Lisa Renshaw never has to ask herself what she'd sacrifice for success.
At age 21, she found out.
She had no money, no free time and no idea how to run the failing parking garage she'd just taken over. But worse than that, she had no one to work the night shift.
So for three long years, she spent her evenings holed up in a closet of a room just north of Penn Station, shooing rats away from the carpet remnant that doubled as her bed.
On a good day, the garage made $200.
On a bad one, she was held up at knifepoint.
Eight years later, her efforts have paid off. As the president and owner of Penn Parking, Ms. Renshaw runs a company that's expected to earn more than $1.3 million this year. Both the Small Business Administration and Inc. magazine have lauded her as an up-and-coming entrepreneur. And two weeks ago, she took over her sixth -- and largest -- property: a 390-space garage on Franklin Street.
"I didn't lay in bed at night dreaming of being a car jockey," explains the 29-year-old. "I just always wanted to do something on my own, something that was all mine."
Standing 5 feet 2 inches and wearing braces on her teeth, Lisa Renshaw may look like the shy adolescent she once was. But don't let her appearance deceive you. With a work ethic matching Cal Ripken Jr.'s and vocal chords rivaling Sam Kinison's, she's more Mighty Mouse than Mouseketeer.
"She's shoulder to shoulder with the big boys," says City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. Will she emerge as a major player in the business community? "She already is," Ms. Clarke replies.
Even Allen Quille, considered the dean of local parking, marvels at how a woman who once knew nothing about the business has become a formidable competitor.
"She's a hard girl to match up against," he says. "She's willing to take hard times. She slept in that garage when a man would have been afraid to stay there."
Ms. Renshaw is also credited with bringing glamour and marketing savvy to the down-and-dirty business of parking cars.
At most lots, "all you do is pull your car in and pay when you !! leave," she says. "People say, 'What have I gotten for my money?' You can't make it exciting every day, but what you can do is develop a feeling for the company."
To win over new customers, she has showered them -- and their cars -- with attention. Loyal patrons were treated to free car washes, windshield washer fluid refills, soft drinks and even their own newsletter, Penn Pal, featuring corny jokes. (How do you catch a unique bird? U-neek up on him.)
Says Mr. Quille, "At first nobody paid any attention to her. It was so unorthodox -- giving car washes away and sodas. I'd never heard of such a thing."
She also has developed a knack for taking garages that look like white elephants and turning them into cash cows. "The only way I managed to survive was by creating a niche, by taking properties that were deplorable . . . and then filling them up," she says.
Many who know Ms. Renshaw say she was a born entrepreneur. As a teen-ager growing up in Severn, she was always concocting her own business schemes. A few -- including a rent-a-clown operation and a homemade crafts company -- almost got off the ground.
In person, however, she comes across more as a homespun gal than slick corporate operator. She gestures frequently as she speaks, often loudly, the sleeves of her floral blouse billowing around her. And despite her hectic schedule, she still finds time to have dinner with her folks regularly and to teach Sunday school.
It was a church sermon, of all things, that wound up shaping her professional future. Her pastor, Rev. L.G. Smith of the Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Ellicott City, told the congregation how he once wanted a job in a gas station so desperately that he worked for free.
"That stuck with me," she says. "You know, sometimes you might fall asleep in a sermon, and sometimes it's really good. But there are certain things you carry with you all through your life and that was one of them."
Five years later, she tried his technique. After meeting a garage owner at a church service, she persuaded him to take her on for three months as an unpaid executive assistant.
She brought with her plenty of ideas, many of which bucked conventional wisdom. Her first goal was to convince the owner that his garage on North Charles Street need not be dependent on the Chesapeake Restaurant nearby for business.
To prove it, she took out a $3,000 loan in her name to market the company to commuters using Penn Station nearby.
"You don't know nothing about big business, baby doll," she recalls him saying to her.
He was right. In a week, he had skipped town with her money. With no business experience and only a high school diploma, Ms. Renshaw considered cutting her losses. Instead, she renegotiated the lease on the garage and took over.
"I didn't even know how to drive a stick shift," she says.
Unable to afford more than one employee, she worked the night shift from 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. A kerosene heater kept her warm and a nearby McDonald's kept her fed. ("When they went from 23 billion to 24 billion served, they sent me a personal thank you note," she jokes.)
Her family tried to offer support. On holidays and birthdays, her parents and four younger siblings would drive to her cubbyhole office/bedroom with decorations and presents.
"We'd go in and take in Kentucky Fried Chicken and all sit on the floor," says her mother, Ethel Garrison.
But along with the good times came some scary ones.
One afternoon, six teen-agers walked into the garage and held her up at knifepoint. A quick thinker, she was able to calmly talk them out of it, but not before they poured a bucket of water over her head.
Despite her perseverance, customers were still hard to come by. But if they weren't coming to her, Lisa Renshaw reasoned, she'd go to them.
"I would stand in front of the competition's lots, and when [customers] exited hand them a flier and say, 'You parked in the wrong place.' It was snowing and cold, and I'm standing out there asking for their business. People felt sorry for me, and they started parking in my garage," she says.
The experience taught her a valuable lesson: "Pity works."
Eventually she won over a sizable clientele and a contract from Amtrak to run a nearby parking lot. Today, she has 17 employees and oversees three lots and three garages. Last week she moved from a one-room office in Arbutus to a plush new space in Linthicum.
There has been one casualty of her professional success: her marriage. At 19, she wed a fellow church member, but she says different "drives and temperaments" soon doomed the relationship. Six years later, the couple divorced.
She's faced business losses as well.
In 1986, after making $20,000 from her garages, she decided to invest it all in six kiosks selling Christmas tins and wrapping paper at area malls. Within 30 days, the business went belly up. She lost everything -- and wound up $10,000 in debt.
"It was crushing," she recalls. "At that point, you say, 'Can I put one foot in front of another?' "
But the experience also reaffirmed what Ms. Renshaw has always believed about herself: She's a survivor.
"An entrepreneur has to be like one of those clowns that you punch and it pops right back up," she says.
In many ways, she has spent her life getting knocked down and popping back up. As a youngster growing up in Severn, she was a loner, frequently taunted and ostracized by her classmates.
"When you're small, young, quiet and say grace at every meal, you're picked on," she says.
But after having her hair pulled and her legs pricked with sewing pins many times, she decided one day to defend herself and picked a fight with one of her tormentors.
"Four teachers had to pull us apart, and I ended up in the principal's office," she says. "But after that week, I was never bothered again."
Although she's close to her family -- living just a half-mile from them in Severn and attending the same church -- she has few close friends now, she says.
There is one exception. For the last two years ago, she has been seeing Rick Sarmiento, owner of the White House retail chain. They met when he was the general manager of the Inner Harbor Hyatt Regency and was doing some consulting work for the Belvedere Hotel. She was bidding on the Belvedere garage contract.
"I didn't get the garage, but I got Rick," she says with a girlish laugh. "I got the better end of it." (She has since taken over the garage, as well.)
With her 30th birthday just two months away, she has begun mulling over options for her future. Entering politics (she's a Republican), settling down and having a family or continuing to build her parking empire are among them.
But if life remains as it is, that also will suit Lisa Renshaw fine.
"There's no such thing as having it all," she says, "but I think I've got the closest thing."
THE RENSHAW FILE
Born:........................ Baltimore; Oct. 27, 1961.
Occupation:.................. President and owner of Penn Parking.
Education:................... Graduated from Old Mill High School in 1979.
Current home:................ Severn.
Favorite household chore:.... "I like to clean the gutters, but I don't like to mow the lawn. I like doing something that has an element of newness to it. The grass grows every week."
Hobbies:..................... Collecting vintage toys and jewelry.
Last meal prepared at home:.. Dinty Moore Beef Stew.
She drives:.................. "A beat-up black Pontiac 6000 . . . loaded up with fast food wrappers and newspapers."
Most she's ever paid to park:. $6 an hour.