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Currents: she is the boss

In a male-dominated business, Jennifer DuBose Lombard '92 proves her mettle.

by Mike Gregory

In the early days of Lizzy Lift, the Chicagoarea company started by Jennifer DuBose Lombard '92 with her sister Elizabeth, it wasn't unusual for a customer to call and say, “Honey, can I talk to your boss?” Jennifer's response was always the same: “I am the boss.” As the president of a woman-owned business dealing in the predominantly male world of material handling equipment—think forklifts and cranes—she admits that being taken seriously by some customers was initially difficult. “They would discount what I knew,” says Jennifer, who grew up riding forklifts at her father's equipment rental business. “They'd say, 'Well, they don't make that kind of equipment.' I'd have to school them and say, 'Well, yes they do. I own four of them.'” Twelve years after its founding, Lizzy Lift has overcome that initial skepticism, building a loyal customer base and a solid reputation in the industry.

Originally from Oak Brook, Illinois, Jennifer came to Colby-Sawyer College after attending a boarding school in Wisconsin, where she had discovered an appreciation for studying in a smaller, intimate setting. Graduating from Colby-Sawyer with a business degree, Jennifer spent time in Colorado as a self-proclaimed ski bum (“I had to get that out of my system!”) before returning to Illinois to work as a sales agent for her father's company. In that position she frequently dealt with contractors who needed to use women-owned businesses (WBEs) to satisfy state regulations. “It was a problem trying to find a WBE,” says Jennifer. Encouraged by her clients and sensing a market opportunity, the budding entrepreneur teamed up with her sister and in 1998 Lizzy Lift was born.

Starting in a bedroom in Elizabeth's house, then moving to the basement, and finally to warehouse space in the Chicago suburb of Franklin Park, Lizzy Lift has managed to carve out a niche in a $1 billion industry filled with big names and many players. That niche, though, is not the one that initially formed the impetus for the company. Since its inception, Jennifer explains, her company has been used solely for its WBE status perhaps only a dozen times. “Our business just kind of grew in a different way,” she says. “I had a couple of clients who traveled and felt like they were getting taken advantage of financially as far as renting equipment. In Chicago, they might pay $900 per month for a 5,000 pound forklift. But when they went to Colorado they were paying $1,500. They asked me, 'Is there any way you can help us? Our costs are out of control when we do projects out of state.'” After successfully tracking down fairly priced equipment for these clients, Jennifer realized there had to be other people needing this sort of help.

Now Lizzy Lift specializes in locating equipment locally, nationally, and even internationally for clients seeking equipment or services as far away as England, Brazil and Jamaica. “We started with just forklifts and scissor lifts,” says Jennifer. “Now we do cranes, dumpsters, fuel services— basically, if it's not nailed down and we can rent it, we do.” Unlike most rental companies, Lizzy Lift owns only about one percent of the equipment they provide. They have about 25 pieces strategically placed around the country in Chicago, Memphis, Atlanta and New Jersey, but most of the time they are using their contacts, a database built over the past dozen years, to find the things their clients need. “We don't have a lot of overhead,” Jennifer says, which has been one of the keys to her company's success, and has helped her company weather the current economic climate.

Lizzy Lift was featured on the cover of an industry magazine in 2007 as part of a story on the growing role for women in what had traditionally been a male environment. So, are there differences in how a woman-run company might operate? “Women tend to take the extra step,” says Jennifer, “and we're more detail oriented.” She explains that Lizzy Lift prides itself on being a full-service company, providing customers with whatever they need. “The best compliment I've gotten from one of my clients is, 'I know you're not all just sitting around waiting for me to call and give you an order or have a problem, but when I call your office I always feel like you're waiting for me personally. You always take care of me right away.'”

Given that the company was started by two sisters who learned the business from their father, it's not surprising when Jennifer describes Lizzy Lift as “like a family.” As co-owners, Jennifer holds the title of president while Elizabeth is secretary and treasurer. Though the business is ostensibly named for her sister, Jennifer explains that she herself suggested the name. “It's something people won't forget. They'll know it's a woman-owned company, it sort of says what is. And that's half the battle —make someone remember your company name to use you again.” While Jennifer is more hands-on with the customers, taking sales calls and handling rentals, Elizabeth deals with the accounting, an arrangement that suits the sisters perfectly.

There are currently seven employees, down from a high of 13 a few years ago, when the economic meltdown forced a round of layoffs. During the first ten years of the company, every employee was a woman. “It wasn't on purpose,” Jennifer insists. “No men ever applied!” When two men did apply and were hired, they each lasted about four months. “We have a unique group of women with very strong personalities,” she laughs. “You kind of have to be tough because of the industry and people you're dealing with.” Finally, two years ago, Jennifer hired a man with whom she had worked at her father's company, and he has successfully fit into the Lizzy Lift family.

As for her father, Jennifer laughs when she says that sometimes she finds herself competing with him for the same clients. That's not typical, however. “For the most part we try to help each other out,” she says. “He's usually my first call if we need something in the Chicago area.”

Jennifer acknowledges that the rental business has been hit hard by the economic downturn. In 2009 the industry, whose lifeblood is construction, had a difficult year, and she routinely heard reports of profits down 35 to 40 percent. “The rental business is going through a huge change right now,” she says. “Everyone is just driving down price to keep clientele, to keep cash flow going. There have been quite a few Chapter 11s and restructurings. It's scary.” Happily, Jennifer sees positive signs of growth, and her company had a much better year in 2010 than the year before. She is determinedly optimistic about the future. “Because we're nimble enough, we'll persevere. I think we're going to be fine. There will be times of slimmer margins and times we're able to make more profit.”

When asked what advice she might give a young entrepreneur, Jennifer doesn't hesitate. “Failure is not an option,” she insists, sounding very much the embodiment of Midwestern plain-spokenness. “When you start your own business, you might have to tweak it a million times. We tried a lot of different angles to find clients. When I found a certain niche that worked for me, and clients that liked our services, I just monopolized it.”

In an industry that is as macho as they come, Jennifer DuBose Lombard is proving that all it takes to shatter the glass ceiling is a woman with a forklift.