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One Big Client Isn’t Better

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Blood, sweat and lawyer cum receptionist put Idamar into the black.

After a rocky start and a lot of persistence, Linda Spradley Bodden’s business is now on a fast, but controlled-growth track, poised to bring in $6.3 million in sales this year.

In 1995 she gave up a successful position at IBM as an executive in charge of the managed health care business to launch Idamar Enterprises, a health and wellness company in Newark, N.J., that provides support services for health maintenance organizations (HMOs).

Within two months of starting Idamar, she landed a trio of contracts worth $1 million. All three contracts came from the same HMO.

But Bodden’s bubble soon burst: In the months after signing the contracts, 80% of them were canceled through no fault of her own. Management turnover and turf wars within the HMO led it to retain only $200,000 of its business with Idamar.

"I was naïve to put all my eggs in one basket," she says. "But after my successful IBM experience, I thought if you have the best RFP, you win. I learned you can’t count the money until it’s in the bank."

With only $200,000 in revenues, no credit line and no other clients, Bodden regrouped. Mentors encouraged her to return to IBM, but she didn’t want to admit failure as an entrepreneur.

She figured if she could convince one HMO to contract with her company, she could win over others. But that required an all-out sales effort.

Cold Calls Open Doors

"My first year, I took off 1-1/2 days at Christmas, and that was it," she says. "I made constant cold calls to other HMOs and eventually gained access to some high-ranking executives. I knew from my time with IBM how to maneuver the HMO system to reach decision-makers."

Bodden calls that first year "brutal." She recalls a harrowing day when an HMO exec dropped in for a site visit. At the time, Bodden’s three employees sat in cubicles that were part of another firm’s offices.

"We needed to appear bigger than we were," she says. "So I pointed to an adjoining area and said, ‘That’s our computer room,’ even though we only had one server in there." Most of the computers belonged to the company sharing space with Idamar.

What’s more, one of Bodden’s friends — a high-powered lawyer — had agreed to be her part-time receptionist. "Here was this secretary dressed in a $2,000 suit talking about her Vail ski trip while getting coffee for this HMO executive." The HMO signed up. By Idamar’s 1-year anniversary, Bodden had booked $1.4 million in sales and grown from three to 30 employees.

Growing in Phases

In 1999, Idamar earned $4.2 million in sales. It now has four divisions and 200 employees. Bodden projects 2000 sales of $6.3 million, with a "huge growth spurt" over the next five years.

Her growth strategy is to clear the "five-year hump" before seeking capital to expand. She rejected a "growth at any cost" approach in building her business, because she wanted to put the right people and processes in place first.

"I could be at $10 million or $20 million now if I got capital early on," she says. "But there are a lot of companies that grow too fast and don’t survive."

While Bodden’s company is certified as minority-owned, she hasn’t used this to win business. "I’m proud to be a minority company, but I don’t come in the door saying, ‘Tell me about your minority programs,’ " she says. "You just get the crumbs. I made a vow not to go after government or set-aside contracts for minorities until I got known for my service delivery on its own merits."

Writer: Morey Stettner

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