From Cleaning Service to Property Management
By Bruce Freeman
Barbara Zimonja, president of Premier Resorts, is what is commonly referred to as a tough cookie. After her dad died, her grandfather became her mentor, telling her not to rely on the white picket fence fantasy, but to go out and make her own way in the world as an independent person.
Raised in Chicago, Zimonja worked from the time she was 14, selling shoes and life guarding, but also volunteering in the service of the mentally ill. High-jinx behavior cut her college career short, but Zimonja landed on her feet and became an independent assistant to multiple stock brokers, which gave her knowledge and insight into high-finance and investing.
In the early 70’s, Zimonja became a mother and traveled back and forth to Germany as her husband served time in the military, before finally ending up in Park City, Utah. Concerned she would never fit in the conservative community; Zimonja surprised herself by falling in love with the mountains, and started a ski condo cleaning-service with a friend in 1978.
With only $1000, a small office, and a phone, Zimonja started calling condo owners to solicit business. After her partner moved away, Zimonja began to offer property management services, maintaining and renting the condos as well. By 1985, she was running a full-blown property management business servicing 300 condos. Over time, Zimonja and partners grew the business by building an inn and condo check-in center, and purchased another property management firm in the Park City area. By 1990, her three male partners retired, leaving Zimonja, at age 42, running the show by herself.
Zimonja believes that the decade from 1990 to 2000 was the time period when she learned the most. Presiding over a growing business, she finally realized that one division was losing a good deal of money – housekeeping. This was a blow, since housekeeping was the road she took to the top. She realized that she wasn’t paying enough attention, managing the situation or the people.
Getting a handle on the problem, Zimonja had to admit that she was responsible and needed to make changes. She hired an executive review firm that interviewed all employees and provided blind surveys results that showed people enjoyed working with her, but were frustrated with delays in key decision-making, especially with regard to letting employees go. Facing this truth allowed Zimonja to grow as an executive, rework staff relationships, put formalized personnel processes into place, and improve decision-making company-wide.
In 1994, Zimonja was approached by Premier Resorts, a conglomerate of management companies owned by a parent company in the United Kingdom, who wanted to buy her company. Concerned for her staff, Zimonja sold the company, but took a management contract and ran the business for Premier for 3 years. In 1997, the parent company experienced a hostile take-over and the new company offered her the presidency of their entire US based business.
Suddenly, Zimonja, working for a multi-billion dollar conglomerate, was presiding over all US operations. However, after 9/11, the US vacation rental business fell off precipitously. Not being here to sense Americans’ mood, the UK based parent company had difficulty waiting for Americans’ vacation dollars to bounce back to pre 9/11 levels, so in 2003 Zimonja approached them about buying the business back.
Now in 2005, after pulling off a two-year long negotiation for a management buy-out with seller financing, Zimonja has finally regained a sense of freedom. As president of Premier Resorts, she currently travels around inspiring and managing 1500 employees and $80 million in sales from 8 US states and Mexico.
Professor Bruce’s Words of Wisdom
Barbara Zimonja is currently having the time of her life, but there is no question that she earned it. Why do we always hear about the chief executives who started out in the mail room, or as a chamber maid? Because they know their business from the ground up, because they persevere through both good times and bad, because they take risks, make mistakes and learn from them.
One of the most important things Zimonja did was realize that she is not infallible and needed to change, despite her level of success. She wasn’t comfortable making decisions by herself, so she created structure to formalize, and involve other managers, in the decision-making process within her company. By involving others, Zimonja was able to determine what, and when, decisions must be made, like it or not. This has helped overcome her reluctance and make decisions in a more timely and supported manner.
Conduct an anonymous review of employees’ perceptions of their own strengths and weaknesses and that of management. Improve your own performance based on giving them what they need from you. Clean house by identifying and letting less productive employees go.
Could This Work For Me?
We learn most, not from books, but from others who sometimes see us more clearly than we see ourselves.