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A Woman's Entrepreneurial Journey: Casters, Wheels And Industrial Handling Inc.

Small wheels roll into a big business

casters on a industrial cart

Lissa Wong is chief executive officer of Casters, Wheels and Industrial Handling, Inc. (CWIH), a leading distributor of casters and wheels for all applications, hand trucks and material handling products for warehouses such as ladders, dollies and pallet trucks. Lissa grew up in Brooklyn, New York. Her father emigrated from Canton, China, to the U.S. at age five. Her mother hails from New Jersey. When Lissa turned nine, her parents opened a Chinese restaurant in Queens, NY. “It was a true family business,” Lissa says. Every day, after school, she did her homework and worked there, making wontons and bagging noodles. Her parents instilled in her the ethic of hard work.

Growing up, Lissa’s dream for the future was to own a bridal dress store, “I loved fashion and wanted to help women on the biggest day of their lives,” she says. She graduated from Queens College, the first in her family to earn a degree. Shortly thereafter, in 1979, she decided she wanted to work in Manhattan and, through an employment agency, became assistant to the Director of Personnel at the advertising agency BBDO, while still helping out at the restaurant in the evenings.

Women’s Entrepreneurial Journeys

From Long-Time Employee to Owner

Lissa Wong, CEO/Owner of Casters

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Please see important information at the end of this program.  Recorded on April 18, 2018

MS. LISSA WONG: My name is Lissa Wong I’m CEO/Owner of Casters, Wheels and Industrial Handlings. We are distributors of casters, wheels, hand trucks and any type of equipment that goes into a warehouse.

When I worked for the former management of the company and I saw that they were up for sale I thought after ten years experience that I knew I could give it a go. Mentorship is very important. I was extremely fortunate to have met a husband and wife team who are in the same industry as I am. And when I started the business I would call her 5,6 times a day and she would give me all the time that I needed from her.

It is very important when you have your own business to have a succession plan and I was very blessed and fortunate to have our son become involved with the business. He’s been on board with us now for 5 years but he will be the helm and I’ll be working for him.

So I have been in this industry for over 30 years and the contacts that I do have I still deal with a lot of them. And it makes me feel good to know that I’m being complimented all the time by them saying “Wow. Lissa you did it.” And I said, “Yes, I did.”

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In time she married and gave birth to a son. Consequently, commuting to Manhattan began to lose its allure, and she started looking for work on Long Island, New York, closer to her home and family.

In 1982, an employment agency introduced her to the two co-founders and owners of two companies, Casters, Wheels for Industry and Industrial Handling Company, Inc. The Long Island-based companies were founded by the two good friends in 1959 and distributed casters and wheels, hand trucks, carts, ladders and dollies, pallet rack and conveyer systems. The owners interviewed her by phone, liked her, and hired her as the office manager and bookkeeper. Lissa worked there for over a decade.

Then, in 1994, the owners began thinking about retiring. Lissa participated in interviews with potential buyers. “Some came in and walked away or expressed interest in just one of the companies,” she says. Lissa had gone through a divorce and was dating John Mayberger, a sales manager for a cell phone vendor. She talked to him about buying CWIH together.

John reviewed the financials with his accountant, who, Lissa says, warned him: “Do not walk away from this opportunity, run away. It is a sinking ship.” Lissa acknowledges that the criticism was fair. But she was sure a new computer and phone system, and younger, hungrier salespeople would turn it around. She persuaded John that with her long experience in the industry and with his sales expertise, they would make perfect partners. He agreed to join her.

"Her parents instilled in her the ethic of hard work."

Becoming Owners— And More

With the thrift and drive she learned from her parents, by age 38, Lissa had saved $50,000. John also had $50,000 to invest; together they bought the two companies and, after the sale, combined them to become Casters, Wheels and Industrial Handling, Inc. From the beginning, John handled sales and Lissa assumed the reins of everything else.

A year after becoming business partners, they took their relationship a significant step further and became husband and wife. Working with a spouse can be tricky, and Lissa acknowledges that occasionally they would argue. However, their strengths and weaknesses complemented each other, she says, and their deep respect for one another helped tremendously. “We truly enjoy each other,” she says, “and the partnership has always worked well for us.”

Lissa and John were helped enormously by the mentorship of an older couple, who owned a similar organization in California and who were also in a second marriage. Moreover, one of the founders of CWIH proved tremendously helpful by continuing to work for them after the sale, advising them and managing projects. Shortly after the ownership transfer, he helped the company set up a car wash for a major German car company, resulting in a big bump in revenues and cash flow for Lissa and John.

Expansion

Lissa, who still prides herself on never taking on outside debt or equity, used the funds from that deal to improve the company’s computer systems and other processes. With new technology they were able to expand their product lineup and increase their inventory to offer immediate shipping. Over the course of the next eight years, CWIH grew substantially. With the decline in real estate prices after 9/11, they viewed it as the ideal moment to fulfill a long-standing goal: to purchase their own building.

Consequently, in 2002, they bought a 15,000-square-foot building in Farmingdale, Long Island, about 35 miles from Manhattan, and designed and built their headquarters and warehouse. This was done through a separate real estate entity called China Doll Realty LLC, after Lissa’s mother, a China Doll dancer in her youth. CWIH still leases the space from the LLC, and Lissa is proud that in five years they will pay off the mortgage and again return to Lissa’s preference of operating debt-free.

In addition to the Farmingdale location, Lissa opened a showroom in a rental space near the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City. Lissa, who is never seen without her four-inch heels and beautifully manicured long nails, loves her favorite marketing activity— walking around Manhattan on Saturdays and Sundays, tucking flyers in truckers’ windshields, talking to them and encouraging them to stop in the Manhattan showroom.

Since the 1994 purchase, “the venture has grown tenfold and, during the period of June through December of 2017, generated revenues of almost $4 million,” Lissa says. She credits this to their grit and the fact that CWIH has limited competition with only one firm of their size in Boston and another in Pennsylvania. Their largest customers include fabricators of medical equipment, refrigeration companies, bakeries, opera and Broadway show set designers, bagel stores and catering halls. Most of her revenue comes from the five boroughs, New York City metropolitan area and New Jersey, but she also has sales staff in Georgia and Pennsylvania. “Managing and motivating our sales professionals is an ongoing focus of mine,” she says.

While Lissa has no interest in winding down, her husband has started to retire, cutting back to working just a few hours a week. As part of this transition, she says, they transferred additional ownership to Lissa, increasing her ownership to exceed the 50% required to certify as a minority- and woman-owned business. She has completed her certification for Suffolk County, NY, where the headquarters are located, and is in the process of certifying elsewhere. She already has seen new orders from some major universities and government agencies. Asked why she would certify now, she explains that, until the last few years, their revenues were booming. “The application for certification is like writing a novel,” she groans. Although the certification process took a lot of time, she now looks forward to increased revenues as a result of bidding for and winning opportunities set aside for women-owned businesses.

With John headed for retirement, Lissa recruited her now-adult son into the firm and is training him to take over. At 61 she wants at least another decade of vigorous work to keep herself active and her brain alert. Nevertheless, she is extremely happy her son will eventually take her place. She says she feels financially comfortable when she thinks of retirement.

Men dominate the industry, Lissa says, “and even in my own firm, there are only two other women, one in customer service and the other in bookkeeping.” Nevertheless, she has excellent relationships with most of her clients, she adds, many of whom have been customers for three decades or more. She considers her role to be the calm presence in the midst of what she calls “the aggressiveness of my 12 male employees and mostly male vendors and clients.” She laughs as she admits that her employees call her “Mama Lissa,” due to her nurturing nature.

The key values that Lissa imparts in her corporate culture are the celebration of hard work and determination and maintaining a positive work environment through solid employment practices and attractive benefits. She offers a generous bonus program and enjoys giving employees the day off on their birthdays. She avoids micromanaging and believes that “trusting employees to know what they must do is the key to success.” She has numerous employee recognition programs for milestones and accomplishments and is proud of her employees’ long tenures and their commitment to growth. She is also honored to have a Wall Street Journal article written about her company in 2011. “One of our employees has worked with the company for almost four decades and his son has also worked for the company for two decades,” she says.

Lissa is proud that she and her husband have built CWIH into one of the top ten distributors in their niche. She recognizes that an actual startup would not have suited her. Her advice to other women is to do what she did: “Buy an existing enterprise after learning the ropes by working there first.”

Lissa also highlights that she prefers her company’s smaller size and has no desire to reach $20 million in revenues with the resulting demands of staffing up. Her goal is to grow to the $10 million-$15 million revenue level by hiring another salesperson and a sales support person. Lissa suggests that many women entrepreneurs resemble her. They find a niche and seldom pursue breakout expansion. ”Most men are driven to build an enterprise of size and compete, while women are wired to nurture and make their business the center of their meaning and purpose of life,” she says.

"Buy an existing enterprise after learning the ropes by working there first."

Lissa theorizes that women examine themselves and their businesses more critically and welcome suggestions from customers and employees. “Women are more resilient and often excel at taking in critical feedback from their stakeholders and acting on that to improve their world,” she says.

In summing up her life, Lissa says that “it took a lot of hard work to get where I am but hard work never killed anybody.” Two days a week she is in her office by 4 a.m., checking emails, followed by a 5 a.m. gym class. To this day, Lissa thanks her parents for instilling in her a solid work ethic. As for work/life balance, Lissa says that she walks everywhere she can and finds that travel is the best way to recharge her batteries. She is extremely happy that, by age 60, CWIH gave her the resources and time to allow her husband and her to visit all seven continents, including Antarctica — a true benefit of being an owner. “It gives one the possibility of doing anything,” she says. “Quite literally, you are your own destiny. The possibilities are endless. It is my source of energy and pride leaving work every day, knowing that I worked hard and feel fulfilled.” She adds that “one must accept the ups and downs, as no entrepreneur ever gets it right every time. Building a business is a journey; one must learn and adapt as it grows and, most importantly, one must maintain compassion for oneself to stay in the game.”

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