August 2017

Sustained Success as a Woman in the Business World Doesn’t Come Easily

Author: Kingston Rhodes | Photographer: M.Kat Photography, Mark Staff Photography

Being successful over an extended period as a woman in a professional capacity or when launching and running an entrepreneurial business is not easy. Hurdles can be substantial, and the difficulties of balancing professional life with the responsibilities at home are typically daunting.

On Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, a dozen or so women have earned significant respect among their peers for achieving meaningful success for 25 years or more. We caught up with four of them to get some of their insights about the essential ingredients for sustaining success over time. Their stories are different, but if you look closely at attorney Cathy Olivetti of Olivetti, McCray & Withrow, LLC; Signe Gardo of the Hilton Head landmark Signe’s Bakery Cafe; Joni Rosser, owner of the prestigious Back Door shop in Harbour Town, and Missy Santorum, public relations manager and the voice and one of the faces of Palmetto Electric in our community, you will see many of the key traits that top business consultants attribute to America’s top women chief executives. These four just happen to love living here in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.


Olivetti, a down-to-earth attorney with a robust sense of humor and no-nonsense approach to achieving results for her clients, points to reading the book Do What You Love, Money Will Follow as the watershed moment of her career. She likes to quote the author, organizational psychologist Marsha Sinetar: “Your work needs to fit your personality just like shoes need to fit your feet.”

The turning point in Olivetti’s successful career came during the money market and prime mortgage collapse of 2008—when, according to many of her peers, she was the first in this region to grasp the extent of the economic tsunami that was impacting the credit market and how it was going to negatively affect so many local families. “I saw what was happening, and I told myself that I needed to do everything I could to help guide people in our area through the many manifestations such a financial crisis would undoubtedly create,” she said.
Fellow Hilton Head Island attorney Bob Arundell, a tax specialist, is quick to cite Olivetti’s initiative during that time. “Cathy’s focus on knowing the ins-and-outs of mortgage foreclosure interventions, loan modifications, short sales and the like, coupled with her tenacity to fight for her clients every step of the way, was impressive to the local legal community,” he said.

“I was learning on the fly,” Olivetti recalled, with a shake of her head, “but at the time, no one else seemed to know what was going on either. I remember Googling ‘loss mitigation,’ and there was nothing there. Now there are thousands of references.”


Going strong after 45 years
Gardo, a petite blonde with an effervescent smile and twinkling bright blue eyes that belie her 70-plus years, celebrates her forty-fifth year in business this month as the doyenne of Hilton Head Island restaurateurs. Featured in numerous national publications including Travel & Leisure, US Magazine, Southern Living, Destination Bride, and Bon Appétit, Gardo insists that her extended tenure is strictly the result of loving what she does and being flexible to meet changing challenges.

“When I started in a tiny 650-square foot cottage in Harbour Town in 1972, I was six months pregnant,” she said. “We made $28 that first day. I never could imagine I would be here in 2017. God has blessed me with a servant’s heart, and this is what I’m gifted to do.”

“Signe has an incredible talent to be able to taste food with her eyes and in her mind before it’s made,” said Laura Clark, now a bank manager, who once served as the cafe’s kitchen manager. “She can imagine combinations and the chemistry of what it takes to create something that is delicious.”

Balancing family with business
Balancing family with business has been a priority for all four women. Gardo was unmarried with two small daughters during her first five years of business and then added two additional daughters when she married husband Tom. The need to be home with the four girls by the end of her work day was a key deciding factor for not doing more than serving breakfast and lunch at her cafe.

“You learn to have good time management and clear priorities,” said Rosser, who started as a rare book librarian before moving to Hilton Head Island with her husband Terry to raise two children and learn that he has a flair for and love of retailing.


Santorum, who has been with Palmetto Electric for more than 22 years and before that served 10 in management with The Technical College of the Lowcountry, concurred with Rosser. “Your personal life needs to be taken care of first,” she said. “I believe that my business life has made me a better mom. It helps keep me better organized.”

Santorum has raised three children; one is grown, one is in college, and one is still in high school. Yet she manages to also embrace an enormous schedule of volunteerism.

“She is amazing about what she gets done in our community,” said one admirer in Zonta International—a professional women’s organization that is active in this area. Jean McElroy, a past president of Zonta, calls Santorum extraordinary in her ability to work with others and cites her enthusiastic commitment when she takes on a project.

A past president of Zonta herself, Santorum deflects the high regard she receives from those who have worked with her on community projects. Thinking about her family she said, “I have come to realize that the skill set is no different if you are managing at work or managing at home. Leadership means being focused and ready to assume responsibility for any of the tasks that need to get done, especially with children where things can change with a moment’s notice.”

“Being able to set clear priorities, having a supporting spouse and supportive friends” works hand in glove with good time management, Rosser added.


Networking is a key priority
Networking is another key that all agree is important to long-term success. Rosser is constantly seeking to broaden her local customer base with personalized service that she has learned will result in referrals. She has learned to rely on the truism that while fashion may change, happy customers keep coming back.

Olivetti and Gardo also respect the importance of referrals to their continued success. “My advice to a young aspiring lawyer is you need know everything about how to build a law practice, and that begins with cultivating clients and client relations.”

Referring to Gardo, Clark describes how she would watch her interact with islanders and annual visitors who have been coming to her cafe for years. “So many of them want to chat,” Clark said, “and while Signe might have nine irons in the fire, she always tries to take time for them. I don’t think she knows how she has touched so many lives in positive ways over the years. She always tries to show them that they matter.”

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