Cochran and Red Arrow Logistics are Setting the Pace

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
Lasater, Cochran
Liz Lasater (left) of Red Arrow Logisitcs and Lee Ann Cochran of Cochran Inc. were both named to the list of the 50 fastest-growing woman-owned businesses in the country.

While many companies are digging out
of their lowest sales in decades, two Seattle business owners have so far
emerged virtually unscathed from the economic rubble of the past two years.
They’ve managed to buck the downward trend by entering new markets, building on
their backlogs, cultivating new technologies and nurturing relationships with
customers, suppliers and even their own employees. As a result, Lee Ann
Cochran, owner and CEO of Cochran Inc.,
and Liz Lasater, owner and CEO of Red
Arrow Logistics
, were named earlier this year as leaders among the nation’s
50 fastest-growing woman-owned businesses.

Cochran and Lasater, both 47, are in
good company. There are more than 10 million woman-owned businesses in the
United States, collectively employing more than 13 million people and
generating nearly $2 trillion in annual sales. More than a quarter of a million
American women own and lead businesses with annual revenue topping $1
million—and many of these businesses, including Cochran’s and Lasater’s, are
multimillion-dollar enterprises.

As members of the top-50 list—an
annual ranking co-sponsored by the Women
President’s Organization
(WPO), a national organization for women whose
companies gross at least $2 million in annual sales—Cochran and Lasater join a
prestigious group of ambitious women nationwide who are driven not only to be
their own boss but also to aggressively grow their businesses. They are natural
connectors who surround themselves with smart people, don’t shy away from
taking risks, motivate employees and reach out to customers.

It’s been a winning strategy. Gross
revenues for Cochran Inc., an electrical and technology contracting company,
were nearly $132 million in 2009, up from $75 million just five years ago. The
firm was ranked No. 28 on the national top-50 list. Red Arrow, a Bellevue-based
transportation and logistics provider, grew 32 percent in the 2009 recession.
The company arranges shipments from one business to another by truck, railroad
and airplane, shipping everything from hazardous waste and military supplies to
newly released films and consumer products. This year, the business—No. 38 on
the list—is opening an office in Nashville and establishing operations in China
and Hong Kong. Its revenues grew from $500,000 in 2005 to $4.7 million last
year. Lasater projects another huge jump in revenues during the next five years
to as much as $50 million.

Liz Lasater
Liz Lasater, CEO of Red Arrow Logisitcs.

Lasater, who is also a finalist for
the 2010 Nellie
Cashman Woman Business Owner of the Year
award, has hired seven employees
this year and is now concentrating on establishing new operations in Asia. Much
of Red Arrow’s success has been due to its strategy of diversifying into six
sectors, including food and beverage, renewable energy and high tech, where the
economic downturn had the least impact. “I made a conscious decision to pursue
key sectors that were basically recession proof,’’ Lasater says.

She started Red Arrow Logistics in
2003 and in six years, it was named a top-10 woman-owned company in the state
of Washington. To qualify for the fastest-growing list, businesses were
required to be privately held, woman-owned/led companies in the United States
or Canada and to have reached revenue of at least $500,000 by the first week of
2005 and $2 million in 2009. The top 50 generated a combined $2.3 billion in
gross revenues in 2009.

Lasater’s nine-person company is
getting a boost from the rebounding freight industry, which plunged during the
recession as people cut back spending on shipping and retailers thinned out
inventories. But Lasater says the industry is “shipping like mad now,” thanks
to those inventories being replenished. Analysts say the air-freight market has
risen to record levels, especially freight flown from Asia, as demand for
electronics heats up. That’s all good news for Lasater, who just this year
picked up 34 new clients. Her company, which relies mainly on word of mouth,
works with about 200 core carriers across the country.

Nellie Nominations

Liz Lasater was one of five finalists for the 2010 Nellie
Cashman Award, presented by Women Business Owners, an organization for female
entrepreneurs. Candidates for the Nellie are judged based on their
entrepreneurial spirit, ethics and community spirit, financial and management
skills, and the difficulty and risk they have endured to achieve their
success. The other finalists this year are Barbara Bollinger, who launched Senior Salons, a chain of salons that
serves residents in senior communities; Jody Hall, Cupcake Royale & Vérité Coffee Inc., a wholesale,
online ordering and delivery service; Andrea Heuston of Artitudes Design, a leader in the
arena of visual storytelling; and Susan Kaufman, the owner of Serafina, a popular Italian
restaurant.

After more than 20 years with big
international transportation companies—many of them male-dominated—Lasater
decided to venture out on her own, first as a supply chain consultant and then
launching the logistics footprint. She previously advised Fortune 100 companies
and served in senior management for Fritz
Companies
(acquired by UPS in 2001), SeaLand Logistics and APL Logistics. Lasater
earned her bachelor of arts degree in political science from the University of
Washington and is a lecturer at the school’s Global Trade Transportation and
Logistics
program.

During her early years in the
business, Lasater recalls sometimes being left out of the loop and not being
accepted by her male counterparts, but she says the tide has shifted
dramatically. “There is an acceptance now that I didn’t have when I went to
school.” Shortly after starting her business, she landed Weyerhaeuser as her first big client to
ship rolled paper out of Kentucky. That was followed by a Department of Defense
contract, which provided a steady cash flow on which to grow her business.

Unlike Lasater’s company, Cochran’s
58-year-old, third-generation, family-owned business is more vulnerable, like
its competitors, because the construction market is always the last to rebound
and the hardest hit during an economic downturn. Cochran says engineering and
architectural firms—both of which have been hit hard—are among their leading
indicators for growth. But she says the company is currently holding steady and
predicts long-term revenue growth. “We are kind of at a standstill right now,”
Cochran adds.

Cochran Inc. was formed in 1952 by
her grandfather, who wanted to pursue a career in the electrical industry. For
more than five decades, the firm has designed and installed electrical and
technological infrastructure throughout the Pacific Northwest, including that
of the Seattle Public Library main branch, Qwest Field, Portland Convention
Center, Benaroya Hall and the Seattle Art Museum Tower. The company specializes
in electrical, security, audio/visual, wireless, communications, and marine
shore power system design, construction and maintenance.

Lee Ann Cochran
Lee Ann Cochran is the third generation leader of a family business that grossed $132 million in 2009.

While the electrical contracting
company has not been entirely immune to the downturn, it has been able to
maintain a stable revenue stream and workforce by diversifying into other
markets, including marine shore power. Cochran has provided its patent pending
cruise ship shore power systems in Seattle, Vancouver, B.C., and new facilities
under construction in California for Holland America Line
and Princess Cruise Lines, and recently
unveiled a shore power system for freight liners. With about 450 employees,
some of whom have worked there 20 years or more, the company also has been
bolstered by its healthy backlog of projects, including Swedish Medical
Center’s new campus in Issaquah
and the University
of Washington Medical Center
expansion. Cochran is providing electrical,
telecommunications and security systems for the project, which includes 175,000
square feet of new construction, connecting to the current complex in Seattle.

Cochran attributes her company’s
success to putting resources into growing and emerging markets as well as
recruiting and retaining the right talent to implement new technologies. In
addition to its shore power systems, Cochran has been able to stay ahead of the
volatile marketplace by specializing in 3-D computer-aided modeling technology.
That approach permits specialty contractors, like Cochran, to see how their
systems interact with other systems in the building. “We try to pride ourselves
on 3-D modeling. You have to be in the front end of the curve to be on the top
of the pack,” Cochran says.

A 1986 graduate of the University of
Puget Sound with a degree in business, Cochran worked briefly in construction
before joining the family business in 1987, learning the ropes from her
parents, an uncle and a business partner. A Seattle native, Cochran says there
weren’t many college programs in construction when she was in school. “I
learned by doing,” she says. “I had hands-on education through the school of
hard knocks.” The family business is now fostering a fourth generation: Her
cousin’s son works there and someday so might her own children, now 10 and 12.

Both Cochran and Lasater say their
integrity, accountability and vision set them apart from their respective
competitors. Those traits, notes Marsha Firestone, founder and president of the
WPO, propel their companies’ earnings. She uses the often-quoted phrase
“turning lemons into lemonade” to describe what Lasater, Cochran and the rest
of the top 50 women have done with their businesses; they turned economic
turmoil into an opportunity for growth and diversification. “They recognized
there were problems with the economy, but they turned it in to their benefit by
gaining access to new markets. They developed new products and beat the ground
until they found new customers.”

Firestone says woman business owners
currently have much bigger goals than they did 20 years ago. “Today, women are
not just owning their own businesses, but they are determined to really grow
their businesses.” She points out that 3 percent of businesses owned by women
gross more than $1 million. While that still lags behind the 6 percent of
male-owned companies at that level, Firestone predicts those numbers will
change. “We came to the party much later than men, but in five to 10 years, it
will be even.”

Building Your Business

Seattle business consultant Karrie Kohlhaas thinks business owners should stop fretting over the “E-word”—the economy—and focus on the basic principles of turning their companies into powerhouses. Whether you believe the economic skies are clearing or whether there’s another storm ahead, Kohlhaas says the time is right to take a step back, reconnect with clients and do more, not less.

“Now is a great time to do outrageous things,” says Kohlhaas, owner of ThoughtShot Consulting. “People want to hear inspirational stories of business owners who are experimental, risk takers and people going all out to make things work. ... No one wants to hear another sob story.”

Here’s Kohlhaas’ advice:

  • Be impervious. “During slow periods, there is a tendency to pull back, shut down activity, take less risk, cut resources to cut costs. I say do the exact opposite. Act impervious to the current state of things and do more, not less, during a sluggish economy. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending more money. Get creative and find ways to be more active in your community, more visible to your target market and more connected with past customers. The more people see you, the more they associate you with success.”
  • Use your natural assets. “Women are wired to talk, listen and empathize. Some don’t realize what huge business assets those traits are. By connecting in a genuine way, people will connect more with your business. This is relevant for networking as well as rallying your team. Acknowledge, listen and share yourself. Women’s natural gifts align with modern business practices: transparency, authenticity, personality. Don’t be afraid to be real with people.”
  • Put less energy into fearing and more into steering. “This is a good time to consider how you want to steer your ship. Use down time to develop the business, create new avenues for revenue, make plans for where you want to go, build alliances and partnerships. … Instead of being fearful about the economy, look for ways to move forward and use this time to put plans and strategies in place.”
  • Reconnect with past clients. “Reach out to customers on a regular basis and make that contact value-focused, not sales-focused. Instead of selling, be a resource, a hub connecting your clients to people and information. People return to hubs when they need something.”