Leading the pack of women-owned firms

Published: June 1999
Tom Caruso | The Connecticut Post

Stamford Woman Writing Her Own Success Story

Sometimes it helps to be a psychologist, accountant, negotiator, philosopher, sales-person and mind reader-all rolled into one when you’re running a company.

Business entrepreneur Antoinette Allocca figures she’s used all those skills, plus enthusiasm and spirituality, to help turn her technical-writing company into the country’s fastest growing woman-owned business in 1998. Her Stamford firm, Essential Data, supplies technical writers to help companies rewrite software instructions, computer manuals, training documents and other complex material.

Essential Data cracked the list of 500 largest women-owned businesses in Working Woman magazine this spring. Revenues doubled from $10 million in 1997 to $20 million in 1998 – making it the fastest-growing, Allocca said.

She accomplished all this while giving birth to and raising four children, whose antics and accomplishments pepper her conversation. Allocca’s eyes light up and she gestures excitedly while talking about her children.

In fact, Allocca easily switches from talking business to sharing her philosophy about life (‘You have to have passion”) to making sure visitors aren’t hungry. (“There’s food on the table; help yourself.”)

Visitors might even see the children in the office, because Allocca wants them to understand what mommy and daddy do for a living. Her husband, Mark Greenspan, is the chief financial officer.

Allocca said determination; hard work and an ability to relate well to people helped hitch her fortune to the technology explosion and subsequent demand for technical writers.

The field is growing rapidly, agreed the project manager for a competitor, SOS Technology Corp. in New Jersey. The 13-year-old company does recruitment, placement and regular hiring of technical writers for client, including Lucent Technologies and AT&T Corp, said Paul Romano.

“The biggest demand for technical writers is more in the networking arena and for data networking,” he said.

Allocca said she saw the field’s potential nearly 20 years ago, but it was a long haul form there to here. She broke into the business by starting a technical-writing department for Vital Computer Services in 1980 shortly after college.

She left that company in 1988 and launched Essential Data in a 200-square foot cubbyhole. Her husband joined her within the first year.

Aggressive and creative marketing and staff recruitment are what put Essential Data on the map, she said. Allocca knew she need top sales talent to expand the business, but how do you hire good salespeople without breaking the bank?

Allocca looked for candidates with passion and people skills rather than youth or industry experience. That meant rejecting corporate stereotypes about older workers being rigid, unimaginative and slower than younger peers.

If sales employees were willing to give her a chance, she said, she was willing to give them chances to earn six-figure incomes.

“You hire them low and give them a big commission for productivity,” was her answer, adding that her commission rate is about four times her competitors.’

Her sales associates earn $100,00, $200,00, $300,000 and more a year. Technical writers are earning $55 to $65 an hour, although experienced one in specialized fields can earn $80 an hour and up – meaning the y can easily crack $100,000 a year, she said.

Allocca’s unorthodox approach means relaxed dress codes and employees are encouraged to take minivacations s mental breaks rather that wait months.

But don’t expect an easy haul, she said.

“IF people aren’t in here before 8a.m. or go home before 6 p.m., I say they might as well forget it,” she said of the sales staff.

She also requires salespeople to manage and oversee the technical writers that clients use, keeping Essential Data more in touch with client needs and problems.

Client and P.E. Corp. employee Nancy Ryba said she’s impressed with the caliber of Essential Data’s sales staff and technical writers. They have helped P.E. with Y2K compliance work.

“They jumped into the middle of a project, took control and really helped us out,” said Ryba, who is technical writing manager and software quality assurance manager of Norwalk based P.E. Corp., formerly known as Perkin-Elmer Corp.

Ryba praised Essential Data sales associate Sheila Klatzky, who was one of those non-traditional workers that Allocca hired.

A former professor at the University of Wisconsin, 50s- something Klatzky had also been in mortgage sales for 15 years and helped direct sales marketing for an institutional pharmacy.

The long-time single parent had lost her home to the cost of divorce and needed a helping hand, but not a handout, Allocca said. At the time, the office was little more than a hole in the wall, Klatzky recalled, but there was something appealing about it and Allocca.

“I felt like I belonged here in my mind’s eye,” Klatzky said, adding that Allocca was honest about the pros and cons of the job.

“I had trust in her; she didn’t oversell the job,” Klatzky said.

Newly minted technical writer John Shea is happy with his new occupation and liked Allocca’s style, too.

The former computer programmer said, the long hours and repetitive nature of the business were burning him out.

He makes about $60 an hour, which he said is equivalent to what he was earning as a programmer without the mandatory unpaid overtime of his previous career. Shea, 43, said he also gets to see his wife and children, which are 2, 4 and 6 years old.

“I got tired of saying goodnight to them over the phone,” he said.

Allocca said she also welcomes the flexibility owning her own business provides. Yes, there is a lot of grunt work, she said, but “I have the time when I need it for the children.”

Planning for birthday parties and school events has to be balanced with business needs, she said. It’s hectic, but exciting.

“Olivia is 2, Joey starts kindergarten next year, Judy is 9 in June and Simone is 10,” she said with a smile of accomplishment.

It Hasn’t All Been Easy

STAMFORD – forget potholes and bumps – the road to the top for business owner Antoinette Allocca was paved with some dead-ends, washouts and hairpin turns.

Although she’s thrilled that her Essential Data technical writing firm was the fastest growing women-owned company in the country last year, her career climb was not so speedy.

A marketing major from Hofstra University, Allocca went to work in sales for Burlington Industries in early 1980.

“I hated it,” she said. She answered an advertisement for Vital Computer Services later that year, despite poor grades in computer courses. The company was small, but the growth potential intrigued her.

By developing a pool of technical writers for Wall Street firms and expanding the client base, she helped boost the company’s sales from $1 million to $8 million. She asked for a partnership in 1984 and was verbally told yes.

Still, she was only making $250.000 after five years in the company where the partners were making $1 million a year, before takes. Meanwhile, she had bought a home in Stamford in 1986 with high mortgage payments.

“I was sunk. I was getting up at 5 a.m. in the morning, but I was totally dead-ended,” she said of her career there.

And when the stock market crashed in 1987, sales fell and her commission income consequently fell. The partnership promise was not honored, so she left in 1988 to form Essential Data.

Husband Mark Greenspan joined her later that year and her first child, Simone was born in January 1989.

When Simone was six months old, her husband cashed in his Individual Retirement Account.

Their company was battered by the recession and the stress took its toll on Allocca, who developed Epstein Barr syndrome in mid 1991.

“I really couldn’t get out of bed,” she said. “Money was tight.”

Finally, they won a major contract as a dark horse with Colgate-Palmolive. Things began to turn around.

Allocca remembered those wonderful words her husband uttered while checking the books.

“There is no turning back now; we’ve made it.”

Traditional hiring methods for sales people did not work, but she turned to lessons she learned in a course she had taken at the Women’s Business Development Center in Stamford.

It was too risky to hire big-hitting sales people at high salaries, she said, so she revamped the formula to low salary but high commissions.

She started them at $25,000 to $30,000, crammed them into a tiny room and had them listen to her sales pitch. The successful ones saw their salaries rise into the six-figure level.

The office was so small that employee Dick Haeffele had to get up from his desk when Allocca’s husband wanted to get to one of his file cabinets.

Sales grew enough to allow a move to a 400-square foot office. Eventually, the company ended up in a fairly spacious office on Church Street.

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