Tips From Top Women Business Owners Who Have Been There and Done That - Part 1

By Stephie Althouse | March 19 , 2014 | 0

In this article series, we are interviewing top women business owners to share with you top insights on how to create success in business and life overall.

Top Women Business Owners Who Have Been There and Done That

Part 1: Judy Lawton, CEO, Lawton Group, San Diego

The San Diego Business Journal’s “2013 Book of Lists” recognizes the 30 top women business owners and their companies. Our first interview is with Judy Lawton of the Lawton Group.

Imagine a mother with two children (2 and 8 years old) soon to be divorced from a Navy Officer. She never went to college.  Instead, she learned typing and accounting and even went to modeling school. At age 30, she worked in outside sales for a staffing company – and was great at it. Five years later, in 1978, she worked as Assistant Director for a CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) funded training agency that was founded by local private school owners. She administered to over $2 million in training funds for CETA which led to 850 people being trained and placed into jobs. Then, in 1982, she was hired by another staffing company and was instrumental in growing it to new levels of success. Three years later, suddenly and without any stated reason, she was unceremoniously fired.

Meet Judy Lawton.  At that moment, as a single Mom with two children, she decided that no one would ever have such power over her again, and she started her own company – The Lawton Company, also known as TLC Staffing. Five weeks later she was up and running. Since then the company grew to a peak of $15 million in revenue and serviced businesses in San Diego, Riverside, Orange Counties, California, North Carolina and Southwest Florida.

Since then, lots of changes have hit the economy and, particularly, the staffing industry. First, the “dot.com” bust happened.  Then the industry shifted to increased use of “vendor management systems”, where staffing companies bid against one another.  With those systems, no one is allowed to even pick up the phone and talk to a human being! The margins in the staffing industry have become slimmer – much slimmer. The city of San Diego headquarters only two Fortune 500 companies; Qualcomm and Sempra.  San Diego has attracted lots of branches of businesses with headquarters located elsewhere.  These companies frequently work with larger staffing companies which offer both national contracts and economy of scale. Some staffing companies started offering training which has become a major source of revenue and profit for them.

Relationship building in your community is key!  Judy is great and passionate at that; so much so that she serves on eight different boards. Niching is another critical strategy. Judy has focused her San Diego office on technology, including information technology, and engineering.  Her other office, in Riverside, services other staffing needs.

Top Women Business Owners Sharing Their Best Insights

Judy Attributes Her Success To These Seven Tips

  1. You must have a good banker, CPA/ tax person, and attorney. You cannot do business without them! To get financing, you need two years of good financial statements and a compelling business plan. Many businesses can get a receivables-based credit line.
  2. You need to have a lot of heart in your business – it is way too tough without passion. “You can’t be a sissy and make it in the business world – you have got to be willing to ask for what you need.”
  3. You can’t show fear or hesitancy. Don’t let them see you sweat!
  4. When you’re wrong or have made a mistake, admit it and make it right. Very good customer service is a must!
  5. You have to be a good bill collector. You can be a great sales person AND a bill collector. Sometimes it makes sense to resort to calling the client under a different first name and politely ask whether the invoice has been received and to inquire about the status of the invoice. If, however, the client shows no intention of paying the bill you have to be willing to turn the matter over to a collection agency. Ultimately, the question is: Do you really want to continue to do business with that organization?
  6. Be involved in your community – give back and be on the playground of the people who can hire you. This is not an eight to five type of job.
  7. Women care; we often have a hard time to turn off the mother instinct. Yet, ultimately, we need performance from our employees to survive and thrive in business.

Judy is turning 71 years old in June this year. She is considering when she should give herself the chance to “slow down”. But – much like other top women business owners her age we’ve had the privilege to speak and work with – she is not so sure what she will do when she is not working every day.  Judy loves to cook, likes football and enjoys the outdoors. She has a cabin in Montana and loves the idea of traveling domestically, maybe with an RV all across the US.   Between her and her significant other of over thirty years, she has five grandchildren.

As mentioned above, she is serving on eight boards. One of them is Soroptimist. Their mission is to make life better for women and girls in our communities and around the world!  Her Club is part of the Vista STAT (Soroptimist Together Against Trafficking) program.  Her Club also supports the YWCA and Becky’s House for battered women among other women/girls related projects and causes.

I can’t help but bow in admiration for this top woman business owner who has shown such tenacity and inner toughness and yet such kindness and compassion throughout her life. She is so fun to talk with, so open and genuine. Her mindset does not allow for giving up when there are setbacks – that would mean failure to her, and to her ,that is not acceptable.

By in large, Judy’s generation has embraced a very strong work ethic. Many of her peers have retired already, yet many of them are still in their businesses like Judy. This woman is a true inspiration for our future generation of business leaders.  Gradually letting go of her business, passing it on to others and moving to the next phase of adventure in life is as much a challenge as growing and running a business was. She is so involved and so good at serving her clients she has difficulty even imagining retirement! Thank you, Judy, for sharing your wisdom with us, and we can’t wait to hear what is ahead for you in the next adventure. You are an inspiration to us all!

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