PITTSFIELD -- Sheila N. Keator ran a business with her husband that went bankrupt, then learned how to become a broker while raising eight children.
She later formed her own brokerage firm with three of her sons, and became so successful that in 2009 she was named one of the state's top 25 financial advisors by Barron's Magazine
It's been a long journey, filled with frustration, rewards and fun, and on Wednesday Keator related those experiences as the featured speaker at the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce's 10th annual Women in Business Luncheon.
Keator's speech was spiced with lessons, jokes and anecdotes, and was so well-received by those in attendance at Berkshire Hills Country Club that they gave her a standing ovation.
She was introduced by her niece, State Rep. Tricia-Farley Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, whose mother is Keator's sister.
One hundred and eighty people pre-registered for the event. Total attendance was close to the 200 mark. More than 90 percent of the attendees were women.
"We had some walk-ins," said Darci Toomey, the chamber's director of marketing and communications. "We were surprised (at the turnout)."
Keator is the founder of the Keator Group, a brokerage firm she began in Pittsfield but moved to Lenox four years ago.
"All of a sudden we got taken over," she said, referring to her business being purchased by a series of large national financial firms. "We said, ‘enough.' We bought our own building."
Keator suggested that those in attendance follow her own personal credo: always be willing to do any job no matter what it is, and use your technical skills to make everyone around you smarter. She also suggested they follow the advice in a proverb, which states people should pass knowledge along by either reading, writing or teaching.
"When you learn something you should try and teach it," Keator said. "That's basically how I built my business."
Keator said she and her husband, George, originally opened a copy business that became so big they decided to take it public. But when interest rates "went to the moon" during the recession in 1974, the business did not survive and went bankrupt two years later.
The Keators had already had some of their children before their copy business failed. In their next business venture, a small newspaper that the couple distributed throughout the Berkshires, Keator recalled singing nursery rhymes to her three children while driving to the printer.
The couple ended up selling their small paper to the owners of the North Adams Transcript, which Keator said ended the "financial hemorrhage" the family had suffered in their first business venture. But Keator said all the sale actually did was get them back to "ground zero without debt."
To make ends meet, Keator next took a job with a debt collection service. Unable to perform those tasks with so many children in the house, Keator said she would take a roll of coins and drive to Albany, N.Y. Unable to afford an office, Keator said she would spend all day making calls from a hotel phone booth asking people to meet her at that establishment to make payments.
"I did this at several hotels," she said.
After a friend of the Keators who lived in Connecticut suggested Sheila might make a good broker, she responded to a newspaper advertisement placed by the firm Kidder Peabody that was looking for a broker in Pittsfield.
Keator said she spent the next several months at Kidder Peabody in New York City training to take her brokerage license, which she passed. At the exam, Keator said the applicants were told that 50 percent of them would never succeed.
"There were three women," she said. "Two of them are still in the business."