Sharon Epple, President, Benchmark
Administrative Support Services, Inc.
It’s a familiar scenario played out repeatedly in households across the country. In 1986, Sharon Epple was a new mother and young wife, working full-time and going to college. Her husband traveled extensively for his job, leaving the bulk of the childcare responsibilities to Epple. Not wanting to leave her daughter with a string of sitters, Epple decided to quit her job and start her own company so that she could provide the care herself.
She simply wanted it all.
Epple was not alone. The United States Bureau of Labor shows 4.1 million women-owned businesses generating $71.6 billion in sales in 1986. If she were starting her business today, she would have more company than ever. According to the Center for Women’s Business Research, there are over 10.1 million firms owned by women, employing more than 13 million people, and generating $1.9 trillion in sales.
Therefore, with her husband’s support and generous bonus check, Epple purchased an IBM computer system and hung out her shingle for Benchmark Administrative Support Services, Inc. “I started with just a desk in my bedroom. Then I moved to the dining room table, then to an addition we built on our home and later to leased office space. In 2006, my husband and I purchased this building and moved everything here,” she says.
The large white house on South Main Street in Bel Air has a welcoming porch and first-floor fireplace, making it feel more like your grandmother’s country house than the productive office it is. “I employ 11 people now, 10 who are full-time,” she says proudly. “I also have other contractors and resources on call if needed. We really are a full service solution for an owner who wants to concentrate on developing his or her business and not be stuck working
Benchmark’s niche is helping owners take care of the time-consuming aspects of their business that are necessary but do little to grow the bottom line. Bookkeeping, budgeting, payroll, marketing, sales support, trade show coordination, training and membership management are required tasks to keep any business or organization running smoothly and in legal and regulatory compliance. However, for a business to survive and thrive, an owner needs to concentrate on developing future clients, fundraising, servicing current clients and product development. She emphasizes, “We want owners to spend their time on the areas that require the most skill and generate the most value to the company. Administrative tasks are not those areas.”
When Epple started her company in 1986, personal computers were still cost prohibitive for most organizations and had not yet appeared on everyone’s desktops. “I was working at Becton Dickinson, a billion dollar company, and I was using a WANG word processor,” says Epple. “Here was this huge, progressive, state-of the art company in Hunt Valley, and we didn’t have personal computers. Personal computers had not yet ‘arrived’ in business.”
Companies may not have been ready to make the investment in personal computers, but they were anxious to benefit from the efficiencies computers could provide. She explains, “No one was doing what I was doing. I taught myself the programs I needed. I took college courses. I became the expert in those areas. My marketing consisted of direct mail and yellow page advertising. In fact, administrative assistant would not become the title of choice for several more years, so my only option for classification in the telephone book was ‘secretarial.’ It was the only way to describe the services we provided.”
After 25 years in business, Epple’s market hasn’t changed much. She currently targets her business development efforts at non-profit organizations, associations, and small to medium-sized businesses that need to utilize their existing staff to maximize their effectiveness. In the early stages of her business, Epple found her company was having better success with acquiring and retaining businesses owned by men than those owned by women. “My personal experience and observation is that women tend to want to control everything and not let go. Men will delegate anything,” she states.
Her observation isn’t totally off the mark. Mark Zwilling, CEO and founder of Startup Professionals, Inc. and author of “Do you Have What it Takes to be an Entrepreneur?,” has contributed his professional advice to The Huffington Post, Business Insider magazine and the Harvard Business Review. “Women have more difficulty delegating tasks,” he writes in his blog post dated Nov. 5, 2010. “They are used to doing everything themselves and thus sometimes will spread themselves too thin trying to keep up their business and do their housework at the same time. A man might hire a housekeeper without guilt. Guilt seems to be a woman’s nemesis!”
Cynthia Kocialski, founder of three tech start-ups and author of the Start-Up Entrepreneur’s Blog agrees. She writes, “Women tend to be natural multitaskers … However, this can also be a negative. Multitaskers may try to do too much themselves. A woman will look at a task that needs to get done, and even if it’s something she doesn’t like or want to do, she’ll hunker down and do it. I refer to this as ‘the do-it-yourself trap.’ Men don’t seem to fall into this trap so easily. Men go out and find someone to do the task for them, which grows an organization more quickly. As a result, men tend to be big picture thinkers, which is better for setting the tone and direction of the start-up.”
85% of women surveyed don’t believe being a woman is detrimental to their business success, while 32% believe it’s beneficial.
Women-owned firms (50% or more) account for 40% of all privately held firms.
– Center for Women’s Business Research, 2008-2009
One in five firms with revenue of $1 milion or more is woman-owned.
3% of all women-owned firms have revenues of $1 million or more compared with 6 percent of men-owned firms.
California leads the nation in most women-owned firms. Texas is second.
Women weren’t admitted to Rotary Clubs until 1987.
In 1986, a PC with 64 kB of RAM and a single 5.25-inch floppy drive and monitor sold for US $3,005. An expanded system with color graphics, two diskette drives and a printer cost about $4,500.
Epple points out that while they do have women business owners and executive directors as clients, she can’t deny that her business gels better with men. “We seem to have better chemistry with male owners,” she says. “Men seem to like saying they have someone who handles their administrative tasks for them. Women, in my experience, feel like they’re failing if they can’t do it all themselves.”
This interesting relationship has led Epple to conquer a core business principle – making yourself (or your business) invaluable to your clients. “Because we are involved in the inner workings of a company from an administrative perspective – their accounting, their payroll, their sales numbers, their board meetings, making things run smoothly – our clients develop a dependency on us. A profound loyalty. Everything is conducted with the utmost confidentiality and security, so they also develop trust. They know they can count on us,” she says.
“I’ve used outside services myself to help my business,” she states. “I’ve worked with the Small Business Development Center up at Harford Community College and attended several classes presented by Russell Teter at the SBDC. I still work with Gary Stokes, a certified business coach who I initially met at the SBDC. In fact, Gary has helped me uncover parts of my personality that I needed to develop or change to help grow my business. You need outside people to give you perspective.”
As her business grew, Epple made sure that it didn’t interfere with her initial reason for starting it – raising her daughter. “I worked my schedule around hers,” she says. “When she got home in the afternoon, I stopped working. That was her time. After she went to school or to bed at night, I’d start working again.” But she also took the opportunity to instill lessons that her daughter could draw on as she got older. “When everyone took part in ‘Take Your Daughter To Work Day,’ I would let my daughter stay home, but she had to work with me. She would write checks. Do simple filing. Help with custom mailing projects. She got to see what a typical day was like for me as well as learning about the services my business provided.”
Epple’s daughter is now a college graduate, a teacher and a budding entrepreneur herself. “She realized soon after she started teaching that there was a mountain of record keeping and paperwork a teacher had to handle outside of the classroom. She started a company that provides those forms and other tools to teachers so they don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. She recently had her first trade show booth at the Maryland State Teachers Convention in Ocean City, and I was with her to help her launch. I am very proud of her,” Epple boasts.
Epple admits that she likes to work. She currently puts in at least 50 hours a week, but enjoys every minute of it. “I like the instant gratification it provides,” she reveals. “I like the problem-solving aspects and challenges. I know immediately if I’ve done something well or not. I really enjoy helping other businesses to be more successful.
“Building my business in Harford County, I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” she says reflectively. “In general, the business community here has been very supportive. I belong to the Harford County Chamber, and the Chamber’s Business Resource Network group, the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, the Havre de Grace Chamber, the Aberdeen Chamber, the Chesapeake Professional Women’s Network, and the Bel Air chapter of the Professional Referral Exchange. The businesses patronize each other as much as they can. It’s a very tight knit group. I’m also excited to see all the new businesses and people coming to the area because of APG and related industries.”
Twenty-five years is a long time to be in business – any business. The Bureau of Labor estimates that only about 25 percent of firms will survive 15 years or more. In those terms, Epple’s run is already exemplary, and she still sees herself working for several more years. “I’ve been thinking more about succession planning as I’ve gotten older,” she says. Adding, “Now that my daughter is married and may have children some day, spending time with and helping to watch my grandchildren would be fun. I’d like to try that if she and my son-in-law are willing.
“My plans are to groom someone, probably internally, to take over as a ‘general manager’ for lack of a better term. I will ease out of the daily operations, but I want to keep the business and our building. That much I know,” she declares.
Her advice to young women just starting out? “Take care of yourself and learn to be self-reliant and self- sustaining,” she says. “Be an individual. Be brave and don’t let people tell you that you’re not worthy or cut out to do something.
Know that you can.” Adding, “My business has allowed me to be all that I wanted. I believe my life is much richer because of it.” I95
608 S. Main St., Bel Air