For some, working in the time of the Coronavirus meant putting the brakes on a fast-paced schedule to follow stay-at-home health orders in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. For others, relocating from the office to working from home meant shifting into overdrive to keep pace with a new normal.
Transportation executive Christine Keith knows what it’s like to live in the fast lane 24/7 while keeping a successful business going and sheltering in place.
Keith is the president of Elite Auto Network Corporation, an auto brokerage firm serving individual clients, public agencies and corporations. Keith’s husband, Todd, founded Elite as a college student in 1987. Keith saw an opportunity to expand Elite’s clientele with a niche market that other auto brokers had overlooked – businesses in need of fleet vehicles. She developed Elite’s commercial division, which handles the fleet vehicle requirements of private, local and state government agencies. Her accounts include Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro), Southern California Gas and the nationwide chain of Davey Tree Expert Company.
Elite Auto Network wasn’t Keith’s first time growing a business through identifying an unfilled market demand. Her father operated a 12-room health clinic in the Boyle Heights community of Los Angeles. Keith frequently accompanied her father to his clinic and later became a physician. The community’s need for affordable healthcare led Keith to expand her family practice into a free clinic. Eventually, the Los Angeles Mission, which had been renting a few of their rooms, offered to lease the entire clinic. Keith agreed and took some time off to learn the operations of her husband’s auto brokerage business. That was 11 years ago.
In March, as schools closed and the quarantine forced most offices to shut their doors, Keith prepared for her staff to work remotely. She readied packets with essential work documents, such as forms and reference guides, for employees to take home. She also issued everyone a desktop computer and had an internet technology professional to secure the system.
“I did all the things we needed to do so we can keep on moving forward remotely,” said Keith.
The mother of two children, ages 13 and 8, now works 12 hours a day and is the primary caretaker for her 93-year-old father. It may be counterintuitive, but Keith says she gets more done each day working from home, now that she has blocks of uninterrupted time.
“I’ve accomplished a lot more because I’m not so distracted with office meetings and people coming in and out asking questions,” said Keith. “So, I’ve been able to focus on things that I’ve wanted to get done.”
Although Keith is one of the lucky ones whose business increased during the pandemic, there are a few key elements that she says put her business in a position to prosper.
The right attitude.
Keith said there are always plenty of things to complain about, but staying grateful is her biggest motivator. She always believed that there were still deals to be made. “I’m a very determined person and it’s just in me to be positive all the way through any situation,” said Keith. “I really believed that our business would flourish and it has.”
Network and education.
When Keith started the commercial fleet division of Elite Auto Network, she didn’t know anything about doing contract work. She certified the business as a Woman Minority Business Enterprise (WMBE), Small Business Enterprise (SBE), Disadvantage Business Enterprise (DBE) and a Local Business Enterprise (LBE). She began going to seminars, conventions, chamber of commerce events, and joined the Southern California Minority Business Development Council. “I said I was going to learn everything I could about contracting and I did,” said Keith.
The first contract she landed was with Davey Tree Expert Company, a large nationwide landscaping company. They have a huge fleet in California and Elite Auto Network provided a lot of their vehicles.
Following-up on bids.
After being awarded a contract with Davey Tree Expert Company, Keith continued submitting bids for work with the State of California and Los Angeles County. If she was not awarded the contract, she immediately followed-up to receive feedback on her proposal. She advises other companies that want to be awarded contracts to do the same.
“Always ask ‘why?’ If you lose a bid, you can’t just walk away, because there’s going to be another opportunity and you have to make sure you don’t make the same mistake again.”
Information gained from lost bids enabled Keith to learn how to prepare proposals, what customers are looking for and what was important to them.
Keith said it is important for your business to look professional to attract the right clients.
“Your website has to look professional and your business card should match your website and your capabilities statement. All of these things are a reflection of the company you want to portray,” she said.
Keith recommends spending the extra money to work with a graphic designer to create a signature brand. A well-rehearsed elevator pitch is also an essential business tool.
“You have to build that image because that’s how you’re going to attract people to do business with you.”