When her husband of 15 years walked out on her and her three children, Gail was grateful for the opportunity to work in her family’s liquor business. She got the experience she needed to launch a couple of startups herself, and now coaches other small business owners to achieve their goals.
Tell us a little about your background…
Growing up in Chicago, the second child of Irving and Sylvia Robins, felt rich and rewarding. We lived on the north side of the city, on the second floor of a six-flat apartment. Since my father’s sister and her husband lived on the third floor, and many members of our large extended family also lived nearby, we enjoyed spending time with our cousins, aunts, and uncles. We didn’t all go to the same schools but that didn’t matter at all.
My father struggled with various businesses in the liquor industry before becoming “Mr. Foremost,” of Foremost Liquor Stores and later Foremost Sales Promotions, almost overnight, in 1949. He was the most creative person I knew and it wasn’t until I joined his business in 1977 that I understood exactly what that meant.
At the time, a career in nursing or teaching was most desirable; I received my degree in childhood education from National College of Education (now National Louis University). Because I was three months pregnant when I graduated, I became a stay-at-home mom and was always active in the PTA and school-related activities.
The year 1976 was a pivotal one for me. My husband of 15 years disappeared overnight, leaving me with three small children—one of whom was mentally ill—a mortgage, and no way to make a living. I was 34 years old, had been a stay-at-home mom and, suddenly, here I was, penniless, bereft, and left to manage a situation with my older son that had been deteriorating continuously over a long period of time. My ex would marry twice more and would not re-enter our children’s lives until after he married his current wife.
I would have liked to return to teaching children but my need for flexibility required a different scenario. My father offered me a job in his company—he was smart; he knew he’d end up helping us financially so better to get something for it! I had always loved the liquor business and remember listening to my dad’s colorful stories at the dinner table growing up. I also liked to crawl among kegs in attic offices of his ‘Ma and Pa’ liquor stores. As a youngster, I’d often worked summers for my dad, filling goody bags, answering the switchboard phone system, and rounding up my friends to help at convention time. It never occurred to any of us, least of all me, that I might like to pursue a career in business.
Now, I could learn about running a business from a man who had created and built a multi-million dollar industry—Foremost franchised liquor stores—from the ground up. The concept of putting together independent retailers under a common name, to enable them to remain competitive against big box single-owner chains, had not yet been invented. As the franchisor, we held no liquor licenses and that gave us the ability to provide co-op advertising programs, working with distilleries, wineries, breweries and wholesale-distributors.
I remember telling myself, “I’ll give this five years. If it isn’t working, I’ll move out of state and move on.” Three years later, I was President and COO, married to a wonderful man, Alvin, and had found my stride. When I joined the business, we were around 100 stores in two states. Seventeen years later, we had expanded around the country, franchising or licensing almost 300 stores. The experience I gained was invaluable. It was not, however, how I wanted to spend the remainder of my career. I decided, it was time to move on. We sold out in 1994, when I was 53 years old.
For the next six years, I built a new company, Liquor by Wire (LBW), in partnership with my younger son, Steve. Perhaps I felt it necessary to prove to myself I could build a business from the ground up. LBW began as a direct marketing company that facilitated delivery of alcohol beverage gifts throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, and 40 countries overseas. We parlayed our original network of Foremost Liquor Stores into a 2,000-member network to provide fulfillment. LBW created the country’s first full-color alcohol beverage gift catalog; marketed the phone number, 1-800-SPIRITED; developed a reputable customer service center; and, became one of the first 500 fully functional e-commerce sites.
Liquor by Wire’s revenue grew from $250k to $4mm and then morphed into Liquor.com. Ramping up operations to go public, I co-wrote and participated in all functions of the proposed 2000 IPO (Initial Public Offering), including development of a strong management team. While successful—we built a multi-million dollar, profitable company—greed overtook rational thinking. A New York venture capital firm offered to take us public and we jumped at the chance, irreversibly giving away our rights as management. Sadly, our offering, which had received SEC clearance for the NASDAQ, was not able to be completed and, along with all the non-profitable dot.coms, we imploded. The business ended, and along with it, for the second time in my life, my future.
What is your next act?
I am a business coach at You’re in Business… I’m Your Coach!, a company I founded in 2000. I work exclusively with small business owners to teach them the value of creativity to their growth and help them transform into capable, inspiring CEOs. I believe strongly in the three tenets: Create, Communicate and Collaborate and that Success is a Mindset. I work individually with business owners and their teams, as well as professional service providers.
I also facilitate group coaching through a collaboration with George Berlin called Transformation Lab. Transformation Lab is where business and creativity intersect. We help business owners and professional services providers align their personal and professional values all while thinking from the inside out. Most business owners are so caught up in the daily operations that they do not stop to think creatively. Doing so helps them turbo-charge their business and become stronger leaders.
I love creative ideas and exalt when leaders use them to build their communities and grow. My father, who was my inspiration for this pursuit, was the most creative man I knew. The most successful retailers in our liquor chain led from the heart and embodied creative approaches to working with customers and building strong teams.
How did you go from running a business to becoming a business coach?
By the time Liquor.com went belly up, in 2000, I was almost 59, and not at all ready to retire. I decided to become a business consultant because I love the small business community. As a member of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) for the last 20 years, I recognize and relate to the issues women face as business owners and leaders. Starting in 2004, I turned my full attention to business coaching.
I also love teaching and writing and developed four courses as an adjunct professor at UIC. These included retailing, marketing, and gender issues. In 2008, I began contract work for Interise, a nonprofit out of Boston that provides a growth curriculum for emerging leaders through the Small Business Administration. I taught that course for four years and, currently, work for them as an Instructor Support Coach.
Five ½ years ago, I began studies at DePaul University’s School of New Learning towards my Master of Arts in Applied Professional Studies degree. I wanted to learn how to help entrepreneurs innovate on a daily basis to get breakthrough results and build long-term sustainable companies. As part of my degree work, I attended the CPSI Conference (Creative Problem Solving Institute) in Buffalo, NY, took several seminars to receive additional certifications, and created a group of webinars.
At the age of 73, I graduated. Now I am feverishly working to bring all this newfound knowledge to the leaders I coach. I conduct workshops and online webinars, speak, mentor, and write. I’m also active in the Small Business Advocacy Council and on the Women in Business committee.
Two years ago, my Transformation Lab partner, George Berlin, illustrated a children’s book I wrote, entitled Patches: The Perfect Plush Protector, for children 0-5. I’ve also published two business digests: Taming Time: Tools, Techniques and Tips to Increase Productivity and Learning Leadership: Tools, Techniques & Tips to Become the Best Boss You Can Be .
What challenges have you encountered? What have you learned about yourself?
I have weathered numerous personal challenges in my life, starting with my divorce in 1976. My mentally ill son was at the inpatient center of the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas for three years. Today, I am estranged from him, as well as from his sister who believes I did not do enough to protect her from this brother. I am fortunate to have a close, loving relationship with my youngest child. I am also a breast cancer survivor.
When I was named President of Foremost Sales Promotions, Inc. my father’s right hand man quit. He said he refused to work for a woman! In the liquor industry, women were nonexistent at that time. I encountered many occasions when I was derided or devalued. My approach was to always hold my head up high, demand respect, and learn as much as I could from a generation of men who were superb business leaders but not used to women working as equals. There were those few who became my mentors and sincerely wanted to help me grow into my position. To them I will always be grateful. My favorite compliment at the time (taking the environment into consideration) was when a man would say, “Boy, you are tough! Working with you is like working with a man!”).
During those years I learned to stand up for myself. I learned that I was good in math. I learned that I could learn, that I was smarter than I thought. I took courses and studied the art of wine-making and beer craft and how to distill fine spirits. I took courses in financial management and learned to manage my time (thanks to our beloved bookkeeper, Maury). I learned not to cry in front of my father (“If you are going to cry every time we discuss something, I’m not going to be able to work with you!”), I learned to leave business at work and maintain a wonderful relationship with my dad. I learned on the job how to make better hiring decisions, hold tough conversations with employees, and fire when necessary.
I am grateful for my parents who supported me emotionally and financially through my most difficult years, and to my second husband who married me in the midst of all my chaos. By the time he passed away in 2009, I had become the embodiment of the A.A. Milne quote, paraphrased here: You are braver than you believe, stronger than you ever thought possible, and smarter than you think. I am also thankful for my super strong long-standing friends, who are the foundation of my support. I couldn’t have made it through without my girlfriends.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking reinvention and considering a later career in coaching?
The advice I have for women is to never, never give up on yourself: Go after your dreams. Seek mentors and do not be afraid to ask for help. Join a women’s organization where supporting members is a key value of the group.
Coaching is a great career path at any age. First, know what it is you love. Then determine how you can teach that. There are coaching universities, certifications, and books available for you to learn the techniques of coaching. Much of my degree work was spent learning how to more effectively teach adult learners and employ innovative best practices.
What resources do you recommend?
What Is Your WHAT: Discover The One Amazing Thing You Were Born To Do by Steve Olsher
The Coaching at Work Toolkit by Suzanne Skiffington and Perry Zeus
Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives by Henry and Karen Kimsey-House
Coach U’s Essential Coaching Tools: Your Complete Practice Resource by Coach U, Inc.
Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath
Foursight: An assessment to determine your preference for Creative Problem Solving.
Women’s Business Development Center is a great resource in Chicago that provides guidance for women of all ages who are starting new businesses.
What’s next for you? Do you think you have another next act in your future?
Oh, yes! I still have a book or two left in me to write. I want to make an impact on children and education. I’d like to do a speaking tour once the book I’m working on—tentatively titled GearShift—is published.
I love to travel so maybe service work is still possible. My act as a grandmother is not over. My youngest grandchildren are 8 and 12. I just started a new act as a great-grandmother to my step-granddaughter’s baby.
Contact Gail Zelitzky at Gail@GailZelitzky.com or 773-957-8582
TEDx talk: The Surprising Science of Secrets
Transformation Lab: Adaptagility