People 05 September 2017
With autoimmune illnesses and food sensitivities on the rise, GeeFree founder Susan Hougui set out to make great tasting gluten free food consumers can create right at home. Creating a line of delicious frozen foods items such as puff pastry, franks in a blanket, spanakopita, and chicken potpie, Hougui was first inspired to create her own unique pastry brand after a trip overseas.
After experimenting with gluten free pastry abroad, she knew that the United States needed such a product, and became a woman on a mission to perfect a truly delicious puff pastry. Partnering up with chef Steven Leyva, Susan’s GeeFree is now sold in approximately 800 grocery and health food stores, totally taking the frozen food world by storm. However, thanks to a recent infusion of capital from a food-conscious investor, Hougui believes that number will only triple by the year’s end.
“I was introduced to Billy Procida, founder of Procida Funding & Advisors, a year ago,” says Hougui. “Even though his company invests primarily in real estate, he believed in Geefree knowing that there is a growing concern regarding the foods we eat. He became a partner, and committed an infusion of one million dollars into the company for sales, marketing, distribution, and an e-commerce website.”
As GeeFree is ready to add more wheat-less products (hello sandwich pockets!) to their expanding line, Susan sees her brand becoming a household name in the gluten free industry in the next five years. And thanks to the newfound private equity, the brand is definitely on the right track, as GeeFree is even running a television ad, making it the first gluten free company to ever do so.
“We are currently running a commercial on broadcast television,” says Hougui. “This is the first time a gluten free company has ever run a television ad!”
But despite the success of her GeeFree business, Susan has faced some challenges along the way that have only made her stronger. Battling and surviving cancer for example, has given her unwavering gratitude for all her successes in life, encouraging her to move forward with purpose.
“Everything I do is never static, as everything is changing and is always possible,” says Hougui. “I have gratitude for what I have, and what I've accomplished, and that always gives me a sense of peace, no matter what happens in life.”
Being a woman in a male dominated company is another hurdle Hougui faces daily, but she views it more as a constant reminder of what women have achieved, and the never-ending necessity to continue to push forward.
“I see this more as a constant reminder how far women have come in the workforce and how far we have to go."
With gluten free food sales on the rise, it’s safe to say that we’ll be probably seeing more of GeeFree foods in the future. For more info on the company, follow them on Twitter and Instagram @GeeFreeFoods, or simply visit the company website here!
The Quick Ten
- What app do you most use?
The Google app on my phone
- What's the first thing you do in the morning?
Feed my cats!
- Name a business mogul you admire.
- What do you wish you invented?
- What is your spirit animal?
Seal or an otter!
- What is your life motto?
- Name your favorite workday snack!
A piece of cheese
- What's something that's always in your bag?
- What's the most inspiring place you've traveled to?
- Desert Island. Three things, go!
Fire starter, fishing gear, and another person of course
3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.