Blood ties: A young California entrepreneur tries to pick up the pieces after the tragic death of her sister.
LAKEWOOD, Calif. (FSB Magazine) -- Although it's just past noon on a Monday and she's at work, Heather Birdwell pours herself a glass of wine. "I'm not a heavy drinker at all," she says, half apologizing, "but I think I need to relax a little bit."
We're in Lakewood, Calif., in the house where Heather used to live; it's now headquarters for Damzl, a seller of women's motorcycle clothing that Birdwell founded with her sister, Holly, in 2005. The living-room window looks out on a quiet street of modest bungalows and purple jacaranda trees. Out back is a garage filled with $50,000 worth of inventory. In the driveway squats the pink Damzl trailer, just back from a parking-lot promo at a nearby bike shop.
Birdwell, 35, is 6 feet tall, strong and blond; she's also restless, a maker and a doer - an athlete, not a student. Holly Gorrell, Heather's sister, was blond too, but you wouldn't have known it; she dyed her hair so often that her boyfriend said it was like having a new girlfriend every month. She was five inches shorter than Heather and younger by three years, minus a day. Holly was the flighty one, her father says, creative and ambitious, a plotter and a dreamer.
Running through them both was that big wide Gorrell wild streak they inherited from their father, Pat, who practically raised them on motorcycles, dune buggies and ATVs. All those winter weekends they spent in the desert at Glamis, Calif., riding hard all day through the dunes, huddling around the campfire under the stars at night.
Together always, Heather and Holly. Best friends, riding pals and ultimately, in an arrangement that describes one in every four U.S. small companies, business partners. Together they set off on a path neither could imagine walking alone - "It was fun," says Heather, swirling her wine glass. "So much damn fun" - until one of them was gone.
Finding a niche
Damzl (damzl.com) was their love child, a business born of a shared passion for off-road motor sports and a deep frustration with the clothing options available to them as women riders. Long story short, they could never find anything they wanted to wear. All the gear in stores was cut for men, styled for men, sized for men, designed by men. Holly and Heather could ride with any man; they'd proved that long ago. But why should they have to wear men's riding pants? They felt disrespected. Then they saw an opportunity.
The timing could have been better. Heather had a small cosmetics business that kept her almost as busy as did her husband, Dale, an elevator mechanic, and her 3-year-old, Jenna. Holly was still in school, aiming toward yet another degree (this one in interior design), meanwhile working as an office assistant.
But here was an obvious need, a market they figured they knew as well as anybody did, and altogether a set of requirements they could meet. Holly had design sense; Heather, business know-how. They had practical support (advice, not money) from Pat, who had founded Gorrell Engineering in 1978 and sold it twice, the second time for $22 million; their stepdad, Arnie Warshaw, who owned a poultry business; and Holly's boyfriend, Eric Vilander, a commercial banker.
So they went ahead: incorporated as equal partners; came up with a catchy name, Damzl, and a powerful slogan, "Feminize the machine"; lined up clothing designers and manufacturers and Web experts; and together sank about $100,000 into a starter product line of T-shirts and casual wear. The plan was to build brand awareness, get some cash flowing, and later introduce a full line of women's riding gear in time for the 2006-07 winter season.
Halloween weekend, 2005, they packed their pink trailer and drove to Glamis. Heather pushed it; Holly didn't think they were ready. But if you are ever going to make it selling motocross gear west of the Rockies, not to mention nationally, you have to make it in Glamis.
During the scorching summer months Glamis is nothing but empty, dune-swept desert as far as the eye can see; it's often so still that when the rare storm blows in from the west, you can hear it coming, the rain making split-splat sounds in the sand.
But from Halloween to Easter, all that silence lies buried under the roar of unmuffled internal combustion. As many as a quarter-million enthusiasts converge on big holiday weekends, pulling trailers packed with dirt bikes, ATVs, big-wheel dune buggies and kiddie scooters, all gathering for a rumbling orgy of gas-powered thrills at the center of the desert dirt-bike universe. Ready or not, Damzl had to be there for opening weekend.
Heather drove down Thursday afternoon to start setting up; Holly followed the next day. It's a five-hour trip from Lakewood, in Orange County: east on I-10 past Palm Springs, then south along the western shore of the Salton Sea, through the last lonely town, Brawley, and into the desert beyond, where the dunes swell in the moonlight like ocean waves and the sand washes over the blacktop like water.
Holly stayed up late Friday night partying with friends; she was tired Saturday morning, really dragging. "Wake up," Heather commanded. "We're going to work." The weather was miserable, hot and dirty, a cloud of dust squatting all day on vendor row, the wind blowing sand in their eyes and in their hair. "I felt bad because we didn't stop to eat lunch, we didn't have breakfast," recalls Heather. "All we did was spread the word about who we are to all the women that stopped by."
The men in the family were there to lend support, but they hung back well out of sight, obeying orders, while Heather and Holly worked their sisterhood magic. As far as they were concerned, it wasn't just a business they were birthing, it was a movement, and every encounter they had with a woman biker that day, sale or no sale, convinced them of its gathering strength.
By late afternoon the flow of customers had slowed enough that Holly started bugging her sister about sneaking in a ride before dark. Holly had brought her best bike to Glamis, a silver Honda CRF250 four-stroke, powerful and sleek. Heather told Holly to go ahead. "I was still working the booth," she recalls. "I had to clean up. It was cool. I'd been on one ride earlier that weekend by myself. I wanted Holly to go enjoy that ride."
Heather watched Holly take off, racing for the dunes in the gloaming, trailing four other riders. Every rider knows how tough it is to lead. You want to challenge the pack. That's a big part of the thrill. "Can't just keep hitting the brakes all the time," says Dale Birdwell, Heather's husband. "They won't follow you no more. Gotta fly over there, see what's on the other side."
A family tradition
Pat Gorrell is a big old bear of a man, six-six, 230 pounds, with saggy, sun-blasted skin and droopy blue eyes. His health is not great; he's only 55, but you'd guess older. (Gorrells don't live a long time - "Bad genes," says Heather.) He's no preacher, but he's nevertheless the kind of man whose friends ask him to preside at the weddings of their daughters. He has lived well, had adventures, enjoyed success, and learned a few lessons along the way.
"There are two kinds of people in the world," he'll say, "employers and employees." Pat was all for education while the girls were growing up, but not if all it led to was a job. "I started my company in my late 20s," he says, "and it was apparent to me after about three days of being in business for myself that I would never go back to work for anybody else."
He wanted them to appreciate how fun entrepreneurship could be - "a lot more fun than if I was working for somebody else" - and how rewarding. "If you're working for somebody else, you may make just enough, but there's a cap," he says. Start your own business, and there's no limit. "You can be a gardener," Pat says with conviction, "and grow a business large enough that you can outachieve financially nearly anybody."
That's the message Pat drummed into Heather and Holly while they were growing up. It was a message about risk and reward, about how to live bravely in the world, about the prizes waiting to be claimed by those with the courage to reach.
After his divorce, Pat used to come around to ex-wife Laura's house every other weekend, gather up Heather and Holly, and head for the desert. Laura wasn't sure at first how she felt about that. She's the one who introduced them to safer, more civilized team sports such as softball and basketball. Pat had zero interest in team sports. He didn't care if they had games on weekends; he came and got them anyway. In time, Laura stopped resisting. So what if the girls came home tired and dirty, their teeth unbrushed and their braids loose? As long as they came home happy, how could she stand in the way of their joy?
Years later, when the girls announced that they were starting a company together, Pat asked them for due diligence: not a formal business plan, just ten good reasons the concept had merit. They got back to him within a week. "First-hand product knowledge" was No. 1. "Great local market," "friendly to smaller vendors," "limited capital investment required," "combining work with pleasure," and so on. It was a solid list, comprehensive, persuasive and grounded in reality.
Pat was satisfied that the girls had done their homework. But what really brought him around, he says, was "an additional item that was more personal to them." Here he was talking about their "spirit," their competitiveness, their constructive resentment of "any stigma attached to any context of their gender." He was sold.
Business picks up
Throughout the spring and summer of 2005, Heather and Holly dove into the practical chores of launching a business - setting up an office and warehouse, obtaining trademarks and licenses, choosing software, designing marketing materials, launching a Web page. Because both had part-time jobs and Holly was still in school, a lot happened after hours and in the seams of the day.
Whenever they weren't together, they were talking on the phone. One time Holly got so engrossed in a conversation with Heather that she forgot she was dying her hair and suffered chemical burns on her neck, ears and forehead.
Family and friends caught the Damzl fever. When Holly mentioned to her boyfriend, Eric, that she and Heather had talked about an idea for an energy drink called Damzl Fuel, he laughed. But later that night, unable to sleep, he slipped out of bed, sat down at the computer, and designed a prototype pink skin for the can and a slogan to go with it: "Not for dudes!"
In early October 2005, Heather and Holly attended their first trade show, the big Off-Road Expo at the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona, Calif. It was a thrilling debut, and not just because they sold $6,000 worth of Damzl T-shirts in two days.
More exciting still was the way Heather and Holly connected with their customers - the hugs, the high-fives, the sharing of riding experiences. By then they had come up with a "dictionary" definition of Damzl: "(dam-zl) n. 1. Girl or maiden with a sense of adventure beyond the norm. 2. Half girl, half machine; see bionic." Kind of hokey, maybe, but it captured the spirit Pat had observed in his daughters, and just as he had predicted, the women in Damzl's target market responded with passion and enthusiasm. Next stop, Glamis.
Tragedy strikes the family
Eric arrived early that weekend to help set up. He remembers the caravan of off-road enthusiasts. It started rolling in on Friday afternoon and flowed without end all through the night. "It was a sight to behold," he says. "Bumper-to-bumper RVs, trailers, trucks, all in a long line, like ants to an anthill."
Pat came early too. He brought a friend, Dave, who'd never been to Glamis before. Pat told Dave all about the magical weekends he'd shared with his family back in the day, and how over the years the desert had gotten so much more crowded, the machines more powerful and the accidents more frequent. He'd seen his share of broken bones; he had made more visits to the Brawley Hospital emergency room than he could remember and had even learned how to set a broken collar bone as well, he reckoned, as any doctor could. ("You put your knee in the guy's back, grab his shoulders, pull 'em back, and duct-tape his two shoulders together while you got it pulled backwards. There's no better fix for it, okay?")
But falling off your bike in the sand is one thing; colliding with a $150,000 V8-powered dune buggy is another. As Pat and Dave were leaving on Friday night, Pat turned to his wide-eyed pal and said, "You know, Dave, this place has turned into such a meat grinder. Two or three people will die this weekend. See how these ATVs are going over this little hill? There could be a dune buggy going 90 miles an hour on the other side of it. That's what happens." Months later Pat stumbles over the words in the retelling, and his eyes go wet. "We all think we're not the one," he says.
Five riders took off late Saturday afternoon, with Holly in the lead. They headed for the desert drag-racing strip, not far from vendor row, but the park rangers had gotten there first and were breaking up the crowd. "We don't need this," Holly shouted to her mates. "Let's go hit the dunes before it gets too dark." Off they went, motors screaming.
"That's when it happened," says Eric. "She was leading the pack, and we could barely keep up with her. She was really flying. Mikey was behind her. Sabrina and I were right next to each other in third and fourth position. And my brother was bringing up the rear. Each of us had, I think, 30 to 40 feet distance from each other in our line.
"When I saw what happened, I threw my bike down and I ran to her. The dune buggy rolled to a stop. It was a monster. According to Mikey, who was right behind Holly, it just basically ran her over and spit her out behind." (The California Highway Patrol concluded that the dune buggy driver was not at fault.)
"I tried to straighten her body. She was broken. All over. Legs, arms. I just sat there and tried to do what I could until the rangers showed up. There was a lady that was in the buggy that hit her - she said that she was a nurse, an EMT. She was very helpful in trying to help me figure out how to work on her and try to keep her alive.
"The coroner's report came back months later. It would indicate to me that she wasn't conscious, but I thought she was. I talked to her as much as I could, and told her I loved her, hang on, that help was on the way. Her eyes were open and she was looking at me, lackadaisical, in and out. I felt that she was looking right at me and she was breathing. As far as I knew, she could hear me. But she deteriorated really fast. By the time the paramedics got there and cut her pant leg open, I realized there was just no chance. Her right leg from the knee down, it was just gone - it was disintegrated.
"I had never seen anything like that. And I dream about it every night, that whole scene. Getting off my bike and I'm in slow motion running to her and I just can't get there. And then she's gone."
The business survives
What next, if you're Heather? After you've been told that your sister's cerebral cortex was severed from her brain, that she died of massive internal bleeding, that there was nothing anyone could do to save her? After you've steeled yourself and gone inside that hospital room to say goodbye - alone the first time, then again with your parents? After the long drive home in the middle of the night, after the cremation and the memorial service, after you begin to accept, incredibly, that your own life goes on even if Holly's does not? What next? Sooner or later you have to ask yourself, What about Damzl?
Do you close it down and walk away? Not a soul in the world would blame you if you did. Especially considering how every sales call, every promotional event, every dollar in profit from here on in can't help but remind you of your sister and how she died. Or do you commit, despite all, to keeping the business going?
And if so, then what's driving you? Are you trying to forget? Is it because you're desperate for a task, a duty, a mission - anything that will keep your mind off the pain in your heart? Or is it just the opposite, that you're desperate to hold on? Is it because your sister put so much of herself into Damzl that you can almost believe a part of her still lives, and suddenly, keeping that last part alive feels like the most meaningful task you will ever perform?
Heather was way ahead of the rest of the family in even thinking about the future. "I just wanted my old life back," says Laura. "I just wanted all my kids happy, healthy. I couldn't have cared less about Damzl." Pat was searching for the slightest sign from his daughter that shutting down Damzl would somehow lighten her load. He couldn't conceive of Heather going ahead all by herself, not while she was carrying so much grief. And at first, Heather couldn't see it either.
It wasn't just the grief: It was guilt - for dragging Holly to Glamis before Holly thought they were ready, for rousing her so early that morning, for being the one still living. A lot of people wore Damzl shirts to Holly's memorial service. Heather thought it was a nice gesture, sort of, but deep down it caused her pain. She says she felt "like the most bitter person in the world." Her strongest impulse was to push Damzl away.
And then, not yet understanding how or why, exactly, she turned a corner. Her dad helped a little, reminding her that she still had many years in front of her, that bitterness would lead her nowhere good. But it was Heather alone who perceived - quicker than you might think - that the answer lay not in abandoning Damzl but in embracing it.
"And then from that point it was just all about occupational therapy," she says, "and that's the way it's been since." She chuckles. "I know what occupational therapy is now. It's therapeutic to have something to work on really, really hard when you're emotionally torn and sad, and it's given me a whole new purpose for this business."
Heather remembers the holidays that came at her so fast in the wake of Holly's death: Halloween ("I walked up and down the street like a frickin' zombie with Jenna") and Thanksgiving ("We always celebrate it in the desert - that's what we had planned to do") and the three December birthdays, first Jenna's, then Holly's, then Heather's, one after another. The sisters' birthday weekend coincided with a big trade show in Long Beach they'd been looking forward to for months. Heather went. "We had to," she says firmly.
Up to this point the initial investment in Damzl had been manageable, and the anticipated cash flow from sales almost enough to keep it growing - but only if Damzl was content with selling T-shirts. Of course that was never the sum of Heather's ambition, or Holly's. Before Holly died, Damzl made a $40,000 down payment on an order of specialized riding gear to a factory in China. The shipment was due in port at Long Beach in April 2006, along with payment in full.
It would have been a lot easier if Heather and Holly had thought to buy key-man insurance for Damzl, or even if Holly had kept up with her life insurance payments. As it was, Damzl had no capital. So Heather sat down with Dale, and the two of them talked it over.
The house in Lakewood wasn't paid for yet, but thanks to the hot real estate market in California, they had built up a lot of equity. Time to tap it. Several refinancings later, they've taken out $300,000, wiping out years of hard-won financial security. Before the refinancings, Heather and Dale had assumed that if they had to, they could always sell off the T-shirts and they'd be whole again. But after the second remortgage and the specialized inventory it bought, the door to that emergency exit swung closed.
Moreover, Heather closed her part-time cosmetics business, shutting off what had been a helpful revenue stream, and Dale quit his high-paying union job to take care of Jenna so that Heather could focus on Damzl. Now Heather was all alone. With Holly she had been part of a great team - everybody thought so. Heather was the fuel, says Eric, and Holly was the machine:
"Heather brought a lot of energy - very good at networking, establishing a vendor base. Holly was more about coming up with a good marketing plan, building the infrastructure, creating the brand."
Now it was all up to Heather - with help from Eric, to whom she promised equity; Dale, of course; and Pat and Arnie and the entire blended Gorrell-Warshaw clan, which adopted the Damzl cause as its own (not to mention the suppliers, customers and even in some cases Damzl's competitors in the tight little Western dirt-bike world, who rallied to Heather's aid). But fundamentally, she was alone. Like any CEO, maybe, but more so.
Heather's in deep now, maybe half-a-million dollars. She has a garage full of Damzl gear that came off the boat from China but can't be sold until the riding season begins. She and her stepfather, Arnie, have a $125,000 investment in Damzl Fuel. She dreams of introducing new lines of Damzl gear for women who surf and snowboard and water-ski.
She works long hours, and nearly every weekend she packs up the pink trailer and heads for another promo or trade show or motocross race, anywhere she can find customers. (Anywhere except Glamis, that is. She hasn't gone back since the accident, and she doesn't think she ever will.)
Sometimes, alone behind the wheel of her truck, "it just hits me," she says, and she has a good cry. "I'll start listening to music, and that's when I have my emotional outburst. I think it's guilt. I'm going to do something I'm kind of looking forward to, even if it's work. I'm living, and Holly's not there with me."
"She's exhausted," says her mom, Laura, wiping away tears of her own, "trying to juggle everything and then not being able to rest easy at night because her mind's still spinning. I don't know how to help her, I really don't."
But here's the thing: Slowly, steadily, Heather is helping herself. She can perform at trade shows. She can haggle with suppliers and hobnob with competitors and know she's not faking it, not anymore; that she actually has something to contribute.
She's not just healing, she's growing, and Damzl's growing right along with her, toward sales of half-a-million dollars in the current fiscal year and a projected $3 million the next. It's not about forgetting Holly, she's discovering. It's not about remembering her either. It's about Damzl.
"Personally, professionally, it's my opportunity to achieve what I've strived for," she says, "to be as successful as my parents, as Holly and I dreamed about, and to make this company a brand people recognize and respect. How do you throw that away?"
How do you keep a dream alive after a tragedy? E-mail the editors here and tell us what you think.