To celebrate Safety Partners’ 30th year in business, we’ll be sharing quarterly interviews from key players in the company. This quarter’s story is an interview with Denise Aronson, Founder & CEO of Safety Partners. Learn how she managed the difficulties of growing the company, proudest moments, what’s next, and more:
What makes you proud?
- Walking around Cambridge and realizing I know so many buildings, companies, scientists, businesspeople, and service providers. When I bump into people on the streets, it gives me a cozy campus feeling. It’s a feeling of belonging and accomplishment!
- 2020 COVID – Years of building and reinforcing the business foundation of Safety Partners has yielded resilience. With deep thought and management, the company skillfully met our challenges as we faced the pandemic.
- There is no doubt that Safety Partners is a substantial contributor to the Boston and NYC life science ecosystem!
- Every department/group at Safety Partners has a heartbeat, is flourishing, is better than yesterday. Safety Partners is its own entity, it’s not me; it’s not about me.
Scariest moments in early company history?
- Computer crash. A true panic moment. Yep, ruined my day, my week, and caused a tremendous sink of time and energy. (My techy neighbor came over at 10:30 that night to help diagnose. Thank you, Tim!)
- Owing the government $100K+ in taxes – I thought I was doing everything right but didn’t understand the double whammy of Q4 + Q1 estimated taxes. I did not sleep until I could understand why it happened and what to do next. It turned out to be mostly cash flow rather than “no cash,” but it was a shocker!
- Many, many, many times – managing communication to employees and communication to clients.
- Knowing that I had to come up with the right words, right tone, right message, clarity, e.g., how to get them to be on the same page, provide them the encouragement they needed, try to understand where the disconnect is, and solve.
- I put in so many hours carefully working through extremely tricky situations.
- Exhaustion, anxiety, depression
- The CFO who made me feel an inch tall.
- The Lab Manager who humiliated me in the lab.
- The presentations – I was so scared of public speaking early in my career, my legs would shake, and my heart would pound.
- The scariest – I was in Pittsburgh attending an IH class. I got a call from an employee. She was clearly shaken. While she was off at the post office her client’s lab had an explosion. She would have been in that building if it wasn’t for a permit that had to be mailed that morning. The explosion was in our client’s new facility the day before “first day operations.” It had to do with lab gas piped into a cold room, and a partially open spigot/turret valve. Then a spark, then a horrific situation… a couple of people were badly injured.
Did you ever feel like SP wasn’t going to make it?
From 1992 – 2002, I continually asked myself, how will I earn money if SP collapses? I had a Plan B and a Plan C.
Tell me about some of the unusual situations you’ve found yourself in:
There are a few!
- Facility Manager who wore his lab coat without a shirt underneath! This is just not right on so many levels! What was I going to tell him? Sorry, I don’t recall, but I do recall that it was perplexing!
- I got a call from a biotech company with an EHS question, they weren’t a client, but thought they were! Well, that contract was the fastest contract ever signed!
- Working in strange places: I have sat for long hours, working in many strange places. In the car on the side of a road, in the rest stop off the highway, in my driveway, in parking garages, at little league games, on my motorboat, always in airports. You get the picture.
- One time, I was in a small parking lot at a local market near my house in Lovell, Maine. It was the middle of a hot July day, I was standing by my car, talking with an employee – extremely hard conversation and a situation that needed resolution. I ended up pacing for about an hour, constantly swatting the mosquitos that were relentless. The sun was beating down. I’m always behind in adapting to new technology, so of course no ear buds. Everything about that hour was downright uncomfortable. Then, a moment of comic relief – I thought about what I must have looked like by any passerby, and I grinned and chuckled and I drove myself home.
- For 25 years I didn’t have internet (nor landline phone) in my house in Maine, so I would work offline, and then drive to the local library (often late at night) where I could catch their signal and send my emails. On many Saturdays I would work in the library, a nice spot! The library closes at 1:00 on Saturday, so often I would just move to the outside picnic table and continue. One of the Saturdays, I was deep into my work, and not ready to pack it in, though I was running out of juice. I walked around the building looking for an outside outlet. Found one, but no picnic table nearby. So, I plugged in and made myself comfortable (using a couple old jackets from the back of the car) on the cement walkway.
Working hard, head down, getting stuff done, feeling like nothing can stop me, and then…It rained! Next step? Drive my car as close as I can get to the outlet – looking hopeful! Though, the power cord barely allows the laptop to reach the passenger-side-front-seat. Still looking hopeful! I snuggle into the seat, snuggle close to my laptop, and think I can get back to work. Then ooops (uugghh) my laptop slips onto the pavement! Hmmm, it still worked, so kept going. Head down, head down, head down – always great to put in a productive day!
- Accidents often stem from a cascade of smaller events. For many years we held our staff meetings in a rented office or conference center. There is one staff meeting I won’t forget:
- Ok, so Safety Partners was small back then, maybe 15 people. Of course, I’m wearing many hats at work and at home. Juggling the kids’ morning routine – make lunches, school notes into backpacks, get to the bus stop, etc… Plus shoveling snow, figuring out summer camp, helping with homework, etc…. all while working every aspect of SP including the details for our staff meeting. You get the picture.
My staff meeting duties included finding a conference room to rent, communicating day/time and location, writing the agenda, thinking of ways to have fun too, and the food. Food, yes of course we need food! So, at 6:15AM I called the bagel place, but somehow called the Dunkin Donuts, thinking it was the bagel place. Dunkin said, “we don’t have that,” and I said, “yes, you do, I was there last month for this same order.” It took several minutes of a difficult conversation before I realized my mistake.
I apologized to Dunkin and called the bagel place. I was sort of laughing/crying as I managed to finish the food order – I found the situation really funny, but was also spent emotionally. But, no time to dilly dally, so I grabbed my briefcase, laptop, and materials for the meeting, and drove to pick up the order on the way to the meeting – two large boxes of coffee, bagels, and the fixings, a couple treats….; parked in the garage, carried everything into the building through the double doors, then down some stairs – then I tripped! OMG what a mess!
How did you continue to believe in yourself in the darkest times?
- I don’t know. It must be genetic. One of my personal mantras is I’M LIKE OX! As I look back, there are very few people who could have done this; or let’s put it this way, anyone else would have found an easier way to run this company – and clearly I missed that boat, though I think I missed that ocean liner! I’m certain my job for the first 25 years was VERY HARD.
- Safety Partners made it in incremental steps. Each increment pushed the positive feedback cycle inside me. That’s what kept me going. I’m incredibly proud of the fact I kept going, and that somehow Safety Partners became a real business and has continued to succeed!
- I don’t believe in my ability to be smart and clever, but I do believe in my ability to always stand up after every knock down. I’m a type-A high achiever, go-getter, work as hard as I can, get through my list. Also, I rely heavily on my emotional intelligence to size up a situation and respond the best way I can. Perseverance is my middle name, I see the trees, and forget about the forest. Sometimes that is good when life is full of details.
- If I’m upset, I just focus on my lists (or clean the garage). I must make progress even on the tiniest things to keep me OK. I use a lot of sticky notes! My mindset when something is going wrong, or something is really hard, is: I must work harder – that is always my answer. This is how I manage my anxiety. This was my pattern in high school, in college, in my early jobs, and continues today (BTW, I do not subscribe to this non-work-life balance!). I’m truly trying to do less (though it is 10:20pm on a Saturday night as I write this, so I’m not that much better).
What’s next for you and SP?
- For me, continue to make the business not about Denise Aronson – we’ve made a lot of progress, and it continues to drive my decision-making:
- SP is a more valuable company when it is resilient, i.e., has layers of depth in every function. That means I need to stay out of everyone’s way and go on vacation.
- My work in NYC inadvertently has helped this along. It keeps me focused on specific business development initiatives, and I have many stretches of time away from our daily hustle and bustle here in the office.
- It is all about the employees – it has always been, and it continues to be. It is a great challenge, and is the most important work we do:
How do you find the time to nurture yourself?
For the first 26 years, there was truly little “nurturing myself” but over the last 4 years, I have become dedicated to working with a trainer at the gym, jogging, horseback riding, hiking, and weekends in ME. I love summer storms and sitting on the dock in Maine. I get out to the ocean occasionally and love a long beach walk. Outdoor stuff and routine exercise is my tonic; and over the last couple years I’ve taken big steps to eat healthier!
Who are the people you most want to thank for reaching this milestone?
- Ellen Essigmann, my boss in 1990 at T Cell Sciences
I was scared: could I really do that job? In a meeting with Ellen, she told me that she was sure that I would learn what I needed and get all the stuff done that was required of my position. She was always there for me – advice, guidance, and sometimes even running interference when company politics put up obstacles to my goals. I felt so comfortable with Ellen. I knew I could ask her anything, and I knew that she believed in my ability. I soared due to her leadership.
- Pam Wolfson and Janet Desaulniers, my monthly “E.Group”
At almost every intensity point along the last 22 years Pam and Janet listened to me and provided wisdom. One such moment I recall: I was going to drop out of one of my “networking groups” because the members were high level business folks – Venture, CFOs, Principles in large consulting firms, etc… I couldn’t participate in the conversations because I wasn’t schooled or familiar with the realm of business, finance, and science they spoke about. I talked with Pam and Janet about my anxiety and concern. Their answer – “do not quit, everyone needs to stretch themselves.”
- Eleanor Gilbert, my neighbor and close friend
It is a poignant joy in life to have a neighbor that becomes a close friend. Eleanor and I religiously ran together in the early AM a couple days a week for the first 20 years of Safety Partners. Eleanor doesn’t know it, but she often gave me the fuel to take on that day’s challenge. There were many runs that I took up almost the whole 55 minute run talking Safety Partners! Thank you Eleanor for your sisterhood.
- I am grateful for each and every one of my networking buddies that gave me (and continue to give me) community, laughs, camaraderie, courage, trust, friendship, and loyalty, in MA and NYC. Endless thanks to all of you!
- EVERY SP employee current and past – every person makes their mark, SP is not the same company it was yesterday, nor any of the yesterdays. We truly are always on the road to continuous improvement.
- My kids – I’m the mom always working, always briefcase in hand, always distracted, always moving like a locomotive while juggling the complexity of life + work. I know they wish I had been more on-time and had been more of an at-home mom. But I also know that they are proud of me. I’m extremely proud of them and being a mom is the best thing I did in my life.
Thank you, Denise, for 30 years of leadership at Safety Partners! – Emily Smith, Digital Marketing Manager.