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Crain's Chicago Business. March 8, 2004 
"Layoff leads to startup" by Lisa Holton

Entrepreneur taps severance for meeting space.

Right before Labor Day 2002, Quaker Oats Co. marketing executive Eva Niewiadomski got the news: After surviving waves of layoffs since PepsiCo's 2001 acquisition of Quaker, she was out. "The place had changed," she says. I was ready to go and start something new."

But what the CPA-turned-product development executive did next is something few furloughed workers would consider in the midst of a recession: She put every dime of her severance and a second mortgage on her house into launching her own business.
Her year-old company, Catalyst Ranch, is positioned to be an antidote to mind-numbing meeting space. Located at 656 W. Randolph St., the 9,000-square-foot loft is separated into three meeting spaces splashed with color and stocked with toys, antique furniture, even a large hammock.

Her total investment was $115,000 but after 15 months, the business is profitable.

"While I was working at Quaker, I always found it a challenge to find space that was comfortable and interesting that was fun and would fuel people's imagination," she says.

Passion is a powerful motivator for entrepreneurs, but it must partner with an intelligent business plan and a reasonable amount of start-up capital. Downsized executives who want to launch a company should poll former clients, vendors and others for insights.

After exiting Quaker, Ms. Niewiadomski started typing out a business plan. She queried her old vendors, primarily meeting facilitators and consultants, to learn their pet peeves about meeting sites. She asked them to rate the top 10 things that would lead them never to book a meeting at the same location again.

"I kept hearing the same things: uncomfortable chairs, bad food, bad service, unexpected charges, your stuff not being set up in the room after you've taken the trouble and expense to ship it," she says. "I set out to do the opposite."

Ms. Niewiadomski decided Catalyst Ranch would make everything but full meals inclusive in the rental price: snack and beverage service, toys and meeting supplies, up- to-date audio/visual equipment, computer, printer and online access.

She charges a daily room rental rate of $1,000 to $1,800 for 25 attendees, depending on the room they choose. So far, the business is running at 30% occupancy and generating about $8,000 per week.

Hotels easily beat her rental rates for meeting rooms, which go for about $250 to $400 per day. But once a la carte items are added – such as snacks and audio/visual gear – Catalyst Ranch is competitive.

The business employs five. She paid off the last of her loans last spring and has paid herself back "all but a small amount" of her own investment.


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