09/19/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

Women in Business: Q&A with Janine Ahlstedt, owner and VP of Sales at Gulf Coast Shippers Unishippers

Janine Ahlstedt started her logistics career in college as a data clerk for Consolidated Freightways. After college, Janine took a position with Wetterau as a Traffic Coordinator responsible for coordinating Truckload transportation from their vendors to their New England Distribution Centers. Prior to Unishippers, Janine worked in Sales for Airborne Express for three years, giving her sales training and more industry experience. Janine joined Unishippers in 1997 as a Sales Representative, then as a Sales Manager. She purchased her first franchise in 2002 and was named the Fastest Growing Franchise in 2003. Today Janine and her business partners own 12 franchises, employing 70 people and are the largest franchise owners within Unishippers.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I began working for Unishippers in 1997 as a Sales Consultant, then as a Sales Manager, working directly for franchisee Dan Lockwood, who is now the CEO of Unishippers. In 2002, I purchased my first franchise. I can honestly say that I've worked my way up and have held every position that I currently oversee. This has helped me understand the obstacles and challenges of each position and what it takes to be successful.

Working with Dan instilled the confidence I needed to manage both sales activities and our staff. I learned through trial and error what worked and what didn't, and his faith in me has greatly contributed to my growth as a leader.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Unishippers?
I've worked in the logistics industry since college. I began working as a clerk inputting data for a shipping company, which sparked my work experience in logistics. Following graduation, I worked as a traffic coordinator with a food wholesaler where I coordinated Truckload transportation from our vendors to our New England distribution centers. I then transitioned to a sales role with Airborne Express, where I worked for three years in their sales department. These positions gave me experience in the Less Than Truckload, Truckload, and Small Parcel service areas, all of which are part of Unishippers' offerings.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Unishippers?
I'm very proud of my journey with Unishippers. I bought my first franchise in 2003 and was recognized as the Fastest Growing Franchise that same year. Today, my business partners and I own 12 franchises and employ 70 people, making us the largest franchise owners within the Unishippers family.

Every job comes with challenges; a lot of issues we've faced have directly resulted from the fluctuating economy. This, coupled with a change in carrier partners and the influx of competition in the industry, has really challenged us. Our approach to facing these challenges is to provide employees with ongoing training, to adjust our sales model where needed and constantly work to adapt to changes in our industry.

Why did you want to start your own business?
My dad started his own business out of our garage when I was in junior high. I witnessed his passion, work ethic, and desire to succeed first-hand. I have aspired to own my own business ever since. I wanted my own business to be something I built and put my heart and soul into. Knowing the positive results transpire from my efforts, passion, dedication, and decisions is extremely gratifying. It has been very challenging, but also rewarding from a personal and company growth perspective.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Find something you are passionate and knowledgeable about and do your research. Things aren't always going to go the way you plan. You have to be patient and know that everyone endures setbacks. Starting a business is a big investment. Personally, I've learned that to get ahead you really need to step outside of your comfort zone. Take risks, don't give up, and be creative and persistent.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Before my son was born, I didn't face many difficulties; however, starting a family did change things. The most important thing for me is to be fully present when I am home. The quality of time I have with my son is most important to me. That means no emails, texts or phone calls until after he goes to bed.

Exercise is also an important part of my life. Staying fit and healthy gives me a positive attitude, energy and focus, so I try to incorporate some form of exercise into my daily/weekly routine. While I'm at work, I focus on the priorities long term and short term. I emphasize the importance of good time management with my partners and staff to get everything accomplished and delegate where and when it's appropriate.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Generally, women are still considered the primary caretaker for their children. The demands of a full work schedule coupled with the demands of being a full-time mother can pose an issue. For me personally, I find that I demand a lot from myself to be the best mother, wife, business woman, and friend. Which is why maintaining a solid work and life balance is so important.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My dad has been my primary mentor my entire life. His background was in sales, which played a vital role when he started his own business. He taught me the importance of having a strong work ethic and things won't always go my way. So I should try to focus on the things I can control and be willing to do what others can't or won't do.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are many leaders in business, both female and male, that I admire. I am most intrigued by those who take risks and are persistent about their passions. Facing rejection and obstacles is a standard part of business; having the patience to look past them and keep going is what makes a great leader.

Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, is someone who immediately comes to mind. She developed an idea that no one thought was going anywhere. And yet, she went to several different manufacturers proposing her idea --look where she is now.

What do you want Unishippers to accomplish in the next year?
In the next year, I want to focus on meeting our growth goals; continue to strengthen our carrier partner relationships and stay at the forefront of technology. As we grow to become an even larger company, I think it's important to maintain the feel of a small company and continue to provide personalized service to our customers.