Cheryl & Co. founder discusses leadership, a biz’s most valuable assets

After graduating from Bowling Green State University in 1974, Cheryl Krueger began working for Limited Brands, learning the ins and outs of retail. Seven years later, she and a college roommate opened Cheryl’s Cookies in Columbus. Initially the company offered just six kinds of cookies, but eventually it broadened its offerings to include gourmet foods and gifts, and became Cheryl & Co.

Over time the business grew into a multi-million dollar corporation that included retail stores, an internet business, a catalog business, and a business gift division. Krueger sold Cheryl & Co. in 2005, but continued to serve as its president through 2009.

Cheryl Krueger, Founder of Cheryl & Co.

That same year she founded KRUEGER + CO. Consulting Inc., which helps companies develop creative marketing and sales strategies, as well as evaluate product development pipelines, operations, logistics, and financial performance.

Considering Krueger’s extraordinary story, we thought she’d make an ideal Metropreneur interviewee. Here Krueger shares what she’d do differently if given the chance, how she rewarded workplace excellence, and to whom she attributes her success.

The Metropreneur: In your opinion, what quality is necessary to be an effective leader?

Cheryl Krueger: I think there are many qualities necessary to become an effective leader, but if I had to choose one quality it would be “vision.” Great leaders have vision, the ability to see the invisible and do the impossible. Some recent great visionaries are Les Wexner− Victoria’s Secret, Steve Jobs− Apple, and Howard Schultz− Starbucks. Each one of them identified an opportunity that no one else saw, then built large companies through their vision.

[M]: When you were at the helm at Cheryl & Co., what was the biggest obstacle you faced and how did you overcome it?

CK: The greatest obstacle, in my opinion, is finding and retaining great people for long periods of time. It is a real challenge to find associates that have the same work ethic that you do, as well as finding people that truly believe in your vision and want to make that happen. Once you have found good talent, it is often times difficult to keep them because the competition wants to take them from you.  Great people are any company’s most valuable assets.

[M]: If you could go back and do it all over again, what would you do differently at Cheryl & Co.?

CK: We created an advisory board 12 years after the company was established. If I could do it over again, I would have selected an advisory board within a year of starting Cheryl & Co. My advisory board was composed of financial experts, marketing experts, etc. who proved to be very helpful in providing us invaluable information. I think we would have made fewer mistakes and would have seized more opportunities throughout our startup years with a well-structured advisory board.

[M]: How did you reward excellence in the workplace?

CK: When I started the company, I had a philosophy that I embedded in the company, which was to “catch” people doing things right, then recognize them for their outstanding effort. We had a very sophisticated incentive program that applied to every associate of the company.   Not only did we award cash incentives and trips, but how we delivered their incentives was critical to leverage the value of their incentive.  Our associates truly embraced the Cheryl & Co. incentive program.

[M]: How did you handle poor performance?

CK: When we had someone that wasn’t performing, we put them on a probation program where they were closely monitored and given three chances to meet their goals and objectives. Sometimes we moved people to other parts of the business that might be a better fit, and other times we parted ways.

[M]: You sold Cheryl & Co. in 2005. How did you know it was time to sell?

CK: I am not sure if you ever know when is the right time to sell your business. We knew the dollar value of the company and we were not for sale at the time the offer was made. After several months, the buyer offered us more than the dollar value we had established and it was simply too good of an offer to refuse.

[M]: What advice do you have for an entrepreneur who is just starting out?

CK: It is critical that you truly understand the risks and challenges of starting your company, secure at least two years of cash flow, and establish a clear understanding of how your startup business will impact your personal goals.

[M]: To what do you attribute your success?

CK: Faith! Faith in myself and faith in God. When we faced our darkest times, it was my faith in God that helped me through those difficult times.

[M]: How do you start your day?

CK: I usually start my day with a prayer. Then I feed and walk my dogs to get some fresh air. I then check my email, make my phones calls, have some breakfast, workout, then get ready for meetings that I have scheduled each day.

[M]: Is there anything else you think we should know?

CK: Now that I have sold my business, I have more time to volunteer my time and talents to causes that I am very passionate about. I spend a lot of my extra time raising money for the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute. It is very gratifying being able to help others.

Cookies photo provided by Kit Yoon.