Susan Schwabinger started her professional career as a Wilhelmina model, walking runways and being photographed across the world. After marriage and a baby, she decided to go in a slightly different direction.
Here’s how that decision led to successful business ownership with great growth ahead.
When her daughter was three, Susan left the modeling world and moved to Florida to be closer to her parents. Utilizing her past experience, she landed a part time job as an instructor at a local John Casablancas modeling and acting school.
Recognizing her talent and business savvy, Casablancas soon offered her a full time director position. In just three years, she turned the struggling business around. Her location became the number one school in the U.S. and Susan recognized additional money making opportunities.
“I saw a lot of great looking girls and decided to hire photographers to take pictures and promote them. Eventually, casting agents starting noticing us.”
Susan bought the Casablancas school with personal funds and continued to run it while casting clients around the world.
“I owned the school and the agency at the same time and it was way too much. I was running back and forth between the two. It wasn’t working well for me so I sold the school back.”
Alexa Model and Talent was established in Tampa, Florida in November of 1987.
“I would be driving my daughter around while booking models on a cell phone that was about the size of an umbrella,” she laughs.
The money from the sale of the school kept her afloat and the business kept growing. In 1995, Alexa’s talent and client base expanded as they broke into the television and film market. Susan started working with big name brands like Nordstrom, Nike and L’Oréal. In addition to fashion and beauty, a lot of Alexa’s clients are geared towards lifestyle advertising for companies like Aetna Insurance, Merck Pharmaceutical and Publix Super Markets.
“We went from processing 6,000 invoices to processing 50 – 60,000 invoices,” she reports.
Despite the growth, Susan remains very hands on with agency finances. She previously earned a degree in fashion merchandising and took business classes to better understand the numbers.
“My education helped out tremendously with becoming a business owner,” she said. “I have an accountant for the day-to-day bookkeeping and invoicing but I do everything else.”
The agency currently has three full time employees, one part time employee and works with 250 – 300 models. One employee is Susan’s daughter who the agency is named after.
“I want this to continue to be a family business. I have a 4-year-old granddaughter. She not ready to run things yet but I have the next generation in line,” she laughs.
Due to increasing business, Susan began exploring funding.
“We grew too quickly and needed cash flow and working capital to help get us thorough the gaps,” she said.
While she was looking at loan options, Hurricane Irma swept through Florida. Her business took a hit as clients cancelled in the storm aftermath. Needing cash flow to get through, she obtained an SBA disaster loan to cover business losses. She found that application process difficult.
“I had to be approved on so many different levels. It was like purchasing a home but harder. I ended up working with five different people.”
After getting back on her feet, Susan needed additional funds to keep the agency afloat while waiting for receivables to be paid.
“When we put out invoicing, our return is 60 – 90 days,” she said. “Some pay within 30 days and some we’re still chasing. Believe it or not, clients that don’t pay quickly are some of the biggest companies. “
To bridge the time between invoicing and payment, Susan took out a short-term $43,000 loan. “You pay a very hefty price with short term loans,” she says. “You do what you have to do when you need that band aid to keep everything moving. Unfortunately, I ended up paying $56,000 over 10 months. It was a huge payment and cutting into cash flow.”
Searching for affordable funding, Susan came across SmartBiz. She knew a low-cost SBA loan was what she needed.
“SmartBiz was amazing,” she reports. “It was so much easier than the other SBA loan I received. I was approved quickly and Kalvin (her SmartBiz Relationship Manager) was great. He was wonderful getting me through everything and I had money in my bank account faster than I thought I would.”
Susan used the proceeds from the SmartBiz Loans SBA loan to pay off $9,000 of her expensive short-term loan. “It’s awesome,” she says. “My overhead came down drastically. So now we have no real cash flow problem.” The rest of the money will be working capital to keep the agency moving forward.
Susan is realistic about her future.
“I will probably never totally retire,” she said. “But I don’t have to work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day anymore. My daughter and other employees are a lifesaver and have given me a life back. They split up the duties and carry the load so I can begin to relax a little.”
She has some advice for other busy business owners.
“I’ve realized there’s a time that you can stay in the game and a time to start backing off and letting the youngsters take over.”
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