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Laurie CoronaLaurie Corona is a business coach and entrepreneur. She is a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization of San Francisco and coaches for the EO Accelerator program. 

She was the Chief Executive Officer at Greene’s Cleaners, a family-owned business that was sold in 2021. Laurie worked as the Vice President and CFO for Lixit Animal Care Products and as a Financial Analyst for Stamper Capital. In 2012, she received the North Bay Business Journal CFO Award issued by the North Bay Business Journal.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Laurie Corona talks about growing up and eventually taking over the family business
  • Laurie talks about persevering through the disruptions of a legal dispute
  • Some of the lessons Laurie learned through the challenges of owning and running a business
  • How can leveraging new technologies increase customer satisfaction?
  • Laurie reflects on her leadership role during the pandemic and how she successfully pivoted her business
  • Why the EO (Entrepreneurs’ Organization) Accelerator program is an excellent tool for entrepreneurs

In this episode…

The pandemic disrupted business as usual in virtually all industries, including dry cleaning. Many business leaders faced challenges finding a path for growth or an exit strategy as they emerged from the pandemic, but some managed to come out on top by using technology. How can your business leverage new technologies to scale and increase customer satisfaction?

Laurie Corona shifted the way her business operated by implementing new technologies and broadening her services to stay afloat. By utilizing app features, her company could answer common questions, track orders, and provide a better customer experience without the usual number of employees. Listen to this episode to hear how Laurie expanded her business throughout the challenges of the pandemic and how things developed as the market emerged.

In this episode of the Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast, John Corcoran of Rise25 sits down with Laurie Corona, business coach and entrepreneur, to talk about leading and exiting her family business in the wake of the pandemic. Laurie discusses getting her business back on track after the pandemic, how emerging technology can fulfill the consumer experience, and the face of exceptional leadership in trying times.

Resources mentioned in this episode

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Episode Transcript

Intro  0:02  

Welcome to the Rising Entrepreneurs Podcast where we feature top founders and entrepreneurs and their journey. Now let’s get started with the show.

John Corcoran  0:13  

Okay, welcome everyone, John Corcoran here and the co host of this show, we feature top entrepreneurs and business leaders sharing their stories. And this episode is brought to you by EO San Francisco. The Entrepreneurs’ Organization known as EO is a global peer to peer network of more than 14,000 15,000 16,000 I think now, influential business owners with 198 chapters in 61 countries. And if you’re a founder, co founder owner or controlling shareholder of a company generating over seven figures in revenues per year, then if you want to connect with other like minded successful entrepreneurs, EO is for you, EO San Francisco chapter enables leading entrepreneurs in the Bay Area to learn, learn, grow and achieve greater success. To learn how it works, or to come to a test drive and learn about it. Go to eonetwork.org/sanfrancisco. And of course, this episode is also brought to you by my company, Rise25, where we help b2b businesses to get clients referrals and strategic partnerships with done for you podcast. And this week, we’ve got a great guest, her name is Laurie Corona, she had a family dry cleaning business called Greene’s Cleaners that she recently sold. And now so she’s on to the next chapter, some consulting, maybe some coaching. And so we’re going to talk about that whole journey of taking over family business, growing it, building it up through a bunch of different challenges along the way, getting sued maybe a couple of different things, and then finally exiting that business. So Laurie, I’m excited to have you here today. And let’s start with your parents actually bought this small, dry cleaning business, which is in the beautiful Napa Valley, before you were even born. And so you kind of grew up in this business, and we were talking beforehand, but the one thing you knew as a kid was I am never going into the family business.

Laurie Corona  2:01  

Yes, true. We all of us kids have a couple brothers worked there in high school and such and even as very young children doing odd jobs. And I was sure once I went to college, I was not coming back.

John Corcoran  2:16  

But you it’s not like you went and studied art or history or something along those lines. You did study business, right?

Laurie Corona  2:25  

I did. But I did a double major in philosophy. So I wanted to study philosophy, but I did actually listen to my dad’s sage advice of also study something that makes money. So I did a double major.

John Corcoran  2:37  

Well, quite the dual personality there between business and philosophy. But you ended up marrying a guy who was interested in taking over that business. So Alonzo, your husband, actually, you guys returned back to Napa Valley. Also something you thought you weren’t going to do. But you come back to Napa Valley. And tell me about what the early conversations are like, but you’re you’re your husband was interested in joining the family business.

Laurie Corona  3:05  

Yeah, so we, I mean, my husband had don’t we dated for quite a while before we got married. So he’d gotten to know my parents a lot. And, you know, they gotten to a point where they wanted to consider retirement, but really liked the idea of keeping the business in the family. And Alonzo had grown up, and he was also a business major, always sort of wanted to own his own business, and was like, Well, what do you think if we go and I work for them, I was like, great, as long as you work for them, we’ll try it out. I’m not sure how I feel about going back to Napa, but we’ll give it a try. We could see the opportunity that, you know, being business owners gave us, we also graduated in oh two at UC Santa Cruz. So on the.com bust, so all the jobs we thought we were gonna get in Silicon Valley no longer existed. So it seemed like okay, why not? Let’s try this out.

John Corcoran  3:55  

Yeah. And so what was it like for you, when when your husband was working in the family business? Did he have tensions with with your parents? What was that family dynamic like?

Laurie Corona  4:08  

He generally worked well, with my parents occasionally, you know, others would get rattled about different things. He would bring new ideas and try to modernize things and stuff like every once in a while stuff would come up, but they actually always worked really well together. So it he was a much better fit than I was for sure.

John Corcoran  4:28  

Yeah. And so at some point, now you go back, you get your MBA. So you’re still in business, and you were working in other businesses. And at some point, you make the decision to join the business. Were your parents still involved at that point? Were they checked out?

Laurie Corona  4:45  

No, they we had already bought it. So we we purchased the business from them in 2009. And so at that point, they were fully retired. And Alonzo was still running the business and I was still working for a manufacturing company. And we did that For a few years, and then we had, you know, there’s the business went through a lot in those years. And in 2013, I left the company, I was kind of burned out on the corporate world, left the company I worked for and actually started a fitness studio. So I don’t know if you knew this part, I did own a fitness studio for a few years. And in that time frame, which which shared a building that we had purchased with Greene’s, Alonzo had gotten kind of burned out with all the things that the business had been through over the few years without it. And he asked me to come in and kind of take over the bookkeeping, we take over, we were going to work together was the plan. And this was 2017. So I closed my fitness business and moved into Greene’s. In less than a year, I completely took over the CEO role. Kind of made a big, big flip flop.

John Corcoran  6:00  

But you know, before we get to that, though, I want to ask about you did have a very rough period in the four to five years after you took over the business. So first of all, you take over the business 2009, we’ve got the 2008-2009 financial meltdown, a lot of people lost jobs in that period of time. I imagine a lot of people were paying less on dry cleaning. And then you also got sued in that time period. So talk to me a little bit about what that experience was like in the first few years of owning it.

Laurie Corona  6:28  

Yeah, so we’d went through kind of everything. So like you said, we bought the business on the, you know, cusp of that big recession. And at the time dry cleaning was, it’s a luxury good. Greene’s is, you know, very high end dry cleaners. So it was easy for people to say we’re just going to clean a little bit less often, you know, maybe I’ll wear that shirt one more time. So we had to get creative with them. I did even though Alonzo that ran the company. You know, I did do a lot of background with him, like would go through financials. And he’d say, hey, what do you think we can do here? So I did, I was always kind of, we did always talk about that I was definitely a partner in the ownership. Um, so we, you know, we went through all that kind of restructuring some customers getting more into b2b and stuff. And then, in 2012, we purchased a building to move our production into, which in and of itself was a huge project, we bought a kind of random white elephant building that needed a bunch of work and moving anything that requires production equipment is a big deal. And we were able to do it with zero downtime and dry cleaning, which is almost unheard of in the industry. So it was it was a lot of long hours long days. Now, mind you, our daughter was born six months before we bought the business. So we also had two children at this time. So we’d like to do it all at once. And so in the process of moving our facility, our landlord sued us when we exited. And that became a whole nother thing. So we were kind of all in on this new building, you know, all of our assets were at it. And then we had to start ponying up all these lawyer fees to fight the landlord. And that went on for I think two years, two years, a lot of dollars. A lot of do I really want to do this? Is it actually worth it? Are we going to make it through we, you know, went through all of our personal assets, most of the business assets. And, you know, it turned out being a wash, our insurance company ended up covering it and it not being our problem or even our fault. Like not we didn’t have any guilt involved. But the only people that made out as usual are the lawyers. So it was it was very taxing and very draining and took a lot of time away from running the business.

John Corcoran  8:53  

So it’s an interesting point, even though in the end, you you made out okay, you said insurance covered it. You still were paying out of pocket. It sounds like for a chunk of that time.

Laurie Corona  9:05  

We paid out of pocket for 18 months. Wow, more, you know, all the insurance, all the lawyers and everything. And I mean, there was a point where we sat in a conference room in San Francisco with 12 lawyers around the table. The most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Yeah, was like, so it was it was a learning experience. But we were able to get through it.

John Corcoran  9:30  

Yeah, there must have been times in that period where you were saying, do we want to keep on doing this? Or do we want to just stop give up?

Laurie Corona  9:40  

There there was definitely some times where it was like, is this really worth it? What happens if we just like, let it go, what happens if we don’t you know, we end up having to pay even more money that we don’t have. But we always thought of all our employees and their families and So really giving up wasn’t an option for us. We just had to keep finding a way to make it work.

John Corcoran  10:04  

Yeah. Now you and I are both a member of the EO San Francisco chapter. Were you a member of EO when you were going through this crisis?

Laurie Corona  10:12  

I wish I was. And it would have been a lot easier. No, I didn’t join EO until 2019. So it’s

John Corcoran  10:25  

funny. It’s kind of what EO is for for these types of weapons. So helpful. Yeah, yeah. Just have that sounding board of other founders that help you through it? Yeah. What? So you survived this? You said in 2017, you end up joining to do the books, as you described it, the undertaking over in the CEO role? Was there any pinch me moments where, you know, you’re, I think it was a new facility. So it wasn’t the same facility as you’d worked out in high school. But, you know, you’d worked there in high school, or you weren’t there as a kid. He ran around, and all of a sudden, now you’re CEO of the same company.

Laurie Corona  11:10  

There was a lot of how, how did I end up here? So I actually had a friend that I had, you know, we were worked at Greene’s in high school together. And he also came back to nap after college is, you know, track coach, one of the high schools and he had come into Greene’s to do something for the team. And he was like, you said, You were never going to do this. I know.

John Corcoran  11:41  

I’m in a different role. No, I’m the boss. I own the joint.

Laurie Corona  11:45  

Yeah. Now he told me I had adamantly said I would never own it. But you know, you get a little smarter than you were at 70, thankfully, right, right. Yeah.

John Corcoran  11:55  

Hold it against us. But we say when we’re 17. Right.

Laurie Corona  11:58  

Um, yeah, I mean, it was definitely a few times where it was like, Oh, is this really what I want to do? I think with everything we’d gone through at that point, Alonso was very burnt out on the role. And I could see that and could see like, Okay, you need another strong support. And we’ve always worked well together. So we did work well for a while. And then he kind of pulled away pulled away and I just at one point, I said, Okay, I’ll do it. But I have to do it. Like all in like your, here’s your basket of stuff, you gotta give me your office, and you can, you know, work in a different office or from home, and we’ll switch roles up. So he moved into the marketing of area, which I hate doing, and I’m not good at. And I just did all the leadership.

John Corcoran  12:48  

Yeah. And now, he also took an interest in, in technology, and he ends up developing a solution that, in retrospect, actually was really helpful for you going into COVID, which was a more effective way to communicate with your customers, leveraging new technologies, because, you know, these days, people kind of have this kind of an expectation of being able to communicate more effectively, it kind of drives me bonkers when, you know, I get a message from someone and they say, call our office to schedule something. I’m like, come on, please. Can I just email or text or something? So how did that come about that that software?

Laurie Corona  13:29  

So precisely that we saw our business is mostly pickup and delivery. It was about 80%. And then, you know, COVID, we had the ability to be about 100%. But pre COVID had started, we were really frustrated with the software we had and how customers wanted to know where their clothes were, and it would give them like a your orders ready. But that was it. And they couldn’t respond to it. And they couldn’t ask a question. And so we had people were constantly on the phone, we had more customer service people that really made sense for the amount of people that actually came into the building, because again, everyone was getting delivery. But because we were answering all these ridiculous phone calls, and we started talking about it, we realized most of the phone calls boiled down to like 10 questions. You know, everyone’s know, you get some weird outlier, but there’s really not that many things you need to know from a business. So he got into started researching some software and stuff. And we had an app through our software company that didn’t work well, kind of got rid of that and sort of developed this chat bot system. And then we even ended up changing the software we use for our POS so that we could have better tracking and integrated better with what he was developing so that customers could ask their questions, they could schedule their pickups, they could know where their clothes were all these things when nobody was around to answer the phone. And we started tracking phone times and app usage and things and realize most of you people interact with the company early in the morning and late at night when we’re not open anyways. So it was more

John Corcoran  15:06  

about where’s my where’s my clothes right late at night? Yeah,

Laurie Corona  15:10  

they’re not thinking about that, like while they’re at work in the middle of the day. So that was a pretty logical progression and something for us to do. But we had to develop our own to be able to use it. And it was really helpful and COVID When we went to like 100% delivery for a while. And, you know, we had to cut back on our staffing. And we actually found we needed much less staff going forward even when we reopened fully, because so many people prefer using this platform.

John Corcoran  15:41  

Yeah. Now it sounds like it’s gotten great results for you as a company and you still own this company. Right? There’s a separate company that yeah, so now, after having sold the business that you clean each other cleaners is a is a different matter. Correct?

Laurie Corona  15:56  

Correct. But one of the catalysts for wanting to sell the business was my frustrated frustration with the dry cleaning industry as a whole. Prior to joining EO I belong to multiple industry groups, conversations were always the same. Nobody was using Tech, I seem to be the only person pissed off at the software company because it didn’t do couldn’t do something as simple as automatically send a credit card receipt when we charged the customer’s credit card, you know, things that are normal commonplace with everything. And then I joined EO and saw what the difference in the organization’s was like, like, especially come COVID by joined just just before COVID. And like the amount of knowledge and learning and sharing and, you know, creative thinking that I found with EO compared to these other groups. I was like, Yeah, this industry, like I can’t take it anymore. I can’t keep telling people, the things that we’re telling them are useful. And they just go back to the old ways of doing things. And we kept saying this industry is changing. And then COVID came in, and we’re like, now the industry is really changing. Everybody is home, not getting dressed up. And still, it was frustrating. So then we have this great solution for people that can’t afford their staff because their business is reduced. And we’ve tried to explain it and try to explain it and just only handful get it we look small number of other cleaners that also use the system, but it’s frustrating. For the lack of tech adoption.

John Corcoran  17:29  

Yeah, yeah. What was it like for you take me back to like March 2021, you start to see COVID starts to pop up in the news. Did you anticipate it? Did you see it coming? Did you? You know, what did you think as it started to unfold?

Laurie Corona  17:48  

So we did, we had a couple of big meetings with staff, we did anticipate so being in Napa, the our business is primarily tourist related. I mean, we do have locals and such, but a lot of the we did a lot of linens for Guest houses, Hotel uniforms, things like that, that, you know, we’ve always kind of tracked with the tourist season here and everything. So we knew that if people were going to start traveling last like that was you could see that happening, you could see it was going to come, which meant the hotels would not be busy, which meant the wineries would not be busy, which meant they would not need us. So and then we started to see things like zoom meetings happen. And we’re like, okay, great. Like now now people aren’t even wearing pants, like who’s going to get things cleaned. So we anticipated needing to cut staff we also anticipated, which I had anticipated pre COVID That change in what people were cleaning. But really thought even bigger in the like household kind of products, you know, comforters, rugs, things that you’re using, maybe more because everybody’s home all day. So we did, we did see that as we saw how bad the hotels were getting and how slow our business was getting. I had the first meeting where I cried with the staff because I was like, I don’t know what we’re gonna do. I don’t like laying people off. But we’re gonna have to and we had a manager actually volunteer to go on furlough to save other people’s jobs. And it was it was just so touching that our team was willing to do that for each other.

John Corcoran  19:29  

What was that like as you reflect back on that, as a leader showing that vulnerability, being willing to, you know, to let your guard down and show real genuine emotion in front of your team?

Laurie Corona  19:43  

Um, at first, it was a little embarrassing. I am not someone that likes to show that kind of, you know, emotion in front of especially if I’m leading a team, but it was definitely something they had never seen before. So I think they were all a little shocked. Um, But then afterwards, I was kind of glad that I let it happen. Because, you know, they said they were like, Okay, we see how serious you’re taking this and like how much you want to protect us and you want to protect everybody’s jobs and because that’s what it was all about. And it was, I think it, it translated into my team stepping up in a really incredible way. And, and it definitely showed who was like, all in for the company and who just showed up to a job, which made it easy to kind of decide who who stayed and who went. And we were fortunate that as drycleaners, we are an essential business. So we got to stay open.

John Corcoran  20:41  

You stayed open just didn’t have as much business.

Laurie Corona  20:44  

We just didn’t have as much business. Yeah, yeah. But we didn’t, we didn’t have to ever shut completely, which was very fortunate for us.

John Corcoran  20:52  

Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, the businesses that did have to shut completely just it was just crushing for for a period of time. Yeah. But and, you know, I want to get into the sale, you ended up selling the business. This was about six months ago now. So end of 2021. But before we get to that, did you start to see a rebound? Did you pivot and find, you know, new services or anything like that? Well, as the pandemic Drew, drew on, you know, what were some other things that happened for you.

Laurie Corona  21:27  

So, um, like I said, pre pandemic, I had seen the industry is had been slowly changing, fast fashion has killed dry cleaning, there’s, you know, not a lot of people aren’t going to pay our prices to clean something that is, you know, this the same price to clean it as it is to buy it, you’re talking some people’s clothes. Now, people will bring their nice stuff and things. But we were already doing quite a bit of linens and, and household products. So we really pushed that already. And then we just shifted really hard something we’d been thinking about, we just went ahead and pulled the trigger on, we put in a new rug machine so that we could clean rugs in house, we expanded our alterations department. And just a lot more focused on those type of things, which really helped the business and a lot of marketing around those things. So people knew that we did all these all the stuff that we do, and and then also just kind of focusing on being really efficient, you know, what, you know, again, using tech to not have to have as much customer service staff and then focusing on bringing in an item where you know, we can clean one comforter, or 50 shirts, like, clearly one is a better deal for us. Yeah. So you know, those those kinds of things, we really focus on a lot. And that helped save the business to help bring it back up. And in the right areas as well.

John Corcoran  22:56  

Yeah, yeah, that alterations business most have been helpful for people like me, maybe put on a few pounds during maybe these bigger, bigger pants. And so you ended up selling the business at the end of 2021. How did that come about? Was it someone that you knew was were you approached?

Laurie Corona  23:16  

So we actually had kind of started thinking about it in 2020, we were going to, I mean, I’d been prepping for it for a little while. And then we were like, okay, the beginning of 2020, we’re going to post this, we started talking to someone in the industry. And then we saw the signs of COVID. We’re like, maybe we should just put that on hold for a minute. So smarter than getting we put that on hold. And the business, you know, did actually do really well. I mean, sales were down, but profitability was up we did well through COVID, we pivoted well, and things start coming back really strong. Luckily, the tourist industry in Napa has boomed. As soon as things opened up, so that was all helpful. Yeah. And so we thought, okay, well, let’s just see, you know, it’s maybe code the COVID years gonna hurt us, and it’s gonna be hard to list it. But the previous years were really great. Let’s just, and actually I got approached on LinkedIn by a broker and was like, Let me have a conversation with this person. Let’s see what they have to say. And we really kind of clicked pretty quickly and they did a valuation which I’d already kind of done the numbers myself. My very first job out of college, I was a financial analyst. So it was something I was familiar with. And their numbers lined up with my number. So I was like, okay, cool. Like, they’re not coming up with anything crazy. And I don’t have an inflated view of what my business is worth. And so they posted it, and we had some pretty strict guidelines because nathless Small, we didn’t want the name in the posting. until like, someone had signed an NDA because you know, the deal doesn’t go through and then all your customers are worried. It’s the kind of town where people talk. And we didn’t want any we didn’t want customers to be afraid we didn’t want employees to be afraid that business was not doing well. And we just we even talked to a couple people, the buyers and beds or the brokers and bedded a few people for us. And then someone came along, that was a really good fit. And they were in industry, which is helpful because dry cleaning is harder than people think. And has a lot of nuance, but also more business minded in the way that Alana and I were also a couple about our age, owed some other dry cleaning businesses, but also had some other business background and thought about things a little differently than typical, liked our and then when they found out who we were, or the company name is very big in the dry cleaning industry. So they were very, like, it was like the unicorn they didn’t think they’d be able to get so they were very excited to have this opportunity. And, you know, it’s it’s a long negotiation, but it worked out well.

John Corcoran  25:59  

What you know, for a lot of businesses that sell where it was a family business, or they took over business from their parents, then there’s a lot of emotion around the idea of selling the business. Was that the case for you?

Laurie Corona  26:12  

There there wasn’t, there wasn’t there was a lot of it was something I knew I’d hit a point where I was doing the job I never wanted to have. And I didn’t have the heart in it to grow it. And it was kind of at a place where either we sell, or we double down and we grow and I just I knew I didn’t have it in me to want to put my energy into growing it. And but again, I felt like I had a lot of identity tied in Greene’s I’d grown up with it, you know, the all our you know, chamber all our affiliations and Napa, most people know us as the owners of Greene’s Cleaners, because its business is over 100 years old. So it’s very well known in the valley. So there was some of that there was a little bit like, Oh, crap, I don’t want to tell my parents because it might be really upset, you know? Turns out they weren’t. They weren’t okay. It was actually okay. I think my dad was a tiny bit disappointed, but they understood. We also had had our oldest we have a tr 13 year old was having some mental health issues. And we realized the kids needed our time. And that made it easier to sort of separate my own identity. And, oh, am I gonna miss being a business owner? Or what’s this? What’s this mean? To me, it didn’t really matter anymore. Because we just need to take care of the kids.

John Corcoran  27:33  

Yeah, if you have something more important, it makes it puts it in perspective. Now you have been a coach for the Accelerator program, which I came up through super grateful for. It’s an amazing program. For those who don’t know what it is go Google it, check it out. It’s a great program for businesses that want to pass the seven figure threshold, talk a little bit about what that’s been like being involved in that program.

Laurie Corona  27:59  

I love being an Accelerator coach, it’s it’s really rewarding to help small businesses and especially when you see people that are really passionate about their business, kind of, you know, point where we were earlier when we own the business and I it helped me also see how much this was no longer what I should be doing. Because it was like I don’t have that energy. But to be able to share the experiences we’ve had and see when somebody kind of takes what you actually said and applies them info and takes knowledge from the learning days they have and their business does grow. It’s it’s really it’s really rewarding. It also kind of keeps my business spring going while I don’t have my own business to manage. So I like that part.

John Corcoran  28:46  

Yeah, yeah. Laurie, this has been great. Where can people go to learn more about you or connect with you or learn about the software company and coaching and consulting?

Laurie Corona  28:56  

LinkedIn is probably the best way to reach out to me. Just think just find me. Laurie Corona. Should be easy to search up.

John Corcoran  29:04  

Great. Alright, Laurie, thank you so much.

Laurie Corona  29:07

All right. Thank you, John, for talking to you.

Outro  29:09  

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