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WomanOf the Month 11-07: Louisa Benjamin Bohm

She###s a mover and a shaker, but more than in just the traditional sense of a longtime business executive. Louisa Benjamin-Bohm is president of Shleppers, a residential moving company based in New York City that she and her late first husband founded almost 30 years ago. At the time, Louisa was eight months pregnant and her husband, an Israel national, was having difficulty finding suitable work in the U.S. One of Louisa###s cousins who owned an antique shop pointed out how often customers bought larger pieces that they couldn###t take home without help. Shleppers was born.

After spending her youth in the Bronx, Benjamin-Bohm and her family moved to Manhattan for her high school years. Her father was a pioneer chiropractor, while her mother was a homemaker. Both stressed education. Her grandfather owned a moving company that was the first to travel from New York to Boston on the Post Road. His office was around the corner from her current warehouse in the Bronx.

"My parents were very proeducation," she says. "My mother was really kind of a women###s lib person in her way of thinking. She always encouraged my sister and me to take care of ourselves, never be dependent on a man, have our own money, and be able to take care of ourselves.

"But in a way, I think we###ve done a big disservice to ourselves, and I###ve only seen this late in life," Benjamin-Bohm says. "I think we###ve made it much harder on ourselves and lost some of our femininity, and men have lost some masculinity, in the way we used to know it sociologically and socially. Not only do many of us take care of the household, and we###ve minimalized that, and take care of children, which is a huge deal and responsibility; in addition, I###ve taken on the responsibility of business, while still trying to have a social life. You can really be torn in 9 million different pieces. In the business I###m in, you do lose femininity because you###re in a man###s world. It###s very tough. I do believe women are starting to see you can###t have it all.

Not that Benjamin-Bohm would give up working outside the home. "I don###t know what I would do with myself if I didn###t work," she says. "I just think there###s got to be a better balance and we all need to get better used to our roles. Finding the right kind of business at certain times in life can help. Being wise enough is important and realizing you can###t do it all. You have to make choices. When I started the company with my late husband I had babies and worked from home doing the marketing while he ran operations. That was wonderful."

Benjamin-Bohm###s experience included stints as Public Information Director for the New York City Consumer Affairs Department, as an aide to Mayor John V. Lindsay at City Hall, and as an assistant to Governor Hugh Carey. She put the creativity and marketing savvy she had garnered in those jobs, especially under the mentorship of Naomi Chase in the City Consumer Affairs Office, to work in coming up with the name Shleppers and advertising the fledgling business on the street. "When you###re young you believe you can do anything," she says. "You###re empowered. Because I had worked in consumer affairs I knew where problems were in the business and where people were frightened, so I could come up with a different angle."

They had no credit so they couldn###t secure a loan. They bought a used van from Avis using family money to make their first deliveries. Six months later, with some numbers on the books, they were able to purchase another truck. A decade later, Shleppers### truck fleet numbered 10. Today it is 20.
When asked how the business has changed over the last nearly 30 years, Benjamin-Bohm points out that she and her then husband forged a niche market. "In 1978, New York was in a recession, but we didn###t know better. My husband knew the Israeli community so that###s who we hired. We really started the Israeli moving business that became so popular in the 1980s. We also changed the face of moving in New York—maybe not always for the good—"she laughs. "I made brochures and t-shirts, the things that moving companies hadn###t done in the past. It changed the look of moving."

The internet also changed mooring###s face. "When we started people recommended moving companies to one another and there was one source of advertising, the yellow pages. Now there are three. Nobody knows where to advertise. And further, the web has replaced it all. People go online and any mover can put up a great website and attract customers, whereas the business used to be service-oriented. Today it###s all price-oriented. We pride ourselves on service," says Benjamin-Bohm.
Unspeakable tragedy entered her life when her husband and three children were killed in a car accident in Israel a decade after Shleppers### founding. For four years she struggled to continue to work, sometimes only able to concentrate for two hours per day. A loyal friend ran the company while she recovered over a period of years. She eventually returned to Israel where she remarried and lived for seven years before coming back to the U.S. in 1999. Today she has four children, all teenagers—and yes, they do manage to eat dinner together.

What has been the greatest challenge of entrepreneurship? "Starting was the great challenge, and then to keep recreating yourself to be in tune with the market. That###s a huge challenge because it###s an ebb and flow."

To match that ebb and flow, later in 2007 Shleppers is launching a luxury moving company that will cater to a high-end clientele. In addition to the usual moving services, the company will provide limousine service, dog care during moves, arrange for a chef to come in and prepare dinner, put closets in order, leave chocolates on the pillow, remove debris, hang drapes—whatever clients want, says Benjamin-Bohm.

Shleppers also recently merged with Royal Moving Systems, which will expand operations in the Westchester, NY, area. Allen Golan, president of Royal, will run operations while she again concentrates on marketing and sales.

The company###s community efforts are good for the employees and help build team effort as well as helping others, says Benjamin-Bohm. Dress for Success, Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army, and Toys for Tots are a few of the organizations that Shleppers helps out.

Benjamin-Bohm has won a number of awards, among them a 1998 Avon Women of Enterprise honor.