When Zina Hassel began the technology consultancy firm ZLH Enterprises (Manalapan), in early 2000, she was not thinking about an exit strategy. Consulting was what intrigued Zina. And the push to get things accomplished when suppliers said it couldn’t be done was what fueled the fire.
When Zina eventually retires from ZLH Enterprises, which she built from the ground up, she’ll be passing the baton to her daughter Jodi Hassel. And Jodi, who has been studying and mastering the business for the past seven years, will be ready. “She is fluent in almost every aspect of the business,” Zina told NJTechWeekly.com.
Unlike some company founders who fret over the upheaval such a transition might cause, Zina is sure they will both be ready for the change. Jodi put it best when she said, “I know Zina will never truly leave the business. She may cut back and be more in the background, but she’ll always be there to give me advice.” Jodi is confident in her skills and abilities, and already manages the business during Zina’s absence.
The one thing these two differ on? Zina kept the business small and hands on, a boutique telecommunications consulting business. Jodi wants to build and expand the business, and knows there is plenty of room for growth in the market. Both agree that the best growth strategy is already in progress … continuing to shift the business from telecommunications to technology, and continuing to expand their channel programs and resources.
But how did it all begin? Zina started her journey into telecommunications after a working in hospital administration at the New York State Office of Mental Health. “My mentor was the deputy director of administration, and we bid on a telecom system. We actually locally bid the system, which was unheard of in state government in those days. That’s where my connection to technology began.”
When she left hospital administration, Zina reached out to the people at the telecommunications company that provided the telecom system to the hospital. When she told them that she wanted to learn the business, “they created a position for me as executive assistant to the president.” Zina recalled that “they didn’t know what to do with me. I was a woman and the only graduate-degreed individual in the company. I had a BS in management science and an MBA.”
Finding the business interesting, Zina worked for the telecom provider until it was sold. Afterward, she immediately used her knowledge by consulting in the industry. But that first step was short-lived. The president from the telecom provider company that had just been sold contacted her, and asked her to help him build a competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC). “So, I accepted the offer and cofounded that business with him.” While the CLEC grew and was successful, her partner didn’t advertise her achievements or her role as a woman cofounder.
“Although it was a tumultuous relationship,” Zina noted, “building the CLEC business gave me a great experience in technology, a foundation in the growth areas of the market, and the basis for building my own successful business.”
The industry was transforming, so it made sense to sell the CLEC business. “Almost immediately, people called me, asking how they could do all kinds of things and looking for my help,” Zina said. “Then, AT&T reached out and said they wanted me to be one of their ‘solutions providers,’ and that’s how I got into my current consultancy-agency business. I knew I could represent the needs of small, medium or enterprise clients, and introduce them to the right carriers. I already had the corporation, so I wrote agreements with carriers, and that’s how my company morphed in 2000 into a telecom consultancy.”
Today, ZLH Enterprises is a business-to- business (B2B) enterprise with a consultative approach to improving the voice/data/cloud services delivered to individual customers. Zina’s company studies the unique attributes, structure and requirements of each client, and develops individualized action plans for each business. “We absolutely reject the cookie-cutter approach to designing business solutions.” Zina said.
ZLH Enterprises’ secret sauce is the relationships it builds with clients throughout the consulting, implementation and support life cycle. “Customers can call us directly for a customer care issue. We’ll never stop a customer from calling a carrier directly, but why on earth would you want to stay on the phone for 2 1/2 hours with a trouble call? Just send us a ticket, and we’ll take care of everything for you. And it’s free, as long as you have an active contract with that service provider or carrier placed by ZLH Enterprises.”
So, when did discussion between Zina and Jodi about succession planning for the company begin? Actually, Jodi didn’t always want to be her mother’s successor. She started out in the hospitality business, holding key management positions at hotels in Florida and New Jersey. Jodi decided that she wanted a change and went to work at ZLH Enterprises, but soon discovered that “it wasn’t the right time for me to work with my mother in the family business.”
Jodi returned to hospitality management and accelerated her career there. “But I hit the glass ceiling in terms of what I could do in that industry.” She had climbed to the position of general manager, and didn’t see a future much beyond that. Knowing that she was going to leave hospitality, Jodi spoke to her dad, and found out that her Mom was looking to hire someone to work for ZLH Enterprises.
“I talked to my mom,” said Jodi. Zina asked Jodi if she wanted to try working with her again. “I liked what she was doing and figured, why not give it another shot. I was older and had a lot more experience under my belt as far as managing a business and all the responsibilities involved,” Jodi explained. She also knew that having her mom as her mentor would be a good choice.
When Jodi returned to ZLH Enterprises, she worked in the office with Zina, listened to the phone calls and interactions with customers and carriers and became familiar with the follow-up and paperwork involved. “We’d go to industry conferences and customer meetings together,” she said. There were a lot of valuable information exchanges with clients and venders. Typically, Jodi would only give her first name so that the mother-daughter relationship wouldn’t influence the customers. “I wanted them to judge me independently of being Zina’s daughter.”
Zina openly praised Jodi’s skills. “She is a great networker, and this business is very much about networking. Priority one is getting the ZLH Enterprises brand out there, and she is one of the key executive faces of the company.” Jodi’s network has exploded. When she recently decided not to attend a conference, she found herself besieged with calls from her contacts and colleagues requesting her attendance. “If you need something from a carrier or provider, and you’ve met them, you can always call and say, ‘I might not have done business with your company before, but I have a customer and I need your help.’”
Jodi has also proven that she can advocate successfully on behalf of her clients. “We manage the carriers as much as we manage our customers and our employees,” she said. “We have to make sure the carriers treat the customers right.”
Zina added, “Jodi knows how to prioritize the most important projects, and how to ask the right qualifying questions to analyze the customer’s specific needs. Choosing the right carriers for individual clients has become second nature, since she’s already a ‘whirlwind product manager.’ She’s great with customer relationships. In fact, when I take a meeting alone, the customer will frequently ask, ‘Where’s Jodi?’”
On top of broadening her market and technology skills, Jodi also has management credentials from her years in the hospitality industry, and she noted that she continues to learn more every day. “The technology changes all the time, and I’m not an engineer. I lean on Zina, with her years of experience in the industry, and those experts she’s learned to rely on.”
There was no succession plan until Jodi realized how much she liked the business and decided to stay. From the beginning, Zina acted as a mentor to Jodi. “We all know how difficult it is for women in business, especially technology, without a mentor,” she said. The upshot for Jodi: “I love what I do. Technology changes every day, so I’m doing something different every day, and making a difference.”
Zina’s retirement has yet to be officially scheduled, but as Jodi takes over more of her responsibilities, she plans to step back gradually. Jodi is confident that their plan will work out well, and that ZLH Enterprises will continue growing as a technology consultancy for many years to come.