[Women Working It is an ongoing series on women entrepreneurs and business owners in Memphis.]
Memphis is a great place to start a business, according to entrepreneur and city native Cindy Brewer. And she should know.
Her event management company LEO Events
has become a leader in the local tourism industry over the past two decades. LEO delivers marquee events for AutoZone, FedEx, and the National Civil Rights Museum—plus, they manage convention experiences for a number of other Fortune 100 companies nationwide.
Brewer said the company got its start as a rock-solid idea that came together at a risky moment.
Twenty years ago, she and then-boyfriend Kevin Brewer were both working in sales, marketing, and event promotion. One day in late summer 2001, Kevin asked her a life-changing question.
“Why don’t we just do this for ourselves?”
The couple’s entrepreneurial instincts took over. They quit their jobs and developed a business model that would focus on managing an event attendee’s total experience—from destination and venue choices to food, beverage, and event decor.
They finally applied for their business license on a memorable day: September 11, 2001.
“We didn't let 9/11 stop us, even though the tourism industry was completely upside down,” she said. “We knew that meetings would return to Memphis, [and] somebody needed to be there and ready for them. So, in partnership with Memphis Tourism
, that's where we went. And the phone just started ringing.”
The company blossomed into an award-winning enterprise with offices in Memphis, Chattanooga, and Nashville. LEO Events is 51% woman-owned, though Brewer said she shares leadership and decision-making equally with husband Kevin Brewer and partner Ken Underwood. She attributes much of the company’s stand-out success to living in a city that “really embraces business owners.”
“We want everybody to thrive, so people really help each other and chip in here,” she said. “There's a lot to be said about that grit and grind.”
Brewer talked to High Ground News about steering a tourism business during the pandemic and why solid partnerships—at home and at work—are the key to lasting success.
There were so many unknowns and fears after 9/11 happened. Did any of those worries spill over into your plans for your business? How did you handle starting something this major amidst all that risk?
I was in my early 30s when we started. I had a great job, a home that I owned on my own—things were going well. But Kevin and I both believed so strongly that this was a great business model, we were going to march forward. I didn't really think about the other stuff.
But if I could talk to my 30-year-old self again, I probably would say, “Slow down and think about this a little bit more,” because there are so many things that could have gone wrong. But it didn't. And I think that's what happens with entrepreneurs: when you have that spirit, you firmly believe in your idea or your concept, you've vetted it, and you've put a plan together, there's not much that you’ll let interfere with that plan.
That’s an incredible story. Now we’re in a different kind of crisis, and the tourism industry has taken a massive hit. How has your team had to pivot because of the pandemic?
When the financial crisis hit in 2008 and 2009, our business took a hit for sure. But Memphis seemed to be set up for success at the time because we were a small enough city that any meeting that came here had revenue potential. There was a lot to do and there was a period where things were just hard. But then things kind of catapulted back up.
We’ve spent years now trying to set ourselves up for financial success and growth. One place where we saw that potential before the pandemic was in digital offerings—for example, if a client wanted to stream someone into a live show. We weren’t ready to launch, but were just working very quietly on it.
Once businesses started to come back online after COVID hit, digital just took off.
If we’d had this conversation a year ago, I doubt I’d have predicted the kind of success digital has had—not because I didn't believe in it, but honestly none of us knew where it might go. But because we had that department already, and knew it had potential, we were ready to seize that opportunity. It was an entrepreneurial move that’s paying off.
What I love about your story is that you and your husband started in business together and have worked side-by-side for more than two decades. How has that experience shaped your perspective on partnership?
People think it's bizarre that we work together and then we go home together, but it's not weird to us because that's all we've ever known. We met at an industry trade show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1994 and have been working side-by-side ever since. Our relationship and our life were built around this, so we get each other.
When he’s the primary on an event or has a client that will take up most of his time, I make sure I’m not overbooked and can hold down the fort at home—and he does the same for me. We sit down every week and divide and conquer when it comes to our schedules.
I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Kevin, and Kevin wouldn't be here if it weren't for me.
But I will also say I've been very fortunate that my family has helped out with my boys. They’re almost old enough to drive now, but we started the business before having them. So, my parents were there to help with the carpool and everybody chipped in. It takes a village to help and I'm fortunate that I've had that along the way.
What advice would you give to women who are starting or growing a business about keeping your confidence and protecting the vision that you have for your business?
I think the way I’d answer that has changed as I’ve gotten older.
When I was in my 30s, people would have said that I was stubborn—that I had a purpose and was going to go for it whether anybody wanted me to or not. I believed in my business, I believed in myself, and nobody could tell me that this business model that I put together wouldn’t thrive.
In my 40s, I softened some and became more of a listener. I had the confidence to embrace growth and not be scared of it.
Where I am in life today personally and professionally is: I believe that we're all better together. The ideas are more powerful when they come from all areas. If we listen to each other and learn from each other, something great is going to come out of that.