by Jon W. Sparks
Carolyn Chism Hardy remembers well when she became an entrepreneur. She was all of 9 years old.
A younger sister had ordered greeting cards from a magazine, despite their mother’s warnings not to do such things. They were stuck with them, Hardy says, and they were broke. “We were talking one day about how to get some money for candy. I said to my sister, ‘You’ve got those cards and we’re going to sell them!’ This was my first opportunity to sell and we went into the neighborhood and knocked on doors. I had that sale down.”
They were out for a few hours and came back with money instead of cards. “That,” she says, “was my first foray into sales.”
Hardy would go on to the University of Memphis to get a degree in accounting and a master’s in management. Her first job out of college was with J.M. Smucker Co. as a staff accountant. She wasn’t content to merely count jars of jam. There was room for advancement and she got familiar not only with how things works, but how they didn’t work.
She got to know the plant’s quality manager who would tell her about particular problems he was having. She’d take notes, analyze, and come up with solutions. When he was promoted, she got that job — the first woman and first African American to hold it.
The up-and-coming executive turned things around on several fronts. In the mid-1990s, she was promoted to plant manager and continued to innovate. Although she knew she wasn’t getting the money her male counterparts were, it didn’t bother her. “They were using me and I was going to use them,” she says. “When you want to do creative things, you need the company to believe in your capabilities. I felt our approach to manufacturing was off base and I wanted to change it. I was willing to accept less pay so I could play in their sandbox. If it worked, I would get more money. It did and I doubled my salary.”
Her understanding of how the world worked and her analytical mind would eventually get her to the Memphis plant of the Coors Brewing Co. The brewer wanted her to run the plant and she had her work cut out for her. “My first week on the job I analyzed their financials and told them they were going to close the plant.” They asked what she would do. “I like a fight,” she says now. “No one else would care. We need to keep those jobs in Memphis.”
For the next five years, she did just that, turning it from the worst performing plant in the Coors network to making it as efficiently run as any. Then things got really interesting.
Coors decided to close the plant, despite the much-improved operation. But the product wasn’t getting market share and that brought the Coors era to an end in Memphis. Facing that, Hardy did what she does, she analyzed the situation and came up with a plan: Buy the plant herself.
She had competition from City Brewing Co., which eventually dropped out, but it was difficult for Hardy to seal the deal. The banks were hesitant and Coors was skittish: “I felt if I’d been a male, Coors would have sold me the facility at a fair price. I saved Coors $20 million a year, but it couldn’t see that I could own a brewery.”
They underestimated the girl who enterprised the greeting cards and who had, over the years, been sharpening her game. Hardy outmaneuvered the doubters and she and her investors finally bought and opened the plant in 2006. There were adventures ahead for the new Hardy Bottling Co.
“When I started the business, Coors was my first customer,” she says. She would get some 50 customers and, as she puts it, working for 50 CEOs “is about as much fun as you can imagine it.” But she knew how to deal with egos and how to deliver top service. As she tells emerging entrepreneurs: “Make sure your concept and strategy builds a better mousetrap. Offer something to the customer he can’t get.”
In 2008, a devastating tornado ripped the brewery to pieces. It had $50 million in damages and the company had $25 million of insurance. Operations came to a halt, the building had to be rebuilt, and inventory had to be relocated. She was advised that it was time to walk away. “I said, ‘We’ve got to figure out how to make this work,’” she says. “Companies weren’t building breweries that size anymore. It was important to our community.”
She pulled off what many said was impossible and in May 2011, Hardy, who had bought the plant for $9 million, sold it for $30 million — to City Brewing.
Since then, she’s been developing her transloading business (which she thoroughly researched and analyzed, of course). Now, with her two daughters, she is specializing in grain containers and carving a niche in this enterprise that is especially suited to multimodal Memphis.
She’s also passionate about local workforce development and was instrumental in creating the Industrial Readiness Training program to improve the quality of workers that businesses want to hire.
In addition, Hardy is this year’s chairman of the board for the Greater Memphis Chamber and is ready for whatever role she’s called on: leader, adviser, mentor, risk-taker, entrepreneur. As she puts it: “If I’ve got my iPhone and myself, I’m in business.”
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