Cheryl Krueger: One Smart Cookie Shares Her Recipe for Success

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Mention Cheryl’s Cookies and people immediately think of their favorite individually-wrapped treat — chocolate chip cookies, brownies and, of course, those popular buttercream frosted cut outs. Cheryl Krueger’s cookie empire has become a household name, and there’s now a cookie for nearly every special occasion.

Imagine giving up a company you had devoted your life to. That’s what Cheryl Krueger did. She said goodbye to her beloved Cheryl’s Cookies, but it wasn’t easy to do.   It’s like a mother saying goodbye to her firstborn as he takes off for college — it’s simultaneously heartbreaking and rewarding.

In 2005, Cheryl sold her company to 1-800-Flowers for about $40 million dollars. Although the ever-popular buttercream frosted cookie is still available, imagine life without Cheryl’s Cookies in the first place. What? No Cheryl’s Cookies?

cheryl-krueger-deskThat’s right, Cheryl Krueger’s path to becoming one of Central Ohio’s top women entrepreneurs almost didn’t happen. Had it not been for the nudge she received from one of her high school  teachers, we might never have experienced those tasty delights. After all, her parents had a much different path in mind for her.

Cheryl’s journey began in northwestern Ohio in the city of Bellevue. She lived along a dirt road in the country and was raised on a farm. It’s a far cry from the New Albany home she lives in now, but she fondly talks about her childhood and the life lessons she learned growing up.

“My parents were poor—really poor—although I didn’t know we were poor,” she says, “We had an outhouse, no toilet, no running water, but we had the love of our family.” Despite those humble beginnings, it did not take Cheryl long to learn that she had a knack for business and a love of baking—two qualities that would help make the perfect recipe for success.

“I remember when I was 8 years old,” she says. “I would get a bowl and cupcake pans and fill them with mud. Some had rocks in them. And I would then bake them in the sun.”

But Cheryl didn’t give those mud pies away.  Oh no, this little girl had a calling. She sold them.

She sold some for a penny, and the special ones—the ones with tiny rocks added for flavor—she sold for two cents. “And, oh my gosh, people would stop and buy them! My mom would say, ‘I can’t believe you’re selling those things,’” But for Cheryl, it never dawned on her that she couldn’t. Although she didn’t realize it at that time, her mud pies paved the way to a much bigger dream.

It’s that inherent business sense that’s made her so successful. But business was not the path her parents wanted her to take—far from it. They had no desire for her to go to college.  “Oh, no, no, no!”  she explains. Her voice gets a little agitated as she remembers.  “I think that’s the biggest regret of my parents.”

So what were their plans for their daughter? They wanted her to become a housewife and continue living on the farm.

STARTING A COOKIE EMPIRE:

cheryl-krueger-empireBut God works in mysterious ways, Cheryl believes. She had her own guardian angel of sorts—her high school history teacher.  He saw the potential Cheryl had and steered her toward college. But college alone did not necessarily shape her path.

She initially enrolled at Bowling Green State University in home economics.  She held down several jobs to pay for school, including a job at Caryl Crane’s clothing store in Sandusky.  Crane took an interest in Cheryl, telling her she would excel as a buyer and that she would be good at marketing.

Crane took Cheryl to the pinnacle of all buying destinations: the Big Apple.  This small town girl had never been to a big city. “I remember getting out of the subway. My mouth hit the ground. People were walking fast, talking fast, and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh!’  It was an instant love affair with that energy and that pace.”

When Cheryl returned to school, she immediately changed her major to business and fashion merchandising. When she graduated, she had no trouble finding a job.

She worked for Burdines Department Stores, Chaus Sportswear in New York and The Limited.  She says she loved her job at The Limited, but it kept her constantly on the move. She would spend more than three-quarters of the year traveling. “I knew how to get from my apartment at Wyandotte East to The Limited and then to the airport. I had been in Columbus for four or five years and I hadn’t ever been downtown.”

And while she may have been at the top of her fashion career, Cheryl agonized, knowing there was still something missing in her life. “I needed to think about my personal life,” she says. She was so busy with her career that she worried it would impact her ability to start a family someday. She needed to become her own boss. She needed her own business.

So Cheryl went back to her roots, starting a cookie business on the side. But time wasn’t her only hurdle. She had to find a way to finance her new business, and the banks weren’t buying into her idea. One banker asked her, “Why do you want to start a cookie company?  There are so many cookies out there already.” Cheryl says they didn’t get it. Of course, that made her more determined than ever.

So she self-financed her new venture by selling her company stock in The Limited.

“I’ve always had a passion for baking, ever since I was a child,“ Cheryl says. And with her grandmother’s recipe and the help of her college roommate Carol Walker, and her brother, she took what that 8-year-old little girl started back on the farm and created a multi-million dollar cookie empire.

Cheryl’s Cookies opened in 1981, but as she discovered, empires aren’t easy to make and maintain. They often come with heartache.

Cheryl has endured several personal losses along the road to success. One of those losses she still regrets to this day. She talks about it candidly.  It was the divorce from her son’s father. The two were together for six years.

Without hesitation or a quiver in her voice, she honestly says her desire to create a thriving business ultimately destroyed their life together. She says although he knew of her business plans before they married, that knowledge did not make the marriage any easier. Cheryl was constantly focused on her business. And economically, all her funds were tied to the company.

“I was in too deep,” she says about her business. “I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I gave any less, knowing that we were so close to success. I couldn’t give up.”

MENTORING OTHERS:

cheryl-krueger-teamNow, when she talks to young entrepreneurs, especially those who are married or engaged,  she encourages them to know and understand their “risk tolerance.”

“This is where I went wrong,” Cheryl openly says, “so I try to help them understand the commitment that’s needed to start a business and the sacrifices that may unfold with their choices. You need to make sure they’re in agreement with you in building your business,” she says.

Sharing her knowledge of how to build up a business has become sort of a calling for Cheryl. She not only enjoys it, but she also sees it as an obligation. Every year, she helps out some 30 to 50 new businesses.

“I was grateful for the people who helped me along the way, and I want to be sure to help others along the way too.”

Her additional words of business wisdom include: “Be passionate about the business you want to start, and know exactly where you stand with financing that dream.”

CHARITY WORK:

cheryl-krueger-charityHelping young entrepreneurs isn’t Cheryl’s only passion.  She is very involved with cancer research.  Like so many of us, she’s dealt with the heartache of losing a loved one to the disease.

Her best friend Carol, the one who helped her start Cheryl’s Cookies, died in 1986 of lymphoma and bone marrow cancer, and Cheryl’s father battled four types of cancer before he passed away.  But cancer’s impact didn’t stop there. At only 26, Cheryl’s son battled testicular cancer .

“That was the worst day of my life, hearing the doctors say he had cancer.”

It was a painful and scary time, but luckily her son Cavin is now in remission.

So she’s joined the fight to help beat the disease. She helps raise money for cancer research at The James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute and is president emeritus of The James Foundation board.

Cheryl says she feels lucky and blessed that she’s able to give back.

FINDING BALANCE:

cheryl-krueger-balanceSo, what’s next for this business tycoon? Right now she’s comfortable guiding a brand new business called Life Support to its fullest potential. Life Support is an all-natural recovery shot, and it is touted as a hangover cure.

Cheryl got involved with the business in 2012 at the encouragement of her son who was friends with the founders. “I told them I could help,” she says, “but we needed to reposition the brand.”

Now, this small company is quickly growing and grabbing the attention of larger companies and also some pretty well-known sports figures. Life Support has recently teamed up with IndyCar driver Graham Rahal to help market the product.

Cheryl is extremely proud of company’s achievements so far. She says by the end of the year the line is expected to be sold in about 8,000 store locations, and they’ve recently launched a new berry flavored shot with caffeine.

Life Support was recently recognized by its own industry professionals when it won the Best New Product 2016 award and was honored in November at the National Association of Convenience Stores trade show. For Cheryl, life is good. “I love my job. It keeps me young at heart.”

But this isn’t the only new job she’s tackling. After more than 40 years of constant work, Cheryl has a new goal—taking care of herself. She no longer spends all of her time at the office, but instead finds time to exercise and go out on a few dates. In fact, she says she’s dating a terrific guy right now.

To round out her impressive list of personal endeavors, Cheryl talks about how she enjoys taking part in mission work through her church. She loves to work with the Appalachian Mission Project in small rural communities in West Virginia. There, the lovely, well dressed business leader we know sheds that image. She rolls up her sleeves and pitches in, cleaning and scrubbing homes.

“There’s a lot of need right here at home. We need to do a better job helping them. These people inspire me,” Cheryl confesses. “They know the true meaning of family.”

With a thoughtful smile, she adds, “People see this successful business person, but God doesn’t care about that, God cares about how we help others.” And she’ll continue to help others even after she stops working.

Cheryl has finally found balance in her life. It’s a testament to her work ethic, her faith, and the woman she’s become.

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