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Founder, President & CEO – Sun Coast Resources
Most 23 year-olds facing unemployment wouldn’t throw caution to the wind and use their savings of $2,000 to start a business. Even if they did, it probably wouldn’t be in the petroleum industry. However, in 1985 Kathy Lehne had a choice to make: possibly switch careers, since the petroleum distributor she was working for decided to close their Houston office where she was working; or possibly strike out on her own. Wanting to stay in Houston, Texas, Kathy did what made sense to her – launch a business in the oil industry. Twenty-four years later, with Kathy as the founder, president and CEO, Sun Coast Resources, Inc. has roughly 400 employees, was named No. 12 on Entrepreneur’s 50 Fastest-Growing Women-Led Companies in 2008 and eclipsed $1.2 billion in revenue last year.
Unphased about entering a male-dominated field, Kathy focused on building a successful company in a very competitive business sector. In fact, since Kathy mostly interacted with male-owned businesses, she wasn’t intimidated by the men, but rather with the daunting task of positioning her new company for long-term growth. Fortunately, this oil executive was very motivated by the competition.
Along with the money she used to fund Sun Coast Resources, Kathy had some limited vendor trade credit, a couple of leased trucks and several trusted friends. Soon, she was off and running, or as she says, “Off and crawling.”
Kathy learned quickly that in order to be successful in petroleum wholesaling, she had to provide unsurpassed customer service, 100% of the time, and give customers more than they expect. This is exactly how Sun Coast made a name for itself. From providing superlative petroleum products and services, adhering to reliable, innovative and ethical business practices to committing to on-time, every time delivery and paying attention to the smallest of details, Sun Coast became a dominant presence in the petroleum industry with enormous staying power. According to Kathy, “Our primary focus is being best in class and customer-driven. Nothing else will do.”
Sun Coast Resources is a one-stop shop for its customers’ fuel and lubrication needs, and offers a wide array of related programs, including lubrication, purification and filtration services, marketing and inventory management programs, disaster response services, used oil reclamation, tank loan and monitoring, comprehensive generator fueling and service programs. The company also custom-designs fueling programs that meet the specific needs of its clients.
So far, Kathy’s biggest challenge has been managing Sun Coast’s growth. Last year its revenues eclipsed $1.2 billion which represents a great deal of cash flow and back office activity. Kathy points out that amount also signifies a great deal of risk in terms of required working capital, accounts receivable exposure, manpower, systems management and the list goes on and on. To compound matters, navigating this growth during a recession has been particularly challenging. Kathy manages Sun Coasts’ expenses and head count in line with current economic conditions and actual operating results.
In addition to earning a spot on Entrepreneur’s 2007 and 2008 Fastest-Growing Women-Led Companies list, Sun Coast Resources also made Inc. Magazine’s 2007 and 2008 lists of the Top 10 Fastest-Growing Privately-Owned Companies. In 2005, Kathy was presented with the prestigious Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Her business has also graced the pages of Professional Women’s Magazine as a Top 100 Women Owned Business in 2005 and 2006, as well as earning recognition in the Houston Business Journal, Women’s Enterprise USA and Diversity Business.
What we learned from Kathy: “When I started Sun Coast Resources, I was 23 years-old and decided then and there to jump in with the sharks. It was a leap of faith, but the way I figured it, what in the world did I have to lose versus the prospect of a very large gain? So with a burning desire to start my own company, I invested $2,000. Once you make the final decision to take the entrepreneurial plunge, commit to it 100%.”
“You must be willing to give your complete attention to your business. Nothing else will do. Make sure you love what you are about to jump into and do your homework. I never assumed anything and dedicated myself 24/7/365 to the company. Develop a good business plan and have a contingency back up strategy, in the event unexpected events arise. Fasten your seatbelt and commit your heart and soul.”
“Treat employees with respect, provide them with the strategy and tools necessary to do an outstanding job and let them run with the ball. Try not to second-guess them, but pay attention to the process along the way.’”
“Build a management team which has the experience and expertise to grow your company profitably while instituting proper safeguards to prevent a meltdown during troubling market conditions. Some of my managers have been with me from the beginning. It’s important to surround yourself with people you trust.”