Whenever I pass by Potomac Mills in Woodbridge, Va., I have to smile. The grin on my face is not because I am at one of this country’s largest shopping malls, but because of what one particular corner of it means to me.
Back nearly 24 years ago, Potomac Mills was a lot smaller, and its parking lot wasn’t even fully paved. Today, the mega-outlet mall is more than eight times the size it was then and saturated with a sea of asphalt-laden parking spaces. It’s a small group of them near the Silver Diner that holds the special significance. That’s the spot where I took the biggest risk of my career.
The year was 1993, and I had been working on a freelance basis for this publication for awhile, eventually serving as its editor. It became apparent early in the year that its longtime owner and publisher, John Lawo, was ready for a change and the publication would soon be sold or perhaps even closed. Lyle Hill, whom I had met at a previous publication and who was already writing for USG, called me to see if I might have an interest in buying it. I thought he was kidding.
“You can do this,” he said.
He had a lot more confidence in me than I did, but I set about to see if I could borrow enough money to do so. I wrote a business plan and went from bank to bank … to bank to bank. All the bankers were polite, but let’s face it, a woman barely 30 who’d never owned anything, well, they weren’t very encouraging. I will never forget the voice of the one banker who said “good luck” very sarcastically under his breath as he led me to the door.
“Maybe you can do it without the bank. Let’s come up with a plan,” said Lyle in response to my failure with the banks. “You know all the vendors, all the creditors. Talk to them. You may be able to make it work. I will help you through it.” So, knowing it was a lost cause but in an effort to prove Mr. H. wrong, we set about to negotiate with both groups. And to my absolute amazement, almost everyone was willing to work with us. The key was Lyle, who was a tremendous provider of moral support and tactical business advice throughout the process.
There were still some hurdles to overcome, notably that there would be a few issues to publish before a sale was complete. The outgoing publisher was not going to publish another issue, but I was free to if I wanted. The deal hadn’t closed, and it might never come to fruition, but I was convinced that skipping an issue or two would be devastating to the magazine. So I decided to take a chance. I needed to find a printer fast.
I called a gentleman named Mike Keefe of United Litho Printing, whom I had worked with at a previous position, and explained my predicament. “I’ll see what I can do,” he said. A few days later, he called back and told me the deal. “You don’t have any credit with us, or any business credit with anyone, and you don’t even have a corporation yet, so we will print the next issue, but you have to pay in advance. If the deal actually goes through, then we can establish credit.” Not being a wealthy person, I spent the next few days cashing in 401Ks and pulling everything I had together in order to print USGlass.
It was a rainy Thursday when Mike suggested we meet at the new Potomac Mills mall midway between both our offices. I thought we’d grab a cup of coffee and go over this first issue together. But the traffic had eaten into our meeting time, so I ended up handing him an enormous portfolio full of USGlass pages and the largest check I’d ever written in my life, all while standing across two spaces in the parking lot. The whole transaction took about three minutes, and I remember sitting in my car afterwards thinking that, if this doesn’t work out, I have just wasted all my savings and done something so stupid I’d never be able to talk about it.
Key Communications Inc. was formed, and I purchased the magazine two months later.
Fast-forward almost a quarter century. USGlass gets to celebrate its 50th anniversary starting with this issue. Lyle Hill continues to grace these pages and give me the best business advice any colleague could ask for. The banker who wished me the sardonic “good luck” was riffed out of a job when his bank merged with another about 15 years ago. Mike Keefe has retired from the printing biz, but the magazine is still printed by the same printing company (albeit after a few mergers) that took a chance on us in that parking lot long ago.
How do I thank everyone who needs to be thanked for getting us to 50? To all of our readers, advertisers, the talented editors, colorful columnists, circulators, wonderful writers, art directors, artists, staff and vendors who have joined us throughout the journey, I say thank you. This anniversary, and this issue,
belongs to all of you.
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No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.