much a part of the company as I was." Instead, Nancy's drastic measures involved borrowing money, even against her personal assets, and cutting costs elsewhere. "Every penny had a face," she says emphatically.
The crisis also forced her to reconsider the company's business model. Nancy undertook a complete restructuring of MySupplies by closing their retail store, focusing on their newly-created inside sales team and bringing new energy to their outside sales efforts. One of the company's key advantages in the office products market is its personalized customer service - its slogan is "Making Your Day Better" - and Nancy decided to play this advantage up. With new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software, and employees who know that their first priority is the customer (for example, they all answer the phone by asking, "How can I make your day better?"), Nancy developed and honed the company's strength as a provider with competitive products and pricing along with exceptional customer service.
Her strategy worked. Within only two years, the company was debt-free and turning a profit. And not a single employee had lost their job. Rather than crippling the company, the crisis - or rather, Nancy's handling of it - put MySupplies in a better position for growth, making it leaner and stronger as a result. "Never overlook the opportunity that a crisis forces in your life," says Nancy, "because it presents an opportunity for change."
While Nancy had already belonged to a number of professional organizations, such as the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Women's Business Council, the post-crisis years allowed her to take on more leadership roles and mentor other women in small business. Consequently, Nancy started to receive some very prestigious awards, including honors conferred by Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (City of Atlanta's Phoenix Award) and Gov. Sonny Purdue (Georgia Business of Excellence Award). She's been honored as a "Woman of the Year" by Enterprising Woman magazine, and was awarded the Trailblazer Award by the Greater Women's Business Council. Most recently, she was awarded "Small Businessperson of the Year" by the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce - only the third woman in the history of the organization to receive the award.
And while she deeply appreciates the public recognition, Nancy considers her greatest achievement to be guiding her company through the post-9/11 crisis. Choosing to stay true to her empathetic nature, doing everything in her power to save the jobs of her employees, remaining, as her consultant friend Tom Buxton puts it, "both smart and kind," means that she has succeeded in business on her own terms, that she has obligated herself in every way - and set a new standard of business ownership in the process.
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