With 45 years of business ownership under her belt, BPC Chairman Connie Wimer reflects on how she got to where she is, and shares 10 tips for success
By Emily Blobaum, Fearless editor
Connie Wimer woke up in the middle of night on Sept. 1, 1976. Usually a deep sleeper, she was having first-day jitters.
Several months earlier, she had purchased Iowa Title Co. She had spent a lot of time solving the business questions, but hadn’t yet stopped to think about how her first day as owner would actually go.
“What am I going to say? What am I going to wear?” she remembers thinking.
It was 1976, the thick of second-wave feminism.
The Equal Rights Amendment was making its way through the states for ratification. The Supreme Court had recently declared sex discrimination a violation of the 14th Amendment. Women had the right to obtain credit cards separately from their husbands.
But banks didn’t yet give out loans to women without a male co-signer. Only two women – Katharine Graham and Marion Sandler – held the top positions at Fortune 500 companies and just 20% of managers were women. Women were still expected to stay at home and take care of their children and husbands.
In the years to come, Wimer many times would find herself to be the only woman in the room. Later, she would become the first female chair of the Des Moines Chamber Federation and the first woman to be inducted into the Iowa Business Hall of Fame.
Perhaps none of those accomplishments would have been achieved if Wimer hadn’t been motivated to send her three daughters to college.
“I was determined that they would each have a college education,” Wimer said. “I woke up one morning and the oldest one is approaching college and we have no money saved.”
Yet there was a problem. Wimer herself attended Morningside College for a year, but didn’t graduate due to financial circumstances. She realized no one was going to hire her at a high salary without a degree. She decided that she would need to be her own boss.
“I’ve had a W2 form every year since I was 12 years old, and I thought, I’ve made money for everybody I’ve worked for, so why can’t I do it for myself?” she said.
Having been a legal secretary for 20 years, Wimer “knew every lawyer in town” and knew a lot of bankers and Realtors from her husband’s position as the attorney for the Des Moines Board of Realtors.
Despite “not knowing anything about it,” she approached the four title companies in Des Moines and asked if she could buy them, even though none of them were for sale.
At the time, Iowa Title Co. was losing money and was illegally selling title insurance, Wimer said. But they were pricing themselves at a fifth of what the other three were listing themselves as, so Wimer took out a loan from a friend and, with a shaky hand, signed a 20-year contract, she remembers.
She knew that it was a huge risk.
“Had it failed, all of my dreams would have been gone. They would have taken our house and everything we had. My children wouldn’t have been able to go to school.”
Armed with optimism and open-mindedness, Wimer questioned everything and encouraged the staff to try new ways of doing things.
In 1981, she bought the Des Moines Daily Record, a legal publication with a circulation of 700, with the sole purpose of gaining access to legal notices more quickly. It too was losing money, but Wimer considered it an investment that would pay off. Besides, doing so would make the title company more profitable.
After a judge told her that the Polk County courts no longer needed a legal publication, Wimer had five days to find new sources of revenue.
“That was the most frightened I had ever been in my entire life,” she said.
Wimer was adamant that Des Moines needed a paper that covered small business news. The Des Moines Register wasn’t interested, she said.
Thus, in October 1983, the Business Record was born.
“I kept saying to myself, ‘Someday I’ll thank those judges.’ I’m not sure what made me say that because I didn’t have a plan at the time. … It didn’t happen for a lot of years, but I’m so grateful to them now because there’s no way I would have taken the risks that I had to take.”
Wimer sold Iowa Title Co. in 1985 but remained as president until 2001. The Business Record has since expanded and evolved into Business Publications Corp., which is home to the Business Record, dsm Magazine and WriteBrain. Wimer serves as chairman of BPC.
Wimer often shares a list of tips she’s acquired with young women and business leaders. She agreed to share them with Fearless, with a caveat: “You’re not going to hear anything new here, but sometimes hearing it for the third or 10th time makes it meaningful.”
- If you have true integrity, you’re able to love and respect yourself. You have to do that to be able to take risks.
- Be the hardest worker. Wherever, whatever, just dig in and work harder than everyone else.
- Surround yourself with smart people, both in your personal life and your business life. Choose those people that you can learn from.
- If you don’t have it, develop optimism. When I’m scared, I sit down and say, “What is the very worst thing that could happen?” And I prepare for that. But after you’ve done that, then think optimistically, and think, “What is the best thing that could happen,” and you start to expect that, because we very often get what we expect.
- Learn to be a risk-taker. I get asked all the time how I learned to be a risk-taker. My school was so small, there were 13 people in my graduating class. It allowed me to participate in absolutely everything. Because it was a small school, I knew from fourth grade that I would probably be a valedictorian and that gave me confidence. In a big school, you might get lost, but I think those are the things that allowed me to become a risk-taker. Every time you take a risk and make it work, you get stronger and are more willing to take the next risk.
- Learn to love negotiating.
- Become an agent of change. I used to tell my co-managers, “Never hire a person who is resistant to change” because they won’t be happy.
- Accept failure as another way of learning. I once gave a speech about all of the failures I had because people were telling me that everything I touched turned to gold. That’s not true. I’ve had my failures. Learn from them and move on. If you’re taking enough risks, you’re going to fail. And you’re going to have to accept that. It’s a part of lifelong learning.
- Make sure you are an avowed feminist. It’s not just about women, it’s about the world. A true feminist makes the world a better place for everybody, not just women. The more that women are successful in business, politics, science and academia, the better, happier and safer the world will be.
- If you choose a life partner, it’s the most important choice you’ll make in your life. Find someone who will support your goals.