By Shelly Haskins Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Alana Parker always dreamed of traveling the country and writing stories. She never expected she would take over the business her grandparents, Charles and Jewell Stanley, started with a flatbed truck and load of borrowed drywall the year she was born.
"You never truly know what you are capable of until you are faced with adversity."
Those were the opening words on Alana Parker's application early this year for The Catalyst Center for Business & Entrepreneurship's 2018 Entrepreneur Awards.
Parker, president of Rocket City Drywall & Supply, knows the struggle of running a recession-devastated business all too well.
In 2010, three years after Parker graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, her grandfather's company was spiraling toward bankruptcy.
With insurmountable debt, frozen credit, and dwindling profitability, Rocket City Drywall & Supply was facing closure after 25 years in the Huntsville community.
"So, I stepped up and took over management," said Parker, who was 25 at the time. "It turned out I wasn't so bad."
In a Hail Mary attempt to keep the business afloat, Parker became general manager of the failing business. She stuck with it, and in 2016, bought 100 percent of the company stock and property from her grandfather, positioning herself as the youngest Division 9 walls and ceilings supplier in the U.S.
The Catalyst recently named Parker its 2018 Female Entrepreneur of the Year. The annual awards program highlights local entrepreneurs and their contributions to the regional economy.
Parker always dreamed of traveling the country and writing stories. She never expected she would take over the business her grandparents, Charles and Jewell Stanley, started with a flatbed truck and load of borrowed drywall the year she was born.
"I always had an inclination toward this industry," said Parker, who drove forklifts and worked on construction sites with her grandparents as a child. "I always knew that I had a creative side to me, but I also had a structured business side."
When Parker began managing Rocket City Drywall & Supply, she worked alongside creditors to strategically outline a recovery plan. The "work smarter, not harder" mantra helped Parker discover a new philosophy that ultimately saved her family's business.
The company took a revenue cut by intentionally selling less, which meant less payroll, fuel expenses and wear and tear on equipment. Rocket City Drywall also began turning away business that was risky or unsecured, and ending relationships with accounts that had poor payment history.
Although the U.S. lost more than half of its independent suppliers from 2008-2012, Rocket City Drywall & Supply was alive and profiting again by 2013, largely thanks to Parker's leadership.
"It really required collaboration first and foremost," she said. "It wasn't Alana Parker who saved the business. It was a lot of work and effort from myself, my employees, and my grandparents who were still owners at the time."
As the last locally-owned and operated supplier in its market, Rocket City Drywall & Supply competes against five national companies that have billions in revenue. To stay competitive, Parker partnered with a buying group of more than 150 independent suppliers in 2015.
The move helped Parker and other mom-and-pop suppliers better negotiate pricing deals with manufacturers and secure rebate structures that allow them to compete in the market.
Parker also carefully built a team of professionals in the banking, accounting, and legal industries. By getting lean and focusing on its strengths, Rocket City Drywall & Supply once again carved a place for itself in the market.
"By going back to models that worked for us and profitable business lines and focusing in on what we were good at, it allowed us to do less business, but run a more profitable business," Parker said.
Because Rocket City Drywall & Supply was always a residential supplier, the company often missed opportunities in the commercial construction industry. Seven years ago, Parker hired a salesperson with commercial experience to help the small company expand its product lines and develop relationships with manufacturers.
Parker, who began actively bidding commercial projects in 2017, recently bid her first large-scale commercial project involving the Boeing expansion. Although Rocket City Drywall didn't win, she told The Catalyst "simply being a contender is a major accomplishment."
"By growing our commercial sales, we are able to significantly increase volume with minimal increase in expense," she said in her application.
The 33-year-old entepreneur is the youngest member on the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce's Board of Directors. In 2016, she won the Chamber's Young Professional of the Year Award and the national Giving Back Award from AD Building Materials.
Parker also sits on the board of The CornerStone Initiative, an asset-based community development organization that empowers individuals through collaboration for education, employment, and enrichment.
Rocket City Drywall & Supply works with the Christian-based nonprofit to serve the 35805 district, which Parker said is one of the poorest residential communities in the state. She helped create the WestSide Business Association to keep local business owners involved in the area's quickly changing development.
Parker, a single mom, also partners with The CornerStone Initiative's Jobs for Life program to hire employees from the area's most impoverished neighborhoods. The initiative is a soft-skills ministry that connects people with sustainable work in the community.
Debbi Akers, executive director of The CornerStone Initiative, said Parker "took a chance" on three individuals who had trouble finding work because of their past. Since then, Akers said Parker has become a counselor, mother, and friend to them.
So, when Akers learned about Parker's award from The Catalyst, she wasn't surprised.
"Alana is on an upward trajectory when it comes to her professional life and her influence and impact on the community," she said. "She has this crazy platform of running this young, female-owned business in a men's world of construction. I am so proud of her."