Written by Patty Rasmussen Tuesday, September 25 2012
Snapshot: Francine Manilow, founder & CEO Manilow Suites
Women entrepreneurs of the 21st century owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of businesswoman and serial entrepreneur Francine Manilow, founder and CEO of Chicago-based Manilow Suites. The upscale short-term housing firm, founded in 1980, was the fifth business Manilow created. Manilow Suites is a forerunner in the industry, offering luxurious apartments combined with hotel services and amenities.
A former flight attendant for United Airlines, Manilow founded her first corporation in 1966, employing fellow stewardesses — as they were then called — to work exhibition booths at trade shows. Soon after, she began offering secretarial services at those same shows, another first in the industry. Her company also employed housewives as promotional food demonstrators to restaurant shows and grocery stores. She was the first in Chicago to offer 24-hour and same-day film developing. And if that litany of accomplishments isn’t amazing enough, get this: She did it all while she was still flying for United.
“In 1963, I was flying for United Airlines,” she quips. “Today, I’m housing the CEO of United. Talk about going full circle.”
Manilow credits much of her success to her own tenacity and the influence of her friend, the brilliant classical pianist Van Cliburn. She’s earned many accolades, including Chicago’s 2007 Businesswoman of the Year by Office Depot. Manilow Suites is a Certified Woman Owned Business.
Womenetics: You’ve been a fan and friend of Van Cliburn since you were 15 years old, and he’s been influential in your life. How did that friendship develop?
Francine Manilow: Van had just won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in 1958 but was still obligated to play at Grant Park in Chicago in 1959. My perception of classical music, the only thing I knew about it, was that it was funeral music. Out of curiosity, my aunt took me to Grant Park to hear him play. He played Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. I had never heard music like that. I thought there must be a group of teenagers in Chicago that I could meet, we could get together and go to concerts together.
In those days they had magazines like Photoplay [one of the first American magazines for film fans]. I wrote letters to several of them saying that I was forming the Van Cliburn Music Club to promote classical music among young adults without realizing that these magazines went all over the world. Suddenly I received hundreds of letters saying that they wanted to join. I found Cliburn’s publicist, Elizabeth Winston, and sent her a letter pleading for permission to start the International Van Cliburn Music Club. I received a telegram from her, which I still have. It read: “Congratulations on forming the International Van Cliburn Music Club. Van Cliburn is coming to Chicago in seven days, and we would appreciate it if you would have some of your friends out at the airport.”
I rounded up my friends and made posters. I made a large wooden key in wood shop and covered it with tinfoil. We went out to Midway Airport, greeting him. What ultimately happened from that point on was that I got to be in his company throughout the years a good bit. We would just sit and talk. I watched how he acted. I saw his humility backstage.
Womenetics: How did Cliburn influence you in your life and business?
Manilow: I saw his love of people, how he made them feel important and how never to be satisfied. I lived by that. I’m never satisfied. He was an enormous influence on my life.
In 1968, Newsweek magazine had an article about this “new phenomenon” of women starting their own businesses. There was a tiny blurb about me in the piece. I happened to be riding with Van in a limousine and I said, “Van, listen, I’m a little swell-headed because of this little blurb in Newsweek. How the heck do you stay grounded?” He took my hand, put on his deep Texas drawl and said, “I’m the pianist. I know how I played, and I know I can always do better. The day I say I’ve done my best is the day I won’t have anything else to live for.”
In terms of my business, it’s the love of the challenge. I get so excited when I think of something new. It’s not anything grand, but it’s exciting. I think that’s what makes an entrepreneur. I’ve never worked a day in my life for money. No one took me seriously. I didn’t have the education, the money, the background. There weren’t organizations to help me, but that didn’t stop me. I simply had an idea, and I wanted to make it a reality.
Had I thought about the ramifications, the sleepless nights, the worrying…I never would have started anything. I think of the question from the book “Who Moved My Cheese?” What would I do if I weren’t afraid? Call me forward; call me gutsy, but I had to do it. Sure, I had downturns, but those happened from my own ignorance not because I was afraid.
Womenetics: The first business you started was employing stewardesses on their days off to work at trade shows. What was your thinking behind that idea?
Manilow: We were all in our 20s, fairly attractive. We all had days off, and we were snobs. Working exhibit booths was a great way to make some extra money. There wasn’t the technology there is today, so you had to have people working the booth. And people weren’t afraid to walk up to a pretty young woman to ask for information.
Womenetics: You essentially created an industry out of your imagination. And it seems like all your business ideas are an offshoot of needs you saw during your years as a flight attendant.
Manilow: Absolutely. I always say something comes from something. It doesn’t come from nothing. All ideas are taken from your observations. For example, I had all these women working at the trade show and someone asked if I could leave the show, go into Chicago and make copies. Instead, I went to the management of the trade show and asked for a little desk and a chair, and I’d put in a little copy machine and typewriter. They said sure. That was the first business center that McCormick Place ever had. It only happened because someone showed me there was a need. I went to McCormick Place a couple years ago to go to the Housewares Show, and I honestly choked back the tears when I saw the business center.
I saw businessmen using suites to wine and dine their clients. I thought the suites must be costing them a fortune. At the same time, the apartment building where I had my office was going condo. You only had to put $5000 down, and they had the mortgages for you. I bought seven apartments on that floor. Then I realized that the long-term rent I received would not be enough to pay the mortgage, assessment and the taxes. I would be about $300 a month in negative cash flow. I didn’t have it and already committed. I thought, “Fabulous. Why not take these guys and say, ‘Instead of paying all this money for a suite, I’ll give you this gorgeous apartment to entertain your clients.’” There I was buying loads of bottles of liquor and then re-selling it. I didn’t know how illegal that was! I had one housekeeper; she and I made the hors d'oeuvres.
At this time, AT&T was breaking up, and five of the “baby Bells” formed Ameritech. I was able to rent all my apartments to the purchasing department of the new Ameritech. I realized that this was the direction I should go — temporary corporate accommodations. But I also thought, why not put it all together? I included the services and amenities of better hotels along with the nice spacious living.
Womenetics: You built your businesses, including Manilow Suites, while you were still flying. What was the airline’s reaction to your growing entrepreneurship?
Manilow: Whatever I did, the airlines investigated me because how could a woman start a business like that? Stewardesses working trade shows? There had to be something illicit about it the first business, especially. In fact, Delta Airlines instructed their stewardesses that they could not work for me on their days off. That’s how powerful employers were back then. But they saw it was 100 percent aboveboard.
Womenetics: How and when did you make the decision to leave flying and focus solely on your businesses?
Manilow: I was coming back from a trip from Beijing, China, washing my hands in the lavatory, thinking of something entirely different when I looked up and saw myself in the mirror wearing the uniform. Out of nowhere I said to myself, “Francine, it’s not you anymore.” That was the last trip I ever took, 11 years ago. I realized that I had consistency in my business because I was always there. It was growing.
Womenetics: What was one of your most significant setbacks and how did you overcome it?
Manilow: I’ve had three major setbacks where I was on the verge of bankruptcy. The last one was in 2002, right after the tragedy on September 11, 2001. At that time, my revenues were only at $2 million; now they’re at $10 million. But the world stopped. Business stopped. All of a sudden I had apartments vacant, and I had people working for me. By the way, in all my years, in all my businesses, I’ve never laid anybody off. If I had a downturn, I was the one who didn’t take the salary.
By March, I was close to a half million dollars in debt. I realized a number of things. First, get a line of credit when you’re doing well because no one will talk to you when you’re not doing well. Second, understand accounting. I didn’t have a methodology in place where I was able to catch the beginnings of the downturn fast enough. By the time I did see what was happening, it was almost too late. Now I meet with my accountant every single week, looking at several percentages: revenue to rent, revenue to payroll and revenue to operating costs. As soon as there’s the slightest indication of a downturn, we can start making plans to address it. Thirdly, I think the best thing I did was that every week, I was in communication with anyone I owed money to. One woman said to me, “Francine, you were the only person that would call me. I’d call other people who owed us money, and they’d never take my calls.”
Also, after all these years, there were people who had confidence in me. I had apartments in a building owned by a large Florida-based company. When they learned how much money I owed they told the building manager, “Get those five day notices out and kick her out.” But this manager told them, “I know Francine. I know she’ll make good on that money.” She risked her position with her company to stand up for me. We worked out a plan to pay back the money, and I did it. You don’t have to be the smartest, just be the most tenacious.
Womenetics: And live up to your word. Part of the reason she was willing to risk her position was because you had integrity.
Manilow: Oh, that’s everything. How many people have I seen come and go in business because they’re out for the quick dollar? It’s so simple and logical to turn a satisfied customer into a loyal customer — candor, honesty and having people that share your values to work as a team and spread the good.
Womenetics: What do you say to woman starting businesses these days?
Manilow: Their lives are a lot easier. Many of them are afforded the education that I didn’t have. I went to two years of college but got bored. I knew I wasn’t going to be a school teacher, and that was it. So they have that. They won’t have as long a learning process as me, though I have no regrets.
When people come along and use you, lie to you and steal from you; turn your back. You might suffer for a while, but in the end you’ll turn out to be the winner. One of my truisms, which has never been proven wrong, is that a woman who is unhappy or ill will never do anything for another woman to make them happy or more successful. Run away from problem women. They’ll only hurt you in the long run.
Have tenacity — if you don’t have that drive from within, forget it. And if you have it then nobody has to tell you anything.
Other successful serial entrepeneurs:
LIke Francine Manilow, Jacque Butler creates businesses where she sees a need no matter the industry. Butler's ventures have been in the medical field, music publishing, real estate and more.
Despite her hard business background in banking and consulting, Karen Chung has turned to social entrepreneurship with Special Learning which provides Autism training, education and resources.
Susie Coehlo's career has been varied, to say the least. First a model, then a restaurateur and retail entrepreneur, Coehlo has made her mark as a lifestyle guru and HGTV host.
Patty Rasmussen is an Atlanta-based freelance writer. She spent 12 years covering the Atlanta Braves for ChopTalk Magazine and has written for Major League Baseball publications, Georgia Trend magazine, WebMD and Blue Ridge Country.