When Phyllis Micahnik entered the business world, it was 1965, and life on the road in sales for Niagara Cyclo massage products was not a welcoming place for a woman.

Restaurant hosts would be so uncomfortable with her solo status that they would hurry her to a back table. When she would check into a hotel, "boy, did I get the fish-eye," the 77-year-old grandmother recalled last week at her Cherry Hill home.

None of it deterred her because she considered selling to be irresistible, summing up the attraction in three words: "I like winning."

As sales challenges go, Micahnik might now be facing her toughest: selling female business owners in South Jersey on membership in a support group at a time when organizations of all sorts are struggling just to retain members, let alone recruit new ones.

In a punishing economy, spending money on membership dues strikes some as an inappropriate indulgence; to others, it's simply impossible. Equally hard is finding the time to attend outside meetings, especially for those running small companies.

Amid those unfavorable conditions, Micahnik takes the helm at the New Jersey Association of Women Business Owners' Tri County Chapter, her third stint as its president, a volunteer post, in 18 years. With about 30 active members, the chapter, which serves Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties, is a whisper of its former self. At times, it has had more than 100 members.

"Women are struggling out there," Micahnik said, frustrated that her NJAWBO chapter isn't reaching more of them. "They have all this help available to them."

If they are willing to pay $195 to $275 a year, depending on level of membership, for dues.

Formed in 1978 as the first statewide organization of female business owners, NJAWBO has 620 members, down from 800 in early 2008, said Holly Jerome, whose one-year term as state president expires in June. She also acts as a business coach.

Membership slide has afflicted many groups, said Debra DiLorenzo, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, where "every year we expect to lose 17 percent of the members." The chamber has 1,500 member companies, 75 percent of which are businesses with fewer than 50 employees.

Her recollection of the economy's collapse in 2008: "It was very scary. We were hearing from longtime members that they couldn't pay their dues." The average annual membership fee is $700, DiLorenzo said.

"The No. 1 reason people drop out of the chamber is financial; the second is they don't have time to get involved," said DiLorenzo, its chief executive since 1994.

She rejected any suggestion that in revenue-deprived times for business, membership in support groups is not worthwhile. In 2008 and 2009, for instance, the chamber ramped up activities — such as guest speakers, panel discussions, and networking events — to help generate business for its members.

"Our key message at the time [was], 'This is when you need a chamber, because your phone is not going to ring by itself,' " said DiLorenzo.

Which is why she applauds Micahnik's determination to rebuild the Tri County Chapter of NJAWBO, itself a member of the South Jersey chamber despite the business group's 138-year history of male leadership. In 2010, the chamber broke tradition and elected a woman — Judith Roman, president and CEO of AmeriHealth New Jersey — to head its board of directors.

"I think it's important to stay true to their mission," DiLorenzo said of Tri County NJAWBO. "I think the group is still a driving force and still has relevance."

So does Cheryl Carleton, an associate professor at Villanova University's School of Business and chair of the school's new Women in Business committee.

"How women succeed and how they move up, it's the informal networks that really play a key role," assuming those associations provide the kind of information and support that is worth the cost (in dollars and time) of membership, Carleton said.

According to a 2012 report commissioned by American Express OPEN on the state of women-owned businesses, the number of such companies in the United States grew by 200,000 in the last year, bringing the total to more than 8.3 million. Companies at least 51 percent owned by women accounted for 29 percent of all U.S. firms, the report said.

Tammy Kornfeld, 40, of Voorhees, joined NJAWBO's Tri County Chapter a year ago — one year after forming Touch of Class Promotions in an ugly business environment. Recession-wary companies weren't spending much on promotional products, and competition was fierce. Kornfeld soon benefited not only from advice from guest speakers at NJAWBO meetings, but also from the business she picked up from other members.

"That's what we do; we help each other," Micahnik said. "If I need specialty items, I'm not going to the Yellow Pages. I'm going to Tammy."

She got involved with NJAWBO in 1982 as an invited speaker on debt collection.

Many years after selling massagers, she bought a collections agency and grew the business before finding a buyer for it — through NJAWBO — in 1995. Micahnik still works for that company as a collections specialist, but the bounty that would give her great satisfaction is more NJAWBO members.

She will help implement a restructuring to turn the organization's 14 chapters into more regional bodies, with satellites established for more localized service.

Yet another sales job for Micahnik.

"At my age, I never expected to find myself in this position," she said, "but here I am."

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mastrud.


To register for the April 26 lunch meeting of NJAWBO's Tri County Chapter at Jade Spice, 1132 Route 73 South, Mount Laurel, e-mail Phyllis Micahnik at PBM@A1Collects.com or call 609-238-9407.