Aud Melås: Banking, Bulldozers, and Brewing Beer

Aud-1 2 (2) There are not many successful business women who would give up a well-paid and prestigious position at a successful start-up to move to a small Norwegian town – population 350 – to run a hotel. You might even call Aud Melås crazy, as she thought she was at the time, but there is a method to this ambitious woman’s madness: “I’ve lived in this role of change for so long it’s natural to me. It’s something I just do because I’m a very curious person. I love to learn new things. I hate to get stuck.”

While studying for her degree in business economics at the Norwegian Institute of Banking & Insurance and the Norwegian School of Business, Melås was working at Sparebanken Hedmark (a savings and loan bank) in the town of Hamar, Norway. Upon graduation, she took up a full-time position as a mortgage and tax advisor at the bank, and, by age 24, her career path in the banking sector lay solidly before her, but she wasn’t sure she liked what she saw. When they offered her a promotion to a management position, she thought, “If I say yes to this, I’m most likely going to stick with banking for the rest of my life. So I asked myself ‘What are you going to look back at when you are 50?’ Are you going to say ‘I wish I had’ or are you going to say, ‘wow! I’ve done a lot of interesting things in my life, not all of them went well, but at least I tried,’ So, I chose the latter, declined the promotion, and decided to return to school.”

Melås informed her (very supportive) employer of her decision and left with a “four year leave of absence” instead of a termination and even a scholarship to help pay school fees.

Looking for an English-speaking environment coupled with warm weather, she followed her life-long dream of moving to California. She did some undergrad work at the University of San Diego and started the MBA program there. On moving to San Francisco, she finished the MBA with the University of Phoenix and – in order to remain in the US – took a position at Civic Bank of Commerce outside San Francisco as a credit manager and later VP & Manager of commercial lending at California Bank & Trust. Despite earlier misgivings about staying in banking and finance, altogether Melås spent 15 years in the sector.

One day she got a call from a former employer’s HR Manager about an opportunity to work with an online auction start-up for heavy construction equipment. They were seeking people with talent to build up the business. “I said to her ‘Are you crazy? I don’t know anything about backhoes or bulldozers!’” Melås laughs. The woman agreed but added, “But you do know about finance and building networks.” Melås declined the high risk venture but the woman was persistent, calling her for three months.

After some reflection and on hearing the company’s new name, Ironplanet, she decided to go for it. “I knew the company was going to be a success. It was the right name. Building business is something I really like to do. I believe the name tells you a lot. And besides, the business plan was excellent,” she reassures.

In the meantime, the business-savvy Norwegian had negotiated a good package in terms of options and severance so she felt confident to change tracks. “Once I took the decision, I moved very fast. I didn’t hesitate. Clearly it was a life-changing move because if I had not left, I would have stayed in the banking industry.”

And so there she was, co-founder responsible for risk assessment, supported by a staff of only ten, with the goal of selling excavators and the like online. It was overwhelming starting from scratch to build the behind-the-scenes infrastructure, but Melås saw the potential in the online auction business and stuck with it. It was a good call. E-bay tried unsuccessfully to buy Ironplanet in 2002 and today it’s the world’ largest online auction platform for heavy construction equipment.

After 4 years at Ironplanet, Melås got her second interesting phone call. This time from her brother, a psychologist based in Norway, with the “opportunity of a lifetime” for his sister and her American husband, Evan. He had found a small 8-room inn with an indoor/outdoor café situated in an ideal location — Sognefjorden, Norway. “Frankly, I thought he was off his rocker. I could not believe he would seriously think I would want to leave this fantastic company that I love so much to start working in the hospitality sector.”

That evening she recounted the story to Evan, laughing as she imagined herself running a B&B at the end of fjord in Flåm, almost 5 hours by car from Oslo, the capital of Norway. Her husband’s response nearly knocked her off her feet. “Well, I might be interested,” he said. Evan’s Silicon-Valley- based graphic design company had suffered during the 2002 crash and in the meantime he was making ends meet as a carpenter and a mortgage officer. “Basically he was miserable,” Melås recalls. “Norway has always been a fairytale country for Evan. So naturally he jumped at the chance to start over and do something new. But I remained unconvinced.”

Knowing that his wife was the key, together with Melås’ brother, Evan starting plotting how he could change her mind. They called in the big guns with comments like, “your mother is not getting any younger”. It took three long months but she finally agreed to visit the inn, examine the balance sheets, and talk with the accountant about the health of the business. In early January 2004, Melås met the owners. At 5pm, it was already pitch black. But not dark enough that she couldn’t read the look of distrust on the owners’ faces: “I knew they were thinking … ‘oh this American woman will ruin everything.’”

But Melås was impressed with the figures put before her. Although there are only 350 inhabitants in Flåm, she learned that 1.3 million tourists come through each year and all of them have to pass the inn when they get off the cruise ships and boats. There was clearly more to the place than met the eyes. The next morning with the sun resting on the snow-capped mountains, she saw for herself: “It is an incredibly beautiful place. The inn is situated right on the water in idyllic surroundings. The potential was palpable. It would seem my brother was not crazy after all.”

Copy of R. Sørensen Bilder Hotellet 050 (1)Dazzled by the scenery, business potential, and plans for expansion, Melås agreed to give it five years on the condition she would keep the house in California and they would return if it didn’t work out. A key decision-making factor was her ability to maintain the current staff. She signed on the dotted line and got on a plane to San Francisco to pack up her life. Midway over the Atlantic, panic set in. “I thought ‘Oh my god, what have I done?’ It was almost like it wasn’t me who had been to Norway. The numbers had looked great but in reality I had no idea how I was going to do it.”

The next few weeks were difficult. She had to face the fact she was leaving Ironplanet, a company she had helped build from scratch. “That was tough. It was my baby. But I had made a decision and needed to move forward. Evan had no such doubts. He was over the moon!” she laughs.

Melås had no romantic illusions about running an inn. “My aunt and uncle owned a small hotel and worked themselves into the ground…literally, as they both died before turning 70. I learned an important lesson from that. I would not want to build a business in such way that it would stop functioning without me being present.”

While her previous experience was clearly a bonus in terms of organizing, planning, putting start-up strategies and infrastructure in place, and dealing with the local bank, the first two and half years were hard going (to put it mildly). Legal issues put the plans for upgrading the hotel and building a micro-brewery on hold, but also it was difficult for Melås to return to Norway after so many years abroad. She recalls: “I don’t remember how many times I almost packed my bags to go back to California. I loved my life in the US. I had great friends, a wonderful job. The culture here was so foreign to me even though I visited every summer. Being the boss was hard as I tried to navigate the labor laws. It was much easier for Evan. He adjusted really well and picked up the language. He was adopted right away. Me? I was known as ‘Iron Woman’… let’s just leave it at that.”Aud & Evan ved Ægir ute

Once they got past the legal wrangling, the couple renovated and expanded Flåmsbrygga Hotel and went ahead with their plans to open a Viking-themed brewpub (a pub that brews its own beer), on the premises. They were only the second brewpub in Norway at the time and the 9th micro-brewery overall. Eight years after taking over the inn, a brand new production brewery and a 15-room staff house were installed.

Named after Ægir, the Norse giant who lived where the river and the ocean met and brewed beers for the gods of Åsgard, Ægir Brewery boasts 40 varieties of beer, has won the accolade of ‘Best Beer’ in Norway, and taken home three silver medals at the Australian “Olympics of Beer Brewing”. “Norwegians are usually quite modest, but if I am allowed to brag a little, we are number one in Norway in our category,” Melås says. “Unlike the US, the brewpub is a unique experience here. We are investigating franchising opportunities and looking to increase exports to the US market. Our unofficial slogan has become ‘Why not?’ as this has proven to be an effective approach up to now,” she laughs.

The five-year self-imposed re-evaluation deadline came and went unnoticed. In year six, they knew they were staying. Now, in their tenth year of operation, Melås and her husband have grown the business from a small B&B to a multi-million-dollar venture. “I would never have seen myself here. Everyone thought we were going to fail … many were eagerly awaiting a big bankruptcy when we started investing in brewing. But Evan and I believed in our dreams and in the end, it’s been a wonderful ride. We had one goal: one day we would make money while we were sleeping!  We reached that goal some years back and now we sleep very well indeed.”

Tips from Aud Melås

  • Follow your gut and dare to be different. You don’t have to be a sheep.
  • Don’t fool yourself. Running an inn is like any other business – to get to the stage where you make money you, you must work really hard. You are always working when  your friends are on holidays, you work weekends, etc. There are no short-cuts!
  • When you open yourself to change, the most unexpected things can happen.

Questions for Aud? Post them in the Comments section and we’ll be sure she sees them.

Inn Sync: Sherri Fickel and Kevin Kraditor Spreadsheet Their Way to a Dream

Innkeepers(Special guest appearance in this column by a man (!), a critical partner in this Career2.0er’s dream come true.

As if it were yesterday, Sherri Fickel recalls the conversation she had with her husband Kevin Kraditor as they celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary back in 1998. It’s likely a conversation many people have had while on vacation, away from all the stress, relaxing over a glass of wine. “We had been hiking, which we love to do, and were in this cute little town, discussing how we had always wanted to do something different … we both really loved to entertain, Kevin wanted to garden more, and I wanted to renovate an old house. And then it hit us, why not run a B&B? We were both really excited and it felt right.”

Although the time wasn’t quite ripe for such a move, the hardworking, and risk-averse pair, then in their early thirties, didn’t abandon the idea.  When they returned home, Sherri and Kevin agreed to look for a property, renovate it slowly and possibly use it initially as a second home, while continuing to save money. The plan was to work towards establishing a second career as innkeepers, years down the road when they reached their early fifties.

They set their sights on Sperryville, VA, a small town near the Shenandoah National Park, just 75 miles outside of DC, close to the famous Inn at Little Washington. It was an ideal location. After all, they loved to visit Sperryville with its idyllic small town feel and great hiking. And they figured being just down the road from a world famous restaurant would be a good for business.

Following their first anniversary trip, they returned to Sperryville several times over the next couple years and in 2000 they started looking for a home. During their house-hunting trip, the couple stayed at another Sperryville inn. Over breakfast, the owner casually inquired about their plans for the day. Responding sheepishly that they were looking for a property with plans to open a (rival) B&B, they were shocked when she replied, “Nonsense, you wouldn’t be my competition, you would be my colleague.”  The genial response dumbfounded the couple who were used to cutthroat DC, and took it as another sign that they were moving in the right direction.

The innkeeper had another surprise in store for them when she suggested they look at a nearby property not yet on the market. With two large wrap around porches and at least seven historyfireplaces, it was ideal. Built in the 1820s, the building had gone through various identities, and was converted to rental apartments in the 1970s. It took six months for all the apartments to turn over, which gave Sherri and Kevin a chance to check them out before they were rented again.  At that time, they were finally able to make an offer on the building, which was once again full of tenants.

For some time after that, the couple continued to live and work in DC but spent their weekends in Sperryville to manage the apartments they had rented. The building was paying for itself and Sherri and Kevin focused on increasing their savings at home, with their sights set on the long-term goal of moving out to the inn eventually on a full-time basis.

But in 2004, they had an epiphany.  “Our lives were fine but there was no passion in them. We were both in jobs we had fallen into, paying the bills, making a nice living, and living in a cute house on Capitol Hill. But we thought, ‘What if we spend the next 10-15 years working towards this goal, only to discover we hate being innkeepers? Wouldn’t it be better to find out now?”

Shortly after deciding to “go for it,” they were crushed by the estimates of the cost to convert the property to a B&B, double what they had anticipated. The couple, who had a pact to never get used to a lifestyle that they couldn’t support by waiting tables, paused and agreed not to discuss it for a couple of weeks, both unsure if they were willing to take on a massive amount of debt to fulfill their dream.  “When we came back together, we unequivocally agreed, ‘Let’s do it!’ It was the biggest risk we ever took.”

kitchenflurrysmallIn August of 2004, the couple started a full-scale renovation on the Inn, a move that Sherri recalls required “significant lifestyle changes.”  Sherri quit her permanent job at the Red Cross as an IT project manager, instead becoming a consultant where the take home pay was much greater, but the benefits all but gone. They decided to live entirely off Kevin’s salary as a labor economist for the American Academy of Physician Assistant, so they could save all of Sherri’s: “We brought brown bag lunches to work everyday and only allowed ourselves to go out to dinner once a month.  We HAD to save money. We had spreadsheet upon spreadsheet upon spreadsheet with different plans for how to make it work. We just hated the idea of being stuck in our jobs to pay off the loans.”

They made further cuts by renting out the top of their house in DC and living in the basement, finally figuring out that if they sold their house in DC, and put all their equity into the Inn, Sherri could quit her job and Kevin could telecommute from the Inn: “At that point, my whole passion was in Sperryville, so we made the jump. It was a crazy time in DC real estate, the house went up in an escalation clause and the winning bidders allowed us to stay in the basement an additional six months for free,” Sherri happily remembers.

They sold their house and opened The Hopkins Ordinary, in June 2005. Sherri remained as a consultant to the Red Cross until August of 2005 and Kevin telecommuted until 2008, when he made the leap to work full time at the Inn.

Nine years on, the Inn is going strong. At two years beyond the typical “inn burnout” of seven years, the couple sees no end in sight. “We were ready for hard work and it was. For a couple years we did all of it and had no time off, but over the years we’ve been able to hire people to do some of the less attractive work like scrubbing toilets and making beds. Now we also allow ourselves two weeks off in January and two weeks in August.”

The payback for all that hard work? “We love what we do. We love making our guests happy, watching as they discover Sperryville. It’s really rewarding. We have many repeat guests and many guests have become very good friends. It’s not just a job. Its our life.”

And while they acknowledge they have foregone higher incomes, making the switch to inn-keeping has clearly given them a higher quality of life than they could have ever achieved in DC: “We love the flexibility and the feeling of freedom that comes from running the show. It may not be an extravagant life, but it’s a secure life.”

And they already have their sights set on career 3.0. The two are preparing to launch a “nano brewery” at the inn this Fall. As Sherri explains, “We love running the Inn but doing it for many years can get stale if you don’t give yourself new challenges.”

Their daily life and interaction on the day we spoke we spoke with Sherri sums it up perfectly. In her words: “Today, we made the guests breakfast, went for an 8.5 mile hike, came home, didlavender1 the laundry, ironed, prepped for incoming guests, and did some minor work for the brewery renovation. As I prepped for tomorrow’s breakfast, Kevin headed out to mow the lawn and we just smiled tiredly at each other. Then he smiled at me and said, ‘We’re doin’ it.’ The only response is a return of the phrase, and then we get back to work, but with a smile and new energy.”

They are living the dream, and for Sherri and Kevin, doing it together has made all the difference.

Sherri’s Tips for Success:

  • If you have to personally make a huge financial investment in your new venture, make a budget, run the numbers and make lifestyle changes. Even huge numbers may be possible with the right lifestyle adjustments.
  • Similarly, be willing to make short-term sacrifices on your quality of life to achieve long-term goals.
  • Don’t assume your life can’t be like the life you see on vacation. There’s no requirement that you have to live in a city and sit in an office. Think outside the box.

 

Discussion?

Have you ever fantasized about working in the travel or hospitality industry?

 

 

 

 

Cathy St. Denis: Cinderella in Provence

CathyStDenisWho among us hasn’t fantasized about tossing away their corporate job for something more fun, more glamorous, more … more of anything that you’re not getting at your current job.  Sometimes, the opposite of where we are seems like just the place we want to be.

For Cathy St. Denis, that fantasy was sparked when frustration at work and a longing for something totally different collided during a 2001 spring vacation through in France. The wheels started turning after a day hike through Provence, when St. Denis and her tour group stopped at a charming bed and breakfast.

An early evening of chatting with the innkeepers while sipping wine and drinking in the scenery culminated in learning that each year the inn hired an apprentice to help run the show – a nine-month position where you could learn the “inns” and outs of the B&B business. Et voilà! The seed was planted.

St. Denis returned home to her demanding corporate communications job in Washington, D.C. but continued to mull over the idea … could she be the next apprentice? She was energized by thoughts of chatting with guests from all over the world, perfecting her baking and cooking skills, and exploring Provence in her free time. But not one to rush into things without careful planning, St. Denis planned a fact-finding trip to Napa to visit two women-owned and run inns. But the trip, planned for September 12, 2001 was postponed due to the tragedies of 9-11, an event that helped cement St. Denis’ determination even further. If life can change on a dime, why waste another moment fantasizing? Just get on with it.

So St. Denis charged ahead, applying for, and securing the internship due to begin on March 1, “shoulder season” in the inn business. Although she knew her adventure was certainly not going to be a fortune-making one – the B&B offered a small stipend and room and board, but no salary – it also carried little financial risk should it not work out.

The innkeepers were clear on her responsibilities: preparation of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “The duties were openly discussed, but the actual length of the working day was not,” says St. Denis, who noted alarm bells started going off shortly after she arrived. “In the first couple of weeks on the job, it was apparent to me it was going to be a slog.”

Her day began at 6 a.m. when she was instructed to turn on the warmer for the frozen pastries, by 8 a.m she was scuttling between serving breakfast, making fresh croutons and other items for the menu later in the day, and stripping the guest beds – six rooms worth – many with multiple beds. By 10 a.m. when breakfast had ended and the communal table was cleared, St. Denis began the laundry, which involved 2–10 loads depending on the number of guests. This was not a simple process as the sheets had to be hung out to dry. “The owner was, how shall I say, very particular about how the laundry was done, and if you didn’t do it precisely, we’ll, hell hath no fury…”

In between loads, on most days St. Denis would get started on dinner and dessert, a task that took most of the day. And while the guests were eating, she would race upstairs to do the turn-down service, quickly returning to take care of any post-dinner needs. By around 10 p.m. she was ready to tackle the kitchen – a restaurant-sized kitchen that had to be cleaned from top to bottom each night, including the dishes, some of which were too delicate for the dishwasher. After that, she set up for the next morning, returning to her room just before midnight, like Cinderella, to get a quick night sleep before the next day.

While St Denis took care of everything at the B&B, the innkeepers took daily siestas, and despite one of them being a classically trained chef, they still relied on their apprentice for most of the food preparation. For St. Denis, there was little chatting with guests, few trips exploring the nearby towns, and little-to-no camaraderie with her fellow innkeepers. Instead she developed dark circles under her eyes and lost 22 lbs. despite being surrounded by creme brulée, rich cheeses, and paté.

In June, she knew she needed an exit strategy and, within a month, gave her notice for September 1, a more-than-fair amount of time for the owners to find a replacement. Their response? “But who will watch the inn while we go on holiday?”

Sometimes you fantasize about a life change or a new job, and it turns out to be just that … a fantasy. “I knew within a month, I had no desire to ever own an inn,” says St. Denis. Even the owners, who relied so heavily on their staff, were tied to their B&B for nine months a year, a responsibility that didn’t seem appealing, despite the one positive experience of chatting with guests, 95% of whom were lovely, she says.

“You know, I realized I had a really good life in Washington with good friends, a great house, a successful career, and I owned my time.”

Today, more than a decade later, St. Denis is happily still in communications in the transportation industry…although she still occasionally fantasizes about perhaps working at a winery.

Tips From Cathy:

  • If you are considering a drastic career change, minimize your financial risk. Don’t invest any of your own money until you’re sure about the switch.
  • Do your research!  If a potential employer dangles a shiny object in front of you, be sure to ask about the downsides! Or better yet, ask to speak with someone who previously held the position.
  • Go for it! Things may not work out but the experience can still be rich.

Discussion

What job have you fantasized about?