Case Study: Stephanie Harkness on Scaling Her Manufacturing Business and Life Post Exit


One of the most successful entrepreneurs in the United States, here are Stephanie's top three lessons for successfully scaling your company and enjoying a great life post-exit.

We all need concrete references who help us more clearly see the success we want to reach. This not only gives us valuable insights to get to our goals faster, but helps make our goals more "believable" in the first place.

In this case study you'll Meet Stephanie Harkness, serial entrepreneur and former Chairperson of the National Association of Manufacturers.

Stephanie was also my co-author on my 9th book, Build a Business, Not a Job.

Stephanie started out as a home economics teacher in San Jose, California. After 13 years in education, she started up her first business, Expressions in Fine Jewelry. They created high-end jewelry for private clients. For six years she flew around the world meeting clients, sometimes carrying as much as $3 million worth of jewels in her briefcase.

Exciting as that may seem, it got old for her after a while. Stephanie grew tired of the way the business needed her to be there every day, day after day. In essence, Stephanie hadn't built a business, but really she had built a successful job for herself.

It was at this point that her husband Jack took early retirement from General Electric where he worked as an engineering manager. Taking stock of what they wanted to do, they decided to find a business they could do together.

After an intensive period of searching, they ended up buying a struggling injection molding plastics company in Santa Cruz, California. They used Stephanie's retirement money in her teacher's pension for the start-up capital, and jumped in.

They discovered that many of the promises of the man they bought the company from were more fiction than fact, but they persisted.

Over a 20 year period they scaled the company, implementing systems, building an executive team, and positioning the company as a higher end plastics medical device manufacturer (this one decision alone 4-folded the multiple that they later sold for.)

By 2010 the company was incredibly successful, generating millions in profit, while allowing Stephanie and Jack to take 3 months or more of vacations a year. Three years later in 2013, they sold their company for a large 8-figure price.

In a recent interview I did with Stephanie, here are 3 of her top insights to help you follow in her footsteps:

  • Embrace hiring better, smarter people than yourself. Too many business owners fear hiring top talent. They say it's because they can't afford to, but generally it's because they fear how they'll feel having top talent on their team. Top talent intimidates them. They fear that top talent won't want to work for them, or stay working for them. They may not even be aware of these feelings, still they behave based on these limiting beliefs.One of the things that helped Stephanie succeed so massively was that she always hired the best, smartest talent she could at any given point in her company's development, tabling any insecurities she may have had at the time.
  • The time to plan your exit is years in advance. For Stephanie and Jack, the exit they wanted was always to sell their company. So in 2003 they started laying the groundwork that helped them sell for a multiple 3 times higher than their industry average in 2010 when they closed the sale of their company.What's the exit strategy you want for your business? To sell it? Continue to actively scale it? Or to transition to owning it passively? All three are viable choices, but the time to decide is now so you build with this end in mind.
  • Have a vision for your life post-exit that inspires you. Personally, this has been one of my biggest lessons I learned from watching Stephanie. She consciously crafted her plan of what she and Jack were most passionate about that they would transition to after they sold their company. It included travel, and learning, and philanthropy, and investing, and yes, even another business, although this time with a more deliberate and limited role for herself.

Today Stephanie and Jack are living an extraordinary life. They live on the fairway at Pebble Beach, CA, travel the world, and enjoy deep, rich relationships with family and friends.

And she recently launched a new company that she feels will reach a billion dollar valuation in less than 10 years.
Action Time:

Take 10 minutes and just let your imagination fly away with what your life post "exit" could look like for you. Journal your answers and in those quiet moments early in the morning and late at night, feed the ember of this fire so that with time, your vision of your future burns bright and calls your into action.