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.”
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.”
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.