Wendy Coulter was born into a family of entrepreneurs in Winston Salem, North Carolina. She was exposed to marketing at an early age firsthand—one time riding atop an elephant to promote her father’s shoe store in the town parade, and other times playing guitar on the radio! In addition to her father’s shoe business, where her mother helped take care of finances, her grandfather owned grocery stores and gas stations, and her uncle ran a successful heating, ventilation and air conditioning company. You could say entrepreneurship was in her DNA.
Perhaps, in part, that’s why not long after earning bachelor’s degrees in Architecture and Industrial Design (with a minor in Graphic Communications) from North Carolina State University, Wendy started her own business, Hummingbird Creative Group. It all began at a 1995 Chamber of Commerce event where she picked up three freelance clients.
The business did mostly logos and design at first but over the course of nearly three decades, it has evolved into an award-winning, full-service branding, marketing and advertising agency with six full-time employees and 10 to 15 contractors.
Wendy is a business leader who gets excited about change and new opportunities. “I think that’s really been what is behind my success. I’ve never stopped changing,” Wendy reflects. This quality of adaptability has allowed her to capitalize on opportunities with the changing landscape of her business to stay competitive. Indeed, in recent years, Hummingbird Creative Group surpassed the $1 million annual revenue milestone, a long-held dream of Wendy’s.
As much as Wendy loves to celebrate her business successes, she’s transparent about her difficulties in the spirit of being helpful to other business owners. Hummingbird Creative Group’s growth has not been without real challenges. Among them, Wendy recalls a difficult period roughly 15 years ago. “The business was overextended and carrying a lot of debt. It was on the verge of bankruptcy,” she says.
While Wendy’s creative skillset soared, her financial acumen needed honing—a common dilemma among creative business owners. Thankfully, she sought the help of a trusted CPA, and together, they worked out a plan to ensure solvency and implement protocols she follows to this day. “I learned to manage money and put systems in place. I check my financials all the time now,” she says.
A networker and seeker of information, Wendy has found ways to up her business game. For example, about a decade ago, she met with a business broker who was using software to help clients understand the different areas of business to improve in order for their EBITDA multiplier to be higher. (The EBITDA multiplier is a calculation used to value a business.) The woman wanted to show the system to Wendy because she believed Hummingbird Creative’s services touched on a couple aspects in the system that would help improve a manufacturer’s (or any company’s) EBITDA multiplier—specifically, in the area of brand differentiation.
“When she explained to me that differentiation could increase the EBITDA multiplier value, my whole world changed,” Wendy recalls. “To me, differentiation is what branding is all about. I started talking to C-suite executives about branding as an essential part of building their business’ value as opposed to driving a sales campaign for one week.”
Now, Hummingbird Creative helps companies build business value through better branding. Ironically, this focus has become her company’s differentiator. “It really has helped me find better customers as well as better define what my best offer is in terms of what I sell. It’s a big part of what has made my company grow and be more successful and more profitable,” Wendy explains. Both Wendy and Hummingbird Creative Group have been recognized with numerous awards.
The support of women in Wendy’s life has played an influential role in her success. Ask her who her greatest supporter throughout her life has been, and she’ll tell you, “My mother.” Indeed, her mother instilled in her from a young age that she could do anything, and to never give up. “My mother is such an inspiration. She is the reason why I’m so tenacious,” Wendy says.
Her mother has also been a resource for practical business advice from the larger enterprise perspective. Her experience as a corporate manager proved helpful when Wendy was shaping HR policies at Hummingbird Creative early on. She tried to match what big corporations were offering in terms of benefits. Yet, being a small company has allowed Wendy to provide a more flexible work environment. Employees are on a flextime schedule, allowing them freedom to tend to their lives and families, provided they put in a 40-hour work week, attend key meetings and meet deadlines. “We are a deadline-driven business,” Wendy explains.
NAWBO has also been an invaluable resource for support, inspiration and information in Wendy’s business life. She’s been a member since the mid-‘90s. “When I walked into my first NAWBO meeting in 1995, I knew that these were the women I wanted to be with and aspired to be like,” she says.
In 2018, when Wendy was voted president-elect of the NAWBO Greater Raleigh Chapter, her first responsibility was to plan the induction ceremony for her incoming board. Wanting to do something special that would have legacy, she created the North Carolina Women Business Owners Hall of Fame. “My whole idea with this was to recognize and celebrate the legacy of those amazing women who were in that room I walked into at 24 after having started my business. They were defying odds and achieving a lot against their male counterparts,” Wendy says.
The North Carolina Women Business Owners Hall of Fame turned out to be a hit, and it continued within NAWBO for four years. Last year, with Wendy serving as president, it became its own non-profit organization, separate from NAWBO. “As of October 12, we will have inducted 45 women over the last six years into the Hall of Fame,” says Wendy. The organization has its own website featuring videos of the women telling their stories. They give back by going out into the community to do different events, sharing their stories and challenges and talking to younger business women. “We can all learn from each other,” Wendy says.
No doubt a tireless force in the local community, championing women in business, Wendy finds great fulfillment in both her business and her non-profit work. “I’m getting older, but I still just love having something purposeful to do every second of every day,” she says.
Wendy believes a world with more women leaders would have more empathy, grace and gratitude. (She also notes that, statistically, women have scored higher in leadership skills than men.) “The way that women go about getting things done and succeeding through challenges would elevate our world,” she adds.