American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Erin & Gabriel Gilliam (Pirtek & Miracle Method)
By Nesha Ruther
From the time Erin Gilliam was a young girl, she always had an entrepreneurial instinct. “I would ride my bike to the far-out convenience store and come back and peddle all the goods for a slightly higher price. I always had an innate passion for doing entrepreneurial things,” she says of her early business instincts.
Erin followed those instincts to business school at Colorado Mesa University, where she met her now husband and long-time business partner, Gabriel. In college, she began experimenting with small business ideas. It was during that time that she developed a passion for franchises.
Erin and Gabriel both got student jobs at Domino’s Pizza. While most people would have seen this job as a temporary necessity, Erin saw it as an opportunity. “That was my first introduction to the world of franchising,” she says. “It seemed intriguing to me because for somebody who doesn’t have their own great entrepreneurial idea, there’s an opportunity to run a business that already has a proven system.”
Erin graduated from Colorado Mesa but continued to be interested in franchises and what it would mean to be a franchisee. It was her father that introduced her to Pirtek, an Australian company specializing in hydraulic hose fabrication. “My dad was from the mining industry in Colorado. One day he said to me, ‘I came across this Pirtek business, and Erin, if anybody could do this business, I think you’d make a million bucks,’” she says.
Erin was intrigued and began looking into Pirtek. A derivative of the Italian rubber hose company Pirelli Technologies, Pirtek had begun in Australia but developed into a franchise throughout the U.K. and U.S. In many ways, Pirtek was everything Erin had admired about franchises; it was a global company with a proven method that had found success in its niche.
When Gabriel finished his military service, the pair moved from Colorado to Washington, where an opportunity emerged for them to open a Pirtek franchise, which they did in 2006. Suddenly, Erin became enmeshed in the world of on-site hydraulic hose fabrication. “I think when a lot of people think of franchises, they think of restaurants or food concepts, but this is very industrial, very business-to-business,” Erin says.
Hydraulic hoses are an incredibly important piece of technology. Just like the hose in your backyard transports water from the spigot to the flower bed, hydraulic hoses transport hydraulic fluid to the machinery that is powered by it. Hydraulic hoses are typically made from flexible rubber or wire, featuring multiple reinforced layers to ensure the fluid travels safely and unimpededly
While many people are unaware of what hydraulic hoses are, franchisees like Erin are critical to ensuring the hoses work properly, and therefore that industries from construction to agriculture can continue to run smoothly. Erin and Gabriel in particular, often worked with the military, repairing hydraulic hoses for the Coast Guard and the Navy.
“We had service technicians that we would guarantee would be on site in an hour or less, and our technicians would remove, fabricate, and refit a hydraulic hose right on site,” Erin says. The efficiency of the repair is critical, as a damaged hydraulic hose can bring an entire production line to a standstill and take vital machinery offline until the hose is replaced.
Erin had found the proven business strategy she was looking for, and she loved being a part of the Pirtek community. Their business had an incredibly strong first year. However, not even the most established of businesses were prepared for 2008. “It was just like a brick wall,” Erin says. “Our revenue dropped 50% in a matter of months.”
Erin and Gabriel’s business was located in a local industrial park, when they began, the park was home to 28 businesses, by the end of 2008, there were only three. Through grit, resilience, and occasionally sheer luck, Erin and Gabriel’s business was one of them.
While the pair had both been to business school, Erin also cites Gabriel’s childhood work experiences as contributing to their success. “My husband’s father was an entrepreneur. He had always been entrepreneurial and owned a couple of different businesses; his last and most successful business was a large-scale dog kennel,” Erin says. “My husband grew up working for his dad, working in the family business and I think we really did benefit from his experience of working for his parents because he would talk about the high interest rates in the 80s, so he just had this kind of thick skin. This is what business is.”
At one point, times were so difficult that Erin took another job to help bring in more reliable income. She took a position as an Account Executive for a fire alarm sales company. A few months into the job, Gabriel approached her asking if she was going to get a commission that month. “I was like, ‘Well yeah, I think so.’ And he said, ‘Good because we’re probably going to need it to make payroll,’” Erin recalls.
While the pair now laughs at the story, the intensity of the moment is not forgotten, and neither is the tremendous perseverance they displayed in choosing to stay in business. “I think there were so many opportunities where we could have said, ‘You know what, it’s too hard, we’re not going to do it.’ But every time we got into one of those situations there was just something in both of us that said, ‘Whatever you do is going to be hard, you might as well pick what your hard is going to be. If we fail, we fail, but we’re not going to give up,’” Erin says.
During the recession, many banks were taken over by the federal government, including Umpqua—Erin and Gabriel’s bank. Not only was the transition chaotic and unorganized, but many of the longtime bankers Erin and Gabriel had built relationships with were no longer there.
To make matters even more stressful, the pair was approaching the deadline for applying for a loan. In order to qualify for the loan, they were in the process of buying out a business they had a partnership with, which required a complete refinancing of their own business. “It was either get the loan or lose the business,” Erin says. “I just worked tirelessly for the entire year, trying to present our information to the bank, that we were woman-owned, veteran-owned, that despite the recession we were still producing numbers and we had a plan and whatnot. We just couldn’t get anywhere, we were such a small business.”
This experience is in no way limited to Erin and Gabriel. Working with banks has been and remains a particular pain point for small businesses across the country. “Banking and capital is in my experience one of the biggest challenges for small businesses. I always tell people now, the only time you can get money from a bank is when you don’t need it,” Erin says.
Erin and Gabriel’s loan application was due December 31st, 2009, but Erin had been unable to complete it. “I was up all night agonizing. I just felt horrible that I hadn’t gotten this done. For me, that felt like our biggest failure,” Erin recalls. At the time Umpqua had a program called “Coffee Chat” a public forum where members of the community could connect online.
Unable to sleep and heartbroken that she was about to lose the business she and her husband put so much into, Erin wrote an impassioned plea. “I went on and I wrote this huge, emotional plea, explaining our journey and what we had been through, and how I felt that we had just been completely ignored.
The following morning, shortly after 9 A.M., she got a phone call from the Vice President of that division of small business banking at Umpqua. “He said, ‘Erin, I read your comments and I looked into your file. We are going to get this done. Someone from the department is going to be reaching out to you today, and we’re going to get you this loan.’ Still, to this day, that gives me chills,” she says.
While Erin and Gabriel gave that business everything they have, they couldn’t deny the amount of luck that also went into their survival. “I’ve heard sometimes that being in business is just the combination of so many things, but you can’t overlook how much luck is required,” Erin says. Thankfully, less luck was needed from there on out, and with the loan from the bank, the pair was able to get back on solid footing and continue to grow their business.
Erin and Gabriel benefitted from bringing their respective skill sets to the table. Erin’s creativity, eye for detail, and people skills enabled her to build up the sales and marketing side of the business. Gabriel meanwhile had a strong sense of order from his military background and used that to develop systems and processes for the company. “I think there was a lot of value in us both bringing our different strengths to the business,” Erin says.
The pair had successfully grown the business to the point where it was healthy and viable. They decided it was time to sell.
“When you look back, you’re like, ‘Wow that really was such an adventure and such a formative experience in our lives as entrepreneurs,’” Erin says.
Erin and Gabriel reached out to Gregory Kovksy at IBA to serve as their broker. “We were so fortunate to have been able to find Gregory. I had done a lot of research on finding a good business broker, and one of the things I love most about my encounter with him is that he’s super knowledgeable, just a tremendous depth of knowledge, but he was also really candid with us and said, ‘You’ve got a great business, you’re close, but if you make a few operational changes and wait a year, you can probably get a lot more value than what your business is worth right now,” Erin says of the experience.
They followed Gregory’s advice and took a full year to better prepare the business. They listed their branch of Pirtek in January 2015 and found an immediate connection with a potential buyer in a matter of days. Little did Erin know that her experience working with Gregory would impact her career in the years to come. “Gregory was so educational. I value that a lot as an entrepreneur, any time I can absorb information or learn from other people. I enjoyed the process so much,” Erin says.
After selling, Erin and Gabriel moved back to Colorado where Erin continued her passion for franchises in a position as Director of Marketing for a corporate franchiser. “I got to work on the other side of the veil per se,” she says. “It was great because I had been in their shoes and was super eager and passionate about helping them grow their businesses.”
It was through that position that Erin connected with a franchisee in Salt Lake City who had not renewed his agreement. It had been a personal goal of Erin’s to get that franchisee secured in Salt Lake City, her husband suggested that they do it themselves. “At first I thought, ‘Oh my gosh that’s crazy,’ but then I got excited about it and thought, ‘You know, we’re both crazy.’” The pair ended up moving to Salt Lake City and setting up their own branch of the kitchen and bathroom resurfacing franchise, Miracle Method.
As veteran franchise owners, the pair was able to run the businesses successfully, and do in five years what it had taken them ten to accomplish with Pirtek. “[The prior franchise] made us vastly better business owners,” she says. “We instantly began to sharpen the pencil and do what we needed to do to ensure the survivability of the business.”
For Erin and Gabriel, selling their first franchise was not the end of their story, but the beginning. Running that business gave them the skills and abilities to achieve success faster with the next franchise they owned. “If you do something for a long period of time, you get better at it. It’s the exact same thing as being a business owner. Business owners that have had a business in the past—whether they failed or succeeded—are more likely to succeed the second time around,” she says. “Sometimes failure is just education in disguise.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the pair felt it was time to sell that business. Once again, Erin drew from her past experiences and decided that after learning from Gregory at IBA, she was equipped to sell this business herself.
Gregory was generous enough to serve as a consultant on the sale of the Miracle Method business, helping Erin increase her knowledge and abilities as a broker. “In the world of business, there are few people who give back in so many ways, but Gregory is one of them. Gregory was not a broker in Utah, and he knew I was doing it on my own, which a lot of brokers could have been upset or advised against, but he was so supportive. He was always so calm and offered such great advice and encouragement. I wouldn’t have been able to [sell the business] as well as I had if it weren’t for Gregory’s advice,” Erin says.
Erin also had the added benefit of knowing her business inside and out and feeling confident in its value. “I did get feedback from people who said, ‘I don’t think you’ll get that much,’ but I knew what our business was doing. I saw the growth, and more importantly, I saw the technological and operational efficiencies that we had implemented. I was able to defend it and say, ‘This is why our business is worth what we’ve listed it as.’ It was a great experience,” she says.
One particular high point for Erin was the fact that the buyer for the Miracle Method franchise was another woman. Erin could relate to her experience as a female entrepreneur and provide her with a level of support and solidarity not always seen in the buyer/seller relationship. “One time early on in the process we met at a coffee shop. [The buyer] was like, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ I said, ‘Let’s talk about that. What are your fears? I’ve been in your shoes before. I’ve been in spots where I didn’t think I could do something, let’s talk through it,’” Erin says.
This experience of helping to build up the confidence of a fellow business owner tied together all of Erin’s passions for entrepreneurship and helping franchisees. “There’s nothing that feels so great as growing a business and committing to it wholeheartedly and being able to turn it over to someone else and see it continue to flourish. It’s almost like raising a child,” Erin says.
After the sale of the Miracle Method, Erin received an outpouring of questions from other entrepreneurs asking about the process of selling the business. At that moment Erin’s passions crystallized. She decided to become a small business broker. “I’m so passionate about being able to own a business and have that full fruition experience where you grow something and then you get to sell it,” she says. “I think that’s ultimately why we all go into business so that we can have something that eventually holds value, whether we continue to run it or pass it on.”
Erin reached out to Gregory once again for his insights as a broker, “He’s so generous with the time he spent with me, really talking about the industry and encouraging me. Over the years he’s become a great mentor,” Erin says. Erin joined the International Business Brokers Association and is also a member of the Franchise Brokers Association. She now gets to live out her passion of helping entrepreneurs each and every day.
While Erin loves being of service to all small business owners, she particularly values the experience of helping other female entrepreneurs as she did with her Miracle Method buyer. “There’s a real strength that women bring to the table as entrepreneurs. I also think that because there’s often multi-tasking that goes with being a woman business owner, if you’re raising children, and all of the cultural and societal things you’re going to take on in your life, you get good at being able to problem solve and balance a lot of things,” she says.
“In my experience, women have this innate understanding that it takes a village. You hear that all the time with raising children, it’s true with owning a business too,” Erin adds. “I think women supporting women in business is fundamental to women succeeding. I encourage any entrepreneur, whether it be men or women, to build a community of support.”
One principle that has aided Erin tremendously through her ownership of multiple businesses, is the Japanese concept of Kaizen. A compound of two Japanese words, the literal translation of Kaizen is “good change”, it has come to be understood as the principle of continuous improvement.
From owning her own franchise to helping other entrepreneurs sell their businesses, Erin has embodied the practice of Kaizen at every stage of her career. The Kaizen mindset particularly helped Erin improve her relationship with employees, and making sure they felt heard even when feedback wasn’t universally positive.
“Early on as an entrepreneur, you’ve got so much that you’re learning that you can get a little defensive about things. But the more that I matured as a business owner, I realized the importance of having an open-door policy with employees,” she says. “When you do that, you start to have a high level of empathy for what they’re experiencing on and off the job. That certainly made me a better manager and created more loyalty. Loyalty is key to any business success.”
Just like being a successful franchisee took practice, so too did being a good manager. Learning from past experiences allowed Erin to better connect with her employees in each new venture that she took on “It took time and practice,” she says. “I’m a vastly better manager now than I was those first couple of years in business. Management is one of those skills that just requires experience to get better.”
However, such experiences only will lead to positive change for those who are open to continuous improvement. “The more time you spend guiding people, you refine it over time,” Erin says. “But only if you’re committed to it; if you’re committed to wanting to be a good manager and a good team leader.”
Another challenge Erin faced across her multiple businesses was financial management. Like leadership, it is a skill that is best developed through hands-on experience. However, the window for learning to do it and do it well is often much shorter. “I had to adapt very quickly to the financial management of the business,” Erin says. “At the end of the day, what drives the stability and success of the company is having a strong financial acumen, and despite going to business school, it’s just different in real life.”
While Erin learned new skills and adapted to changing demands, it was often the high level of organization and systemization implemented by Gabriel that kept the couples’ various businesses functioning consistently. “My husband, with his background in the military, is very systematic and able to implement a lot of operational systems. When a team has room for changes and growth, but predictability in their tasks and systems, it creates a level of comfort that allows people to thrive,” Erin says.
In business and life, opposites attract. Every good business needs innovation and forward-thinking, while also having the consistency and stability to ensure the work gets done. That is one of the vital strengths of Erin and Gabriel’s partnership: no matter the industry, they recognized their respective abilities and channeled them into strong, successful companies. “Whether you’re going to have a business partner in the form of a spouse, family member, or friend, you have to be willing to identify your strengths and weaknesses,” Erin says. “It’s the reality as an entrepreneur; you’re not going to be good at everything, you really aren’t.”
This has become important to Erin now more than ever, as she is not only responsible for her own company, but the businesses she represents through her financial brokerage firm, The Power of Pluck.
The definition of Pluck is to persevere despite known risks and to display dogged determination, something every successful entrepreneur must have. “It didn’t matter when it was at the onset of deciding to start a business, or every day [after],” Erin says. “I had to show up with an immense amount of courage. The courage to make a decision, the courage to lead, and the courage to sell. My best advice for any person that’s going into business is that it’s okay to have some fear about the risks, but to be courageous anyway.”
As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”
For Erin and Gabriel, the American Dream has always been about the ability to learn and grow through the creation of their businesses. “It’s the opportunity to take the risk and build something for yourself,” Erin says. “I do think sometimes with all the challenges that are happening, whether it be socially or politically, it can be difficult to feel like you can still achieve it. But I’m here to say you certainly can, and that the opportunities are absolutely still there for all sorts of people. The opportunity is there if you look for them and are open-minded.”
As a woman and veteran entrepreneurs respectively, Erin and Gabriel embody the American Dream in their constant desire to seek out new opportunities, take risks, and better themselves. “My husband and I didn’t go to Ivy League colleges,” Erin says. “We didn’t have parents that financed our entrepreneurial dreams. When we started, we had pennies to our name, sometimes less than pennies, but through a lot of grit, resilience, and hard work, we were able to achieve it.”
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.