Born into poverty, Connie Lorenz, owner and CEO of Asphalt Restoration Technology Systems in Orlando, Florida, never imagined that she would be a millionaire. That all changed, however, with one honest act.
While working as a secretary for Asphalt Restoration, Lorenz discovered that the then-president was embezzling money and the business was spiraling into the red. Distraught and keen to retain her job and those of her co-workers, Lorenz withheld the troubling information. That is, until a chance phone call with the company's former owner emboldened her to tell the truth. It would prove to be a pivotal moment in Lorenz's career, as that one fraught admission not only earned her the owner's trust, but also laid the foundation for her eventual ownership of the company. And in 2006, he made good on that promise and Lorenz took over the business.
Since that time, Asphalt Restoration Technology System has become hugely successful, with revenues from 2015 totaling around $2.6 million. But a financial windfall isn't how Lorenz truly measures success. For her, it's all about paying it forward -- a tenet she infuses in all aspects of her personal and professional life.
In advance of the new season of Blue Collar Millionaires, we sat down with Lorenz to ask what it was like to whistle-blow on the president, and how her life has changed since.
What was your life like when you first took the bookkeeping position at Asphalt Restoration?
I was in a bad marriage, living paycheck to paycheck. I had maxed out like 22 credit card accounts. I was leaving a company that I had worked about ten years for -- that I loved doing -- but wasn't really happy with the direction they were going. So I decided to take a paycut and step back. … It was really [because of] interviewing for a law firm. And I was teaching FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] at my daughter's school and they wouldn't give me a half hour off every month. I just wanted one half hour off a month. And they wouldn't give it to me so I had to take the asphalt job. So that's how I landed here. It was all because of a half hour off.
How did you muster the courage to tell the Asphalt Restoration owner -- your boss at the time -- that he was stealing from the company?
I had really discovered it within a couple of months of working. And I was like, "Gosh, no wonder this guy is failing." I just gave up this great job to jump from the frying pan into fire and it was sinking fast. And this guy was acting like he didn't know what was going on. So there was one other employee that knew what was going on and he didn't want me to say anything because we all wanted to keep our jobs. We didn't know what was going to happen.
So one day, we got into this fight with another employee and he stormed out of the office. And I got down on my knees and just prayed to God that, you know, I can't handle this and I don't know what to do. And you said that if you're gonna shut a door, you're gonna open a window, and I need that window open. And [then] the phone rang. And I remember saying to myself, "Well, that's not funny."
I answered the phone and it was [the owner] Jack. And I go, "Jack, I can't talk. Can I call you right back?" And I took about ten minutes trying to get it together. I called him back and I said, "Jack, I need to talk to you." And I said, "And first off, I ... quit." I said, "I'm gonna ask you some questions and please don't lie to me. I know some of the answers. ... And if you lie, I'm gonna walk." I said, "But I need to know the truth."
… Finally he goes, "Connie, stop. The company's never run better than since you've taken over. … We know something's up, we just don't know what." And that's when I told him everything that was going on. And he showed up the next day. He started crying. It ripped my heart out. It was just tough. So it was this curious thing I've never done in my life.
What emotions did you go through when you learned you were now the new owner of the company?
I was shocked. I mean… shocked. … It didn't just happen. I worked as director of operations and then I got promoted to president all before this took place. And I never thought to put it in writing because it was just kind of like a gentleman's handshake. And everybody's going, "You're an idiot. You should've gotten that in writing. You're gonna build this company up and he's gonna sell it out from underneath you." And I just kept saying, "Well, you know, I don't care. I got a great job and he's a great boss. And it is what it is." … So when he called me up and he said, "The time is now. " And I was like, "You're serious?" … I'm still shocked. It'll be my ten year anniversary of owning the company and I'm just shocked everyday.
What are some of the core principles you abide by everyday for growth and longevity of your company?
I just keep reinvesting in my and my team and our equipment. I've worked for some really bad companies over the years. … I used to have a guy… I remember we couldn't even make payroll and he went out and bought a boat. And he was so proud of it. And we were like, we were literally scraping together trying to make payroll. I just reinvested in my company and I don't … care if I'm living in a shack by a puddle as long as it's mine.
… You don't get to take anything with you so you might as well reinvest in your team and make sure that everybody's having a great time. And that everybody's got what they need to survive in today's world.
On the show you gave away a van to one of your employees. What made you decide to give away that van?
Well, I actually give away a lot of vehicles. That just happened to be that particular one and I just had to replace that van. That was my fiancee's van and I hated it. ... I get a new truck about every year. And when I was looking at the trade-in on my truck, my fiancee goes, "Gosh, you're gonna take a big hit on that. Why don't you just trade-in my van and I'll drive the truck?"
So I had to get rid of the van as soon as possible, but the trade-in for that wasn't all that great either. And Travis, this guy is just … he came to me out of a labor pool. It was his first day in the labor pool. … [He] just had a story beyond. He just can't get a break. … And so we had this van that I wanted to get rid of and he had this need. He's an amazing employee. And I talked with my team to make sure it wasn't going to offend everybody. … But I've done it before. I did it with my secretary a couple of times. I did it with a painter that was a contractor of mine [whose] vehicle broke down and they couldn't do their job.
Why do you feel that it's important to pay it forward?
Because there's some people in my life that if it wasn't for them paying it forward, I don't know where I would be. I used to live in the library in the summer because they had a bathroom, water and lots of books to read, and air conditioning. ... And just every now and then, there would be somebody that would recognize that I needed something. And you just have to -- that's how society gets by. You have to reach out to help.
What have been some obstacles you've had to overcome since taking ownership of Asphalt Restoration?
Well, you know, there's the gender issue when I walk onsite. Everybody thinks I'm the secretary. so that's always fun. In my neck of the woods, everybody knows who I am because I'm a professional speaker and I teach classes. … But when I go into my national conferences, people just assume who I am and it gets really tough to get your credibility up. And then once they start talking to me and I start challenging them and testing them, then they're like, "Okay, okay, we'll back down. She might know what she's talking about."
What's your definition of success?
My definition of success is not that of everybody else's. Success is having my family around and my friends and everybody's doing good and nobody's hungry, and everybody's sheltered. I always prayed growing up -- when I was in major, major, major credit card debt -- I always prayed that God gave me the opportunity one day to just own my own home. I wanted to have a mortgage. I didn't mind having a car payment. I didn't mind any of that. But I just wanted to be able to pay a bill when it came in.
… I just don't believe in buying material things because you can't take it with you. I'd rather invest in people than materials. My success is watching people succeed and knowing I had a part in that. And seeing them make the next step. That's success.
What's the best advice you've been given that you still use today?
To be a duck. Years ago, when everything had come down and I was having problems in my personal life with my marriage and we had the issues going on here at the office… everything was in chaos in my personal life, and my brother was successful and he goes, "Somebody gave me advice to be a duck." And I was like, "What in the heck does that mean?" He goes, "It means you just need to look calm, cool and collected on top where everybody can see you and just paddle like hell where everybody can't. Just never let them see you sweat. Don't let anybody know that they got you." For some reason, that clicked. … It just reminds me that I just can't let them know I panic.
What words of encouragement do you have for that person starting out small with aspirations of starting their own business?
First, you gotta have thick skin. Don't believe what anybody says; believe in yourself. Do something you love because then it won't be a job. And be the best that you can. And if you can't be the best, learn from the best. And if they won't teach you, find the second best. And just keep learning and learning. You're never too old to learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Learn more about Connie Lorenz and how she became a millionaire on her episode of Blue Collar Millionaires, premiering tonight at 10P ET.