A life-changing family tragedy gave Bonnie Nawara a heightened perspective of life and eventually helped propel her to new heights of personal and business success.
Nawara, the newly appointed CEO of Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, recently reflected on the death of her younger sister, Dawn, who was killed in a fast-food establishment robbery in 1988.
“Honestly, I think that experience changed me as a person,” said the Grand Rapids native. “I was in my late 30s and it had a big impact on me. We had just started a new business that was about a year old. It was hard on the family. She was married and had two small children. We grew our (printing) business at such a fast rate, it almost put us under. It was fueled by all of that anger that built up after her loss.”
The business she started with her now ex-husband was the Sir Speedy Printing Center in Grand Rapids, which she ran as owner and CEO from 1987-2003. Nawara was divorced in 1993. “It had a lot to do with my transition as a person. The loss of my sister led to a change. It was a situation when one individual just grows and realizes a particular situation isn’t healthy.”
It was the loss of her sister that Nawara now points to as a critical juncture in her life.
“On the bright side, we’re a very close family now,” she said. “We talk on a daily basis and my sister’s children are very much a part of our life. It’s given us a whole new great generation of babies we’re connected to. We all evolved as a family and learned to appreciate each other more.”
Nawara graduated from Ottawa Hills High School with aspirations of becoming an attorney. “I like to argue and make my point,” she joked. “I always thought it might be something I would do.” She remains about a year shy of completing her college degree, after attending Grand Valley State University. She also dabbled with the thought of entering the medical field, having been a nurses’ aide at Butterworth Hospital when she started college.
“I was part of one of the last generations where you really could be a success without the benefit of a degree. It’s much more competitive now.”
While still considering her career path, Nawara took a part-time position with local employment agency IBA as an employment counselor. “A woman named Shirley Guy called from Michigan Kenworth looking for a receptionist. When we were talking about the qualifications, she said, ‘You’d work just fine.’ So I went to work for them. When I left, I worked in the accounts receivable end of the parts department.”
Bonnie L. Nawara
That job led to a position in the parts department with Freightliner of Grand Rapids, where she found a way to thrive in a male-dominated environment. “I learned about trucks, engines, parts. In five or six years, they said they needed a parts manager and I told them I’d like the job. They gave me that opportunity.
“I was the only female parts manager in the state of Michigan,” she said. “I would attend conferences and be the only female there. Our trucker customers would come in and if they didn’t know me, they preferred to talk to one of the guys. Nine times out of 10, the male counter person would turn to me and say, ‘Bonnie, do you know where to find such and such. I always had to prove myself. I still have connections that go back to trucking.”
Freightliner was in the process of selling the dealership in Grand Rapids, and in the transition, Nawara worked for about a year in the Detroit dealership. While there, she and her husband, who was working for General Motors, began researching various franchise opportunities. Because of her sales skills, they determined Bonnie would leave her position to open the Sir Speedy franchise in Grand Rapids.
Her experiences with the franchise helped her hone an understanding of the business world. “Buying a franchise is very easy if you have the money, but it does not make you a business owner,” she said of what became “a big learning curve.”
“I knew how to sell but knew nothing about running a printing press, reading a profit and loss, marketing a business. I learned to align with some good resources that I still have today. They taught be how to run a company. Peggy Murphy (now a shareholder with accounting firm Hungerford, Aldrin, Nichols & Carter PC) showed me how to navigate a financial statement. … I could then run my business from those numbers. I learned to do that and became pretty proficient at it.
“I aligned with a legal team to make sure every move — especially human resource issues — was in compliance with the law,” Nawara said. “We had a great staff, but I had to re-invent myself. I came from a management environment in trucking that was very autocratic — all about the pay.”
She adjusted her management style to be sure the proper people among a staff of more than 10 were in the most appropriate positions and changed her communication approach.
“I worked with some outside consultants and recognized I’m a take-charge, let’s-make-it-happen type of person. Some people need to talk about the process. I had to learn that. It worked for me to listen, and it was important to them.”
Nawara sold Sir Speedy in 2003 and went to work for the people to whom she had sold it.
“I did not transition very well from an entrepreneur to an employee,” she acknowledged. “Five months later, we parted company. … For the first time in my life, I took the summer off and played. It was a great summer.”
Most recently — since 2004 — Nawara served as director of estate and asset services for the American Cancer Society, where she was the top fundraiser in total dollars raised in the ACS Great Lakes region for the past five years. “It was an ideal position for me because it was all about utilizing my sales skills,” she said. “I liked the autonomy. I was housed in the local office but was employed from management out of Atlanta.
“I worked in the planned giving division. It was about talking with people about the benefits of leaving a legacy through the society. I won tons of awards; they’re all underneath my desk. It was just not challenging enough. It was the same repetitive things, all about raising those funds.”
When she decided to make a transition, she determined “my next move had to be something I was very passionate about.”
“I sat down with Jackie Taylor (president of Taylor Global Consultants and retired vice president for development from Davenport University) and talked about what I wanted to do. I always had an interest in working with young women from age 8 to 13. My second interest was in entrepreneurship.”
Within a short time, two local positions became available that partially fit those interests. She chose to take the top position with GROW, which was founded in 1989 as a nonprofit economic development organization that provides entrepreneurs with opportunities to develop the skills and acquire the knowledge they need to achieve economic independence through self-employment, primarily in the form of small business startups.
Nawara has a history of working with women-advocacy organizations. She was president in 1993-94 of the 20-year-old Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs. Earlier this year, AWE merged its operations with GROW, and both are housed in joint offices in the YWCA building at 25 Sheldon Ave. SW.
In recently announcing the selection of Nawara for the GROW CEO position, Carleen Crawford, chair of GROW’s board of directors, said she was selected from a “large field of qualified candidates” and that the board was particularly impressed with her entrepreneurial, leadership, administrative, collaborative and philanthropic skills.
“What I am best at is collaboration,” Nawara said. “It’s about bringing people together and mentoring. During my tenure with the Cancer Society, people came to me for advice on how to start a business and career moves.”
“GROW was started 21 years ago to help economically challenged women grow and survive,” Nawara said. “It’s evolved. We’re still serving the economically challenged but now we’re also serving the displaced worker who may have been in a corporate culture for 15 to 20 years and doesn’t have a job but does have a business idea. They’re coming to us to help develop and grow that business idea.”
With all of its noteworthy success in working with area women, Nawara believes GROW needs to work harder to raise its stature in the community.
“During the past few years, it’s kind of lost its momentum in the community,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that you have to become involved and give back to the community. That comes back to you in whatever form you choose. We really need to get out there and start blowing our own horn and talk to folks about what we do and what we offer.”
Other groups are offering similar things, she said. “We need to collaborate with those organizations and figure out how, through collaborating, we can make this resource even bigger for starting, growing and sustaining business.”
Nawara wants to put a focus on training women to become entrepreneurs.
“We’re in the process of revamping” some of the programs GROW offers, she said. “I’d like to bring in a panel of experienced business owners to talk about the good, the bad and the ugly of going into business.”