Woman on the verge

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Twenty years ago, Rochelle Thuener was barely making minimum wage working as a waitress.

Today, she is owner and president of Roscoe Medical, an international distributor of replacement parts and supplies for home medical equipment that employs 20 people and has more than 800 clients. In the 20 years between minimum wage and owning her own company, she had two children, went through a divorce and the death of her second husband, and worked two jobs for more than a year.

Thuener’s story is a familiar one as more women are opting to leave their jobs and become entrepreneurs. Her story is impressive when you consider the risk she took to start her company.

As a single mother of two, Thuener began working as a secretary at Lincare, a national provider of home health care services. With the help of two mentors, she eventually became the Cleveland center manager.

She did what many good entrepreneurs have done before her — she recognized a need and capitalized on it.

“I worked for a company purchasing a lot of small respirator parts, and my thought was, if I started my own company, it could supply these parts to every health care provider in the country,” she says.

Before she started Roscoe, those needing respiratory parts had to purchase them from a number of different manufacturers.

Starting a business is neither easy nor glamorous. In fact, Thuener spent the first year-and-a-half working her full-time job at Lincare and working on Roscoe in her spare time. The business began in her garage in 1993 with the help of her brother, Jason Ziebro.

The risk of starting a business with no prior experience was significant, but she knew it was worth it.

“In my mind, who doesn’t want to own their own business?” she says.

And the risk paid off — Roscoe has seen some pretty impressive numbers recently. In an industry in which the average growth rate is 12 percent to 13 percent, its sales have grown nearly 500 percent in the past two years, and the client list tops at 800.

But finding a niche market is not always enough to keep a business afloat, let alone allow it to grow. One of the biggest challenges in any business, especially a new one, is to find a quality management team.

I desperately needed help,” says Thuener. “I was doing sales, shipping, and it got to the point where I couldn’t do it all.”

She knew she needed to strengthen her sales department in order to give the time and attention necessary to the mom-and-pop clients that order the equipment.

She didn’t have to look further than her own family. Her oldest son, Richard Keirn, was working for Merrill Lynch as a stockbroker when she approached him to run the sales department. Thuener couldn’t match what he was making at the time but “I could offer him 8 to 4:30. At Merrill Lynch he was working so much he wasn’t seeing much of his family.”

As Roscoe grew, so did Thuener’s need for a comprehensive sales staff. So, she brought on her youngest son, Jessie, to help with what is a very service-intensive sales process.

“He was very good at it but he didn’t really enjoy it,” Thuener says. “So he ended up starting our product research and development department … and it was a great fit and we have expanded our product line.”

With one more key management position to fill, Thuener set her sights on Jennifer Keirn. Keirn worked at Edward Howard Co. and happened to be married to one of Thuener’s sons.

“We really needed someone to help with PR and run trade shows, and Jennifer was spending a lot of time on the road with Edward Howard, so I wanted to talk her into coming to work at Roscoe,” she says.

As convenient as having a ready-made management staff within your own family may be, there are unique concerns.

“You must work hard at separating family and business and being professional,” says Thuener.

She stresses professionalism and accountability when it comes to working with family.

“I believe that you never create a position for a family member,” and for her, it is equally as important that each of her family members have had work experience outside of Roscoe.

“It is critical that they have had other experience or else you have nothing to compare it to,” she says.

One of the upsides to a family-run business is the family-like atmosphere Thuener fosters at Roscoe. In fact, in seven years, not one employee has quit.

“We look at employees as part of a larger team, and we take a one-on-one approach instead of treating everyone the same,” she says.

Thuener strongly believes in empowering her employees.

“Each member of Roscoe’s management team is given both authority to make decisions and accountability for the results of those decisions,” she says.

Thuener admits she is a “jack-of-all-trades but a master of none” and attributes much of Roscoe’s success to her strong and capable staff.

Roscoe has seen a good deal of success in a time high volatility for the health care industry. It has 20 employees and a growing sales and product line, all with no debt, giving it a solid financial foundation. The reason for Roscoe’s success, among other things, is its customer service and technical expertise.

“Oftentimes these people calling don’t even know what they really need … They need the whatchamacallit on the thingy but our staff knows the equipment and can help them.”

Growth has been so consistent that Thuener is breaking ground on a 40,000-square-foot facility in Strongsville.

“It makes me excited and nervous, but I was nervous when we moved out of the garage,” she says. “In the end, you just look at the numbers and make the decision.”

How to reach: Roscoe Medical, (440) 582-5300