After five years at her dad's company in Houston, which supplies pipe for drilling oil wells, Debra Benditz itched to have a larger say in how things were run, but her father tended to wave off her marketing suggestions. What's more, he had already indicated that one of Debra's younger brothers would succeed him as CEO of the Continental Casing Corp. Even today, Paul Benditz admits he is more concerned about helping establish his sons in the business than in doing the same for his daughter.
So when Debra turned 26, she decided to take a shot at starting her own business. The year was 1984, when falling oil prices had led to a virtual standstill in the drilling of new wells. Despite an industry-wide depression, Debra launched her own oil-field pipe supply house, L-Leighty Tubular Products, with $5,000 she had stashed away while selling pipe for her father.
Within two months, her new pipe company had turned a profit. By the end of her first year, sales had topped $1 million, and her client list looked like an oil industry Who's Who. Now six years old, L- Leighty (the name is a play on the company's specialty, a pipe labeled L-80) has never had a year in the red. Debra credits her success to gumption, perseverance, and youthful ignorance.
Debra's decision to leave the family business represents one choice that is open to daughters whose worst nightmare is eventually losing out to brothers: Learn the business in the family company; then, when you're ready, strike out on your own.
What is original about Debra's solution is that her company shares offices with Continental Casing, even though the family company is one of her biggest competitors and she and her dad covet the same customers. "I wouldn't use the word I 'steal,'" she says. "But, yes, sometimes he takes customers from me, and sometimes I take them from him." There have been times while visiting her parents, "when he's shaken his finger at me over the dinner table and said, 'Damn it, leave my customers alone."'
Some authorities on family businesses say that sons tend to join the firm to compete with their fathers, while daughters do it to be closer to their fathers. All generalizations oversimplify, but this one certainly doesn't cover Debra, who manages to be close to her father and compete with him, too.
The whole Benditz family is close, even though all four of Debra's brothers are either in business with their father or run companies that compete with hers. Daniel, 28, runs a linepipe supply house that complements his father's drilling pipe business; David, 31, has a trucking company that hauls the family's pipe to market; Dale, 26, is president of Continental Casing and heir-apparent; and Douglas, 24, recently was appointed yard manager in his father's pipe yard. All of them have offices at the edge of the grounds in the same ramshackle trailer building that has endured several slapped-on additions.
As president of one of the few female-owned pipe houses in the oil-field supply business, Debra is something of a rarity. A statuesque brunette, Debra favors tailored wool separates, bold jewelry, silk scarves, and leather pumps, which seem out of place as she tramps through the mud of the 40-acre pipe yard she shares with her father on the outskirts of Houston.
She started as a receptionist at her father's pipe supply house in 1979, soon working her way up to the sales office, learning the lingo of the oil patch and backslapping sales techniques by trial and error. Before long, she could "good-old-boy" her customers with the best of them and became one of her dad's top salespersons, accounting for some 23 percent of the company's profit.
"Learning how to sell was the biggest hurdle for me," she says. "There were days when I used to pray people wouldn't answer their phones, because my palms would sweat and I'd get sick to my stomach. But I bad to prove that I wasn't going to let anyone dictate my future."
Debra didn't go into the pipe business because she wanted to be a feminist pioneer; selling pipe was simply what she knew best. "I talked to one banker who said he would loan me the money if I wanted to open a flower shop or a bakery," she recalls. "But I wanted to do the pipe yard. So I got up and walked out."
Despite her bad timing in launching her business, she has done several things that have assured her success. During the apprenticeship at her father's company, she honed her sales pitch and pampered her customers. Thus, when she jumped ship, some of the company's biggest customers jumped with her. She also wisely chose to limit her product line at first to L-80, a high-grade alloy pipe that was much in demand by major oil companies but hard to find in the field.
She has since expanded her product line as customer demand and cash flow have picked up. Now she sells more than three dozen products, essentially everything that her father's and brothers' companies sell at highly competitive prices. "There are some customers I know will call my father and me," she says, "and, having worked there, I have a pretty good idea what price they'll quote, so I have an advantage."
Debra has kept her young business in the black by maintaining a tight rein on expenditures; her staff consists of a salesman she hired in the business's second year. She also refuses to let big customers stretch out their payments. "Doing business with big corporations can be the death of a small company, because they never want to pay in less than 90 to 120 days," Debra says. "I have a mouth for everything else, so I decided I might as well use it to collect my bills."
Her company benefits from the fact that most major oil companies have policies requiring that some portion of their business be reserved for minority- or female-owned suppliers. Debra insists that she has positioned her company to compete on the basis of product, price, and service. "I'm not selling the fact that I'm a woman," she says, testily. "I'm selling pipe." In fact, Shell Oil Co., her first major account, may have sought her out because she qualified as a minority supplier. But because she delivered the goods, Shell has kept coming back.
Debra's success raises the question of why her father hasn't yet slapped down this young pup who keeps nipping at his heels. A big part of the answer is that Paul Benditz's company is easily 10 times larger than his daughter's. "I'm not so sure she's competition," he says. "But, realistically, there is some business out there that's available to her that's not to us, because she's a woman-owned business." May as well keep as much of the pie as possible in the family, he figures.
The rest of the answer is a father's pride in seeing his children succeed. "All their lives I've encouraged my children to be self-sufficient and self-employed," Paul says. "I've encouraged every one of them to have their own business and do their own thing.
"Debra is a dynamic, outgoing individual, who is certainly capable of making her company as big as mine some day if she wants to. And I hope she does, because we supply her with some products from time to time. That means more business for us."
Debra says she remains close to her father because she understands him so well. "We've been told we're very much alike both strong, hard-headed, and tenacious. Because I'm a mirror of him and his abilities, he challenges me just enough to try to prove me wrong. But it's never done obnoxiously. It's done with love."
She is much more competitive with her younger brother Daniel, who runs Continental Tubular Corp. "I guess it goes back to when my brothers were all playing football," she recalls. "Since I couldn't play, I couldn't compete with them. Now, in business, I can compete with them on an equal footing."
One sore point between her and Daniel is a major customer whose business she had originally brought in while working for her father. When Debra left, she took the account with her. He remained her biggest customer until he hired a new buyer, who promptly switched the business back to her dad and brother. Debra is still hoping to get him back, however. "I keep telling my brother that if the original buyer ever comes back, he's history."
All the Benditz sibs still turn to their father for advice; it has saved Debra a bundle, especially in the early days of her company. She remembers racing into her father's office late one Friday to tell him, excitedly, about a large pipe order phoned in by an unknown out-of-state buyer who needed the shipment right away. Debra recalls: "I can still remember him telling me: 'If you are willing to sell to that person, are you also willing to swallow the hickey if his check bounces?' I hadn't thought of that possibility. But I didn't get burned, because I took Dad's advice and didn't sell to them."
Her father's support and counsel have been invaluable, Debra says. "I guess the best advice he ever gave me is that people don't have to like you to respect you. That and: 'It's not how much you make in life, it's what you keep that counts.'"