Who wants to be a millionaire? For Deb Knowles, Michele Fuller and Rosalia Holmlund, the first million in revenues was more a major milestone than the ultimate goal. What propelled them forward were the ethics of hard work, persistence and a passion for what they do, as well as a desire to provide for their families and to give back to the Sarasota/Manatee community. All three women forged their way through the traditionally male-dominated business world of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s to establish their own companies. Here are their stories.
A HEALTHY START Deb Knowles
From an early age, Deb Knowles knew she wanted to retire young. With the unwavering support of her mother and two sisters, Knowles, whose father passed away when she was 11, grew up to found Corporate Health Strategies—a company that revolutionized the way healthcare data was analyzed in the early ’80s—at 28 years old. She sold that company to Metropolitan Life just two years later, then founded another data analysis company, The Raleigh Group, and achieved success again. After retiring at 42, just two years later than she’d originally planned, Knowles, now 55, moved to Sarasota, where, in addition to doing “a very little bit of consulting,” is now actively involved in philanthropy and recreational outdoor activities. “My husband and I love hiking, biking, swimming and kayaking,” she says.
Mother knows best: I came home from school crying one day and told my mother that I didn’t want to be a nurse, a teacher or a librarian. Mom laughed and told me that I could be anything I wanted to, and that she’d help me.
Preparing for takeoff: After graduating from business school at Cornell, I started doing research with a group of male professors from Yale who came up with an innovative technology and methodology for analyzing healthcare data. When I saw what they had, I said, “Hey, we can make a lot of money with this.” But they weren’t interested in starting a private company, and they literally patted me on the head and told me to go do it. I said, “Great.”
Marketing to the masses: With a handful of transparencies and some made-up data, I maxed out my student credit card on Amtrak tickets and traveled up and down the East Coast, cold calling every corporation I could reach along the way. A major problem for these businesses was managing their healthcare costs; when I told them I could help, it got me in the door. They were shocked that a young woman was assuring them that she could manage their multimillion-dollar problems.
Her first million: I started my company in the early 1980s and sold it to Metropolitan Life two years later. When I got the contracts, I called my mom and said, “I can’t believe it! You should see all these big numbers!” But I knew that wasn’t the end—I wanted to do it again.
The XX factor: At that time, it was very unusual to be a woman in my position. All my clients were men; I was [often] the only businesswoman in first class on a plane or at a hotel. But thankfully, my clients were very accepting and supportive.
The taste of success: At one point, I was staying at a hotel in California and went down to have a quick breakfast before seeing a client. The waiter brought me raspberry jelly, which was my father’s favorite, and I sat there and thought about him and how he would be proud. Another big reward, of course, was knowing I could take care of my mom. It was wonderful to achieve success for her.
Words of wisdom: Set a goal and have a plan. Push as hard as you can. Learn how to listen—that was a main contributor to my success. I also hired people who were smarter than me. I never saw them as a threat; they were a fabulous benefit.
COMMERCIAL SUCCESS Michele Fuller
The most appropriate word to describe Michele Fuller would be “dynamo.” A powerhouse real estate agent with Coldwell Banker and the former owner of a successful inn on Martha’s Vineyard, Fuller and her business partner, Jag Grewal, formed Commercial SRQ Real Estate Group and were recently recognized as Coldwell Banker’s top commercial real estate team in Florida and the No. 5 commercial sales associates in the United States. In addition to her packed work life and community involvement, the 40-something Fuller also recently adopted her two-year-old son, Raj, from Nepal. She credits her success to never questioning herself when she started both businesses. “My passion drove them; I just knew that they would grow,” she says. “Trusting yourself and your judgment, even when things are down, is so important. You can’t ever let that go.”
Cultural influences: My family was in the Foreign Service, so I grew up in India, Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It gave me an appreciation for other cultures and a sense that there was unlimited opportunity. A huge part of my heart is there. I moved to the Northeast when I was a teenager.
Bitten by the real estate bug: When I was 21, I bought property and a small hotel on Martha’s Vineyard. It was called the Oak Bluffs Inn, and I was involved with everything in its creation. There was a bit of creative financing involved in starting it, because I was young and didn’t have any business history. So my business partner and I talked to the seller and arranged for seller financing. I got a five-year balloon note, and after a year of keeping books and showing that the hotel was a valid business and a great income-producing property, I got a loan and was able to pay off the balloon note. It became very successful—it still exists, actually, and it was my first big financial success. After I sold it, I moved to Sarasota, where I immediately got into real estate.
Her first million: I’d been working on a big commercial project in Sarasota that went on for months, and I was dealing with some very erratic personalities. Keeping it together took a huge amount of persistence. When we closed, it was amazing to see that big check.
Getting over the hurdles: Being a woman in business has never been an issue for me. Getting your name out there, aligning yourself with various resources, keeping in line with your objectives and keeping your finances in check for awhile, and consistently expanding into areas that were unknown to you before can be challenging, but ultimately rewarding.
Balancing act: I’m a single mother, so my life is full, but your job should be something that you love, and I do.
For the future: I’d tell entrepreneurs who are just starting out to remember why they started and remember their initial drive. They also should be sure they have a strong set of values—and of course, enjoy what they do.
LIVING THE DREAM Rosalia Holmlund
Rosalia Holmlund, a Colombia native, grew up as one of 11 children. She began her business career at age 15 as a dental assistant, going to school at night so she could help raise her younger siblings. After coming to the United States in 1979 for a better life, she cleaned homes for a living, and eventually founded El Mariachi Loco, a low-cost money-transferring and check-cashing company that also provides insurance and car audio sales. All her hard work has paid off; Holmlund, 52, and her husband, Kenneth, just inked a deal to open more El Mariachi Locos around the state. Through it all, Holmlund has remained as humble as ever. “I never thought I would do this,” she says.
The American Dream: I came to New Jersey from Colombia because I wanted to have a better life for my [first] son, Juan Carlos. I worked as a dental assistant at first, then began cleaning houses—I always worked by myself because I’m so picky. I moved to Florida in 1989 and married my husband in 1990.
Retail therapy: After I had my second son, Kenneth Michael, in 1991, I decided to stop cleaning houses and started selling clothing to the migrant community on the weekends so I could spend more time with my children. I would allow [my customers] to pay me back on credit, about $5 to $10 per week. I did this for 10 years and was very successful.
Next venture: In 2000, I started a wire money company, El Mariachi Loco, because I saw that there was a need and that customers were being charged unfairly [at other places]. Some companies charged $35 or $50 to send money, but I charged $8 to send $1,000. And I had the clientele from when I was selling clothes—they trusted me to send it.
Getting out the word: To spread the word about my business, I advertised in several Spanish-language magazines, which was very helpful. Then I started adding services to the company as the need arose, like check cashing, insurance and car audio sales.
Her first million: I didn’t notice the financials. I knew the business was blooming as we kept acquiring property for more stores, but we are the same. The money just comes, but the will and the spirit are the most important. I just wanted to help people—I didn’t know we were going to make [so much] money.
No down time: I work hard all the time—seven days a week with the help of my husband. You can’t expect to [have time] off. And now we have offices in Palmetto, Sarasota and Wimauma, and we’re opening another in Bradenton.
The mantra: Give people the best and [at the best prices] and you’ll get the most. If you do good, good things will come.