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Everything She Knows as a CEO She Learned as a Waitress

Is this any way to run a company? On each employee’s birthday, give him or her a personally signed card with $50 cash tucked inside. Send employees’ kids $20 on their birthdays. Wedding and employment anniversaries? More cards and cash. Throw in a free image consultant for any employee who seeks grooming or business etiquette advice. And don’t forget your customers—gather the entire staff, even the musically challenged, around the speaker phone to sing “Happy Birthday” to each customer on his or her special day.

That’s exactly how Carolyn Gable, CEO of New Age Transportation, Distribution & Warehousing, Inc. in Lake Zurich, Illinois, runs her business. For Carolyn, taking care of her people is a no-brainer: “The special perks I give to my employees are peanuts in comparison to what I get back in return. If I raise the vibration of everybody who works for me, I raise the vibration of the entire company.”

Carolyn is not a typical CEO, and her path to success, which didn’t include an MBA (or even a college degree), isn’t typical, either. In fact, her rags-to-riches story is so incredible it sounds like fiction. She’s a single mother whose own mother’s highest aspiration for her daughter was a career as a beautician. Carolyn spent many years working as a waitress, worrying how she was going to feed her kids. Now she’s CEO of her own $29-million transportation and distribution company. She is also the founder of the Chicago-based “Expect a Miracle Foundation,” a charity that provides funds for extracurricular activities to the children of single parents.

I first met Carolyn Gable—entrepreneur, philanthropist, mother of seven, and former waitress—four years ago, when we sat down for an interview in AMA’s NYC office. I’ve interviewed many people over the years, but Carolyn stands out. I was immediately won over by her warmth and her genuine, caring attitude—not to mention her impressive professional accomplishments.

Her most recent accomplishment is an inspirational book, Everything I Know as a CEO I Learned as a Waitress. It’s a combination memoir and how-to guide to personal and professional success, based on her experiences during a 12-year stint as a waitress. (A portion of the book’s proceeds goes to her foundation.)  What can business people learn from a waitress? Plenty, if that waitress is Carolyn Gable.

In the introduction of her book, Carolyn writes, “It doesn't matter if you are flipping hamburgers at the local drive-through, slugging your way up the corporate ladder, or working 16 hours per day at your own fledgling company. If I can do it, you can do it; bottom line. You will need four things to begin:
  • A vision
  • The desire for success
  • A positive attitude
  • An unflinching willingness to work your tail off.”

Carolyn believes that good service, whether in a restaurant or in a $29-million business, deserves a good tip. From this basic idea she has formulated 12 simple professional and personal principles she learned while working as a waitress:

  1. Have fun
  2. Pay attention to details
  3. Learn to roll with the punches
  4. Practice patience: it pays
  5. Care about others
  6. Stick with it
  7. Join the circus
  8. Look good to feel good
  9. Honor honesty
  10. Mind your own business
  11. Be your own person
  12. Expect a miracle

Carolyn’s attitude toward customer service is best illustrated by a story she told me when we first met: “Once, while I was working at the Hyatt’s revolving restaurant, a customer told me that he was dying for a baked potato. Well, that restaurant had a limited menu and we didn’t serve baked potatoes. So I got in the elevator and dashed downstairs and got him his baked potato. It was just natural for me. I didn’t give it a second thought. He then wrote a letter about me to management.”

Now that she’s a CEO, Carolyn brings that same level of personal attention to New Age’s customers. She explains: “I expose my people to what I consider the best customer service out there, so they can understand what it is. A couple of years ago I took the entire staff to Las Vegas to stay at Steve Wynn’s fabulous new resort. Everything about it was just the highest quality. When everyone came back to Lake Zurich they were able to use what they’d experienced first hand to please our customers.”

I recently had the pleasure of catching up with Carolyn. Following are some excerpts from our conversation:

Shari Lifland: Why did you name your foundation “Expect a Miracle”?
Carolyn Gable: Those words were written on a little plaque I bought years ago and hung on the wall in my office. Every time we desperately needed a truck to show up or the phones to ring, someone would say, “Expect a Miracle”—and more often than not, the phones would ring! So it became our motto.

SL: What do you do to instill a sense of ownership in your employees?
CG: I tell them about how when I visit my corporate contacts around the country, I always hear great stories about how wonderful New Age is. I can get just about anyone to ship with my company. My employees keep the customers here and they (and I) know it! The special perks I give to my employees let them know that I value them and couldn’t do it without them. It’s investment that has a tremendous return.

SL: One statement from the book that struck me is: “Always remember that ‘good’ is the enemy of ‘great.’” What’s wrong with “good?”
CG: Good is accepting the status quo. It keeps us from reaching higher and exploring the possibilities and soaring with the eagles!

SL: You’re a very spiritual person. How does that spirituality inform the way you run your business?
CG: It is the blood in my veins and everything is related to it. I expect a miracle and I am never disappointed. But expecting a miracle is not a passive activity. It calls for hard work and persistence and it requires faith. I have learned to trust God instead of trusting myself. I always say the minute we are no longer to be doing business we won’t be. But if we continue to follow the Golden Rule and remain honest and live each day with integrity I believe we will be doing God’s work along the way.

SL: What advice do you have for struggling single mothers?
CG: Boy, I could go on forever answering this question! I tell single moms to move on with their lives. Each of us has been given free will and although you cannot change who the father of your children is, you can change your life. A single mom needs to work, at two jobs, if necessary. To the mom who protests, “Oh I won’t be with little Johnny if I work two jobs,” I respond, “True, but when you are with him it will be much better because you will feel better. Yes, you may be tired, but you’ll be even more exhausted if you return home to a stack of bills you cannot pay.” They will succeed if they stay positive, come up with a plan, and work really hard to achieve their goals. My own success is evidence that miracles really are possible.

About the Author(s)

Shari Lifland is Editorial Communications Manager for American Management Association.  She is editor of the eNewsletters "Moving Ahead," "Management Update," and "Administrative Excellence," and manages content for the Members-only section of AMA's Website.