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VOL. 37 | NO. 28 | Friday, July 12, 2013

60s & beyond: Nashville legends share secrets of their success

By Linda Bryant

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Pangaea owner Sandra Shelton looks down from her loft office onto the sales floor of her Hillsboro Village clothing, jewelry & gift store.

-- Lyle Graves | Nashville Ledger

Shirley Zeitlin, Thelma Kidd and Sandra Shelton all launched separate – and very successful – businesses in the 1970s and 1980s when few women were doing so in Middle Tennessee.

All three women learned the ropes of business ownership step by step, penny by penny, accumulating skills and expertise incrementally as their companies grew.

In the process, they witnessed the atmosphere in the Nashville area for women entrepreneurs evolve from generally discouraging to highly promising.

“There were other women in business when we started, however, we were still seen as a novelty,” Kidd says.

“Most bankers and developers, almost all of whom were men, couldn’t quite wrap their heads around the idea of two women opening up a business on their own.

“They assumed that we were doing it “on a whim” and after six months would grow tired and want to quit.

“We just stayed focused on what we were wanting and intending to do,” Kidd adds. “We learned over time, you just can’t take no for an answer.”

Kidd and Shelton, both 67, and Zeitlin, 78, are still enjoying the confidence and security that comes from owning their own businesses, and none plans to retire anytime soon.

Shirley Zeitlin

-- Submitted

Yet each woman has carved uniquely individual working roles for themselves, roles that account for their desire to remain entrepreneurial and lead full and balanced lives during their mature years.

Zeitlin: real estate trailblazer

When Zeitlin launched Shirley Zeitlin & Co. Realtors in 1979, she had already been a Realtor for 12 years.

But she had a drive to strike out on her own.

She could count the number of women business owners she knew on one hand. Most of her female colleagues were involved in traditional careers such as nursing or teaching or busy raising their families and not focused on career issues.

“I started out with six agents,” Zeitlin says. “I only knew I wanted to attract quality agents, develop a good management team over time and do things my own way.”

Flash forward to 2013 and you’ll find about 100 agents working under the Zeiltin umbrella.

In 2007, Zeitlin rebranded the firm as Zeitlin & Co. to downplay her role.

“I didn’t want the focus on me anymore,” Zeitlin says.

“It was really important to grow as a business through the years, but it was just as important to give responsibility to others and watch them grow to higher levels of competency.

“A business can’t just be a one person show,” she adds. “You’ve got to learn to let go of some of it.”

Thelma Kidd

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Zeitlin, who calls herself “a big delegator,” has reached the point where she trusts her management team to operate the day-to-day aspects of Zeitlin & Co.

She is now keenly involved in aspects of the company such as strategic planning, community relations and executive decision making.

She’s also very proud of the work environment that’s developed at Zeitlin & Co. over the years and vows to stay involved in it.

“Certain qualities are just really important to maintain in a business.” Zeitlin says.

“Trust is important. Transparency, treating people fairly and having a supportive team environment are all essential.”

Selling a business, starting new one

Thelma Kidd’s entrepreneurial path has been different than those of Zeitlin and Shelton because she sold her first company, Davis-Kidd Booksellers, in 1997 when she was entering her 50s.

The bookstore, which she co-owned with business partner Karen Davis for 17 years, developed into an iconic brand during Kidd’s tenure with the company.

Letting go of Davis-Kidd wasn’t easy, but Kidd says it’s important for women business owners to move on to the next thing if they feel they want or need to.

“In our case, there were two of us, so we had to be sure we both really wanted to sell,” Kidd says.

“We both were ready. We had grown the baby for 17 years, but the industry was really changing.

“We were further and further from the day-to-day hands-on demands of the business.”

The business partners worked closely with a consultant with experience in buying and selling businesses. Kidd zeroed in on what she wanted from the sale.

“I knew I wasn’t done working for myself, but I also wanted to take a break,” Kidd says, adding she needed enough money from the sale to finance a period of reassessment and fortify her retirement accounts.

“I wanted more freedom and flexibility,” Kidd adds. “I used the opportunity to craft a life that worked for me.”

Kidd became an entrepreneur again in 2001 when she launched her solo life coaching business, which specializes in helping clients with life transitions such as career changes, divorce and business ownership.

Kidd says she often customizes her schedule, interspersing between busy work times and periods of time with a lighter load.

“It takes patience to piece it all together,” Kidd says. “I plan to keep on doing what I am doing as long as I think I am doing a good job and enjoying it.”

Shelton: finding a home in retail

Shelton, who opened Pangaea Clothing, Jewelry & Gifts in 1987, still calls the shots at the popular Hillsboro Village store 26 years later.

Like Zeitlin, she’s laser-focused on the work environment at her business, which she describes as fun, trusting and creative. Although she no longer works on the floor as a part of the sales team, Shelton works almost every day in the store on technical matters connected to ordering and inventory.

She makes it clear that she’s involved in her store at this point because she wants to be, not because she has to be.

“I have a hard time letting go of control.” Shelton says with a laugh. “I’m here a lot, but I know get a lot of help from my employees with different parts of the buying.

“We have a really great team, and they do a great job. It’s really important for me to provide a nice work environment for them.

“To be honest retirement kind of scares me,” Shelton adds. “I do think about it. I’m old enough to get my social security and try something else, but I’m happy here.”

When she launched Pangaea, Shelton had one employee who worked one day a week. Now she has a workforce of 14. She’s able to take as much time off as she wants, but rarely does because she loves staying active at the store.

Shelton doesn’t have a traditional succession plan for Pangaea or any plans to sell the business.

“I have never been a planner in that way,” she says. “I jump in and do things as they come along, and over the years they have usually always worked out.”

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