The Entrepreneur Behind the Greenest and Most Imaginative Event Space
Eva Niewiadomski is founder and “Ranch Czarina” of Catalyst Ranch, a one-of-a kind, eco-friendly meeting and event space in the West Loop of Chicago. In 2016, she won two awards: Enterprising Woman of the Year Award from Enterprising Woman Magazine and NAWBO Chicago Member of the Year. Her successful business was Eva’s audacious comeback after getting laid off from a large company where she’d worked for 15 years.
From Accountant to Entrepreneur
Eva began her career as an accountant – first with Arthur Andersen, then with Quaker Oats. While at Quaker, she went back to school to get her MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Eventually, she moved to marketing and product management, where she received training as an in-house facilitator. She learned that a key component of successful facilitation is, “that you need to take people into a totally different environment so that they will think in a different way.”
Creative event spaces in the Chicago area weren’t easy to find, so she searched out uniquely designed restaurants that would host her meetings and also provide the food and drinks. Eva became well known throughout her company for her ability to host great off-site meetings and went on to design an off-the-grid conference room for creative session. Little did she know that this would be a prototype for her own business.
Then something drastic happened – her company was purchased by Pepsi. “Everyone was bummed out. We went from a culture where you love working with really intelligent, kind people willing to help you, to a new culture – the Pepsi way or the highway.” The day came when Eva was laid off – clearly upsetting news, but it turned out to be a blessing. By evening, when she went home, something shifted in her brain and she envisioned opening a creative event space in Chicago.
The rest of her story about how she built Catalyst Ranch is in Eva’s own words:
“I can’t explain to you why I was so positive that Catalyst Ranch would work. To be honest, if it weren’t for the fact that I had this great support network of ex-colleagues who were rallying behind me that really wanted me to succeed, I wouldn’t have made it as an entrepreneur. Pepsi became my biggest client. I had three meetings signed before I even opened my doors. I financed my new business by living off of unemployment and by taking out a home equity loan – that’s how I got the money to get started.
How did your company experience inform how you built Catalyst Ranch?
If you go offsite and do a brainstorming session or any kind of strategic planning, you want people to bring new ideas and fresh ways of thinking. You want to put them in a space that’s nothing like their office. You want a space to feel more like home to help people relax. That’s why we have the couches, the armchairs, and the coffee tables, so it really feels polar opposite of an office space.
You’ve made Catalyst Ranch eco-friendly, why?
For me, I guess there’s so much beauty in old buildings and our building is from the 1800s. I wanted to maintain the history and integrity of it. For example one of the rooms had been used to smoke sausages, so we have a “sausage room” to commemorate the original use of the space. As far the eco-friendly components go, it’s not like I sat down and developed a plan for it. I think a lot of it was just the way I think because of the way I was raised – it’s just in my blood. You know, growing up with immigrant parents who didn’t have very much and watching my mom stretch the dollar – we still had a nice home. My parents are both from Poland, so I was first generation in the U.S. My first language was Polish. I didn’t learn how to speak English until I went to kindergarten. I grew up in the old Humboldt Park neighborhood which had originally been 100% Polish. We ended up moving to the Northwest side of Chicago when gangs moved into our neighborhood.
So I started with buying vintage furniture, not only because it was less expensive, but because buying cheap new stuff that doesn’t last very long isn’t the smartest decision long-term. I just think the way things were constructed in olden days was so much more solid in general and thinking of those things being just junk and resale stuff then ending up in landfill, it goes against the grain for me.
Where did you get such beautiful, unique pieces of furniture?
I found and bought pieces a lot of ways. I mean, they were dirty, they were messed up and my dad was the one who reupholstered everything for me. My dad fixed all the pieces – he stripped the wood, he painted… So, when people ask me how did I manage to do all of this, it’s because my dad worked tirelessly for free. He wanted to contribute to my business and support me since he didn’t have money to invest. We’d buy something damaged, and my dad would fix it. We’re talking about a man who was in his mid-70s. He had always been one of these guys who knew how to do everything – he’d worked in all these little factories and then became a handyman.
What other eco-friendly components are part of Catalyst Ranch?
A lot of it is more the process of the way we operate – it has to do with using eco-friendly cleaning products, and we did things like move to a paperless invoicing system. When the new LED light bulbs started showing up, we replaced 300 light bulbs because at that point, ComEd was giving out energy rebates. I mean, we’re talking about a $15,000 investment, not exactly chump change, but it really cut costs in more ways than one. Your electrical takes less energy, but also when you’ve got many people in an event space, body heat builds up. Combined with the heat from the old light bulbs, you’ve got this never-ending battle with trying to keep the rooms cool. So we definitely saw the benefits of making that change – the payback on it was less than 18 months. Of course then we had 300 partially-used bulbs, so we put those up on Zealous Good and a theater company who needed lights for their lobby came and got them.
What about catering?
I’ve been working with Big Delicious Planet from almost the beginning. I started working with them because I support local women-owned businesses. Plus they use organic ingredients as much as possible. A few years ago, they moved their kitchens to a new space and made sure it was LEED-certified and they ended up being the first green-certified caterer restaurant in the country – a pretty outstanding achievement. Heidi, the owner, also uses produce from her own gardens.
So great! But, back to the why of your business. Where’s your inspiration from?
I guess focus on being a green business really came from my dad. My dad was the sort of person you can go brainstorm with and say that I have this idea and I want to do this and he would mull it over and say, okay. So, when you grow up like that, it’s never like I’m just going to go buy something.
He believed that old is better than new, but it also built on this idea of what really was the point of the space – what were we trying to do is one of the key reasons that I use all the vintage furniture is to trigger memories of childhood. It’s really important to remind people of when they were kids because that’s when we are all really imaginative. Labels about who’s creative and who’s not creative don’t get put on you until you grow up. So, by the time you’re working for a company, depending on what your experience has been, you probably only bring a little fraction of who you really are and what your value is.
How has it been financially, owning your own business?
Within 18 months, Catalyst Ranch was profitable, which was a relief since I’d taken out an equity loan on the full value of my condo, so it was a really scary proposition. Then, three years in, we were doing so well that we were running out of space. We were so busy that we had started renting out the rehearsal room from The Chicago Federation of Musicians downstairs. Then, the landlord let me know that a fourth floor space was available, so that was a stressful decision for me because I had to run the numbers again. But, you know, it’s hard to walk away from business. I had to take out another equity loan, but that got paid off pretty quickly. I do feel like it was a great investment because it added some rooms that were medium-sized. Before, I had either a smaller room or two really large ones and nothing in between.
How many people do you employ? And, what about social sustainability?
I’ve employed 25 to 28 people for a long time now. We’ve always tried to hire diverse individuals here. Diversity is not just a matter of skin color, it’s also diversity of ideas and ways of thinking. So we try to encourage diversity of both and value what people have to bring to the party. You need to hire people who reflect those same values. I want people who can think on their feet, who can look someone in the eye and have that ability to problem solve. We hire some students who work here for a time as well as go to school. We also need people with degrees in hospitality. It’s important to balance the strengths and weaknesses of your staff so you can learn from each other. At one point, we took part in a governmental program where we hired individuals who’d been disadvantaged in some way – for example, they were coming out of foster care or they’d been unemployed for a long time, then the program reimbursed the employer for training hours. It’s really hard to make that investment, though, when you’re a small business because the lead time for training is longer. Ultimately, it’s a win-win situation, but it was quite a learning process. Currently we’re not in that program, but I might get involved again.
Have you gone through any hard times?
The financial crisis made business difficult for a time because the first thing companies did was cut meetings offsite. Overnight, clients stopped coming. So, all of a sudden, I’ve got all these employees and spaces that no one wants to pay full price for and instead, expectations of big discounts and throwing everything in for free. Every single booking was a huge negotiation. It was a rough time. I had to streamline our staff and become more efficient, which was really stressful. I felt that it wasn’t constructive to have 10 part-time employees who can’t pay the bills versus consolidating a little bit and having less staff that can at least pay their bills. It wasn’t fun. No one feels good about being the one who loses her job, I know! I’m the only one who didn’t get paid during the worst year. I pretty much lost half my business overnight.
How’s it going these days?
We’re back on solid ground. Last year, I was really proud of winning the Enterprising Woman of the Year Award. It was based on being a good business person and how much you give back to the community. We try to do a lot of that around here, working with nonprofits; we donate spaces quite often. Things are going really well now at Catalyst Ranch!