Co-owner Keia Isaacson of Lakeside Floor Coverings spent $11,225 for her spacious, well-appointed exhibit over the recent four-day Minneapolis Home & Garden Show at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

“I think it was a productive investment,” Isaacson said last week. “The traffic was good. The phone is ringing and customers are visiting.”

Isaacson, 41, and her husband, Phil, 42, are bootstrapping entrepreneurs. They started 12-employee Lakeside in 2009 with savings from working-class jobs and credit cards.

Keia Isaacson was far from the manor born. But always hardworking, positive and accomplished.

Isaacson had an academic and athletic scholarship waiting at Tennessee State University when she graduated from Minneapolis Washburn High School in 1997.

She didn’t go. Her single-parent mother, then a drug addict, couldn’t complete the federal-loan application.

Isaacson worked retail jobs in high school to help make household ends meet. She took a call-center job at Target after high school that developed into a 12-year career and a $60,000-plus HR position. She earned a college degree in night school.

Her mother eventually became sober. She loved her work as a personal-care attendant. And she lived independently until her death last fall.

Isaacson, by 2008, was burned out from the pressure of work, school, caring for a brother with cerebral palsy and being stepmom to her husband’s son from a previous relationship. She also experienced several devastating miscarriages.

Burned out, Isaacson, with the support of her husband, quit her Target job. She needed to rest and try something new.

Phil Isaacson later that year quit his truck-driver job. They launched Lakeside from their Brooklyn Center basement with a few thousand in savings, credit cards, used tools, a rusty truck and a lot of elbow grease. They were joined by Phil’s cousin, Bruce, a laid-off flooring installer.

It took two years, long hours and lean living to hit positive cash flow.

“We struggled along using grit, credit and savings … and we were so happy about our biggest payday that we had a baby,” the often-beaming Isaacson said. “There is no such thing as ‘can’t’ in my life. And I always lead with love.”

The road to today’s success at Lakeside, which operates from a Fridley showroom, was paved with bumps and setbacks. In fact, the work that Isaacson thought had put Lakeside over the top in the first year was also their largest; a $12,000 flooring job through a residential contractor.

Only one problem. No payment.

“The guys worked Christmas Eve 2009 to get it done,” Isaacson said. “That job would have gotten us through the winter. But we got stiffed. We didn’t quit. We just kept working.”

Another residential contractor liked what she saw of Lakeside’s work. More jobs followed from contractors and homeowners.

Isaacson slowly added people and posted positive cash flow.

But she didn’t understand why and what were the best lines of businesses on which to profitably focus.

“I was an amateur bookkeeper and my former accountant thought he was a business adviser,” Isaacson recalled.

She was perplexed that profits weren’t growing as fast as revenue.

In 2015, Isaacson joined the Association of Women Contractors (AWC). She started to network and volunteer at events.

Claudia Osterman, a veteran interior designer, consultant and a founder of AWC 25 years ago, nominated Isaacson to go to through the Scale Up program of WomenVenture, the nonprofit business adviser and financier. The several-month training turned Isaacson into an analyst who exited inconsequential lines, such as blinds. She expanded in the sweet spot: flooring of wood, laminate, vinyl and carpet.

“That helped me become a true, insightful business owner,” Isaacson recalled. “I also became chief financial officer. And we fired our CPA.”

Her business banker at Lakeview Bank liked the widened profit margin.

And Isaacson was a riveting keynote speaker at last fall’s annual WomenVenture gala in a talk punctuated by laughs and a few tears.

“Keia is a hard worker and a very good listener,” Osterman said. “And she is not afraid to take some risk.

“I was apprehensive when she opened her retail store in Fridley several years ago. But she was confident that they needed a showroom. It worked. It has given her more opportunities … for work. She’s a woman of color who has done well in an industry dominated by males. She’s good.”

And the successful jobs, referrals and enduring relationships for Lakeside have led to hard-earned success for a slowly growing business that tops $2 million in annual revenue. Isaacson has invested cash flow not needed for Lakeside into three rental properties over the years.

“That’s going to be our retirement,” she said of a fourplex and two duplexes. “I love real estate.”

Isaacson, tenacious and intrepid, loves to learn from books and people. She is pleased but not boastful about what she has accomplished.

“I feel that I’m good enough,” she said. “Lakeside produces something of value for customer families and for my family and employees. I think that’s valuable.”

And Isaacson will become president of 250-member AWC in 2021. That’s respect and appreciation from industry colleagues.

 

Neal St. Anthony has been a Star Tribune business columnist and reporter since 1984. He can be contacted at nstanthony@startribune.com.