Professionals flex leadership muscles by running their own businesses
May 3, 2013 4:00 AM
Bill Snyder opened his own accounting firm 15 years ago after two decades in the restaurant business. "I had 20 years of going through all kinds of issues in business ... that was a great education and I'm using it constantly."
Salene Mazur Kraemer runs her own law firm in Weirton, W.Va. When she began her law practice, she juggled everything to keep it running. "I was bookkeeper, paralegal, law clerk and administrative person."
By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bill Snyder helped his father run a successful restaurant in the heart of the Squirrel Hill business district for a decade and then operated it himself for another 10 years after his father's retirement. But he didn't relish the long hours, frequent turnover among employees and capital-intensive nature of the food business.
"It did well and it was lucrative, but it wasn't my cup of tea," Mr. Snyder said of the popular Sir Loin Inn that operated on Forbes Avenue from 1970 to 1990.
A week before it closed, a robbery at the restaurant helped convince Mr. Snyder he was making the right decision to shutter the establishment.
By that point, he was in his 40s and had a bachelor's degree in economics but all Mr. Snyder knew about his future career path was, "I didn't want to do what I was doing ... especially for someone else."
So he turned down offers to manage other restaurants, earned the credits he needed to sit for the certified public accounting exam and passed it on his first try.
He landed a job at an accounting firm where he stayed for a few years and obtained a master's degree in taxation from Duquesne University. When he had acquired a few clients and enough confidence, he launched his own tax and accounting consulting practice.
Though he doesn't employ other accountants, Mr. Snyder uses leadership skills by sharing his own expertise and experiences in his daily encounters with his clients as well as in his role as a member and board director of various organizations, including the SMC Business Councils.
"I'm able to talk to people and I think that's one of the most important things," said Mr. Snyder, 65, who opened his own firm 15 years ago and whose office is in Penn Center East, Wilkins.
Having supervised 55 employees at a time and faced challenges such as meeting the restaurant payroll and competition from chain eateries, he believes he has plenty of valuable stories to share.
"I had 20 years of going through all kinds of issues in business ... that was a great education and I'm using it constantly. It really helps me with my clients."
While some entrepreneurs in professional fields such as accounting or law may never manage as many employees as Mr. Snyder did in his restaurant days, having strong leadership qualities is still critical to success, according to experts who work closely with people launching their own businesses.
"The best leaders feel a sense of responsibility to support others in their own company and beyond their own company ... maybe through economic development, community service or mentoring," said Lee Ann Munger, director of PowerLink, an advisory program for women business owners that is affiliated with Seton Hill University.
Effective leadership skills are pretty much the same for those running heavy industrial plants as they are for leaders who run professional service firms, said Jayne Huston, director of Seton Hill's E-Magnify, a women's business center.
"The whole idea of leadership is to inspire, have the ability to be a visionary and see strategically where the business is going," she said. "It's really to enlist others and champion whatever you're doing. You see that across the board in the professions, in manufacturing or in retail."
For attorney Salene Mazur Kraemer, 38, her knack for leadership surfaced as early as fifth grade when she got involved in student activities. She went on to become student body president in high school, a member of the student board of governors at West Virginia University, and a delegate to a national collegiate women's conference.
But at the firms where she practiced in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh after earning a law degree from Villanova University, Ms. Mazur Kraemer didn't get the chance to tap that leadership experience or "build a book of business of my own."
Though she gained a lot of expertise in bankruptcy law at those firms, she wanted to use the MBA degree she had earned years earlier at WVU and a certification she holds in turnaround management.
"I was really hankering to explore turnaround management consulting," Ms. Mazur Kraemer said. "I have a real appetite for learning about business issues. I'm a real numbers cruncher and like to work with models and financial analysis. I wanted to jump out and try my hand at that."
So she left full-time law to work for a Pittsburgh investment banking firm and then founded her own law firm in 2009.
"It was a somewhat risky move, but I needed to develop my own business with my own clients and I learned pretty quickly that if I wanted to have control over my schedule and my fate -- particularly in light of the economy -- this was something I could do."
Her own practice also helped her manage the responsibilities of raising two young children.
When she started her solo law practice in her home, Ms. Mazur Kraemer juggled everything involved in running it. "I was bookkeeper, paralegal, law clerk and administrative person."
In the summer of 2011, she began a seven-month hiatus from her own business to take a temporary position at Pittsburgh firm Burns White, where she oversaw a practice group "and could harness my leadership skills," she said.
When she returned to her own practice in 2012, she set up shop in Weirton, W. Va. She hired an office manager who also works as a paralegal, as well as a law clerk and other help as needed.
As a manager, she takes seriously the role of training young law students and other employees to help them develop both technical know-how and "soft skills" such as how to pursue "an expertise in an industry you're passionate about."
"I like firing them up," she said. "I feel a good leader brings out the best skills of everyone on the team. You recognize them and utilize them for the betterment of the team. So collectively, there's a synergy where the sum is greater than the parts. A real leader is attuned to everyone's strengths and weaknesses, and can harness that collective intelligence."
A desire to help shape the career paths of those they manage and to recognize their talents is prevalent among good leaders, Ms. Huston said.
"Taking care of their people weighs so heavily on them. Is that a leadership quality? It's really something that pops. Leadership is recognizing the contributions of the workforce and bringing that to the floor and making sure you're celebrating that."