By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship is tough going under any circumstances. When you’re a woman in the construction industry, it doesn’t make things any easier – especially when you decide to take over a debt-laden business while raising three teenagers single-handedly.
No one know this better than Julie Savitt, president and owner of AMS Earth Movers, a Lake Bluff, Illinois-based trucking company that hauls construction materials for roadways, parking structures, water treatment plants, airports and other government and private-sector job sites throughout the Chicago area. Savitt and her nine-member team also sell topsoil, road salt and other construction aggregate to government, commercial and residential clients.
In one respect, it’s no surprise that the 45-year-old Savitt became a successful entrepreneur. Both of her parents owned businesses, as did her grandparents. As noted on her company’s website, she grew up watching her grandfather help build Chicago.
“Entrepreneurship is what we talked about at the dinner table,” says Savitt. “Most people who grow up in it know the trials and tribulations. I think it’s worth the risk.”
In 2011, AMS Earth Movers had annual revenue of $2.6 million, a 200% increase from the previous year. Savitt expects a 75% revenue growth for the first quarter of 2012 compared with the same period one year earlier. Her accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed. Enterprising Women magazine recognized Savitt as one of its 2012 Enterprising Women of the Year award winners. Last year, the National Association of Women Business Owners named her Chicago Business Owner of the Year.
She’s come a long way since 2004, when she founded AMS Earth Movers with her then-partner. For the first few years, they focused on serving as a resource for construction-related businesses that were having difficulty because of their Hispanic heritage.
In 2008, everything changed when her ex-partner had to leave the country. “I was 40 years old, with a mortgage to pay and three children near college,” says Savitt. Needing income, she considered looking for a corporate job but “the prospect of joining the rat race was disenchanting,” she says.
Instead, Savitt looked at AMS Earth Movers in a different light. “I asked myself what I could do to make it something that’s meaningful,” she says. Her first step was six months of introspection to help determine the answer.
“The hardest part,” Savitt says, “was figuring out what makes me happy. It’s not a new car or other material possessions. It is the opportunity to learn every day and to work with people who have the same values that I do.”
A New Direction
Once she assumed control of the business, Savitt discovered unpaid debts. In addition, some customers – hearing rumors that AMS Earth Movers wouldn’t survive under its new ownership – decided not to pay. The combined effect was a starting deficit of about $250,000, which took three years for Savitt to recoup.
During that time, Savitt became involved with the Cycle-of-Success Institute (COSi), a Chicago-based program with a 12-month process that teaches business owners how to transform their companies into profitable, high-growth businesses. Later, she participated in the Small Business Administration’s Emerging 200 Initiative, which selects 200 high-potential businesses from inner cities across the country to participate in a seven-month executive training program.
While both programs helped immensely, the foundation for AMS Earth Movers’ growth came from Savitt’s resilience and the principles that surfaced during her six months of self analysis. Her priorities these days include recycling, conservation and other green initiatives as well as continuing education, a long-time passion. “I encourage my staff to seize opportunities to learn,” she says. “It gives me joy to see them all grow and prosper.”
“It’s not all about sales,” she continues. “It’s also about educating people we work with. It is giving through sharing. That’s what’s generated our business.”
As the president of a Certified Woman-Owned Enterprise (WBE), Savitt believes her company’s original quest to extend a hand to small and minority-owned businesses remains an important part of her overall mission. Among her volunteer causes is Heartland International, through which she hosted an intern from Kenya and traveled to that country to teach young entrepreneurs about sustainable business practices.
In five years, Savitt wants to see her company operate on a national level and become “a go-to company that sets standards.” She also would like to expand beyond trucking one day and go into rail, barges and other types of commercial transportation.
It’s been a tough road for Savitt, but with life experience has come an understanding of what her business is really about.
“It used to be more about moving dirt,” she says. “Now it’s about good relationships and giving back.”