Home Interviews Andrea Ahern of Mid Florida Material Handling: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

Andrea Ahern of Mid Florida Material Handling: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

by Christina Gvaliant
Andrea Ahern of Mid Florida Material Handling: How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur

Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur  we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Ahern.

Andrea Ahern is a founder and part-owner of Mid Florida Material Handling, a material handling company based out of Orlando, Florida. With no formal background in material handling and no college degree, she runs a rapidly growing business in a traditionally male space. She leads company operations and human resources.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Andrea Ahern: Yeah, of course! I was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. My parents were pretty involved in the Jewish community there and I grew up in that environment. Overall, I think I had a pretty “normal’ midwestern childhood — cornfields, cows, driving aimlessly around, that kind of thing. My parents got divorced at some point which was a bigger deal then than it is now. Growing up in the Midwest was nice, but I won’t lie, I longed for something more.

Once I hit 18, I tried to escape to college but that didn’t last long. (For some reason sleeping and partying appealed more to me than studying — I definitely wasn’t alone at that age. I still don’t have a degree.)

My next move will tell you a lot about me — I picked up and moved across the country to NYC with really no support network. I’m not sure exactly what my plan was, but I wanted something more. After a few dead-end jobs, I eventually met my husband, we had three kids and we all lived happily ever after. (No, not really.)

I was happy with my stay-at-home mom life; I wasn’t unfulfilled, and I was perfectly content getting to spend so much time with my family and friends — unfortunately, life doesn’t really care about your plans. My husband, Kevin, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2008 and passed shortly after.

This brought me my first real test of entrepreneurship and emotional strength — I inherited his fence company and tried my best to make it work. I learned a lot in this period about business and people that I’ll definitely touch on later in this interview, but eventually, I had to sell the company to support my kids. That basically sets the stage for founding Mid Florida Material Handling.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Andrea Ahern: In some ways, the idea for Mid Florida Material Handling fell into my lap.

I had met Paul, my business partner, and now-fiancé, back in 2010. He was in the process of closing down his family’s company, Mid Florida Forklift, due to a series of uncontrollable events. Mid Florida Forklift was run by Paul’s mom, Nancy Hall, and his stepdad, Jim Hall. They had built a very successful forklift dealership that had three locations and over 50 employees. Unfortunately, right as the economic crisis of 2008 hit, they found out that a bookkeeper had embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars. With no capital and no sign of the economy returning, Mid Florida Forklift was forced to close.

Ever since my experience running my late-husbands fence company, I had a hankering for starting a new venture. (Trust me, I tried some wacky things over the years — including a low-carb bagel business — and no, they didn’t taste good.)

So, as Paul was closing his family’s business, I suggested we start our own. I really had no knowledge about the material handling industry, but I did have the drive to build something from the ground up. Luckily for me — I had Paul — who grew up in the industry and was truly a subject-matter expert when it came to warehouses.

We kind of said “what the hell” and went for it. We decided to expand beyond forklifts and focus our sights on being a “one-stop-shop” for material handling equipment and warehouse supplies. Pallet rack, mezzanines, shelving, conveyors, modular offices — if it goes in a warehouse, we can do it.

In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?

Andrea Ahern: A little bit of both, I think.

My whole life I had wanted to start a business and really have something that was mine. I would constantly think of new ideas to try, but I could never get the motivation to start. I was always convinced my ideas weren’t good enough or would fail. I was lacking that confidence and risk-taking ability that is so critical in entrepreneurship.

Being forced to take over the fence company developed those missing pieces. Whether I liked it or not, I had a business to run — my aptitude for risk-taking and making tough business decisions grew tremendously during my tenure as the president there. I still use lessons I learned during that period every day.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Andrea Ahern: Absolutely — do I have to pick just one?

My mom, Joy, never doubted me and supports me to this day.

My fiancé and business partner, Paul, sometimes has to remind me there are more important things than the business — especially when I’m up at 3 AM ready for the day. (We don’t go in until 8 AM.)

My kids (one works for me now), who went through the same struggles I did and have come out the other end stronger.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Andrea Ahern: I think we stand out because we are truly a “full-service” material handling company. We do it all when it comes to warehouses. Our goal is to prove that the saying “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” is wrong. We can sell you a forklift, service it, install the pallet rack to store your goods, and put it in modular office space. When you’re ready to move to a new location, we can handle the move or even liquidate your warehouse equipment.

We have a ton of stories where we’ve won jobs for being a “one-stop-shop”. One example is a major boat manufacturer based out of Fort Pierce — we’ve provided them with new forklifts as well as racking. Why go two to vendors when you can go to one? There is a major advantage to knowing that all of your warehouse equipment will work together, and our customers recognize that.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Andrea Ahern: 

1.The first trait is unbreaking honesty — this is so, so critical. It’s my goal that everyone at Mid Florida Material Handling is honest to the core, honest with customers, honest with vendors, and honest with themselves. There’s no room for “white lies” or deceit here.

It takes years to build trust and only a second to destroy it forever. We’re in this game for the long haul, we do things the right way EVEN if it hurts our bottom line. In the long run, operating with integrity pays off.

2. I credit a lot of my success to being a visionary and striving to be innovative. Material handling tends to be an old-school industry, shying away from digital marketing and technology advancement. I push my team every day to look for new ideas and solutions and to never be content with the status quo. The second you slow down you give your competitors an opportunity to catch you.

3. The last trait that I think has contributed to my success is anxiety. Yes, I know, most people do not look at anxiety as a positive trait, but in small doses, it can be. There is a reason there are so many anxious people out there — we have an evolutionary advantage. Our anxious minds are constantly considering what could go wrong and I use all these crazy ideas my brain throws at me to protect my business. Anxiety keeps me on my toes and gives me, even more, drive to keep innovating and striving towards success.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

Andrea Ahern: I’ve been told many times to build a business around something I’m passionate about. I wasn’t very passionate about material handling and warehousing, in fact, I didn’t really know much about it at all.

I spent a lot of my life looking for a passion I could build a business around. I ended up finding success doing the opposite — picking a business and then becoming passionate about it as I grew it.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?

Andrea Ahern: We work hard at Mid Florida to foster a family atmosphere. We do that by treating everyone as equals, from the leaders to the warehouse associates. Nobody is too small to sit down with me and have a chat. We keep an open dialogue between all levels here. When it feels like family, people want to come to work and help the company succeed.

Food always helps too — we do ice-cream Fridays, have a popcorn machine in our front lobby, and bring in catered lunches fairly regularly. It’s a small gesture, but our employees appreciate it.

What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?

Andrea Ahern: I’m going to sound like a broken record on this one, but my advice would be to never make promises you can’t keep. Like I said before, it takes years to build trust and only one mistake to ruin it forever. Be careful about the promises you make, people will remember your dishonesty and failure to deliver.

Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?

Andrea Ahern: It’s so essential — even more so now that we’re in a digital age. Any negative experience a customer or vendor has can be made immortal through various online review platforms. Dishonesty will not only impact your relationship with that specific customer but also with anyone that reads of their experience.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

Andrea Ahern: I’ve got a couple of great ones for this — some mistakes I’ve made myself.

  • Number one is hiring friends and family without a proper, unbiased interview and discussion of expectations. Friends and family can be some of your best assets or some of the worst. We vet friends/family extensively here, making sure they are given unbiased interviews and understand they will be under the same expectations as all other employees.
  • Expand too quickly before knowing their business. This is super common; you get a taste of success and try to eat the whole elephant in one bite. Take your time, make sure your business processes are sustainable before expanding into new territories or product verticals.
  • Losing sight of the customer experience. Ultimately, your customers will make or break your business. You need to be in tune with what your customer is experiencing. (Are they happy? Was the product delivered on time? What can we do, as a company, to improve their experience?)

 

 

Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?

Andrea Ahern: Being an entrepreneur is a lot like being a parent. You raise your business from the ground up and you own its success or failure. Unlike a “regular job” there’s no walking away — there’s no calling out sick — there’s no leaving a decision to someone else. The buck stops at you, and your actions directly affect your success.

The rewards can be so great, there is nothing as exhilarating as seeing your business succeed. On the other hand, the lows can be excruciating. Everyone needs to understand that entrepreneurs face a tremendous amount of stress around the success of their business.

Even in times of plenty (we’re lucky to be doing great right now), I don’t slow down, I speed up to try to ride the momentum into more success.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Andrea Ahern: Absolutely, we are an authorized Komatsu Forklift Dealer, and last year we sold our record number of new forklifts. When we were just starting up, we didn’t even have a forklift line — we were just selling used trucks. Now we have a phenomenal line of forklifts, and we’re hitting great numbers year after year.

Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.

Andrea Ahern: This one’s kind of obvious — when news broke of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shut-down that followed it, I felt incredibly vulnerable. I think a lot of small business owners felt the same — I didn’t know if we’d be able to keep operating, I didn’t know if sales would keep coming in, and I didn’t know if I would have to lay employees off. All the uncertainty brought me to a very low point.

Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?

Andrea Ahern: Really, we just went back to basics. Our sales team picked up the phones instead of doing site visits and we started investigating new industries to sell our products into. We tried to target industries that were exploding (e-commerce, biotech, etc.) to replace the industries that were slowing down (amusement parks, events, etc.).

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.

Andrea Ahern: 
  1. Always maintain your integrity. Don’t sacrifice your core values for a sale, the sales will come in time. We treat our customers with respect and foster a two-way relationship. There has been plenty of opportunities that we could have used our knowledge of the industry to take advantage of someone — instead, we educate our customers and know they will come back to us. 
  2. Build a reliable support network outside of work. I’ve surrounded myself with a great set of friends and family. I know when I’m at a low, they’ll support me. On the other hand, when I’m on a high, I share my success with them. I know I have someone to vent to when I need it, having that support system is huge.
  3. Surround yourself with a winning team at work. This goes hand in hand with #2. Just like you need a solid support network outside of the office, you need a team you can rely on in the office. One of our big initiatives in 2021 is improving our hiring process to bring in the best talent. Having employees you can count on takes a massive weight off your shoulders, allowing you to direct your focus to business development.
  4. Take some time off! Shut off your phone, unplug and disconnect. Taking a few days to reset will give you a renewed energy and a refreshed motivation to run your company. I took a wonderful, one-week vacation to a remote island in the Bahamas (NO CELL SERVICE) and I’ve never felt so fired up to return to work. You will return to work with new ideas and a burning entrepreneurial spirit.
  5. Try your best to keep a level head. When it’s your livelihood it’s easy to get emotional (whether it’s screaming or crying). Maintain an even keel — don’t let your emotions consume you. Most of the time, it’s more effective to be calculating and logical than emotional and “from-the-hip”. Making calculated decisions will help prevent a lot of the lows that can be caused by making poor decisions.

We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Andrea Ahern: Resilience is getting knocked down again and again but getting up anyway. You may fail a thousand times in a row, but all that matters is that you get up and succeed on the next attempt.

Resilient people come in all shapes and forms. I think resilient people are disciplined and optimistic. They don’t give up and they don’t lose sight of the opportunity that gave them the idea in the first place.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?

Andrea Ahern: I had some struggles growing up, but what I think really built my resiliency is my husband’s battle with cancer. Witnessing that, supporting him, trying to run the fence company, and providing for my family, built me up. I had no choice but to forge ahead — my kids were relying on me.

Once I did that, I felt like I could take on any obstacle. I use those experiences to drive me even today.

In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?

Andrea Ahern: My business partner and fiancé, Paul, is the key to my positivity during difficult situations. He has an uncanny ability to find the bright spot even in the darkest times. I tend to be more on the anxious side. We work great as a team, together we find a great balance between over-optimism and unproductive anxiety.

Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.

Andrea Ahern: A leader exhibiting positivity is inspiring and contagious. Maintaining a good attitude in response to adversity will build followership and foster a great team atmosphere. Nobody wants to work with, or for, someone that only brings negativity to the table.

Starting the day with a smile and bringing a positive outlook to problems (How are we going to make this better?) is key to building a resilient team.

Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?

Andrea Ahern: One of my favorite quotes is:

“Don’t cry about money, it never cries for you.” — Kevin O’Leary

I’m a huge Shark Tank fan and this quote really resonates with me. It reminds me to minimize my emotions in business. My passion can be a huge asset, but I try not to let emotions get in front of key decisions. If you’re losing money on something, don’t cry, take action!

How can our readers further follow you online?

Andrea Ahern: I’m not much of a personal social media person — but I manage our company’s pages, so feel free to follow me there:

LinkedIn: mid-florida-material-handling

Facebook: WarehouseMaterialHandling

Instagram: midfloridamaterialhandling

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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