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By Renée Jean, Business and Tourism Reporter
One choice changed Anne Beiler’s destiny.
Becoming the CEO of an international franchise was the last thing Beiler ever thought she’d do with her life.
The pretzel company she founded, Auntie Anne’s, is the largest in the world, but she doesn’t have the background most would expect for such outrageous success.
Beiler shared her story about the power of finding and making that one life-changing choice with about 600 people Wednesday at the 70th annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast in Cheyenne.
Her story hit home with many in the audience, who gathered around Beiler afterward to shake her hand — Beiler had hugs for them instead — and talk about overcoming adversity with faith, hope and love.
Among these was Kirsten Anderson, whose firm Ascent Accounting and Advising in Cheyenne works with small business startups to help them grow.
“Good leadership comes from a place of struggle,” Anderson told Cowboy State Daily after Beiler’s speech. “Her statement about one choice, I thought, every day we have one choice that’s going to impact on our goal, and it impacts the rest of the people we are around.
“If I’m going to be a good leader, I have to make the choice every day to lead my team, to help them grow.”
Anderson is already thinking about what her “one choice” should be – change her business tomorrow.
“Our clients are hungry to hit half a million or a million (dollars),” Anderson said. “But they can’t afford a CFO, they don’t know the strategies. They’re focusing on their business.”
Beiler grew up on a small farm in an Amish community. Little girls growing up in Amish communities aren’t typically encouraged to dream of running international companies. It was never a thought in Beiler’s mind.
“There were eight of us kids,” she said. “They told me about God, about faith, about family and hard work. They gave me a strong foundation to weather the storms of life.”
Good Not Enough
As a young girl and a young woman, and as a young wife, Beiler was focused on just being good.
“I believed that if I kept all of the 10 Commandments, if I was really good, that God would bless me,” she said. “And maybe I thought that I was exempt. I’m not sure, but I never really thought about pain. I never really thought about tragedy or trauma.”
That all changed one morning when her 20-month-old baby girl Angie was killed.
“We were living on our farm with my mom and dad in a small trailer,” Beiler said. “Every morning she would walk up to my mom’s house and take breakfast.”
Beiler never worried about her daughter doing that.
“It was a very safe environment,” she said.
But that particular morning, her baby girl was not safe after all.
“She was walking up to grandma’s house and my sister was driving a bobcat, helping my dad,” said Beiler, who still tears up talking about it. “She ran over Angie accidentally and she was killed instantly.”
The Question Is Why
After the tragedy, Beiler had just one overwhelming question that begged for an answer: Why?
Why her little girl?
Angie had been innocent. Beiler had been good.
Why had God allowed this tragedy?
Beiler carried that question with her everywhere. Finally, she took it to her pastor. Surely the spiritual leader of their community could help her understand.
But he not only didn’t help her understand, Beiler says he took advantage of her physically.
“I remember walking out of his office that morning and I made a choice,” Beiler said. “I have to say that to you one more time. I made a choice, because I believed it was the right choice at the time. I decided I would never tell anyone what just happened to me.”
Seven years of carrying that dark secret took her down a path of self-destruction that nearly destroyed not only her, but everything she cared about.
“Even many years later, I nearly walked away from a very successful business called Auntie Anne’s, because I was still carrying the guilt and shame of those seven long years,” Beiler said.
No one could see Beiler’s secret. Even though she weighed all of 90 pounds at the time and there wasn’t much of her to hide such a big and terrible thing.
One day, alone in her bedroom with the shades drawn, hovering between life and death, Beiler made another choice to set her feet on a wonderful path, one she could never have envisioned in that moment.
She was going to tell her husband what had happened to her.
Beiler by that time had already contemplated suicide on more than one occasion. Telling her husband was easily among the scariest thing she has ever done. But the choice, to share her secret with someone who cared deeply about her, saved her life.
“The chains of darkness began to break for me,” she said. “I began to feel this presence and experience peace with God, peace within, and peace with my husband.”
The confession lasted all of a few seconds — harsh moments for her husband.
“I had nothing to give except that very hard confession that day,” she said. “But I have an amazing man. And that’s why I tell you I’m here today because of the power of one really good man, and grace.”
Her choice brought light back to her world. She could let go of dark things. A new purpose could begin to live within her.
Her husband Jonas had long been a mechanic. He could fix anything with an engine and make it run better.
But after years of going to couples counseling with his wife, he discovered an interest in helping people fix the problems in their lives.
“He gave his (counseling) services to anyone who came for help,” Beiler said. “We knew this was our purpose, so I went to work to pay the bills.”
At the time, Beiler knew nothing about running a business. She knew farm life and being a wife.
“My family life was ordinary,” she said. “And I’m grateful that God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”
The Auntie Anne story is not just one of business success.
“According to the standards of the world, I was not qualified,” Beiler said. “There wasn’t a headhunter in the whole, wide world that would have come looking for Anne Beiler in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to be the CEO of an international franchise company.”
She had no formal education, no business plan and no money.
In fact, the couple’s home had just been repossessed.
Beiler had nothing to offer but purpose – and a really good pretzel.
Oh, and one other thing. She had a rich heritage from her parents.
“They taught me to be a contributor to society,” Beiler said. “And never to look for handouts, but always be willing to help out. Persevere. Do what others don’t feel like doing. Keep pressing on.”
She couldn’t take any of those things to a bank for a loan, but she could open a small farm stand in a Pennsylvania farmers market. And that is exactly what she did in 1988.
A Wider Horizon
But to get where she really needed to go, to have a profitable enough business that her family could not only live, but afford to give, Beiler had to create a larger horizon for her business than a simple farm stand in Pennsylvania.
Things were better, but she still didn’t have a business plan or anything that would interest a bank in giving her a loan to sell more pretzels. So she got a small, micro loan from her father-in-law instead. That $6,000 was a princely sum in her estimation.
Growing her organization into what was required, however, would force a new and more difficult choice.
“To fulfill our purpose, I, as the leader, could not stay who I was,” she said. “I had to grow. I had to become more professionally and personally. I had to get over who I was to become who I had to be for the company.”
Over time and through dedication, effort and passion, she grew into the role that was required of her, despite the humble beginnings that no one could have guessed would prepare her for a role as the CEO of an international pretzel company.
The company she founded now has more than 1,700 locations in 48 states and more than 25 countries. Her pretzels with a purpose are found at universities, airports, Walmarts, travel plazas, military bases and food trucks.
Hers is a business empire that sprung from a single choice that saved her life.
Beiler’s choice now, and the one she recommends to other business leaders, is to always show up with passion.
“Great leaders must be anything but passionless,” she said. “Your passion for what you do can never be in doubt. You’re better off not showing up than arriving for duty with your passion on empty.”
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