For Donna Allie, it was the moment when she gulped and said, "Yes."

Yes, her mother, her cousins, and her team of immigrant women from West Africa who cleaned houses on the Main Line could summon up the bodies and the expertise to clean the now-demolished Veterans Stadium after baseball games.

Never mind that Allie, who now leads Team Clean Inc., a $20 million cleaning company, then knew nothing about profit margins, business plans, or marketing.

"I didn't even know I had a business," she said, although she knew enough, when cleaning her first client's house on the Main Line, not to fall for the trick of pocketing the money she found "lost" under sofa cushions.

Tough times toughen leaders, and on Wednesday four local CEOs described how they handled the challenges they and their businesses faced on the pathway to growth.

The chief executives spoke at the Radnor Country Club to 120 members and guests of the Greater Philadelphia Senior Executive Group, an organization more than familiar with tough times.

Founded in 2002 during a recession, GPSEG provides networking opportunities for senior executives out of work and keeps them, and others, connected when they find new assignments.

For Michael Anastasio, president of Bala Consulting Engineers in King of Prussia, the tough decision had to do with people, particularly an early partner imprudently chosen.

Anastasio, an electrical engineer, started a company when he landed a big project at age 27. He quickly chose a mechanical engineer as a partner, but when the partnership fell apart, Anastasio sold the business to escape.

He found a job at a different company, which soon went bankrupt. The third time turned out to be the charm and the genesis of his current company, Bala Engineers.

"This time, I was more selective about the partners I chose," he said.

Lesson learned? Identify "your non-performing assets," whether they are partners, employees, or clients, and then "you have to have the courage to separate yourself," he said.

Philip P. Jaurigue, chief executive of Sabre Systems Inc., and Blake Krapf, the third-generation leader of Krapf Bus Cos. in West Chester, faced the challenge of potentially losing customers at the bedrock of their businesses.

For Jaurigue, the news in the early 1990s that Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster would close also meant that his military contracting company would lose its biggest and most important customer.

But instead of lobbying to keep the base open, Jaurigue screwed up his courage and jumped into the future, moving operations to Washington.

The excitement of hiring 150 people to start a new business there "didn't mask the human pain of having to lay off 100 people" in Bucks County, he said.

Krapf's leadership moment came in 2000. Founded in 1942, his school-bus company enjoyed long relationships with its clients, primarily school districts in Chester County.

But in 2000, "all of our contracts went out to bid," he said. "We had 90 percent of our business on the chopping block in one day. Our entire business was on the line.

"It really caused us to think: 'What can we do to make sure we are never in that position again?' "

The answer? Diversify, both geographically and in lines of business. Krapf began to acquire other transport firms, including one in Chicago, which nearly doubled the size of the company.

"That was a learning experience," he said. "We had to lay off their entire management team and start over." The two organizations never really jelled.

So when a competitor wanted to buy the Chicago line, Krapf was willing to sell, completing the deal in October.

Now, he said, Krapf still is in the market for acquisitions, but asks itself, " 'Is this the right growth? Is it smart growth?' "

jvonbergen@phillynews.com

215-854-2769 @JaneVonBergen

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