Tom and Cynthia Ames
SPRINGFIELD – You’ve probably seen them. No, you’ve definitely seen them.
People in Statue of Liberty costumes on roadside sidewalks, sometimes spinning a sign or prop, waving and encouraging drivers to pull into the Liberty Tax Service parking lot.
It’s not glamorous work. Especially if you’re the owner of the local tax prep franchise, having pushed all of the chips you’ve acquired in life into the middle of the table to try and fulfill the dream of small-business ownership.
One particular afternoon, one of many where she wore the Lady Liberty suit constructed of several pounds of polyester, balancing her dignity and desire at the same time, she’d finally had enough. All those hours pacing sidewalks, door-hanging (going door-to-door to hang fliers), stuffing countless envelopes, had simply caved in on her.
Cynthia Ames, mother of two, part-time marketer, full-time entrepreneur and co-partner with her husband, Tom, sat in the Springfield Wal-Mart parking lot, sobbing, questioning everything in life.
”What did we do?” … ”I hate this.”
As it turned out, Lady Liberty couldn’t hold a candle to Cynthia.
”Those were the hardest years,” she said on a rainy day last week in her Main Street office in Springfield, nearly 10 years and a million miles from that experience. ”You tell yourself, ‘We’re going to start making money soon. The sun’s going to come up, and people are going to be singing.’ ”
Unrealistic expectations are a common symptom of first-time business owners, she explained.
She said the first five years were the toughest, and then, well, there were three years of ”break-even hell.”
”We weren’t losing money anymore,” she said, ”but we weren’t making money either.” And then, she said, ”after that – BAM – it all took off for us. We finally made it.
”You don’t freakin’ give up.”
Tom was a mortgage broker and Cynthia was handling a variety of marketing-related tasks while raising their two children, now grown. Their oldest is daughter Neicia, 29, and then there’s Thomas, 23.
Working at his desk, fielding phone calls and eating take-out pizza, Tom acknowledged the hard times, and Cynthia’s determination.
”She is my rock,” Tom said matter-of-factly, ”and she was my rock during those tough times. I would not have gotten through it without her.”
Cynthia’s strategic thinking is evidenced by, among other things, her deep research on parenting before deciding to have children. It was a serious endeavor, so it deserved serious research, she said.
She took the same approach to business ownership before purchasing Eugene and Springfield franchise/territorial rights from the third-largest tax preparation service in the country. ”There are a lot of us who are out there, who don’t want to work for somebody else,” she said, providing more insight into their motivation for self-employment.
She and Tom invested in training, and learned all the details of the business. Friends were supportive, and encouraging.
”We came into it with lots of support and ‘a little cash’ – no one told us that you need ‘a little cash’ for five years,’ ” she smiled.
She and Tom continued working at their main jobs during those first five years, all while living like paupers and managing multiple store locations.
They lived in a garage apartment for years behind Tom’s brother’s house in Medford, commuting more than two hours each way daily.
She sought advice from her brother and sister-in-law. ”Keep teaching yourself to be a better person,” her younger brother Eddie, who had entrepreneurial experience, told her.
It was a bit of an ”ah-ha!” moment.
”You have to change yourself,” Cynthia said. ”It’s like gravity. It’s the law. You have to change.
”You have to become more valuable. If you have a dream or goal in life, you can’t be the same person here and get there. If you want a half-million-a-year salary, you have to become a half-million-a-year person.”
She learned, she said, that even more than the finances, authenticity matters.
”We’re in our offices all the time. You have to be living it. You have to show the fruit,” she said. ”No one just wants to hear the knowledge.”
She said that there were things which ”bugged us about our client experiences – and we committed to each other that we would avoid those things if we ever owned our own business.”
So they make sure the phone rings to a human being even during the tax ”offseason” – it forwards to Tom’s cell phone, in fact.
Their advice to new business owners and entrepreneurs sounds like something you might hear at a self-help seminar. And it’s delivering results.
”Don’t put a timeline on yourself,” Cynthia says. ”Everyday is a new day, and you put one foot in front of the other to get through it sometimes. You can learn from any situation.” The motivational messages hanging on the walls in their three offices attest to that mindset.
Sticking with it, she says, has created a scenario where ”the success has started to multiply. You start making bigger leaps. You have to work on yourself, your office structure, your whole team … ”
Still, the hard times are not forgotten. On purpose. ”We had made a pact: ‘Let’s remember this – we know what it feels like to struggle,’ ” she said.
Tom agreed. He’s invested in his clients in a way that is about much more than tax preparation.
”We do about 3,000 tax returns, and hundreds of them are businesses. It’s sad to see them come and go. I spend a lot of time trying to help and teach small-business owners and entrepreneurs on financial success,” he said.
Learn, grow, develop, change. Common themes throughout the Ames’ partnership.
Cynthia said she has asked at least one question of every job applicant for years. ”What changed you or forced you to change?”
The specifics are less important, she said, than an ability for the interviewee to acknowledge that change was necessary at some point – and always will be.
Sitting in one of her three offices, it’s easy to see the evolution from a Lady Liberty costume to the stylish, classy and ever-evolving business woman behind the desk.