Mary Shepherd didn’t have to go far from home to rise to the top; the 55-year-old owner of BGM Supply in Utica, a New York state-certified woman-owned business, was born and raised in Westmoreland, graduated from high school there and still lives there today.
After Shepherd earned her two-year accounting degree from Mohawk Valley Community College, she got a job working at a bakery then later moved into a job at a car dealership before realizing she’d reached her potential with the degree she had.
“I couldn’t move up in the workforce, so I went back to school,” Shepherd said, explaining she put her four-year accounting degree to work at a major non-profit. “Then I came here.”
Shepherd said when she worked for the dealership, she said she handled all the warranty work and traveled with the owner to all its locations to get their systems in order to correctly keep track of things.
“Again, I went as far as I could go,” she said. “I knew I had what it took to go somewhere else.”
That was about 1994, she said, and she’s spent nearly three decades looking at every opportunity to realize her vision of success for BGM. Her husband was a driver for the business, and the owner used to suggest she join the team.
“It was supposed to be a little part-time thing,” Shepherd said, adding that she soon learned the business was struggling to grapple with the business end of operating a business, explaining businesses can lose big money without proper tracking systems in place. “I wanted to turn it around.”
Shepherd said she implemented proper recordkeeping systems, streamlined everything she could and started working to grow BGM’s customer base. Dec. 31, 2015, she finalized The Shepherd Group, LLC, with a DBA for BGM Supply, and it was all hers.
“I’m good with people and connect well with them,” she said. “Why not take on what you’ve helped build to success?”
Two months after taking ownership of the business, Shepherd wound up gravely ill. Hospitalized and not expected to survive, her son, Eric, 27, quit his job and stepped in to help out.
She helped him run the business by telephone from her hospital bed after about a week. About two weeks later, Shepherd was able to show up in person to explain what needed to be done, and eventually returned to full-stride.
“My son is really good on the tech stuff,” Shepherd said, and she’s working to bring him in on all facets of the business should he ever have to step in again. “I want to make sure the business keeps going if anything happens.”
Shepherd said she wouldn’t have considered starting a new business.
“Here, everything was already started, already in place,” she said. “People knew me, and I had good relationships.”
Customers had already worked with her, she said, and they trusted her and respected her knowledge and experience.
“I’ve made lots of changes,” Shepherd said. “I’ve invested a lot of money into the business. I’ve worked to improve organizational and structural things, cleaned up the place a lot and doubled the staff.”
In addition, she raised employee salaries and offered them a good benefits package, she said.
“I want to take care of my employees,” Shepherd said. “I want to retain them.”
She said the thing that surprised her most when she took over was writing and signing paychecks.
“That had a very different feel to it,” Shepherd said of the additional responsibilities.
Shepherd said she had run into challenges that men typically wouldn’t encounter, starting with the woman-owned certification process itself.
“This is a male-dominated business,” Shepherd said. “When I was going through the process to get certificatied, people would ask, ‘How can you ever run that kind of business?’ I’ve been questioned about my abilities, and I think that’s just because I’m a woman. Women can bring a whole host of other skills and abilities to the table – organization, for one – and a different perspective.”
The certification process was arduous, she said.
“It took me about three years to get my certification,” Shepherd said. “I knew as soon as I bought the business, I wanted to start the process because I knew it would be to my advantage to have it.”
I was denied at first, but I pursued it, won the appeal and earned the certification April 6, 2018.
Shepherd said she understands women may be reluctant to put themselves out there to work toward their dreams.
“If you put your mind to it, you can do anything,” Shepherd said. “Get good people behind you. This is a tough business, and there’s a lot to manage. You need to learn to delegate and not try to do everything yourself.
“As an owner, you have to put yourself out there and make things happen – show them by actions. There are stereotypes, to be sure, but you have to get past them with your actions and prove yourself. Look for other women in business and connect with them … network.”
Shepherd said she takes time over the holidays to call customers and say ‘happy holidays,’ and thank them for their business.
“You have to give a little of yourself,” she said. “People will do business with people they have relationships with. If they need something and I’m closed, I will come in. That’s the way it should be.”
Shepherd heads the finances for her church, and she said there have been times when parishioners have had no heat and no resources.
“If someone is in need and has no heat, we can make that happen,” Shepherd said.
She is proud of BGM’s ability to help others.
“I’m the full-time caretaker for my dad, and I have an aide who helps with him,” she said. “She was flooded and we helped her get her heat back on. In another case, my son installed a boiler, which shortly after also was ruined in the floods. The homeowner had a disabled daughter who needed hot baths. We were able to work with the supplier to get a new boiler at a discount.
“We do a lot with the community, and if someone is in trouble, I know a lot of people, so we have avenues to help.”
Shepherd said after her personal experience with the process, she has helped other women by being a sounding board for them as they pursue certification.
“I try to help them out whenever I can,” she said.
Shepherd said women need to work on their self-promotion and be more confident.
“Come out of your shell,” she said. “I know fear gets in the way. Go beyond it; take a chance, take a risk and let down your guard.”
Shepherd continues working to build something great that Eric can someday step into.
“I’ve sent my son to business and accounting classes to prepare him to one day take over,” she said. “I want to get him cross-trained, so he can step in. You can’t leave yourself the only person who knows what’s going on. If something happens, the business keeps going.”
Shepherd said hers is very much a family-owned and -operated operation.
“It’s unique in this field,” she said. “There are a lot of chains out there.”
Shepherd said she’s got a young, tech-savvy crew who can find whatever people need.
“People can walk in and ask us anything,” she said.
According to Shepherd, she thinks there is a perception BGM Supply is strictly a commercial outfit.
“We have a very wide range of stock – I think more than anyone around,” Shepherd said. “We do wholesale and retail, and our total service and delivery, I’m told, are better than anyone else out there.
“We have just about everything for plumbing, mechanical and water systems, and more,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd said it can be a little tricky to find BGM Supply on the state’s website for certified women-owned businesses, but she’s right there under The Shepherd Group, LLC.
“That’s really frustrating because public projects require using state-certified woman-owned businesses,” she said. “Roofers who need insulation for school projects, for instance, can come to us for that.”
Shepherd said her vision for the next five to 10 years includes continued expansion of product lines to broaden offerings, as well as continuing to grow her customer base.
Geography isn’t a consideration, either, she said.
“A lot of our jobs are packages we put together to be drop-shipped,” Shepherd said. “Our radius is quite large. We serve the city of Buffalo – corrections and parks – and Battery Park in New York City. I can cover any area that needs to be covered.”
“We stand out because we’re more personable and offer more collective knowledge,” Shepherd said.