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.