By John Gallagher Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Detroit entrepreneur Carla Walker-Miller says success goes beyond having a good idea and passion. She says hard-nosed business skills and an ability to pivot when circumstances demand are key.
Detroit Free Press
Not for nothing has Carla Walker-Miller become something of an icon of black female entrepreneurship in Detroit.
Her company, Walker-Miller Energy Services, today employs nearly 90 staffers, takes in $24 million a year in revenue, and -- perhaps most important -- makes a profit.
That sets her apart in a town where black woman business owners often struggle to make money and grow their businesses beyond a handful of employees.
But it hasn't been easy. Starting her company in 2000, Walker-Miller endured numerous challenges even before the trauma of the Great Recession nearly swamped her.
"Let's be real," she says today. "I've been in business 18 years and I'm just getting to the level of profitable revenue. A lot of businesses with high revenue (but no profits) go out of business every day. That profitable growth is very elusive."
How she succeeded holds lessons for other entrepreneurs in Detroit, male and female, black and white. As she testifies, success goes beyond having a good idea and passion. Hard-nosed business skills and an ability to pivot when circumstances demand are key.
"There are so many capable businesses that have the right product and the right value proposition at the wrong time," she says.
A civil engineer by training, Walker-Miller brokered energy equipment for an engineering firm for many years before starting her own company in 2000 at the age of 42. She sold equipment to the likes of DTE Energy, everything from the meter behind a house to huge transformers costing millions of dollars.
It was a good business, took in some $10 million in revenue, and benefited from the desire by DTE and other power companies to diversify its supplier base by doing business with more minority owners.
But the Great Recession in 2008 changed all that. Her equipment sales had been targeted at new construction projects, and as construction evaporated in Michigan, so did her sales.
"Not only did my sales collapse, but even orders that were already in progress were canceled," she recalls. "So I was left with cancellation fees and problems and debt. It took me a couple of years to get back up to zero. When the dust settled, I was $250,000 in debt and no real prospects for growth."
That's where the pivot came in. She knew that recent energy legislation in Michigan and other states encouraged utilities like DTE to help their customers save money by becoming more energy efficient. Walker-Miller had followed the legislation and switched her efforts from selling equipment to providing energy efficiency evaluations to companies and consumers.
"Our long road back to profitability was based on a new core business, which was energy optimization and energy efficiency services," she says. "That's really our core business now."
Not only did her firm survive, but the new line of work proved better than the old one.
"On equipment, revenue margins were so low, even though $10 million is a lot of money, it was a very low-margin business," she says. "But in the service business you don't have a lot of investment in equipment. Service businesses are built on the people and the expertise. It's a much more sustainable business model."
She now operates in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois and continues to grow.
She had help along the way. Her firm was based for several years at TechTown, the business accelerator at Wayne State, at a time when TechTown offered the best, and almost the only, entrepreneurial support system in the city.
And in 2014 she snagged a place in the first cohort of entrepreneurs going through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Business program, an intensive, months-long training boot camp.
"It just opened up a new world for me," she says. "The biggest change was in my thinking, in my head." The program encourage her to think bigger, to envision what sort of business she'd like to have if revenue were not an issue. Strategic questions like what type of culture she should foster or where she wanted to be in 10 years became as important as the more day-to-day concerns.
"So having gone through a grueling master's-type program on this particular business I felt ready to pursue much bigger opportunities than I ever would have," she says.
The payoff came almost immediately. DTE had released a request for proposals for a residential energy efficiency program. Walker-Miller had thought of going after a small piece of the pie as a subcontractor. But having learned through the Goldman Sachs program to think more strategically, she bid for the work as a prime contractor -- and won.
The contract is worth $24 million a year. "And the only reason I pursued that business was based on the Goldman Sachs program," she says.
Having just turned 60, Walker-Miller reflects on her younger self and the hard road that let to her present success.
"I thought I was pretty smart at 30," she says. "I was smart, I was capable, I was hungry, I had everything lined up to be successful. Corporate America chewed me up and spat me out."
One of her biggest obstacles was the ceiling corporate America put on black women advancing. "The construct said I had to wait for a slot that would open every five or 10 years that would accommodate a black female and the right manager," she says.
So having struck out on her own, she succeeded by dint of hard work, creativity, luck and, as she prefers, "the favor of God."
And because of her success and example in Detroit, a lot of other black women entrepreneurs now enjoy a better shot at making it, too.