An Interview with Nancy Gudekunst, President of Marco Ideas Unlimited
An increasing number of women are stepping into key leadership roles in their family enterprises. Following in the footsteps of their business-founding mothers, however, remains much less common. This was especially true in the mid-1980s when Nancy Gudekunst answered the call to help her mother, Margaret Custer Ford, with the successful promotional products company she had started in 1959 — a time when female entrepreneurs were unusual. Nancy joined the family business after she had already built a thriving company of her own and soon discovered that she not only had to navigate the challenges associated with being the “boss’s daughter”, but also manage the sometimes challenging dynamic of working alongside a parent who shared the same entrepreneurial passion.
In this episode, Nancy Gudekunst, President of promotional product speciality company Marco Ideas Unlimited, discusses her unique journey into leadership within the business her mother founded. She delves into the role her own entrepreneurial background played in modernising the operation and managing professional relationships. Nancy also reflects on the challenges of guiding the company through periods of economic uncertainty and the intricacies that arose as the third generation of the family became involved in the business.
- Balancing work and home life presents significant challenges, especially for a single parent who is simultaneously running their own business. Nancy’s childhood experiences during this period laid the foundation for her eventual independence and entrepreneurial drive.
- After joining her mother’s firm, Nancy faced the demanding task of updating and streamlining the business — a challenge that many second-generation family members encounter.
- Nancy navigated a difficult period of change when it became clear it was time for her mother to reduce her role or even step away from the business entirely.
- The entry of the third generation into the family business introduced new dynamics that led to personal growth for Nancy and her family members. This shift was particularly notable in achieving a healthier work-life balance.
Ramia: Welcome everyone to another episode of Women in Family Business. I am very, very pleased to welcome my guest, Nancy Gudekunst, who is the president of Marco’s Ideas Unlimited. Welcome, Nancy.
Nancy Gudekunst: Thank you.
Ramia: Nancy, maybe like just a little bit of the unusual part first, because it is still not a very usual situation that I have someone in the studio with me who actually can tell the story of a female founder. So we get a lot of like, you know, fathers to daughters these days, which is lovely, but mothers to daughters is still fairly rare, but that is actually the origin of your story. Do you mind telling us a little bit what it was like growing up with a mom that was working this much? Because I think that’s always really interesting.
Nancy Gudekunst: Growing up was different for, we were different than the other kids because our mom worked. And at the time when I was a small child, women could be a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher outside of the home. And my mom, of course, wanted to do stuff. She didn’t really wanna be a homemaker. So she was unusual. Her story is very interesting and a whole different one from what you just asked me. But growing up… she was a single mother too. And so my sister and I had a nanny-ish type person who was called a housekeeper who would care for us while my mother worked. And you know, it really affected my sister more than me. I was just kind of kicking along used to it. But my older sister was like, why don’t you make us cookies, mom? How come you’re never here when I come home? You know, those kind of questions. I know it made my mom feel a little bit guilty, but she was doing what she wanted to do to fulfill herself. And so she would answer things like, well, how come your friends don’t have a bicycle? She would turn it around and say, this way I can provide for you. In my case, I just rolled along with it. I’m more easygoing. I didn’t really have that need for my mom at home as much. Um, I watched her growing up leading a business and just figured if my mom could do anything like that, I could do it. So I never really felt the… I know a lot of girls, when I was a kid, other peers, had the experience of their mother placing them in there, play with dolls, learn how to cook, you’re gonna get married at college kind of thing. We didn’t have that. It was, you can do whatever you want to do.
Ramia: It’s interesting to me that you bring up your sister’s perspective, because I was going to ask you, like, you know, of course, when you have a single mom and, you know, she has an entrepreneurial drive and then she probably had to work 10 times as hard to make a success of it at that time as well as a woman. So for you, it did not spark resentment towards the business side of things, apparently, but like, how did your like, did your sister eventually come around to seeing your mom’s point of view or like it never really?
Nancy Gudekunst: No, she still holds it against her. I mean, she still says, gosh, you know, when we were kids, you weren’t there for us. And I know she was there. She traveled a lot, you know, she did her thing. No parent is perfect. You know, you try. So I don’t hold any grudges at all. Of course, I became more entrepreneurial myself. So I can’t at this point, but at the time, the main disappointment I think was when I would tell her I was bored, because she had the office in the home for a while. She had employees there, but it was in our home. and I would say, mom, I’m bored, and she would find some work for me to do. And so I learned not to do that. But in hindsight, I realized I wasn’t really bored. I was lonely.
Ramia: So when did you realize that you had the same bug as your mom? Like, because I do think I mean, obviously, your mom did lay the foundation of a lot of like the things that you’re doing today. But like you you said by yourself, like you probably were able to relate to her because you see yourself as an entrepreneur as well. So when did it become apparent to you that you were like, well, actually, this sounds very interesting, like, you know, pursuing your own, like your own dreams, your own business. Like, you know, when did that sort of like kick in that you realized, well, actually, that’s, that’s it. That’s a path for me?
Nancy Gudekunst: I was very independent, just like my mother so I moved out of her house as soon as I could, probably sooner than I should have, but I did, and made my way through various beginner type jobs. I realized that I… I wanted to get some kind of a, I didn’t really have a degree. I didn’t go to college. The rule was if I went to college, I had to live in a dorm and I didn’t want to live in a dorm, so at that time I went to some college classes on my own. I decided I was going to pursue my certified professional secretary designation, which used to be a worldwide organization back in the day. that you could go through all these areas of study and take tests and have experience and get this designation called CPS, which I decided I wanted to get because I wanted to start my own secretarial service.
So that was my entrepreneurial drive was, I knew I had the skills for those kinds of, that kind of work, but I didn’t really like working for other people because I was too independent. So I started a secretarial service timely. I had a baby, my husband lost his job, and it was time to like make a go of this or forget about it. And luckily I found a situation where I had an office downtown, personal computers were brand new. I knew how to use it. A lot of the businessmen had no idea. So this was very, very good for a successful start of my. my business. It was called Professional Secretarial and I grew that for seven years. And that’s when my mother started seeing that I had entrepreneurial ability.
There was, there was a call and I was uncertain if we could even work together because we’re both too strong headed women. And so what I was doing was I was having my employer run my business for a while, while I would take some time to see if I could work with my mother. So I was taking a few days a week and working in her business. Of course, driving everyone there nuts, but that was how we started and then we came to the idea that I would sell my business and join hers.
Ramia: Was it what you expected when you joined? What were the things that surprised you about the family business once you, once you sort of became active in it?
Nancy Gudekunst: When I was a child, I never thought I would be in the business. We were never encouraged to be in the business. My mother’s parents had a floral shop and they always wanted her to be in their business. And it basically drove her away somewhat. And it also, she didn’t want to live in a tiny town in Minnesota. So she did, she wanted to make sure that she didn’t try and do that to her kids. So she never mentioned it growing up ever. And we never considered it. So when she called and was like, hey, I’m gonna retire someday. I might be interested in passing it along to you. I wasn’t ready for it really. But then this transition period where I went to see what she was doing, learn a little bit what I could, see who was there, that kind of warmed me up to what was going on. Then it was decided I would sell my business. I did sell my business, like at the end of December. And then I took a couple of weeks off. And then I started on a January 2nd. So on that, thinking back to that time, I know that I was not very popular because I asked a lot of questions. And my job was to learn everyone’s job. And I did have quite a great administrative background due to my… business and my CPS training. And so that was something that I think my mother wanted was somebody who had really good administration. And you know that when you have your family that they’ve got your back. They’re not gonna be trying to find ways to screw you over hopefully. So I started asking a lot of questions and I noticed that there was some things going on that she was not aware of. And so I’d ask the question. Mom, how come one of your sales reps is living at the coast and calling your secretary to write up her orders and turn them in? What’s she getting paid for? So I wasn’t very popular because I was pointing these kinds of things out. But my mom, she was like, oh, I didn’t know that was going on.
Ramia: Well, I mean, it’s so interesting, Nancy, because it’s kind of like the second gen clean up, right? Like, if we’re being honest, like, you know, you come in as a founder. I appreciate like it’s almost impossible to do that kind of work after you get something off the ground, which is so hard to begin with. Right. Like, so you’re that person, you’re that big picture person. You’re that person who sort of likes to create something out of nothing. But then to make something that lasts, you need this stage. And I agree with you, it is such an unpopular thing to do, but the second generation cleanup is what then allows growth, right? Like, so, I mean, so how long did it take until your unpopularity turned into everyone realizing that what you were doing was essential to the survival of the company?
Nancy Gudekunst: I mean, a couple of other things. One was I decided that we should become women certified because we weren’t. And I’m like, well, we have this certification available to us. And my mom said, oh, we don’t need that. I’m like, well, it might help. And she’s like, well, we can do anything that the men can do. And I’m like, I know, but we can get this and maybe we can get ahead. So I went ahead and did that. And it’s been huge for the company. It has helped with the growth. And then the other thing that at the time, there was quite a bit of, this was the early 90s, and our government was cracking down on independent contractors. And when I looked at that, I could see that we were a prime target because the people that weren’t really employees were being treated like employees. And so I convinced everyone that we needed to have our salespeople be employees. And of course the salespeople grumbled quite a bit until a month or so afterwards. And then they’re like, this is a much better deal.
Ramia: Much for stability, yeah, okay.
Nancy Gudekunst: Well, they had, I mean, nobody likes change, but what they learned is they were now getting health insurance and they didn’t have to pay as much taxes. You know, just, so yeah, so they… They kind of came around, but I was still the owner’s kid. And you know how that goes. Everyone looks at you. You know, when my mom started, everyone was looking at her because they were like, what, a woman in business? Ha ha, this will be funny. You know, so, but she proved them wrong. And then when I came along, oh, the owner’s kid, right? They’re gonna get all the breaks. Everything’s gonna be easy. And just like my mother, you have to work harder to prove yourself.
Ramia: And that is exactly why we must appreciate every generation’s struggle, right? It is very hard to make something last. this long and to make it last in a good way and in a sustainable way. So you’re looking back and if you look at your time in the business, like what do you think aside from you joining, what were sort of like the pivotal strategic decisions that you that you made that you feel, you know, you look back and you were like, you know, if we hadn’t done that or like if we if we hadn’t thought of this things would have been very different.
Nancy Gudekunst: As far as a pivotal decision, I mean, what I’m thinking about in the area that we were talking about is I came into the business in 92. By 95, we had a buy-sell agreement, and that took a period of years. Well, during that period of years, my mother was thrilled with how I was running the business, very pleased to just go off and be on vacation for the whole winter, which is fine, until she came back. And what she would do is she would come back, this happened a couple of years. So the first year she came back in, I don’t know, March or something, and just kind of started running the show the way she had. And which was awkward because she’d been gone for like four or five months.
So we worked through that. And then the next winter she decided to go south again while she was south. I don’t know. January is something we were on the phone. And I said, Hey mom, what do you think you’re going to do when you come back? And she said, Oh, I’m just going to do what I always do. And I said, no, somebody else is doing that now.
Ramia: I have news for you!
Nancy Gudekunst: Yes, because it was just too awkward. Our staff didn’t know who to ask what. And what she was getting in the way and she didn’t know how to do anything else that she could manage to do like she…
Ramia: Nancy, did you fire your mom over the phone while she was?
Nancy Gudekunst: Not really, I was happy for her to come in, but she didn’t wanna do anything other than what she knew. You know, she’s too, she was set in her ways. She knew it was too hard for her to be there. And I’m starting to get that now with my son. But at the time, it was very hard for her. But she knew she couldn’t come in and do something else. She just couldn’t. So she just exited. And what did she do? She went on to do, we have something here called the Small Score, Service Corps of Retired Executives. She joined that and helped other businesses with consulting, free consulting.
Then, I don’t know, five, 10 years later, she was able to come in and maybe do some collections, which she loved doing actually, which we didn’t have many, and maybe sorting through our samples, that kind of thing. So she did eventually was able to come back, especially after we moved, because she had built a building. It was quite nice and that’s where we were, but then in, well, another milestone. In 2004, we moved our office out of that building because It was kind of an interesting story. We had a long-term secretary who was great. And in the early 2000s, while my mother was always gone, she was always gone, and we had this big building with our name on it and tenants. Well, the big building that my mother owned was failing the worst possible way. The upstairs bathroom would leak onto the downstairs desks.
Ramia: That’s not what you want to.
Nancy Gudekunst: The downstairs tenants would be furious with us because our name was on the building. My mother was nowhere and a lot of times my secretary was the only one there and she would grab a mop and a bucket and go clean up this guy who is mad. I felt so sorry for her. So one day my mother was in town and Gloria and I and my mother was just standing talking. When up the stairs comes the tenant saying, rrrrrrrrrrr
Then we were the tenant. Well, the people she sold it to were not taking care of it like she would have. And it was getting embarrassing and expensive. And the new landlord wasn’t giving us any, like no carpet, nothing. And so we moved. And that was kind of a milestone because we’d been in that building for quite, since like the early eighties.
Ramia: I think it’s so interesting, these two things happening, your mom having to take a step back for a few years in order to come back with that necessary distance, right, like with that necessary space that she could do something different, that she didn’t lose face, I guess, as well in front of everyone else and everything. So for you, this must have been like a really like psychologically, did that feel like more agency came to you as well, like felt that it feel like more of an ownership situation once you had left that part behind or like what was that like for you?
Nancy Gudekunst: I was going through some personal trauma that year. It was a really horrible year for me. So that this, the business part was one of the lesser issues in my life at that time. But it did feel somewhat liberating to have a different landlord situation that had nothing to do with her because she had owned that building. So that kind of shed a different light on it. But by then I’d been running the business for quite some time. And in 2005, I brought on my son and well, my husband first and then my son. So they started in.
Ramia: The men had to join the fray. And it’s very interesting. So now your son is there as well. So the third generation, it’s a boy. So tell me about that though, Nancy. Okay, first of all, like, did you develop more sympathy with your mom once your son joined? Like, you know, did you sort of like see her point of view more or like, was it a very different experience for you and your son?
Nancy Gudekunst: It was different. I’ve only got the one son. When my mom asked me to join the business, I told her that I didn’t want to own it with my sister or brother, which in hindsight was very wise.
Ramia: Makes it a little easier sometimes, yeah.
Nancy Gudekunst: It was a lot easier. She had gifted stock to all three of us in the 70s, which we had no clue. But when she wanted me to buy the business, she had to buy them out. So she gave them money to go away and I had to earn the money out of the corporation to pay to buy her stock back. So I’m sure you’ve heard of things like that, but that’s how we did it. One thing is I didn’t ask my son to join the business. He asked me.
Ramia: He volunteered!
Nancy Gudekunst: Well kind of, yes, we’ve had a matriarchal family. I’m not by choice, it’s just how it happened. And sometimes it’s kind of come back to bite me, you know? Like, I don’t want to be large and in charge, I just. But for the business, I have to be, and that’s fine. But for home life, I don’t really want that role. But it kind of goes a little bit with it, especially when your whole family’s working with you and you’re in charge. And so with this transition is very different than the one my mother and I had. When we did it with her, she had explored a little bit before she even asked me to come on board. She had explored a little bit like, oh, what could I sell this business for? Um, she went to three different attorneys, I think, to find one that made sense for her. She found some little country attorney that had a lot of experience and a lot of no nonsense, and he drew up three contracts that were just easy. I could understand them. Well, I had a legal background from my secretarial and, um, I was fine with it. It was just easy. And off she went. Well, with my son and I, it’s a little different. And we’re going through it right now. And it’s not easy. And he and I, let’s see, he’s afraid that I will take some control measures that will keep him from having the company pay me off. So we’re working on that. What’s the same though and what I’ve learned is that I need to back off and I’m not, I’m fine with that. That’s just fine. I understand that I can’t be at the office and have him be in charge because people will get confused even if we say he’s in charge. They’re going to ask me a question. I’m going to know the answer. I got to get out of there. So that’s I mean, it’s not bad. I’m sitting in my home office now, so that’s just fine. I can work from home. I’ll probably be doing sales.
Ramia: But you’re addressing a very important conversation, right? Like for family enterprises. I think for women in your position, what I do find interesting is of course, for so long, it does depend on us being able to do everything, right? And it does depend on you. And as you said, like you never asked to have to be to have to be larger than life. It might not even suit your character, but you kind of had to in order to make things run smoothly in order for things to work. And so I’m very fascinated by the psychological process of like, you know, these transitions, how do we make those easier on ourselves without feeling that our sense of purpose and our sense of worth sort of is like lost without the business?
Nancy Gudekunst: I think it’s probably easier for the second generation than the first. Someone once asked my mother and I that if I had the same passion for the business as she had, and I said, no, we were, I was right in front of her. And she said, of course she doesn’t. I founded the thing.
It was my baby. She she’s just keeping it going, you know? So, so that was all understood that it wasn’t like I didn’t have the same amount of passion as she did. I still had the drive to be an independent business owner. When it comes to my son, he’s also very independent. The one thing that’s been hard is being the boss at work and then turning it off at home. Cause you have this go, go, go, you know, answer direct kind of mentality at work, some days worse than others. And then you come home and… I don’t know, I don’t even want to decide what to eat for dinner. I’m just so sick of decisions. But so yeah, it’s a different dynamic. And I know at one point my husband had to tell me that I was too bossy.
Ramia: How did that go?
Nancy Gudekunst: I mean, it’s true. I probably was. It was just a knee-jerk reaction of how I had been operating. So I will not miss that. As far as it being my baby, I sold a baby. I sold my other business and that I had founded. I think at that business, I had actually gotten to a level where I either needed to grow or sell. And so the selling is what happened because I didn’t have the money to grow at that point and it was becoming a little bit stale for me.
Ramia: But so I find this really interesting. So comparing your situation to what your son goes through, right. Because I think what’s interesting about your story, of course, is that you technically had proof that she could have done it alone. Right. And I think that’s a really different way of joining the family business as well. Right. So you had done what your mom had done, essentially. And it’s almost like you came in at eye level, if that makes any sense, right? Like, and I think that’s probably also why she called you in, right? Like, because she could see that, do like that respect had to be there because you had done it, right? Like, which again, something that 99% of the businesses can’t do is to get beyond the second year, right? Like which everyone tends to forget. But so you got them to that point. You got them to the point where you could actually, you had something to sell. Let’s put it this way. And, um, so. Like again, like contrasting that maybe to like, I don’t know how much of your son’s career was outside of the business, like, and what he did and stuff like that, but how do you feel in retrospect, like, you know, do you feel like that really did level the playing field a little bit between your mom and you and sort of like made it easier?
Nancy Gudekunst: Oh, yes. Yes. She knew that I could manage. And then we decided after I sold my business that we would give it one year to see if we killed each other or not. And we didn’t. That’s when we did the buy sell agreement. We had desks that were facing each other. So we got along really well, actually. It was amazing. Because we thought pretty much alike about most things. And she wasn’t, I mean, she wanted my help. So she was very happy to give me power. If that, I mean, I’m not remembering every detail. I know I had to learn everyone’s job and drive them all nuts while I was doing that. So she saw me in action and she knew that that was good. And it’s a good thing because we didn’t have a lot of time. Whereas with my son, he had just lost a job and he came and asked for a job. And I had wanted him to work around more and learn more before he, I even thought about him working for me, but he came, he needed, Peter was there, my husband. So I decided, okay, we’ll see what you can do. That was in 2005. So it’s been quite a long time that he’s grown into the business. He’s actually done quite well. So he has certain gifts that I don’t, I have things that he doesn’t. So. For a short time, we had four of our family people working in the business.
Nancy Gudekunst: His wife took over from my husband when my husband retired. So there was the two of them training. And so it was, you know, it’s nerve wracking. We went through a humongous milestone in 2008. the economy had tanked. My son got married, he bought a house. We moved our offices again because we didn’t have any money. So we’re like, oh my God, what are we gonna do? So we moved to somewhere we thought was less expensive, moved some of us. Well, my husband and I worked out of this room, which was terrible in the summer, hot as can be. Our staff worked out of this cramped little 600 square foot office in… what I like to call the seediest section of Southwest Portland, because it was really divey. And anyway, so we moved there, we signed a three year lease. I stopped taking a salary because there wasn’t any money. My husband laid himself off and volunteered his work so he could get unemployment. So we got some money. We kept it going, but it was the worst.
Ramia: That was hard.
Nancy Gudekunst: That was the worst time of my career at Marco.
Ramia: The trauma conversation in the family business story is so pivotal, right? Like, because experiencing that as already having both generations there, so experiencing that together, like, you know, as, as a second and third generation, I mean, that, that is either, that’ll either break you or make you, I think, that kind of a pressure, right?
Nancy Gudekunst: I’m sure it made us stronger. We hated it at the time. We had to change the way my son was paid. I think he had been on a salary and we changed him to commission because what else could we do? You know, it’s like if you’re not selling, we can’t pay you right now. So that lasted for a few years and he’s back on salary. You know, everything’s going very well now. In 2015, we… our state legalized cannabis. And we decided to open a division to deal with that. So that has been huge. And during COVID, when the traditional corporate business died down, our cannabis division was doing really well because people had time on their hands. And so it really helped us a lot. And they’re both doing very well now.
Ramia: To go through that, like, you know, seems like such a such a bonding experience. Like, did you feel like him having to make those sacrifices sort of also made you believe in him more or?
Nancy Gudekunst: You know, he did stick it out. It’s not like he looked for anything else. And at the time… I remember thinking, I don’t know what else I’d do. There’s nothing else to do. What, go get a job somewhere, right? You know, there weren’t any. It was really tough. So yeah, we held out as a family and we did well. And during this time, my son had a, well, he didn’t have a baby, but his wife had a baby. And so he was helping care for that. And then a few years later, just after his wife had her second child, she got cancer. So we had to go through that. She’s doing okay now, but you know, it was, it’s just all this, yeah, you take off, I’ll be here. You know, it was so much to do. I do respect and we all admire my mother’s foresight, her independence, her drive in starting the business, it’s just when we look back to see how the world was and what she was doing, it’s incredible. She was one of the only women in the industry. Every other woman there was basically a wife and she was like, this is my company. She actually married my stepbrother’s dad, but he was in the business and she brought him into her business. And then when they would go places, people would look at him to answer the questions.
Ramia: Of course.
Nancy Gudekunst: You know how that is.
Ramia: Yeah. Yep.
Nancy Gudekunst: So when my son came on board, he proved that he was very good at sales. And I was very happy to give him accounts or help build accounts for him or with him. That wasn’t a problem at all. I wonder, though, if he really understands how much was brought to him. You know, it wasn’t there is somewhat of a silver platter there. Right. And I know that the people that aren’t involved in the business, they think, wow, you get to be second or third generation of this great business, you know. That’s what their mindset is. They don’t see the, now I’m responsible for all these people and I gotta make it work and oh no, the payment is due over here and we missed it, or you know, just little things like that that keep you up at night or employee problems, of course. So those things they don’t see and therefore they don’t envy.
Ramia: I have a last question for you in terms of like you brought in this digitalization era where like, you know, because your knowledge of computers and processes then, benefited the business, I’m sure, enormously, right?
And we know that there’s no denying that we live in a time where technology is taking an exponential sort of like, sort of like growth direction. Because you’ve seen various cycles in your career, like, you know, how do you qualify this time with regards to your business? And how do you think your son and your daughter-in-law are going to have to make changes? Or what will they have to change about the business do you think to remain competitive? What’s sort of your vision on that?
Nancy Gudekunst: We’ve been a relationship business. There are businesses in our field that are basically all digital all the time, no people. The clients that we have, I think, like the interaction and the human thought. What we are fearing for the future, and I don’t have to hopefully think about too much is this AI, artificial intelligence. So… When I came to Marco in 92, amazingly, my mother had purchased one of the very first computers for our industry. And that was in the late 70s. So she’d been on this computer for quite a while. That’s when they lasted a long time. And there was this gigantic IBM mainframe that had terminals. And… So we were in the computer age, but yes, I have a lot of skills to bring to that. I thought it was so funny the day we finally got rid of that system and we couldn’t help it. We had to open up the box because this big box and it had this little tiny teeny weeny little thing inside that held these eight inch floppy disks that we would use to pack it on. So what I’m afraid of, or not, I guess I am, I’m afraid of it, is having to learn more technology. And you can’t not, it’s just part of it. So that’s a great time to exit.
Ramia: It is. Oh, thank you so much, Nancy. I think, like, obviously, like, you know, we always it is important to share this also with others. I think at the end of these interviews that we always all all of us always have to learn more, of course, like if we want to stay in business, if we want to stay in family business. So thank you so much, Nancy, for joining us on the Women in Family Business podcast.
Nancy Gudekunst: Thank you.