Women in Business Q&A: Michele Popelka, Vice President of Sales and Support, Safeguard Business Systems

Michele Popelka, C.F.E is the Vice president of Sales and Support for Safeguard Business Systems, Inc; The Dallas-based business solutions enterprise has been providing the products, services and expertise needed by business owners to help their businesses grow for more than 58 years. Popelka joined Safeguard in January 2010, where she is responsible for generating revenue through a network of 270+ independent consultants throughout North America. Michele has a proven track record and more than 20 years' experience driving sales growth in the franchise industry.

Among her significant previous experience, Michele was the director of Franchise Operations in the Franchising division of GNC, with responsibility for driving sales through a franchise network by training, coaching, business planning and influencing franchisee behaviors. At GNC, Michele consistently performed at the top within the field sales organization, winning the "Region of the Year" award in 2002. Michelealso served as the director of Sales for Sport Clips, where she led their western expansion, helping to open 100+ stores and standardize their sales processes.

Prior to joining Safeguard, Michele was named sr. director of franchise operations and marketing for Sylvan Learning in 2005, where she was responsible for a team of 13 field salespeople who supported 1,000+ Sylvan Learning Centers. Her team was responsible for sales, training and operational support, information systems, and co-op advertising programs.

Michele holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota. She has earned her Certified Franchise Executive designation from the International Franchise Association and is a regular speaker at IFA events; she also holds a Certificate in Franchise Management from Georgetown University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My parents are the source of my ability to lead. They were always extremely involved in our community. They are both retired high school teachers. My dad was the mayor of our town and a volunteer firefighter for 30 years. My mom also was a small-business owner and taught dance for K-12 students as well as aerobics for adults. They are both great examples of what it means to be a leader.

I grew up in northern Minnesota in an environment where I didn't even know it was an option to be secondary to anyone and not be a leader. It didn't matter if you were a boy or girl -- you could fish and hunt, be a cheerleader or do it all. I also feel like I had access to a great education where I grew up, and with a great education, comes the confidence I think you need to be successful. I went to school in Minnesota all my life, including college. I attended the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, which is well known for both its business and law programs.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as the Vice president of Sales and Support for Safeguard?
Franchising is my expertise, and I've held multiple leadership roles within very large franchise organizations, including Sylvan Learning, Sport Clips and General Nutrition Centers. These experiences have afforded me the opportunity to literally have thousands upon thousands of conversations with small-business owners from all over the country and the world, or as they are known in franchising, franchisees. The sheer exposure I've had to so many people in a variety of different companies has given me a deep understanding of the industry and what small-business owners need to be successful. Without this experience, I know I wouldn't be nearly as effective as I am today, because Safeguard is all about helping small businesses help other small businesses, and my job is to be looking out for the well-being of our Safeguard franchisees, which within our network, are known as distributors. My husband is a small-business owner, and after all these years, I feel like the knowledge of small-business needs and strategies runs in my DNA from both a professional and personal perspective.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This is honestly a tough one and something I think you can really only master through time and experience. Being on 24/7 is something that sounds like a noble cause in our society and something I think people often translate to how dedicated or successful you are. But the truth is, if you're on 24/7, you are not doing your best thinking. We as human beings are not able to be creative problem solvers and strategic thinkers without down time. We're just not built that way, and it's important to have boundaries. One of the things that I do, which is very tactical and some people would probably think crazy, is carry two phones; one for business and one personal. I then designate times, whether it's a Friday night or Saturday during the day for example, when that work phone and company-issued laptop get locked in my home office and I am officially off. I know as a person, I need some time to exercise; I need fresh air and sunshine (I live in Arizona); and I need time to either relax or do something I truly enjoy, whether it's cooking at home or taking some time to travel with my husband. Needs might be different for someone else, but I think as you move through your career, you start to understand yourself better and understand what it takes for you to be at your best. As you discover those things, you need to make sure you're allowing yourself to have them.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Safeguard?
I think the most interesting thing about Safeguard, which has led to many highlights and challenges combined, is our robust mergers and acquisitions program, Safeguard Business Acquisitions and Mergers, or BAM. What this program has done is essentially create the environment of a startup inside of an established, 58-year old company. Highlights and challenges have been comingled because we're a leader in our space, but we've also done a lot of learning and growing together in recent years as we've brought on new businesses, sold businesses, brought on new customers, etc. The process has created an incredibly dynamic and fun work atmosphere, but if there is anyone uncomfortable with change, I think the fast-paced nature of this program can be a little frightening. In my role, I am responsible for the well-being of our franchisees, and it's been both a highlight and a challenge for me to make sure I'm providing comfort during times of growth and change.

What advice can you offer women seeking a career in your industry?
Well my industry is franchising, and to be successful in franchising, you've got to be on top of your game. You'll need fantastic business acumen; the ability to influence people; and great skills in interpersonal relations, listening and mediation. But most of all, if you aspire to work for a franchisor, you need to know the small-business owners within your organization and truly, genuinely care about their success. If you don't actually care, you will not be successful. Also, I would say, networking is key. Stay connected with people you meet and enjoy working with or were able to learn something from. You never know when you'll have the opportunity to work with someone again. For example, back in 1998 when I began working for GNC, I worked with J.J. Sorrenti, who is the current President for Safeguard and the reason I was presented with the opportunity to join the Safeguard team, which has been one of the best career moves I've ever made.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Honestly, I think this goes back to my upbringing, but I guess I never knew being a woman was supposed to be an issue, and thus I don't feel like I've ever experienced any issues here. I guess if I step back and think about it, there have been times when I have pondered whether I am making as much money as my male counterparts, for example, because you read about that in the media and it's apparently something that is quite common, but I don't cloud my focus thinking about those type of things. I think as a person, your own competence, knowledge, intelligence and ethics are in your own control and if you focus on being the best you can be in those areas and do what you know is right, you will reap the rewards. Personally, I refuse to live in a world where "being a woman" is an issue. I refuse to be disrespected, I can laugh at myself, and I refuse to not have my voice heard. I would never put myself in a position or be a part of a company where any of these things was an issue, and if I ended up in one, I would excuse myself. I only want to be in an environment that is conducive to collaboration, and I won't accept anything less.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Interestingly, I feel like I have more often served as a mentor for other people. I have had many instances where I feel I gave a lot and someone else benefitted, which I'm happy to do as I love to see people around me succeed. Personally, what I have been able to do is absorb and learn a lot from a lot of other people. As I mentioned before, I have been so fortunate in the exposure I've had to thousands of small-business owners all over the world, and I have also worked with a great deal of amazing and talented people along the way. In some cases I've even hired outside consultants who I feel I really learned a lot from. I've taken a little piece from nearly every encounter I've ever had in business, which has helped to shape the way I view life and approach business. Being able to see so many other people's points of view in a variety of different settings has been really enriching for me.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I can't point to just one female leader and say, "that's the magic formula." I don't think one person could embody the ultimate model for how women, or men for that matter, should conduct themselves in business or in life. I think we all have pieces of us that are spectacular and we need to focus on those things in ourselves and also learn from the spectacular things we see in other people. I respect people for their ability to think for themselves -- it doesn't have to be specifically a woman or specifically a man -- I actually think a combination of male and female leaders is the best because we benefit from having different perspectives regarding any given situation or problem we need to solve. What I admire is when I encounter people who can think organically and then turn and communicate in an appropriate way to influence others.

What are your hopes for the future of Safeguard?
Safeguard is a 58-year old company with a lot of spectacular distributors who have been extremely successful. What I'd like to see is people who have had such a great run in our building or in this business to ultimately have success in selling their business when they're ready to and go on to have the wonderful retirement they deserve. And for new people entering into our network, I'd like to see them honor the rich history we have, but also help us forge a new path so that we can continue to innovate and lead and Safeguard will be around for a long time to come. If we can continue to effectively help small businesses be successful, we will be successful too.