Alumnae Profiles: Women in Charge
Jeanette Poole: Alumna whirlwind takes Miami by storm
by Su Clauson-Wicker
When Hurricane Andrew slammed south Florida on Aug. 24, 1992, a lesser woman than B. Jeanette Iroler Poole (GHEC '64) would have orbitted off the top of the stress meter.
Crying, raging, and even tossing in the towel would have been excusable for someone who'd started her own business only a year and a half before, expanded it, and was finding the building shattered, her custom furniture pierced with shards of windows, and her top agents scattering to the winds. The business climate was equally "up in the air."
Poole's own home, without power or water, sagged under a pile of downed oaks. Looters were ransacking her neighbors' abandoned houses. And Poole was still reeling on the heels of her term as president of the Miami Board of Realtors during its roughest year--a year when meetings seemed like "an impeachment every month" as Poole defended a complicated computer-listing system put in place by another administration.
But Poole didn't cry, scream, or give up. She began plotting her next move before it was safe to go outside. As soon as electricity went on in the area, she was operating down the street out of a former German bakery. Telephone wires were strung over the walls and six or seven agents shared each of the eight desks she had squeezed into the tiny space.
"It was like a little dump," she says. "Everything south of Miami was chaos. At least 10 of my top agents picked up and left the area. I didn't know whether we'd get any business at all, but soon people started lining up out front, looking for places to live. It actually turned out to be our best year."
Poole's staff speak of her with loyalty, affection, and something approaching reverence for her energy. "She has tremendous energy and focus," says business manager Joyce Denny. "Tremendous. From the moment she took over the agency, she has acted quickly and led us in a positive direction."
How J. Poole Associates came into being is another hurricane story. For more than 10 years, Poole had worked for the Stadler real estate company, first as an agent, then as its manager.
"I've always been interested in real estate," says the woman who started out her career as a clothing buyer. "I tried out lots of creative ideas at Stadler, like a mentoring system for new agents and candlelight open houses on weekdays. I made lots of money for them. [Her office did about $175 million in sales in good years.] But to have the freedom to try out all my ideas, I'd have to own the agency."
Her chance came in the fall of 1990, when Stadler went bankrupt. Too much expansion was followed by too slow a market.
"I was almost 50. My daughter was getting ready to start college. If I was ever going to make my move, I was going to have to do it then or forever hold my peace," Poole says. "My husband Don (BAD '63) was very supportive. 'Go for it,' he said. I did."
As manager Denny tells it, staff was notified Stadler's Kendall office was closed on a Monday. Poole raced over to talk to the trustee, hammered out a deal with her own financing, and came out Monday night with the keys to the office. Within days, her signs were up, and she had lured more than half of Stadler's sought-after agents back to her office.
"Things happen quickly in Miami," Poole says. "Things are one way in the morning, change by afternoon, and the next day it's as if the day before never happened. You move fast or you don't have a chance."
Poole credits her Virginia Tech background with her willingness to take risks in the fast, male-dominated Miami business environment. "VPI helped make me the tough girl I am today," she says. "I'm not afraid of dealing with men or competing with them. That's because it wasn't easy being a girl at VPI. About 500 women were enrolled and at least 5,000 men. When you're the only girl in most of your classes, you had to study hard because you got called on a lot. You didn't want to stand out as the dumb girl. Looking back, my experiences taught me how to deal in a men's world."
But, Poole says, at the university the women had an additional challenge--they were constantly reminded to be ladies in dress and action. Thirty years later, Poole remains a smartly dressed size 4 with a sharing, caring management style and somewhat of a preference for hiring Southern women as managers. ("They can say 'no' so sweetly," she says.)
Unlike most real estate companies, which pay their agents straight commissions, J. Poole Associates returns a quarter of its profits to the agents. Poole makes it a point to get to know each of the 145 agents and 70 referral agents working for her. When the hurricane hit, she continued to keep her office staff on the payroll even though some, like her receptionist, were living in tents and spending most of the month trying to put a roof over their own heads.
Poole does know how to be firm. "Integrity is a word we use a lot around here," she says. "Anyone caught lying is out the door the same day."
The company has done well in its three and a half years. Sales are over $100 million; they've opened a third office; closings average more than 1,000 a year; and J. Poole was identified by Real Trends magazine as one of the up and coming real estate companies in the country. They recently acquired their priciest listing--an $8.6-million waterfront estate that's been drawing international interest. Just a few months ago, they received the Miami Herald's Pacesetter Award as one of the top 10 small businesses in the Miami area. (Though they are a small business, J. Poole Associates counts as a sizeable independently owned real estate company.)
"I think Miami appreciates our community involvement," Poole says. "The company gives back 15 percent of our profits to the Miami community. We're supporting historical preservation projects, an organization for abused children, a videotape on Miami's history, John Gilliam's photo book of historical Miami, and a female athlete at the University of Miami."
Poole serves on the foundation board of Baptist Hospital, the Dade County Heritage Trust, and the City of Miami's Commission for Historical and Environmental Preservation. "She never sleeps," says her husband Don, Latin personnel director for a chemical conglomerate. "I'll wake up at 3 a.m. and find her poring through books on marketing or watching the news channel. She's always been like that."
Poole does relax--by tending her orchid garden, watching Don win yacht races, and walking three or four miles every evening. Their children, graduate student Scott, 27, and Stephanie, 22, a resort marketer, return enough to keep the household lively.
And, of course, there are Virginia Tech football games. "I grew up with Frank Beamer," she says. "His brother was my best friend. So whenever Tech plays Miami, we get box seats (on the Miami side) and root very quietly for our team. We always catch up with Frank afterwards."
Pat Caldwell's investment firm doctors sick companies
by Su Clauson-Wicker
Although she's a financial consultant, Pat Caldwell (MATH '71) often feels like an emergency room physician. As one of two founding partners in an investment boutique that specializes in handling firms with financial problems, Caldwell is always receiving calls for help.
"'Help,' they'll call, 'We just got a subpoena.' Or 'Help! We can't make payroll.' Handling companies in trouble is high tension, high emotion business," she says. "I love it."
In a telephone interview at 7:30 a.m.--sandwiched between her 6:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. emergency client meetings--Caldwell laughs at the state of her Park Avenue, New York office. "Paper is the main characteristic--mountains of paper. People who have financial problems are in disarray. Our offices reflect that."
With the rise of interest rates, business is brisk for Caldwell and her partners at the Gordian Group. On a typical day, they put in 10-12 hours analyzing, negotiating, and "sitting across the conference table from people who are not happy," she says. "We are on the debtor side of negotiations 75 percent of the time." Her investment boutique is in demand to work out financial plans for troubled and bankrupt companies, arranging payment plans with creditors and sometimes recommending major financial reorganizations.
In 1988, when Caldwell and three partners started the company, they pulled its name from the myth of the Gordian knot. The knot was created by King Gordius of Phrygia as a test. Whoever untied the knot could rule Asia. Everyone who tried failed, until Alexander the Great sliced through it with his sword. "That's us," says Caldwell. "We cut through knots."
Every case is interesting, she says, but some require defter sword work. In 1990, they took on Traycor, a mostly defense company whose chairman is retired Admiral Bobby Inman and whose board drew heavily from former Cabinet members. (Inman was nominated for Secretary of Defense by President Clinton, but later disqualified himself.
"We called Traycor the good, the bad, and the ugly," Caldwell says. "Eventually we split it up that way."
The "good" was a little fuse company that had cornered 80 percent of the U.S. automobile fuse market. The "bad" was Traycor's defense division--the Cold War was ending and demand was down. And the "ugly," Caldwell says, was the aeronautic overhaul division, embroiled in a lawsuit.
"We got them to sell the aeronautic division and split up the other two divisions," Caldwell says. "It wasn't easy; creditors usually want to rely on the whole enchilada. But it did work out. The banks got all their money back. In the three years since the companies came out of bankruptcy, both the defense division and the fuse company have made new acquisitions and seen their stock double."
Caldwell's own company also has thrived, paying off its venture capital start-up money last year and doubling its number of associates this year.
Interestingly, half the staff is female-- a somewhat unusual situation for Caldwell, who entered Virginia Tech when male students outnumbered females 10 to one and took her first job as an analyst in Bell Lab's New Jersey research facility, where a sexual discrimination lawsuit was in progress. After returning home to upstate New York and earning an M.B.A. at the State University of New York at Albany, Caldwell was recruited by Citicorp. She spent the next 13 years in New York City and California working in finance and analysis, often with troubled steel companies.
"There are a lot of women at Citicorp," she says, "but they don't get the brass ring--at least not in the years I was there."
Having her own company has given her a lot of confidence, Caldwell says. She has proven her effectiveness at consulting with CEOs from diverse firms and making board presentations.
Caldwell was just as willing to go for the gusto as a Virginia Tech student, where she often recruited an unofficial ski team to represent Tech at races in North Carolina resorts. "I dislocated my shoulder once, but I don't think I ever won. I did usually place in the top five," she says.
Caldwell came to Virginia Tech from New York, following an old family tradition--someone from every generation of her family has attended Virginia Tech since great grandfather Dan Hale graduated in its the first class. Addison Caldwell, the first student to enroll, was a distant relative. Pat Caldwell was the first woman in her family to graduate from Tech.
"I couldn't wait to go to college," she says. "I was ready with my bags packed before high school was over."
She feels she got a great college education in math. "It was a terrific background for anything I wanted to pursue. I learned how to solve problems and how to think analytically. It was easy to evolve into finance," she says.
Caldwell gets together with Virginia Tech friends, most of them her former dormitory bridge partners, every other year. Nancy Chapman (ENGL '72, M.S.), her Virginia Tech roommate for three years, remembers Caldwell as "assertive, assured, and extremely competent." Caldwell was one of the first people she knew at Tech to take computer classes, and she never seemed to get rattled about a schedule that involved post-midnight treks to the computing center.
"Pat really is a lot of fun," Chapman adds. "She never crossed over into being pushy or overbearing. And she has always had a great sense of humor. Pat is not, in spite of all her success in New York, a pretentious person--she's just the same as she always was."
Caldwell lives within walking distance of her office and of her favorite cross country skiing trails in Central Park. She vacations every summer at Woodstock, N.Y., where she can hike the Catskills from her house and spot summer stock stars like Joanne Woodward at the town watering holes. Her last big adventure was heli-hiking--being deposited on the mountain by a helicopter--with a client at Banff in Alberta, Canada.
Says her former roommate Chapman, "Pat was one of the few women I knew then who got a professional job right after college. I was impressed. It just seemed appropriate that Pat would be the one to do that."
Alumna Susan Bari gives advice to women entrepreneurs
by Su Clauson-Wicker
Susan Phillips Bari (MBA '85) is executive director of the Washington, D.C. office of the American Woman's Economic Development Corporation (AWED), providing training and counseling programs for women entrepreneurs. Bari is an alumna of Tech's Northern Virginia program.
"This may sound strange coming from the director of an organization dedicated to helping women business owners," says Susan Bari, "but I don't think there are any specific areas of business in which women have more difficulty than men.
"I'm tired of hearing for years about things women should do to be 'right.' We should talk about our strengths. Women, in general, make more reasoned risk decisions and have more stable businesses. Women are forced to juggle many responsibilities--children, job, husband, parents--and have developed handy skills, including nurturing skills, for getting a business off the ground."
Bari says most beginning entrepreneurs, even those with MBAs, can benefit from education on cash flow projection, marketing, insurance, zoning laws, management and other information necessary to run a small business. AWED (202-857-0091) offers workshops at its regional centers in the New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. areas. Other courses are offered by the Organization for Women's Business Ownership or through small business development centers around the country.
Before you start your business, sock away money and take out lots of credit cards, Bari advises. "Start-up funding is usually self-funding," she says."The next option is what we call the family and friends bank. We recommend approaching them as you would a real bank, with a planned cash-flow program."
Although women-owned businesses don't tend to grow as large or as fast as those owned by men, Bari says this is in part because women don't necessarily look for success in a bank statement. "Women often define success as the ability to lead a balanced life," she says. "They go into business seeking more control over their lives, more flexibility to pursue the rest of their lives. They have redefined success as making a certain amount of money and having a quality life."
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 17, Number 3 Spring 1995