Aldonna Ambler is known as The Growth Strategist™. The resilient growth of her multiple businesses across 3 recessions has been recognized by over 2 dozen national and statewide “entrepreneur of the year” awards. We named Ambler “Garden State Woman Entrepreneur of the Year” in 2008 and she was the NATIONAL “Woman Business Owner of the Year” for 2000. We caught up with Aldonna recently to learn more about her impressive background and to get her guidance for other aspiring women.
Garden State Woman: Aldonna, let’s start with today. Tell us about the various things you are involved with.
As an entrepreneur, I start and expand businesses during economic slowdowns. It’s been 38 years, so this is my 4th recession. Executives of mid sized companies who are determined that their companies will continue to grow seek our guidance. You can just imagine the complexity of their situations and decisions. At this time, we are helping a community bank triple to $1Bil while only doubling labor-related costs. We are guiding diversification for a publishing company. We’re helping an internet marketing/website development company acquire smaller firms. We’re helping a promotional products company get into franchising. A few of our professional service firm clients are now establishing new locations, serving global clients, and attracting corporate sponsors.
I don’t think I’ve ever had a boring day in my entire life. We make things happen. My typical work week includes time providing strategic advise to intense executive level clients, interviewing executives of INC 500 companies on my weekly peer-to-peer-to-peer talk show (now in its 5th year), speaking about growth strategies at business conferences, writing articles/chapters/blogs, leading research, screening business opportunities, serving as an advocate for mid sized businesses. And of course there are the usual marketing, sales, and administrative duties any business owner has.
Garden State Woman: Let’s back up so we can better understand how you accomplished so much in your career. For example, where did you grow up? go to college? study? What were your early career steps prior to launching your own business?
I was the middle child in a large family in Rochester, New York. My father was a statistics professor and moonlighted on weekends helping manufacturers implement quality control. He would say “It’s not the control charts or the GUYS ON THE FLOOR. That part is easy. The problem with CORPORATE AMERICA today is that the BIG WHEELS don’t know where they are going, how to get it across, or how to follow through.” So I asked my father if there could be a career for me helping the big wheels figure out where they are going, how to get it across and how to follow through. Remember, this is a long time ago. So he quickly said that the big wheels wouldn’t let anyone help them with that and if they ever did, it would NEVER be a girl.
Fast forward. Syracuse University was a great choice for undergraduate studies. I earned a teaching certification from Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey) and went the Ivy League route for graduate school. My masters degrees are in business marketing and social work. I wanted to help bright people to keep going by being a consultant. I didn’t think I would also need to become an entrepreneur. I had been working full time since I was 14, was a summa cum laude graduate, and had consulting-related internships. But when I interviewed for employment with large consulting firms, they would actually ask if I was “of child bearing years.” IF they hired me, I would be placed in the back office doing productivity studies and would not work directly with clients. I had invested way too much time and money to do that, so I ran Consultation and Education (C&E) Units for a few mental health agencies and then later started my first business.
GSW: Tell us about the first company you started. What did it do? What was the objective? Where did evolve? What happened to it?
Clients liked the results I achieved with/for them but they didn’t like the stigma associated with obtaining business and leadership advice from a mental health center. So I started a consulting company. For the first 5 years, I was in a 50/50 partnership with a very bright consultant. He preferred doing long term cultural change assignments for Fortune 500 corporations and I enjoyed sparking growth for mid sized companies. To me, it was more fun and less risky to have multiple complementary client projects. I didn’t want to risk loss of objectivity or become too dependent on a single corporate account. So we split the firm into two businesses and each kept going. Over time, my firm grew into an international business with 123 full time consultants and 23 support staff across 6 offices. Perhaps others have done it more recently, but for a long time, Ed Stone and I were the only members of the Institute of Management Consultants who had successfully grown their consulting firms large enough to execute ESOPs and spin off new businesses. The ESOP helped with cash flow, retention, and succession. With other people stepping up, I could continue providing “C” level consulting, formalize my speaking business, get into growth financing, diversify my own investments, and write. I learned that having 33 partners can be easier than having one.
GSW: Where did the concept for you being the Growth Strategist come from? Do you advise professional individuals as well as organizations? Explain a bit about how you work with these professionals. Can you give us some examples of the types of professionals you work with. Are many of them women?
My work of a growth strategist differs from CPAs who seek a steady stream of billable time year after year. I am brought in at “prime time” when executives recognize that there is unrealized potential. Often they realize that they have “played out” their previous strategy and they are no longer “centered.” Some have hit stubborn plateaus and need some outside assistance to make tough decisions. We begin with a strategic assessment and then lead participative strategic planning. When the new strategy involves a dramatic change, like franchising or acquisitions, we stay actively involved to help with implementation. The minimum follow up is quarterly strategic working sessions.
We have enjoyed over 90% repeat business over 30 years. Our 800 + clients have included government entities, non profit agencies, educational institutions, transportation companies, the hospitality/gaming industry, manufacturers, retailers…but our clients are primarily business-to-business service firms, technology driven companies, construction-related and distribution businesses. Many are closely held family owned businesses. IBM is one of my 50 corporate sponsors. They named me their Lead Instructor for their “Presidents and Owners Program.” They invited their 2500 business partners to attend my 3 day seminar on business growth. Those companies are all four of our “target customers.” They provide services and advice, must understand technology, are distributors for IBM and are often called in when their clients are expanding (construction).
Although there are 10.5 Million woman owned businesses, less than 3% EVER grow beyond $1 Mil/year. Our focus on helping midsized companies (typically $20–200 Mil/yr) keep growing necessarily means that the overwhelming majority of our clients are men. But over the past 30 years, I have made sure that my roster of active clients has always included at least 5 woman owned companies. As a result, I’ve helped over 150 woman-owned businesses make the transformation from “incorporated careers” to “resilient enterprises.” It’s great to see those clients launch new products, hire employees, expand locations, make acquisitions, and win awards.
GSW: We understand that you are very involved with the state Chamber of Commerce. What is your role there? What are ways do you give back to the community at large?
It may sound corny, but my mission has been to be “a positive force for economic development.” It’s been important for me to actually create jobs, provide services to spark accelerated growth with sustained profitability™, and do what I can to improve external factors to encourage sustained growth for mid sized businesses. I’ve testified at over 30 national and state level legislative hearings on topics like protection of intellectual property, international trade, estate tax reform, incentives for research and development, funding for the Small Business Development Centers, etc. Four Presidents have invited me to the Oval Office of the White House to provide advice about growing mid sized businesses.
I have been involved in economic development initiatives for 30 years. In the mid 1980s, I served as Statewide President for the NJ Association of Women Business Owners. In the mid 1990s, I was a founding member of the public/private partnership, Prosperity New Jersey and I Chaired the NJ Delegation for the White House Conference on Small Business. As a member of the board and then the executive committee with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, I helped start their Platform for Progress and played a role in convening the “2020 Vision for New Jersey” government/business retreat for Governor Corzine.
GSW: You have been helping businesses obtain growth financing for a long time. How did you get started? Are you a venture capitalist? How did you get started? Do you have advice for women entrepreneurs who might be interested in obtaining growth financing?
I’ve become a HUB for my strategic planning clients. We bring in IT firms, accountants, attorneys, researchers, internet marketers, etc. Often our clients reach the point where they need an infusion of capital to continue to grow, so I got to know several venture capitalists, private investors, angel funds, and the EDA. I didn’t realize I would need to become an intermediary. In the mid 1990s, successful executives would quietly approach me following my speeches to ask me to watch for investment opportunities for them. And business owners who were dissatisfied with the deals they were offered by traditional banks and venture capital firms asked me to look for alternative financing. The number of business cards on each side increased and my role as a matchmaker slowly developed. A group of 13 investors had pooled their money and offered to pay me a fee for screening potential deals for them. They have valued my capacity to evaluate the resilience of service oriented businesses that can’t readily attract non-asset based lending.
It’s true that less than 5% of venture capital/private investment/angel money goes to woman owned businesses. However, in my experience, it’s not because the investors judge the woman owned businesses more harshly than their male counterparts. Only 1 of every 25 applicants is a woman, so the acceptance rate is the same for women. Plus, women tend to request much smaller amounts, which raises doubts in the minds of prospective investor(s).
GSW: Besides all your strong professional work how do you spend time smelling the roses? What are your interests? What are you passionate about?
Interesting question. I was married to a wonderful man for 36 years. Chet was a community planner/public servant, so we could talk about one another’s careers and take great vacations. We were the doting aunt/uncle for over 2 dozen nieces and nephews. Unfortunately, September 2001 was a “Perfect Storm” for us. Not only did a few of my largest clients lose everything when the World Trade Center fell, I was injured on a business trip and needed spinal surgery, and Chet was diagnosed with terminal bone marrow cancer (Multiple Myeloma). Chet was very inspiring. He lived his life rather than his disease. This decade involved 2 bone marrow transplants, countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and dozens of hospitalizations. He lived longer than anyone with the disease to the degree he had it, but passed away on Nov 4, 2007. So my life is obviously different now, but I am OK. I still love the difference my businesses make and I still go on great vacations. Although I loved being married to Chet, it is good that my only identify wasn’t “wife.”
GSW : What do you think the next 5-10 years will bring for you?
I am looking for opportunities to serve in a different way and am convinced that there will be a few mid sized corporations that would benefit from my participation on their board(s) of directors. To prepare for that, I earned certification from the National Association of Corporate Directors and continue to attend board-related seminars. I hope to finish writing a few books that were put on the back burner when my now late husband developed cancer. I’ll probably continue consulting, speaking, and hosting my radio show for some time to come. It will be interesting to see which business ventures come my way.
GSW: Given your exceptional career and accomplishments, what guidance would you like to share with women viewers to the Garden State Woman web site? What are the barriers to success you see (if any) for motivated women and what are the three or four most important things women need to do or pay attention in order to move up the success ladder?
I don’t feel so exceptional. I feel fortunate that my career/businesses make a difference to people and the economy so I can still be excited 38 years later. I probably wouldn’t still have a business if I hadn’t invested to move beyond an “incorporated career.” It certainly helped to add new services/products, share risk with others, start new divisions, spin off new companies, and keep learning new skills along the way.