Sometimes a loss is a win. In early 2020 Keri Gardner was downsized from her six-figure position as a vice president for an executive health company that gave preventative exams to CEOs and other corporate executives. She was let go due to a COVID-19 related decline in her company’s business.
Gardner, 53, of Dix Hills, rethought everything. "I realized I didn’t want to work for someone else again. The 50- to 60-hour weeks. If I work that hard, I wanted it to be for myself." She had been employed there for six months but had a long career in financial services at companies including Deloitte, as well as running 24-hour trading desks.
Coincidentally, an entrepreneurial coach found her profile on LinkedIn in June and asked if she had aspirations of owning a business. A few sessions with him got her to focus on her interests, including the environment. He introduced her to Filta Environmental Kitchen Solutions, a franchise that filters and recycles cooking oil from commercial kitchens across the country for biodiesel fuel and increases kitchen safety by taking care of the hot bins of oil. Gardner spent just over $100,000 to purchase a franchise in October. She shares the story of her transition. The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
What sold you on Filta?
With a franchise, you have a blueprint to guide you. Filta has structured marketing, training manuals, everything I needed. They allowed me to talk to other franchisees. Management was an open book. I believe in them.
Restaurants have been hard hit during the pandemic, so why go into this field now?
I’m hesitant to approach restaurants when many are struggling. I’d rather they keep their staff than pay me. I’ll pursue them later. I’m targeting universities, hospitals, beach and golf clubs.
What have been some of the early challenges?
This is a new world. I’m learning from scratch. I didn’t even know how to light a pilot light. I spend a lot of time on the computer watching tutorials. I have to know the lingo and what I’m talking about. I wasn’t someone to get their hands dirty, but I’m in the kitchen cleaning the fryers. I’ve never been a blue-collar girl, but I get a sense of accomplishment when I get the job done. I have to know everything that’s involved in the business.
Getting capital to start a business is often an obstacle, how did you fund the purchase?
Money was an issue. I thought about getting an SBA loan, but I didn’t want to have a payment hanging over my head, especially during the pandemic. I withdrew money from my 401(k) and, with the CARES Act, I can pay back the money [to my 401(k)] over three years.
What is one lesson you’ve learned?
The power of networking. I joined groups like the Melville Chamber of Commerce and tapped my network. A man who used to play basketball with my late husband sells coffee to universities and restaurants. He knows people on Long Island and has provided insight, like telling me not to approach a company yet because they were changing their management team.
Any regrets about leaving corporate life?
No. I followed my father’s tradition of working for big companies, but I want to set the example for my two grown sons that there are many paths to success.
What’s been the biggest surprise?
This is tougher than I thought financially. It helps that I live with my fiance. The slow pace, though, gives me time to learn. I see the light. I just got Hofstra as a client and have had good conversations with prospective clients. My territory is Nassau, but by year-end, I want all of Long Island.
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