On Sept. 2, 1998, Stephanie Shuster, 32, the founder of an event-planning company in New York called Global Connections, hugged her sister Elayne, 36, goodbye. She was bound for Geneva--to handle a major medical conference for Parke-Davis Group-- accompanied by her office manager and two longtime freelancers.
Stephanie and her co-workers perished an hour later when Swissair flight 111 plunged into the Atlantic off the coast of Nova Scotia. Global Connections should have expired that awful night, too. The only other full-time staffer had been hired just four weeks earlier. And like many entrepreneurs, Stephanie Shuster didn't have a will or a succession plan.
But she did have Elayne, big sister, best friend, and mentor all rolled into one. When Elayne received the devastating news, she took over Stephanie's business as unflinchingly as if she were rescuing a falling baby. The company became her lifeline. "From Day One, I just threw myself into her company. I was on autopilot," says Elayne, president of her own thriving business, Walnut Park Productions Inc., a film and video production company in New York. "In hindsight, it was all that kept me sane, to focus on the business side of it and not feel the pain."
But running two businesses at once is no easy feat, and the decision to save Global defied simple explanation. After all, Stephanie was the company, and she was gone. "I do think there was this very deep need to see her dream realized," Elayne says. "I constantly felt like I want a piece of her to remain, that something has got to be left of her."
Elayne knew better than anyone how much of Stephanie was in the business. She had watched as her sister took Global Connections from concept onward. Elayne was the one who urged Stephanie to break away from her employer and open her own shop. She helped Stephanie write her business plan in the Manhattan apartment they shared. And she would often comfort Stephanie when she woke Elayne at 2 a.m. to ask: "Am I doing the right thing?"
At the time of Stephanie's death, Global was just 15 months old, and billings were coming at a rate of about $1.5 million a year. There were six other events in the pipeline at the time of the tragedy, including a splashy launch party for Animal Planet, a new nature channel from Discovery Communication Inc. There were bills to pay and receivables to collect. Fortunately, Stephanie had already enlisted Elayne as an officer in her company expressly so she could handle financial matters during her frequent travels.
Global's commitments were met without a hitch, and not a single client bailed out. In fact, several urged Elayne to keep Global going, among them Andrew Chen, a manager at Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical. "It was just a fitting tribute to Stephanie," he says.
In the frenzied months that followed, Elayne hired some of Stephanie's freelancers and consultants full time to help pick up the pieces. Global was stabilized, but Walnut Park's growth stalled. The pressure of Elayne's double life mounted. One particularly stressful day, she broke down and wept. "I remember saying: `What am I doing this for? Am I crazy? I could just close this company and call it a day."'
Refocused. Of course, Elayne couldn't close Global Connections any more than she could forget Stephanie. As CEO of Global, she has brought in her husband, Larry Levine, a marketing pro, as president, and retreated to an advisory role. The business is growing once again, with billings of about $3 million. Now, Elayne is refocusing her energies on her company, Walnut Park, which she owns with a partner, and has filled her slate with new projects. At the same time, she's preparing for the birth of her first child this month.
While she may not have realized the extent of the challenge, Elayne doesn't regret her decision to adopt Global. Perhaps a small business isn't exactly the stuff of immortality, like a sonnet or a symphony, but Stephanie Shuster's company, and her dream, do live on.