Women in Small Business: Kathie Leonard of Auburn Manufacturing

Kathie Leonard, President and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing, stands in front of a large loom recently. Andrée Kehn/Sun Journal

MECHANIC FALLS – Fresh out of college and new to Maine in the early 1970s, a young Kathie Leonard was embarking on a career she had little chance of succeeding in, if you believed the odds. She was a young woman who worked in a male-dominated factory in Lewiston where, among other things, they made industrial fabric to replace asbestos.

Around the same time, Katharine Graham became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, after taking the reins as publisher of the Washington Post newspaper.

These were important milestones at a time when women owned about 400,000 businesses, or 4.6% of all businesses nationwide, according to the Federal Small Business Administration. As archaic as it sounds, women in this country who wanted to take out a business loan had to have a male relative co-sign the loan until 1988. Today, the SBA says there are more than 13 million businesses owned by women in the United States. , or about 42% of the total number of companies, generating nearly $2 trillion in revenue.

“I was on the ground floor of the marketing of an industrial fabric intended to replace asbestos. And you have no idea how many applications where asbestos has been used,” Leonard said.

Not just in automotive brakes and in ceiling and floor tiles, but as mechanical insulation on ships and as insulation wrapped around pipes throughout the oil industry — anywhere there was high heat, Leonard explained.

“I fell in love with it, it was so much fun!” she says. Over the next three years, Leonard honed her marketing skills through her writing and what she calls her ability to explain things concisely. She said she took calls from engineers and answered their technical questions, even dabbling in trade shows, where she was the only woman behind a booth.

After three years, Leonard said she was ready to take the next step and earn more money. She and a male partner founded Auburn Manufacturing and never looked back. “Basically it was about having a better career. I wanted to grow up, and at that time there weren’t many ladders for women. So when you start your own business, you create your own scale. And that’s what I did. »

The short-term goals were simple, Leonard said: pay rent and buy clothes for her child — so she has a family and doesn’t have to worry so much about her next paycheck. It was important to her, because she grew up with very little as a child and said she just didn’t want to do this the rest of her life. At 27, Leonard said she had no long-term goals. “I had no idea it would last this long.”

OVERCOMING BARRIERS IN A MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY

The president and CEO said she initially struggled to gain respect as a manufacturing business professional. “Everyone who came to our company thought I was the secretary,” she said. “They would come in and they thought someone else – a man – was the boss and I was . . .

She now ignores it as just a sign of the times, but admits it was disconcerting. “I had a partner who was really good at saying, ‘Oh, you want to talk to her.’ And I was lucky like that. A lot of guys do that and it’s very appreciated.

Leonard said she lacked confidence and was also anxious during the early years.

“When I talk to other women, they want to hear this story – ‘how did you do that?’ and ‘how did you feel?’ — because it’s real,” she said.

Most of Leonard’s experience was on-the-job training. She did not earn a master’s degree in industrial technology or engineering. “I went through one thing where I thought I shouldn’t be in this job,” she said. “I’m just an ordinary girl.”

It took him many years to gain confidence. Leonard said she did it through persistence, going back to school and studying economics, human resources and accounting, all skills they needed to use to run the business. She calls herself a “cookbook learner” because she likes instructions — show her how to do something and she’s good at it.

“I also kept forcing myself to do things,” Leonard explained. “The first time I was asked to speak in public I was scared to death. And I took a Dale Carnegie course and I learned how to do this and I just forced myself to do it, and I made it. It’s been 43 years and it’s been hard, but I feel good about myself now, but it took time.

WOMEN IN BUSINESS TODAY

Women have made significant progress in business over the past 50 years in this country, but many issues remain prominent, including the gender pay gap and the percentage of women in management positions. direction.

As an indicator of the progress of women in Maine, the Maine Women’s Business List is a public directory of women-owned businesses across the state with some 200 businesses on the list. The Maine Women’s Network said it represents and supports hundreds of businesswomen in the state. The University of Maine School of Business has a Women in Business organization, while Coastal Enterprises Inc., or CEI, has a Women’s Business Center focused on women who want to start a business or expand their business in Maine.

Leonard agrees that things are a lot easier for women today than they were when she started in business. “I think the young women made it easier for everyone,” she said. “My age group led the way, but the road was strewn with pitfalls. These girls coming in are comfortable in their own skin all the time and I marvel at them, and it makes us all feel more comfortable. Now there are more women in each group.

Yet women are still a minority in manufacturing here. Leonard said that’s why she thinks exposure to STEM-based education — an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering and math — is particularly important for girls earlier in life.

According to the US Department of Commerce, women make up less than a third of the 15.8 million people employed in manufacturing industries, and 1 in 4 industry executives are women. Census data shows that manufacturing workers earn more than the average worker. And although women in manufacturing earn more than the median of women, they still only earn 72% of the median salary of men in industry. With manufacturing becoming increasingly high-tech, some believe that manufacturers risk neglecting highly skilled workers by not hiring women.

Auburn Manufacturing is actively recruiting women, Leonard said. “We have quite a few women in production, even in weaving, where it was not a female job. But with the equipment we have that helps move things around, you don’t have to be able to lift heavy things, and they’re very good at that.

Looking back on her 43 years at the helm of her company, Leonard said she was amazed and absolutely proud of the company they built and the employees – many of whom have been with her their entire careers – who have given back all this possible.

“I grew up in it and did my homework all these years and I think now I’m good at it and proud of it,” she said. “I’m so proud to have 50 people working here,” she said. “It’s hard work, but they don’t mind if you have all the other stuff. We have benefits, we have a place in Rangeley where employees can take their families. You know there is a bit of balance in life. We are not that strict, but we want the product to be marketed. »

As for the progress of women in business since the 1970s?

“I think you keep on going,” Leonard said. “Going from 4% to 43% is a big change. So you’re almost half, must we be more than half? »


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