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Name: Eva Niewiadomski

Business: Catalyst Ranch , mixed use event space

Industry: Other — Hospitality, Arts & Entertainment

Location: Chicago, Illinois, U.S.

Reason for starting: I was laid off after 15 years at The Quaker Oats Company, so I decided to take my severance package and open up a business unlike any previously seen in Chicago, a creative meeting & event venue. I realized that this was my one and only opportunity to take that money and pursue a passion that I had, which was improving the physical environments in which people work. If I didn’t do it then, then I never would and if it failed, that was okay (albeit scary).

Related: It’s About Women Running Start-Ups

How do you define success? Success for me has been defined by creating a business which I run ethically and in a way that supports and helps my employees gain important skills. I hire people of diverse backgrounds and encourage them to take on positions which will stretch them and make them slightly uncomfortable. But, when they leave here, they are armed with a large arsenal of skills which will be useful to them irrespective of the road they choose to pursue. It’s been wonderful having the ability to create a culture that is unique. Of course, the business itself has been successful now for 13+ years. We have a huge fan base of clients. Many have asked us to expand into other cities, but we remain rooted here in Chicago. It’s about quality of life, not about becoming the largest you could possibly be.

Biggest success: Creating a company with a reputation as the best creative meeting venue in the country. We have definitely established ourselves as the gold standard. I also have the best employees. I receive many compliments about my staff and even had a large hotel contact me to ask me how I recruit and train them. My retention of staff is unusually long especially in the hospitality industry, with several individuals who came back to work for me after departing for a while (some even came back 3 times). Until recently I had 2 employees who had been with me 8 out of my 13 years. One just left a couple months ago for a great opportunity.

What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it? Our top challenge is staying true to our core beliefs of the types of spaces and amenities that are needed to positively impact meeting outcomes. We are furnished with vintage and ethnic furniture and artwork in a loft building from the 1880s. The current popular aesthetic is white walls and empty spaces, which we do not feel really do the job. But the more you see of these other meeting spaces and restaurants (which mimic that same look), the more employees start to feel that we should shift in that direction as well. For a while I felt like I was almost the only one who didn’t think we needed to move in that direction in order to get and retain clients. We did a major website revamp about 1 1/2 yrs ago to solidify our positioning and I think that has helped get employees back on board. In addition, I continue to reinforce the reasons why we have so many client fans.

Related: Read about another Hospitality entrepreneur here. 

My original vision has stayed steady. Catalyst Ranch is what I visualized it to be. We have continued to evolve our offerings and ways to enhance our customer experience. Where we were once the only creative meeting space in Chicago, many have followed our lead. Competition is much more intense, but we stay true to our integral business proposition as we believe it is still valid. I also have an office design business, Catalyst Ranch Design, which I launched at the same time as Catalyst Ranch. The thought was that as people were exposed to working in a creative environment even for a short while, it would make them realize that there is a lot of upside potential to reshaping their offices and helping employees become more productive. While we have done some incredible projects, that work comes to us organically (we don’t search it out) and we haven’t done as many projects as I would have thought by now. That business has been tougher to land even though people come to us.

Who is your most important role model? My most important role model has been my father. He ingrained in me a strong work ethic, a belief that I could figure out anything if I put my mind to it (he was always handy, very inventive and taught me how to be a problem solver) and that ethics matter. He put others before himself and has multitudes of people whom he has helped without any expectations of anything in return. Thus, when he is in need (he is now 90 yrs old), people come out to help him in any way they can. My dad was also my first employee. He helped me by refinishing and reupholstering furniture, doing repairs and always being here at a moment’s notice if the need arose. And he still has remorse that he wasn’t able to help me financially. He doesn’t seem to understand how much all his work was worth and that without him, I would not have had enough furniture to open this place. I would have run out of money. And he did it all without any understanding of the underlying business concept. He just believed that I knew what I was doing and he was going to help in any way he could. He is one amazing man!

Twitter   @CatalystRanch 

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Edited by The Story Exchange