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Food distribution company on the path to smart growth, thanks to SBA’s Emerging Leaders

As she was just beginning the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Emerging Leaders program, a seven-month entrepreneurship education series designed to take small businesses poised for growth to the next level, in the spring of 2017, small business owner Sue Ecker faced unexpected challenges. Three of her employees quit at the same time, and though she brought on two replacements from an employment agency, neither worked out and they, too, departed quickly.

“Perception is as important in business as reality is,” said Ecker, who owns Abdale Corp. and Master Food Brokers, food distribution and logistics companies. “I was worried about losing business, keeping the cash flow positive, and getting the work done.”

In response, Ecker stayed focused and confident in her ability to run her business. She also remained committed to Emerging Leaders. Although participating was a big time commitment that even some participants cannot maintain during the course, Ecker knew the benefits of sticking with it would impact her business positively for years to come. Eventually, the business overcame its employment hurdles and continued to grow. And, along with more than a dozen other Illinois small business owners, Ecker graduated from Emerging Leaders with a detailed, three-year strategic growth plan tailored to her company and goals.

“I have learned excellent business planning and execution steps,” she said. “The friendships I made with others in the program are invaluable. I now work more ‘on’ my business as opposed to ‘in’ my business.”

Ecker, a lifelong Chicago resident, had owned her own business in the past but, feeling overwhelmed, joined a food brokerage company and a food distributor as an employee. “However, I longed for the lost independence and did not feel I fit into the job role in which I found myself,” Ecker said. She created Master Food Brokers, a food sales agency, first, but soon realized high minimum-order requirements from manufacturers blocked some customers from accessing certain products. In response, she created Abdale, which buys products in the required minimum orders and resells them in smaller quantities.

“I love being a decision maker,” Ecker said. “I love having the buck stop with me. It makes me feel like I have an impact on my life and the lives of others.”

Over time, Ecker has availed herself of other SBA resources, including in-person seminars and one-on-one mentoring with SCORE volunteers. “It has always been helpful,” she said, “But Emerging Leaders is by far the best thing I have ever done.”

Abdale has grown steadily since its creation, although they missed targets this year because of the employee turnover. Still, Ecker is optimistic for the future, predicting she’ll employ more than 200 people in the next five years, up from the 12 Abdale currently has. Through Abdale, Ecker sees a way to help other businesses grow. Making more products available to smaller purchasers creates jobs, helps those products reach more consumers, and, in some cases, can have an even wider impact. (Right now, they’re working on distributing a 100-percent compostable water bottle, where even the cap, label, and adhesive are made from plants.) Having a solid business plan has made a huge difference to Abdale, and Ecker shares the recommendation with all small business owners.

“You must know the direction you are going and be able to see potential pitfalls,” she said, reflecting on the lessons she took away from Emerging Leaders. “Day-to-day business can pull you in many directions. You need to stick to your plan.”

Company Name: 
Abdale Corp.
Elmhurst, Illinois