Susan is principal & Chief Executive Officer of Ridgewells Catering. She joined the company in 1986 and purchased it with her business partners in 1997. Over the past 14 years, Susan has been instrumental in the expansion and growth of the company’s portfolio. Susan is not only an accomplished cook and event organizer but she is passionate about marketing the business as she manages 225 employees. Susan serves on the Board of Directors for the Greater Washington Board of Trade, EagleBank and Jr. Achievement. She serves as the President of the Board of Trustees for Imagination Stage, the Board of Visitors for Marymount University and is an active member of YPO & the Economic Club of WDC.
1. How did you get your foot in the door at Ridgewells in 1986?
It took a while. I tried to interview with my current business partner, Jose Valado, for almost a year. Really, I was a pest until he finally hired me. I was given a sales figure for a year and I made it in three months. Then, during the next full calendar year, I sold a million dollars worth of events. I kept creating niches for me in the company and growing the company.
2. Eleven years later, you bought Ridgewells with your business partners, Jose Valado and Tom Keon, That’s a huge, bold step. What was it like for you?
It was great. I was so passionate about Ridgewells. I knew with the current leadership, the company was going down the drain and could have closed its doors. I wanted to go after selling to the Olympics in Atlanta because I thought it was a perfect fit for us. I met with them and worked three days, day and night, on the proposal. They hired us and it was very exciting. However, problems came up between my current boss at the time and the contract and we ended up not doing the Atlanta Olympics. That’s when I knew I wanted to buy-out the company.
3. You’ve had two significant life threatening illnesses, an aneurysm when you were 21 and then you were diagnosed with melanoma in 1997. How did those affect you or change your approach to life?
The aneurysm was a wake-up call for me. I was in college at the time and it made me say, “it’s time to get serious here.” I focused, worked harder, my grades improved, I appreciated my family more, and I loved life more. It was a total wake-up call. The melanoma happened the same year when I was buying Ridgewells, had a young son, and getting a divorce. I would not let the melanoma get me down. There were so many moving parts at the same time that I had to keep my head-up. The melanoma was more of a burden to me. My parents were a great support then with the treatments and everything.
4. Today, you seem to have an extremely healthy approach to work-life balance while raising two boys as you continue to expand the company and support the community. What pearls of wisdom will you share with other professional women in Washington DC?
I actually have a top 10 list!
10. Be fresh
9. Maintain quality
8. Have courage
7. Create the buzz
6. Surround yourself with smart people
4. Take risks
3. Be passionate
2. Give back, give often, give always.
1. Think big
And those pearls are ones with great value! Thank you, Susan, for sharing.
If you missed the first part of the interview with Susan, here it is:
Last week, you received the 2012 BRAVA! Award by CEO magazine for “exemplary leaders in their companies and the community at large by encouraging local philanthropy, mentoring fellow CEOs and setting their companies on the path to growth.” Congratulations! What does this mean to you?
I think more importantly, what does giving back to the community mean to me? The work that I do within our community is so rewarding and it’s the community that has been so generous to us. So, it’s giving back that is fulfilling. It’s not only me personally; it’s the company that is giving back. My day wouldn’t be complete without one phone call from one board that I sit on. With any organization that I belong to, I want to make an impact. I don’t want to overcommit to what I do and I want to feel passionate about what I do. It’s an honor to receive this award.
Are there one or two organizations that have special meaning to you at this time?
I’m currently the President of the Board of Bethesda Imagination Stage which is a phenomenal organization. They do wonderful work with children in the arts and children with disabilities. I work very closely with the founder, Bonnie Fogel, a remarkable woman. I have a tendency to get involved with organizations that serve women, girls and kids. I sat on the Board of the Girl Scouts and totally enjoyed that. I speak to different organizations to try to inspire and mentor others. I feel fortunate of where I sit today so I want to share how I got here, what it took for me to get here, and hopefully motivate and inspire others.
What is it that you like best about your job today? What motivates you and challenges you?
The beauty of my job is that it’s different every day. I never do the same thing, everyday, all day long. I get involved in just about everything – whether it’s finalizing the paint color on the trucks to tasting the fall menu to selecting the carpet for the sales office. Everything is different and constantly changing. I’m also out all the time in the community doing business development. I have a really good team that allows me to be involved in so many things on this level.
As a graduate of Marymount University in Arlington, did you know that you wanted a career in event planning and catering?
When I was in college, there was no such thing as an events career. Now you can get a masters degree in event planning or hospitality management. And there are so many resources out there to pursue a career in this area. For me, it was on the job training.
Did you grow up in a family that cooked and entertained?
Yes, my parents are both Polish and my grandparents emigrated from Poland. There were big gatherings at my grandparents’ house every week where my grandmother would have dinner for 50 people. At a young age, I would watch her and be in awe with how should would put such a beautiful event together for everyone. She was an unbelievable mentor to me. It was actually by being at her side that I learned how to cook and developed a passion for cooking. I combined my passion for cooking and organizing with selling – and it all came together.