by Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt
When Mary Rebman bought Heritage Electric in 2005, it wasn’t because she dreamed of being a business owner. Her situation was one of survival. Rebman had worked at Oshkosh Truck for 22 years when she married Michael Rebman. Her husband was the co-owner of Heritage Electric, and a combination of poor management and a difficult partnership had left the business $1.7 million in debt. “I had to buy the business or risk losing everything,” Rebman said. “I wasn’t very interested in owning a business, but I didn’t have a choice. It was survival of the fittest.”
Rebman had heard about SCORE years before, and when she found it difficult to obtain financing, signed up for counseling. She was paired with Fox Cities SCORE mentor Tony Busch, owner of Priora Cash Flow Management LLC. The pairing was perfect. Busch helped Rebman with a business plan and personally visited 13 lenders with her. In the end, the last lender approached approved funding. “The purchase price was dollar for dollar what was owed. I had maxed out credit cards, borrowed some money, created some user-friendly loans to pay back vendors by the week, and sold off equipment,” Rebman said.
While most lenders doubted Rebman’s ability to pay off that much debt, she was undaunted. Considering herself too busy to be scared, she set off to do what most people would consider impossible. Working with Busch, the business, renamed Triumph Electric after Rebman’s motorcycle (www.triumphelectric.net), was restructured. As she looked at the size of the company, Rebman felt that it would be best to downsize. Instead of having three people in the office, she took on every job herself, arriving at work every morning about 4:45 a.m. and working until early evening, six days a week. She did the office work, inventory, stocking, and some maintenance. There have been no vacations.
She said, “When you’re in a situation like this, you take a step back and realize that you’re probably not going to get to pay yourself; that somehow you’re going to survive. You have to completely dedicate yourselves to the business.” As she worked on the management aspect of the business, she counted on Mike to bring in jobs. With his solid reputation and attention to providing exceptional service, the business continued to strengthen. Their separate skill sets benefited the company.
“My husband is a hell of a worker and he brought in enough work to keep going,” Rebman said. “As Mike was out on the field, Tony would come in and help me figure out how to improve the business. It was amazing.” In May 2012, Rebman was able to report that the seemingly impossible had happened. The business was debt-free. “We didn’t owe anything anymore,” she said. “Mike and I feel good, but we’ve learned that you shouldn’t brag about your success because others might be having a hard time and feel offended.”
The business now specializes in residential and commercial service work and installations. They believe that the customer comes first, and if a mistake is made, it is important to apologize and make it right. As far as her relationship with SCORE, it continues. “Tony was involved with the purchase of the business and everything that was involved throughout the process,” Rebman said. “But, he still stops in for coffee. We’ve become friends.”
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.