Episode 29: The Path to Success is Circuitous, with Catherine Shafer



Catherine Shafer is the General Manager of Lightspeed Technologies. As a leader in providing Northeastern Pennsylvania with the latest in convergence technologies, Lightspeed Technologies believes that network and communications infrastructures are the foundation for success. Acknowledging that no two organizations are exactly the same in structure or needs, and focusing on each organizations unique communication requirements, Lightspeed designs customized computer network solutions for clients in higher education, financial services, county government, media, records management, healthcare, transportation, insurance and other industries. Founded in 1997, Lightspeed Technologies has been a Cisco Premier Partner since 1998.

The Path to Success is Circuitous, with Catherine Shafer:

Good afternoon everyone. My name is Lynn S. Evans, and I am the host of Power of the Purse Podcast. We should know that personal finance isn’t about being rich or getting rich quick. It’s about buying independence and freedom of choice. You are not alone as you struggle with being the perfect wife, mother, daughter, daughter-in-law, and all the other traditional roles assigned to us by our culture. These pressures can feel overwhelming, and when we add the demands of a career on top of it all, many women choose to pass on dealing with money issues until they’re forced to. That’s not the best time to learn.

Here, we explore the stories of women and how they had handled the demands of finances, family, and career. We talk about falling short of perfection, but also about the lessons we’ve learned, and the best advice our peers have to offer for financial security and putting our perceived failures in their proper place. My mission is to help women have a healthy, positive relationship with money.

With that in mind, my guest today is Catherine Shafer. Catherine is the general manager of Lightspeed Technologies. She’s been with them since 2014. They are a leader in providing Northeastern Pennsylvania with the latest in convergent technologies. They believe that network and communication infrastructures are the foundation for success. Acknowledging that no two organizations are exactly the same in structure or needs and focusing on each organization’s unique communication requirements, Lightspeed designs customized computer network solutions for clients in higher education, financial services, county government, media, records management, healthcare, transportation, insurance and other industries. Founded in 1997, Lightspeed Technologies has been a Cisco Premier Partner since 1998.

Catherine was also the president of CDS Creative from 1984 to 2014, and she did a lot of work with that when she was there. In 2007, she made it a virtual company, stepping away from retail sales clients and adding services-based companies such as technology companies and international trucking firm, while continuing work with nonprofit organizations. In addition, CDS Creative Inc. specializes in assisting startup service-based companies in developing business strategic plans. The company became a consulting firm in the areas of brand development and strategic planning.

We’re going to talk about something a little later that’s unique to what Catherine was doing called Create-A-Thon. It’s a wonderful idea, and I know it was backbreaking to do it, but we’ll talk about that in a bit, so welcome Catherine.

Thank you, glad to be here.

I’m glad you’re here too. We had a little difficulty scheduling this, but we finally got together, so here we are today.

Yay!

Anyway, let’s talk a little bit about some of the things that you’ve done. I’m curious to know, when I read through your bio, that you were a graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater, and then you went to Wilkes University a couple of years later to get an MBA in management. What were your plans? What were your ideas and your dreams of being in theater?

Well, it was interesting. When I actually applied to Bucknell, I applied as a chemistry major.

What?

I’ve always loved chemistry. I always did, but my senior year in high school, you know how you run into that one teacher that just changes your life?

Yup.

Well, I did, and I had always been a writer of some sort, and she encouraged me to write. I had always participated in the shows at school. I was in the choral. I’m an alto, so they always needed women who could sing tenor also kind of thing, but she encouraged me to write. I started writing plays, one acts and those kinds of things. We actually performed a number of them, and I was hooked. By the time I got to Bucknell and went to the chemistry classes, and the professor said, “And we all know this from high school chemistry,” and I went, “Uh-oh, no, this is not what I want to do.” I changed my majors right then and there and became a theater major when really Bucknell didn’t have theater major. It was really considered an English major, but every course I took was theater-based in some way or the other.

I directed a whole bunch of plays. I participated, obviously, in a number of plays, stage managed. You name it. I got to explore all the different facets of theater. When I graduated, I was also certified to teach English, and moved to the Valley with my husband who is also a Bucknell graduate, and really couldn’t find a teaching job, for a number of reasons, and needed to find some work. My first job was actually as a bank teller with First Valley Bank, which no longer even exists, but that’s where I started, working at the bank as a teller, moved from there into their customer service division, then became an assistant manager.

Then an opening came up in the marketing department of then First Eastern Bank, and I said, “Well, I don’t know anything about advertising, but sure, I’ll give it a try.” I worked with some really terrific people, and that’s kind of how I got back to theater, if you will. Obviously, marketing has a lot to do with telling stories and those kinds of things, and that’s what theater is all about. It brought me full circle. After a few years, it brought me full circle back.

That’s interesting you said that, because I had exactly the same experience when I graduated from college. I have a degree in secondary education and a major in French, and you can see, obviously, that is not what I do, but same thing. When I graduated, I couldn’t find a teaching job. I think all of us who graduated in that timeframe, in the 70s, said, “There’s something wrong here because we were supposed to just walk right out and get a teaching job,” but then all of us ended … Not all of us, but those of us who had that issue ended up doing things that were not necessarily on the same career path but they opened up doors that we never would’ve had the opportunity to go through those doors and created careers that were just unheard of.

I think it’s great that you took that step and went into finance, which is like chemistry would be to Caesar, but it just, it opened up a whole new world for you. It’s just a very exciting way to say, “Yeah, I didn’t get the job I wanted, but I got something very different. It is who you became. I mean, CDS Creative was clearly your baby from day one, and so how did you make that decision to leave the corporate world and start something on your own?

I had kids.

Okay.

Truly, that’s what started it. Once I had our first son, I decided, no, I was going to be a stay-at-home mom. We could afford to do that. I had the opportunity to do that. We chose to do that, but all the time, I was planning on when our second son came along, but I was always planning on when they both got back into school to go back to work, but realized that I did not want to go back into the corporate world anymore. There’s only so many ways you can market a checking account.

Yeah.

I just wasn’t going there, just wasn’t going there, so I started writing again. It’s always been my first love, and so I kept the company very small, did a lot of writing projects, freelance projects at first that I could do from home, that I could do while the kids were in school, and just slowly but surely started building it up from there.

Well, how did you get those first clients? I mean, how did people know you were doing this, and how did you market yourself to people?

I’m not shy, as you know Lynn, and I basically just told people. I got a hold of folks that I used to work at the bank and let them know. My husband works for a private school, and so through that network, let folks there know that I was doing this. It was really word of mouth more than anything else, little by little. As that grew and the kids got into school, there’s always that right place, right time, not that I don’t think you have … You’re always working towards these things, and so it’s luck, but it’s also some sweat too.

I happen to know someone at Motor World. He was their marketing manager, and it was at the time that they were building Motor World. He came to me and said, “I need you to come work with me for a while, because I’m really deep into the actual construction here, and so I need some help with managing some of the marketing, just on a part-time basis, no problem.” I said, “Okay, but I’m still running my company, can I use one of the offices at the building to run my company out of while I’m helping you,” and he said, “Sure, no problem.” Then the, I believe it was the Gulf War started, and he was in Reserves as a chaplain and got called up and left. All of the marketing from Motor World fell into my hands.

Now, I happened to be very lucky in that they have an agency out of Alabama that was a automotive advertising company. That’s all they did, so I had some great resources, and those folks are still some of my best friends. I was able to look at them and go, “Help, teach me. What do we need to do here,” and they did. I had a long relationship with that agency from Alabama as I was growing my company. I handled five different car dealerships in Pennsylvania. All of them were multi-manufacturer types of organizations, so it was huge.

Wow.

I got to the point where I decided, okay, I don’t really want to be advertising cars for the rest of my life, and I talked to Steve Ubaldini, who is the president or GM of Motor World … Excuse me, Wyoming Valley Motors, who was a client of mine at that point. He said, “Cath, you can do this on your own, and I’ll be your customer, your first one.” I said, “Okay, I’m doing this.”

Wow.

I took a leap.

Yeah.

Again, I was lucky. Fortunately, like I said, the agency in Alabama were really good friends, and I told him this is what I wanted to do, and he said, “Go for it, do it.” I had his support too. Steve became and Wyoming Valley Motors became the first real customer of CDS Creative as everyone knew it, and then I kept branching out from there.

It was really word of mouth. We became known for building brands. We became known for helping folks get their message out, whether it was public relations or it was through events or whatever, but branding was always the core of what we do, that’s how the company kept growing and growing. We bought a building, and at one point, we had a dozen people all working together on different types of industries. We became very good at working with nonprofits. I understand that world real well.

Yeah.

It kept growing, and then, as you said before, at one point, we realized that the world had become virtual. Obviously, CDS Creative kept adapting and changing to what was going on in the marketing world. The world went virtual, so we did. At that point, I also helped two of my folks start their own companies. They were ready to do it, and I backed them up, and I still work with one in particular.

No kidding?

Oh yeah, yeah.

Wow.

Yeah.

How many people to do that?

It was the right thing to do, and they were very, very capable folks. I knew that sooner or later, I was going to be getting to the point of slowing the businesses down and hopefully stepping away from it. They were just terrific people, and I knew they could be very successful, so I said, “Yeah, do it and I’ll help you.”

Wow.

As I say, I still work with one of them today. He still does all of our stuff here at Lightspeed even. It was a real interesting transition. I laugh all the time when I … I also taught out at Misericordia for a while, and I kept telling folks, “Okay, do you understand that cut and paste is what we actually physically used to do?” They all laughed and they look at you like you have three heads, but when I started, that is what you did.

That’s right.

This industry has seen a huge change over the years, as most have, but in marketing and everything went online, we went to websites. None of this existed when I started the company in ’84.

Yeah. Well, when did you see that that’s where it was going to go and make the decision to sell the physical building and go virtual? Was it ahead of this? Did you see it coming, or was it like you had to?

I want to say I had to, but I’m not sure I would say that I saw it coming either. I would put myself somewhere in the middle there.

Okay.

We realized that more and more of our customers who were working with us over the internet, we weren’t in front of them all the time as we were before. We didn’t need a physical building to do what we were doing. Everything was being done online. All of our processes were online. Our communications were online. It just made sense at that point to sell the building. I started the company in a little, tiny office in my house, and I ended up in a little, tiny office back in my house again.

Perfect. Perfect.

Yeah.

How was it that you … I’m saying this because I had to cross this bridge myself, but at some point, you probably said to yourself, “Okay, I’ve done as much as I possibly can by myself, and it’s time for me to hire somebody,” and that puts you in a whole other world when you become an employer.

Oh my word, yes.

How did that occur for you? What was going on that you said, “Oh my gosh, I have to get some help”?

Well, part of it was that I was doing a lot of work with car dealers and I could not do that all by myself. Car dealer advertising is very, very labor-intensive. It is constantly changing. It is constantly, “What have you done for me lately? We got to the end of the month, we sold this many cars. Okay, let’s start again.”

Yeah.

It was getting much more complicated, and I could not do that all by myself, not with the number of folks that I was working with and keep everybody with the proper attention and attention to detail that was needed. That’s what pushed me, got me going, and then as we added different services, I looked for folks with the skills that I could bring in that I didn’t have.

Yeah.

I’m not a graphic designer. I needed to find someone who understood being a graphic designer, but also understood business. Because when you’re dealing with car dealers, it’s business, not that anyone else is, but it’s a very transactional business and you got to stay up with it. I needed someone that fit that bill. I did that. As we got more and more into public relations, I made sure I had somebody on board who was a really good writer and had really good skills dealing with media. I kept adding the skillsets that I didn’t have, nor did I have the time to really learn them the way you would want to have them, and that’s how we grew.

You said, at one point you had 12 employees?

Mm-hmm.

Then when you scaled back and decided that you were going to do less of that, did you have to let them all go?

At the very end, yes, but they all knew it was coming. I was very transparent in what I was doing. They knew it was coming. I helped folks either start their own business or I referred them to people, got them with another agency. I did not do it in a vacuum. I would never do that to folks.

Yeah.

They knew it. They knew what was happening, why I was doing it, made sense, and then they made decisions, and we talked it through. Like I said, I helped them where I could.

Let’s talk about Create-A-Thon, because I really love that idea. It was just something that I think was so brilliant, the way you did that, and also a way to give back to the community. I was involved with several of them, and at the time when you were doing them, only … I mean, not necessarily involved physically with what you were doing, but aware of what you were doing at the time. Tell me everybody about what this was, how did you get to the point where you had the competition for people, who was ultimately the winner of the price and what was the price.

Well, this whole thing actually was started by an agency, I believe, in South Carolina. That’s where the idea came from, and we saw it. We saw it right after 9/11. We’ve always been working with nonprofits, but like most agencies, you’re always being asked to do things pro bono. You don’t always have the time or resources to do that as much as you want to help. When we saw this idea of having a 24-hour period where we would do nothing but pro bono work for nonprofits, we thought, “Okay, this is fun, this is cool, let’s do this.”

We found out all the information from the agency down south, and sent out applications to all the nonprofits that we knew of, asking them, “What do you need? Tell us what you need. Tell us why. Do you have people on staff that can help? Blah blah blah blah,” all that kind of thing. We got lots of people, of course, requesting things, and then we would sit down and look at all the requests, wanting to help everyone, obviously, but really winnowing it down to maybe six to 10 projects that we could manage in a 24-hour period.

We would meet with all these folks ahead of time that we were going to be doing work for, make sure we understood what they were trying to do, make sure we had their logos and all those kinds of things. Then Create-A-Thon day would start, and we would start at eight in the morning, and we would work nonstop for 24 hours on all of the projects all through the night. I did this for 10 years, and then I finally stopped because I just couldn’t do it anymore, but we would work straight through the night. We’d have people working on a project, and then we’d switch and put different people on the project to get another idea about it.

By the time we were done the next morning, we had everything done. It could’ve been anything from an advertising campaign to a strategic plan to a new logo development to brochures, you name it. Whatever they needed, we would get them all done. We would print out mock-ups of everything, and put them up on boards, and we invited all the nonprofits that we were doing the work for to come to the office for the great unveiling the next morning. Now, you understand, at this point, we’re smelling bad, we’re looking bad. We’re not talking real well, okay?

Yeah, I know.

I have to tell you … Yeah, it was every year, and still to this day, one of the most rewarding things that we did, because we could see in their faces the surprise, the gratitude, there were tears, because we were giving them professional services that they never would’ve been able to afford otherwise.

Right.

It was just so cool to be able to do that for folks. We’d unveil everything, and everybody was looking at each other’s things, and then we’ll look at them all and say, “Okay, take your stuff, and go home, we’ll talk to you in two days about any changes you need, but get out, we need to go bed,” and we throw everybody out.

I would think so.

The really fun thing about this is that it wasn’t just CDS Creative. It was all of our crew that worked on it, but we invited folks from other agencies.

Oh, I didn’t know that.

Oh yeah, we invited folks that wanted to help out to come and join us too, and they did.

That’s nice.

We had printers that would help us out. It was a real ecosystem of folks that came together, so that we could help a whole bunch of nonprofits. It was pretty cool.

What was the one thing that stands out in your mind as the most changing, life-changing event that you did for anyone of these nonprofits?

Oh, brother. Oh, man, there were so many. Yikes, it’s really hard to pick just one, but I think it was probably some of the things that we did that involved children.

Yeah.

We would work on projects where … The Wyoming Valley Children’s Association, creating a campaign brochure for them that helped them raise a whole bunch of money.

Good.

Those were always the most heartwarming because we could see the results. We’d hear back from the folks, and know that what we wrote, what we created had an impact and really did some good work in the community, especially for kids.

That’s good.

Those were always some of the best ones.

Well, kudos to you and your crew and all the people who volunteered. That was just a wonderful thing that you did. I just think it was something that needs to be known, even though you don’t do it anymore because there’s no CDS Creative, but I think it’s something that, to me, if I look at it from your perspective, it’s a legacy. It’s a fine one indeed.

Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that.

You’re welcome. Let me switch to us around here, and let’s talk about your experience with money, because that’s what is intriguing to me. You see, we now know who you are as an adult and some of the things that are important to you, but I’m just curious to know where some of that came from. Answer some of these questions for me.

Okay.

What is your first memory around money?

We never had a lot of it. When I saw that question on the list of possible questions, you know what, what I wrote underneath it was spam. We ate a lot of spam. We were four kids. My mom was a crossing guard. My dad was in sales, and then later in management. She did amazing things with keeping all four of us in clothes, in food, and to our assorted games, and everything that we needed to be at. Yeah, one of my first memories is that it was economized. It was shared clothes. It was spam, and it was fine. That was fine. Money was never really talked about, but, I mean, you just knew that there were certain things that we could and there are certain things that we couldn’t do.

What lessons about money did you learn when you were growing up?

One of the things, I think, that sticks and probably drove me along my career path is that if you wanted to go buy something, you had to earn it. As soon as I could, I started babysitting. Then I got a job at a local farm stand in our town, which is still there actually, which is really amazing to me.

Wow.

We were never just handed money, ever. If you wanted to go buy something, if you wanted to go on a trip, whatever, you had to go earn your own money, and that was just the way it was. There wasn’t any extra, so you had to go do it, and so you did.

Yeah, and so that’s kind of where it was in your world when you decided to start a business, you figured you got to do it. You got to find a way to finance it. You got to do it. You didn’t ask anybody else, but I get that. What’s been the most threatening to your financial security?

I think one of the scariest times, I’ll say, is when the company was growing so fast and trying to keep up with it from a cash flow standpoint and all the things that go with a company that’s growing quickly. Sometimes it happens in a blink of an eye and you step back at some point and go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a minute, wait a minute, let me rethink this.” Making sure that the growth was managed was probably the scariest thing from a financial standpoint.

Where do you want to be financially five years from now?

Oh, I’m going to be retired. I keep telling you guys here that.

All right.                                 

Oh yeah, I’m going to be retired and Shafe and I have a great, big list of things that we’re going to do.

Oh, I love it. That’s great.

Oh yeah, yeah, we do, we do.

Okay.

We’ve already got the list down, and we’ve been planning, both of us, quite a while. Finances are in good shape and all that kind of thing. We bought a condo a number of years ago, so when my husband retires from Sem, we can move off campus and into the condo and use that as our base of operation and go do all the things that are on the list.

Like what? What are some of the things on your bucket list?

Oh, all kinds of things. We’re both big baseball fans, so we had this thing on our list, a whole list of stadiums that we want to go see, so go from stadium to stadium and go see baseball games.

Great.

There’s some traveling that we want to do, mostly in the USA, believe it or not, just places we haven’t been to yet, things we want to see. We like going to events, so we have on our list like a Final Four and those kinds of things. I know a lot of these sounds like sports, but it’s not all sports.

It’s okay if it is.

Yeah, we like going and doing things, and so there’s this whole list. Now, we also have a couple of grandchildren now, so we’re obviously going to spend a whole bunch of time with them too.

I was just going to say.

Yeah.

Where are they?

They’re here. They’re local, fortunately.

That’s good.

That may not be forever either, but for right now, they are, and it’s pretty wonderful.

That’s great. That’s really nice to hear.

Yeah.

Would you do anything differently, any regrets?

I don’t think so. I really don’t think so, because you said it before, you opened the door. I had to laugh when I heard you say it, because that has been my mantra. It was CDS Creative’s mantra, opening doors, always opening doors. No matter what door you open, it’s going to take you to a new adventure somewhere, somehow, someway. If you don’t open the door, you’re never going to know. I’d like to say sometimes, if you want to put a screen in and just watch for a while, that’s fine.

I like that.

Sooner or later, you’ve got to make the decision whether or not you’re going to go through the door.

Yeah.

I don’t think I regret anything, because everything that I’ve done has contributed to the interesting parts of my life, meeting people, trying new jobs, learning new things. The job now, these guys, Lightspeed Technologies, was one of my clients. The owner of the company, he and I are on the same wavelength a lot, he had some health issues, can’t be in the office every day, so he came to me and said, “Look, I know you’re looking at closing down your company, but how about you come on full-time with me here and be my general manager and we’ll get this company growing up as a business also,” not that Steve didn’t have a real good business plan in place already. This company has been growing for 20 years. It is an amazing company, but recently has grown exponentially fast.

Yeah.

We’re trying to make sure that all the business processes are keeping up with it. Having been through that once, at least I have a little bit of experience I can bring to the table, but it’s a whole new field, network technology. They are an amazing bunch in this building. I call it the brilliance in the building. It is a really intelligent group of people. I don’t always understand all the acronyms. I probably never will, but it doesn’t matter. My job is to make sure bottom line is good, and that’s what I’m doing, but it’s so much fun. I’m definitely the old far-gone staff.

Yeah.

Everybody else is so much younger, and that’s so much fun too.

Yeah.

Except when I occasionally will make reference to something and you get this blank stare and you just look at them and go, “Go Google it, you’ll find out.” It works.

Been there myself on that.

They’re just … Yeah. Yeah, it’s pretty funny. A little scary, but pretty funny.

Yeah.

It’s been fun learning a whole new industry, meeting a whole bunch of new people, both on the industry side and on the customer side here. It’s a brand new challenge, and I have said to them, “Look, five years from now, I am retiring, so whatever we’re going to get done, we’re going to get down now.”

Right.

They know that. They get that.

Yeah.

It’s kind of cool.

That is great. I like the fact that you’ve got that plan and shared it with everybody, so they all know that this is the deal, this is how it’s going to be.

Yup.

Let me ask you one question about personal finance because you mentioned before that everything is in good shape, so what area of personal finance are you most uncomfortable with?

Oh, probably the actual investment side.

Yeah.

Understanding fully what’s the best for long-term planning, short-term planning, those kinds of things. I’d readily admit that this is Shafe’s area of expertise. He is extremely good at it, as his dad was also.

Wow, that’s great.

I’ve learned a lot from both of them along the way.

Good.

That probably the area that I feel most uncomfortable with because I haven’t spent enough time really learning it, probably, the way I should.

Probably, I think, most women would answer the same. That’s what I’m just curious to know.

Yeah.

Thank you for answering that question, but that was not on the list.

That’s no problem.

I wanted to catch you off-guard. Okay, so all of you in my Power of the Purse community, these were invaluable insights and perspectives from Catherine Shafer, all of which can help you move your career, your life, relationships, and financial freedom forward. Thanks again Catherine for your time and your knowledge, and let everybody know how they can find you if they need to.

Easiest way to find me is through email. I’m a big email person at cshafer@lightspeedtech.net. That’s the best way to get a hold of me.

How do you spell Shafer?

S-H-A-F-E-R.

Perfect. Okay, thanks Catherine. I really appreciate it, and we’ll say goodbye, until the next time on the Power of the Purse Podcast. Goodbye.

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