March is Women’s History Month, and at First Bank & Trust, we thought it would be a great time to honor women business leaders in our community.
Today, according to the National Women’s Business Council, 36.3 percent of all pri- vately-held businesses in the United States are owned by women, up from 28.8 per- cent in 2007. Women are also becoming increasingly visible leaders in everything from government to nonprofits and large multinational corporations.
Women Business Leaders in Evanston
One such female business leader is Jennifer Kalas, president of IRMCO, an Evanston- based manufacturer of oil-free metal forming and tube bending lubricants.
Kalas started her career as an accountant with Crawford Laboratories in Chicago, rising through the ranks to take on roles in purchasing industrial chemicals, produc- tion scheduling, plant operations and eventually general manager. In 2000, Kalas joined IRMCO as Chief Financial Officer, and in 2011, she was promoted to president, where she oversees the company’s research and development department, sales, IT, finance and operations.
We sat down with Kalas and asked her about what it was like for her moving up the corporate ladder as a woman and what advice she has for other women business leaders.
FBT: Both Crawford Laboratories and IRMCO were run by men with decades of experience in their positions when you worked there. How do you think you were able to rise up through the ranks as a woman?
Kalas: Coming from a family where I was the only daughter with four brothers, I grew up in a male-oriented environment. We were taught from a very young age to work hard, focus on the task at hand, and do the best we can. Because of this, I’ve never felt that things were harder because I was a woman.
In the beginning years of my career, I progressed through various positions eventu- ally leading to general manager of the company. Along the way, I learned as much as I could from my superiors and volunteered for every task and job that I could. Fortu- nately for me, the owner of Crawford Laboratories had as much respect for a wom- an’s ability as he did for men and taught me as much as I was willing to learn.
Later, I joined IRMCO as they were looking for someone who had a finance back- ground but could also manage the operations of their business. I took on every opportunity that came my way and was promoted to president when the owner moved to the south to be closer to customers and prospects. Today, I think it’s important that people understand that there are many opportunities in manufactur- ing for both men and women.
FBT: What are some of the skills and personality traits that make someone a good manager?
Kalas: One needs to have a positive attitude, be flexible, listen to your employees, understand different types of personalities and know how to motivate each of them. You need to be a team player, lead by example, and not just be a so-called manager. Lastly, you need to recognize and develop talent.
FBT: What are some of the biggest challenges that business leaders face today? What are some things that business owners need to focus on to make their com- pany more successful?
There is a big shortage of skilled labor. As mentioned earlier, manufacturing has changed and requires the workforce to be better educated and trained. We need to get more people aware of the job opportunities in manufacturing.
As a 30-year veteran, I’m now realizing the importance of understanding and devel- oping the next generation of the workforce. What are their needs and what moti- vates them? It’s a different world today than it was a few decades ago.
For small-and mid-sized companies, there’s always the conflict between navigating growth while maintaining your profitability and figuring out how to use your capital wisely.
FBT: Throughout your career, what changes have you seen for women business leaders?
Kalas: Today, women are leaders in all arenas. There are so many more avenues for women to get an education, which leads to more confidence when competing with men.
The increase in child care opportunities gives women the opportunity to have a career and raise a family. Also, the acceptance of a father as the stay-at-home parent has given us more flexibility to further our careers.
FBT: Do you have any other advice for female business leaders?
Kalas: Yes. Be sure to pass along the credit for success to those under you. Ego can be such a deterrent in business. Take risks and view them as opportunities. Network as much as possible and find women mentors, not just for a new job, but to gain knowledge. Get involved and stretch your comfort level to build up your confidence. Don’t be afraid to ask for more — men do. Most importantly, try to do what you love. It may take a while in your career to find out what that is, but if you work hard enough and spread your wings, you’ll most likely find your passion.