Taking the Reins
Three Women Leaders Thrive in Traditionally Male-Dominated Fields
By Lisa Baldino
Feb 01, 2018
The prevailing wisdom from three female executives at the helm of their own companies: the secret to success is about philosophy and culture. Each company has stood the test of time through both prosperity and scarcity. Each woman says her father was her biggest influencer, and each earned her stripes by following Dad’s example of hard work, smart management skills and cultivating the corporate culture.
Caroline Kauffman-Kirschnick, the new president of Electric Motor Repair Company (EMR) and the company’s first female leader, is a third-generation Kauffman in a 90-year-old business. She remembers her grandfather interweaving a caring, helping culture into the business. Today EMR provides service, repair and installation for the commercial kitchen, refrigeration, industrial motor, elevator and marine industries. “I watched my father run the company, and he knew his people. They were individuals, each with a critical role, and if he was able to help them personally or professionally, he did,” she says. “If you develop a great culture, people want to come to work for you. If the culture is positive and supportive and people feel fulfilled in their positions, they will project it to customers. The employees are engaged and success comes from within.”
Annette Walter, president and CEO of Timber Industries LLC, a 75-year-old pallet and lumber distribution company that services various industries, including construction, pharmaceuticals, electronics, automotive and printing, says her father was a self-made man who coached people to success. It was his passion to help others succeed. She has modeled that coaching in both Timber Industries and her own growth coach business.
Kara DiPietro, president and CEO of HMC Inc, an architectural millwork company, says she was willing to overcome the impression that being the daughter of the company founder made her successful. “My father set the tone. I watched him in difficult times and in prosperous times, and he believed that success is inevitable. I tried to look at solutions from the other person’s point of view.”
DiPietro says she is part of a collective belief system that emanates a strong energy, where people strive to reveal each other’s greatness. “Sometimes people need help revealing their courage, bravery and true ability,” she says. DiPietro looks for employees who also believe that success is inevitable, whatever the job. “My father started this business and his compassion and dedication to people are qualities I imitate. We treat employees like family at HMC. As a result, we don’t need a lot of rules, because we don’t try to be good, for example, we embody it – we always have each other’s best interests at heart.”
DiPietro emphasizes that HMC is about helping people and working as partners with employees, clients and vendors. Her leadership was cultivated through a career in elementary education, followed by digital work at Sylvan Learning Center’s corporate headquarters, the launch of “Charmed Magazine,” and philanthropic advancement for Living Classrooms Foundation. DiPietro was called to join the family business in 2013. Since purchasing the company and becoming CEO in 2015, her goals have been to become the most innovative in her industry and to work with other small businesses to find and share success. “The most important thing to small business is access to capital,” DiPietro says, “Everyone wants to lend money to people who don’t need it.” She says she would rather share ways for small businesses to get the working capital they need to innovate and grow.
It is this entrepreneurial spirit that contributed to DiPietro’s being named Maryland’s Small Business Person of the Year in 2017 by the U.S. Small Business Association. The award is given annually to one small business in each of the 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It recognizes the entrepreneurs who are the backbone of today’s economy.
While delighted with the award, DiPietro exclaims that her proudest moment is now. After what she describes as an extremely challenging year through which she persevered, she comments, “Out of your greatest darkness comes your brightest light.”
DiPietro hopes HMC can help energize the business climate in Baltimore by focusing on improving and helping others inside and outside of the business community. She serves on a number of committees that interact with the community directly through the Baltimore Renaissance Initiative.
EMR’s Kauffman-Kirschnick is also re-energizing business in Baltimore as she takes on her new role as president. Her goals for EMR include job creation and client experiences. Her philosophy of “fulfillment from within” is cultivated every day at EMR with employee support and motivational programs. Office activities like Pizza Friday, Popcorn Monday, and monthly birthday celebrations, along with an annual company picnic and an innovative wellness committee, make the working environment pleasant and positive. Kauffman-Kirschnick led a team that designed “Eye Spy,” an employee incentive program that promotes zero workplace negativity by positively reinforcing the company’s code of conduct and customer service pledge. If an employee is spied demonstrating a behavior emphasized within the code of conduct or service pledge, he or she is commended with an entry into a prize drawing. “We have created an environment that is safe, offers good communication and a collaborative approach,” she explains.
Kauffman-Kirschnick also plans to double the company’s revenue and continue to increase profitability. She alludes to expansions into the plumbing and electrical fields, with technical job opportunities. She says employees at EMR need to possess raw competency and talent. “If they have a great personality and mind set, we can turn them loose. They will get intensive internal and external training certifying them in their fields.” EMR was listed as one of the Best Employers in Maryland in 2017 by a locally sponsored program.
Kauffman-Kirschnick says she, herself, learned every aspect of the company by working in all of its departments. Working summers throughout high school and college, she earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations, then worked full-time in EMR’s accounts receivables. Human resources was her next stop, followed by a few years in the company’s Philadelphia office for experience in dispatch, parts and billing. She then managed EMR’s Delaware branch, before transferring to Baltimore as the general manager. Within a few years, she stepped into the top spot of president, beginning her tenure on Jan. 1 of this year.
She describes EMR as a service company that truly cares and helps its customers to run their businesses. Kauffman-Kirschnick says she is interested in helping people and determining what makes them “tick.” “Every aspect of the service industry is about helping people. When I understood that, I realized I could help people right in my family’s business.”
Leading people and building teams are Walter’s strengths. She says entrepreneurship is in her blood. “When I entered the workforce, someone told me: ‘To be a woman in business, you have to think like a man, act like a lady and work like a dog.’” The truth is, everyone has to have a strong work ethic, according to Walter. “It’s just a matter of being smart and efficient with your time and being confident in yourself,” she says.
Walter supports a company culture that’s family oriented and empowering. She believes in autonomy within a position. “You know your job and you are the one responsible for getting your work done,” she says. “We take on the Netflix culture – freedom and responsibility with a friendly, fun atmosphere.”
Together, the Timber Industries team is always finding innovative ways to do things in an industry that is hundreds of years old. To that end, Walter is working on plans that include launching a new Industrial Coating Application Division, and possibly acquiring additional companies. “Our differentiation is that we are ready to grow. Our customers are facing challenges and we are ready to grow with them.”
Employees of Timber industries are expected to treat customers like partners. “When our customers succeed, we succeed,” she says. “We work with high integrity and high passion.”
Her passion is for the business that is both 100 percent hers and a certified woman-owned business. “Realizing that I was the only female of eight partners was a defining moment. My proudest moment was becoming the sole owner of Timber Industries. Acquiring a business is defining in itself,” she says. She credits her family, including her husband Shawn and young sons with helping her in Timber Industries, and together they give back to the community in donations of time and materials on projects in Baltimore City and Baltimore County.
Walter’s motto, “We rise by lifting others,” reflects her genuine desire to support others in every aspect of her life – in business with customers and employees, in her mentoring and coaching relationships with mentees, and in her network of the Women Presidents’ Organization, in which she is Chapter Chair for a group of 15 women CEOs of companies with over $2 million in revenue.
Walter, DiPietro and Kauffman-Kirschnick have more in common than their entrepreneurial successes, positive philosophies and Dad-influenced work ethic. They have parallel personal life stories, as well. They love spending time with their children and pre-teens – Walter has two sons, ages 6 and 7, DiPietro an 11-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son, and Kauffman-Kirschnick a 6-year-old son. Each of these mothers is an avid reader and music lover, and all of them say they work out both for fitness and stress relief. And, of course, all three enjoy their special time with their Dads. I95