When her husband died of pancreatic cancer in 2012, one of the big decisions Diane Whittles faced was what to do with the business franchise he had headed, ServPro of Severna Park/Annapolis.
She had kept the company books for decades but had no experience running a business and no experience dealing with the type of disasters that a restoration company deals with every day.
Despite all that, and to the surprise of many, she decided to run the franchise herself.
“I didn’t want to sell the business,” she recalled. “I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll try to run it, and if I don’t like it, if I’m not successful, I’ll think of a Plan B.’
“Luckily, I ended up loving it.”
Even more luckily, she ended up running it well. In her seven years at the helm, Dianne Whittles has added two more franchises, one in Edgewater and, just last year, one in Pasadena, and branched out into reconstruction, home improvements and selling flooring.
“What’s really interesting is that after eight years, it’s still almost like a brand-new franchise,” she said. “I do everything my way, so I’m not burned out being an owner for a long time. I’m excited about it.”
ServPro is a national chain of some 1,700 franchises that specialize in residential and commercial restoration — restoring businesses and homes damaged by fire, storms, water or other disasters.
When she took over the franchise, Whittles had to familiarize herself not only with management issues but with the work ServPro does. That meant getting trained in the hazards with which her company has to deal. “I had to learn it all,” she said.
Adding franchises, however, was not an overwhelming challenge, according to Rikki Schneider, Whittles’ sales and marketing coordinator, because franchises are easily duplicated.
“Once you’ve added one, it’s easy to add another,” Schneider said.
Whittles has taken a lot of valuable business courses through the Anne Arundel County Economic Development Corporation, and gotten other support from the county as well — help paying for business trips, for example.
“They can’t do enough for me,” she said.
It’s also been a boon that her business is something of a family affair. Her son is operations manager, her son-in-law the general manager and her daughter does reconstruction estimates.
Whatever the reasons, her operation works. The business that took in $1 million eight years ago took in $4 million last year. Whittles’ goal for this year is $5.2 million, she said, and added: “We’re right on track for that.”
As a woman business owner, Whittles earned certification in the State of Maryland’s Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) Program, and has leveraged it to win more work. Recently, for example, she finished a major post-construction clean-up on a state-funded contract at an elementary school, She performed the work under a general contractor who was able to count her participation toward an MBE goal set on the contract.
Born and raised in Severna Park, both Whittles and her business are deeply involved in their community, supporting a variety of causes. She has done food drives for the Light House Homeless Prevention Support Center, in Annapolis, donated money to Burgers and Bands for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit in Severna Park, and recently participated in a walk to raise money for pancreatic cancer research.
“I sort of pride myself on helping every single agency or person that needs support,” she said.
Part of Whittles’ style as a manager is not to micro-manage. She said she trusts her staff explicitly, and is proud of the longevity of so many employees.
“I love my staff, love the culture here,” Whittles said. “It’s very upbeat. … And I love that every single day we help a business or a homeowner or a charity.”
Statistics show that half the businesses that suffer large losses through fires, floods or other disasters never re-open, Whittles said. Helping local businesses avoid that fate, she added, is rewarding work.
“These are pretty bad things that they go through,” Whittles said. “And I just know we handle it very well and our customers are very appreciative.”
Looking back on her unexpected career turn, Whittles is still a bit surprised by herself.
“I never planned to become an entrepreneur,” she said. “It just seemed the way to go after my husband died.
“But I know my husband would be so proud of me. He’d be so happy I still have the business.”
This article is featured in the 2019 edition of The Daily Record’s Expanding Opportunities Resource Guide for Small, Minority and Women Businesses. Published in conjunction with the Governor’s Office of Small, Minority & Women Business Affairs, Expanding Opportunities explores diversity, entrepreneurship and innovation in Maryland’s small business community. Read more from Expanding Opportunities on this website or read the digital edition.