2014 Top Women Business Owners

The Stories of 12 Women Who Had Enough Faith in Their Experience to Take the Leap and Succeed
Whether it was the next step to move forward in their careers or a ‘golden ticket’ idea that led to the 2014 Top Women Business Owners leaping into ownership, they have certain commonalities. All 12 women carry with them industry expertise, business savvy and a drive to continuously push forward by breaking down barriers everyday. Through moments of hardship and successes alike, these women concentrate on reaching goals and setting new standards, shaping their industries and the St. Louis business community.


Improving Her Community, Geri Boyer | Kaskaskia Engineering Group

When Geri Boyer was a young girl in the 70s, she often made trips with her dad, who was a farmer, to the local lime mine in St. Genevieve to pick up lime for their farm. Boyer’s interest in mining engineering was immediately sparked, but the reaction she received from the miners lacked enthusiasm. “They told me a woman couldn’t be a mining engineer,” says Boyer. “They said it was bad luck to have a woman underground. I went to school for mining engineering because I was told a woman couldn’t do it.” Although she started her career in mining engineering, Boyer went back to school for civil engineering when there was a downturn in mining.

Boyer went on to work for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) in the local roads division, where she worked on city and county projects. While overseeing these projects, Boyer often had to guide consultants’ work. That’s when she realized she could do the consulting work better. “I went to work for a consulting firm to learn the business side of it,” she says. “I was there for seven years. My intention was not to start a business though. Eventually I began to rethink the industry altogether. I didn’t like that engineering was all about money. I wanted to leave the industry, but a girlfriend of mine said, ‘Why not stay and do it differently?’”

With her years of experience under her belt, that’s just what Boyer decided to do. So she founded Kaskaskia Engineering Group in 2006.

Boyer easily built her business through industry contacts and her reputation in the field, expanding its services and adding employees, of which there are 40 today. “I grew into geotechnical and environmental engineering,” she says. “I never expected so much specialty work, but it’s where the demand was."

Kaskaskia also grew by fulfilling the DBE (disadvantaged business enterprise) portion of larger engineering firms’ contracts. “We morphed our services to serve the DBE function for others’ state and municipal work,” she says. “We now work as a contractor as well. There’s a DBE need for self-performed work. We do milling, pavement marking and drainage work.”

Any doubts Boyer once had about her industry have been pushed aside by her belief that Kaskaskia’s work is making the world a better place. “Owning a business has offered me many opportunities to pick and execute projects that enhance the lives of people living in the communities as well as the lives of my employees and clients,” she says.

Building A Company On Quality, Catherine Taylor Yank | Jim Taylor, Inc.

In the late 60s, when Catherine Taylor Yank was choosing a career path, no one told her she could be an engineer. With talents in math and science, she was given the options of nurse or teacher. “So I got my degree in math and secondary education with every intention of teaching,” she says.

After just one year of teaching, though, Taylor Yank decided it wasn’t for her. She then went back to work for her dad’s company, Taylor Roofing, which she had grown up working in.

Today she is at the helm of the company. “We have grown in volume,” she says. “I like to think we are considered a premier roofing company. Our quality is well-known, which is very important, and our customer service is top-notch.”

Concentrating on customer service is one of many lessons Taylor Yank learned from her dad. “He taught me to put the customer first and do the best job for the customer no matter what the cost,” she says. “You always have to have that.”

Despite being a woman in an industry that is still male-dominated, Taylor Yank does not feel her challenges are any different from those of any other business owner. She uses lessons from her dad and her many years of industry expertise to take on the challenges of business ownership. And when Taylor Yank does encounter problems she can’t solve on her own, she relies on the expertise of professionals. “I try to hire professionals,” she says. “When I am having a problem, I use the best people I can, from hiring accountants to legal professionals.”

And she faces head-on not only internal problems but also her customers’ issues. “We have managed to achieve success by putting on a good-quality, long-lasting roof system for our customers and taking care of problems when they arise,” she says. “We also have return customers. There are too many of us doing the same thing, so you need return customers and you earn them by making your business stand out.”

Creating A Marketplace To Improve Patient Care, Mary Jo Gorman | Advanced ICU Care

As a physician who practiced in the intensive care unit, Dr. Mary Jo Gorman saw firsthand the shortage of intensivists like herself. Noticing the labor shortage and substandard care resulting from it, Gorman put together a solution: 24/7 monitoring by board-certified intensivists via telemedicine technology combined with a system to achieve adherence to best practices throughout the ICU.

In 2005 Gorman launched Advanced ICU Care, a company even she underestimated the need for. “It has been known in medical care that there are certain things you can do for ICU patients to improve hospital stays and increase survival rates,” she says. “What was less known is how poor ICU performance is today.”

Because of this, Gorman’s challenge was to help hospitals understand the shortfalls in performance and how improvements could be made. “There was nothing to compare what we were doing to,” she says. “Hospitals lack performance knowledge and because of this don’t understand the opportunity to improve and don’t understand why to buy the product. We are creating a marketplace, so we have to educate our marketplace: executives at hospitals.”

One way Gorman does this is by showing the results from those who have implemented her company’s program. “Our results show that when we work with medical and administrative teams at hospitals, medical care gets better,” she says. “The fact that we create a 40% improvement on mortality rates and significant financial improvements are both motivating.”

In addition to showing clients the results of Advanced ICU Care, Gorman has found success by building a great team around herself. “If you don’t do this, there will be a bottleneck at you for decision making and your company won’t grow,” she says. “If you can’t build a team, you can’t build a business.”

Gorman plans to continue improving hospital performance. “My goal is to improve ICU patient care,” she says. “I am proud that my team is doing so for hospitals and patients.”

Advancing Others’ Personal And Professional Lives, Cassandra Sanford | KellyMitchell

Cassandra Sanford began her career in technical services at McDonnell Douglas. While there, she saw a consistent demand for contingent labor, especially with IT and engineering talent.

When McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing in 1996, Sanford and two of her coworkers, Mark Locigno and Rebecca Boyer, knew it would mean changes for the company and industry. Having recognized the demand for flexible workforce solutions, they acted quickly to fulfill it. “We broke off to put together a workforce of technical talent,” Sanford says.

The three founded KellyMitchell, now a 1,500-person company, in 1998. “We started local, connecting the local marketplace to IT professionals,” says Sanford. “We wanted to take the firm to regional, national and international organizations. We have 15 offices across the U.S. We are also now in provinces in Canada. We have recently taken things international, which was one of our biggest challenges. We also expanded by expanding our service offerings. For instance, we now provide end-to-end project solutions to our Fortune 500 clients with the ability to put full teams in place for projects.”

Although Sanford says each partner brought individual talents and expertise to KellyMitchell, she attributes much of its success to the team they have built. “Our company advantage has been our core base of employees,” she says. “My advice would be to commit to selecting the best employees in the beginning, develop them and engage them in your success. This is also what our clients appreciate about us. This has had the most impact on our success. It’s all about the people you surround yourself with and how they further your reputation in the marketplace.”

Sanford stays motivated to continue growing KellyMitchell and serving clients because of a love for what she gets to do each day. “We get to help people advance their personal and professional goals,” she says. “This inspires us.”

Succeeding With A Strong Will, Sara Taylor Hardy | Taylor Packaging Corp.

Ten years after Sara Taylor Hardy’s parents started Taylor Packaging Corp. in 1980, Taylor Hardy, at age 14, began to learn the family business by answering phones and filing office paperwork. Another 10 years later, in 2000, Taylor Hardy came back to the family business, which had become one of the best manufacturing facilities in St. Louis. Since then she has managed all company operations, including two corporate buyouts; maintained the company’s largest corporate account, 3M; and helped expand the business’s manufacturing facility by 25%.

Today, as vice president of operations, Taylor Hardy helps run the company’s 25,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and nine production lines. Although she believes most people still perceive thermoformed plastics as a “man’s industry,” her company’s continued growth is proving this stereotype false. “One advantage I see is that larger corporations, such as 3M Co., are required to do business with a certain percentage of minority-owned companies,” she says. “As a female-, minority-owned company, we fall into that category.  That has been an asset on several occasions and has helped us get our foot in the door with other top clients.”

While Taylor Hardy works to continue to earn new clients, she keeps in mind lessons from her biggest mentor, her mother, Ginger Taylor. “She taught me both what works well and what does not,” she says. “The best lesson she taught me is never give up.  Through the highs and lows of business ownership and the rise and fall of the economy, she put everything on the line many times, including her own home and my future college funds. With that strong will and confidence she taught me what it takes to succeed in the business world, especially as a woman.”

One necessary component of Taylor Hardy’s success is the skilled team behind her. “I manage our team with a positive attitude and constant motivation,” she says. “I run our operations in the most economical and ethical way that I possibly can.
“To do all of this, I think you have to establish a sense of trust and respect with both your employees and clients.”

Never Giving Up On Growing Her Dream, Diana Brady Spellman| Spellman Brady & Co.

When she was growing up in Iowa, Diana Brady Spellman loved doing art and applying her creativity. By the time Spellman was in first grade, she would lie awake in bed under the covers with a flashlight and sketch. “I was always interested in the spatial aspects of environment,” she says. “I would build floor plans on the ground out of leaves.”

Despite coming from a family of doctors and nurses and being aware of an early expectation that she would attend nursing school, Spellman went on to study interior design and housing at the University of Iowa with the support of her parents. While in school, Spellman was driven to garner as much professional experience as possible, earning four internships and mapping out a future in commercial design.  

In 1992, Spellman and her husband, Stan, who is an interior architect, decided to combine their talents, founding Spellman Brady & Co. “Today our firm specializes in health care, senior living and higher education,” says Spellman. “Our goal is to create a company with the expertise to understand markets from the owner’s standpoint.”

Spellman Brady & Co. has been steadily growing over the past two decades but not without challenges. “I am now a two-time cancer survivor,” says Spellman. “I battled it from 2007 to 2008 and then again from 2010 to 2011.”

Both times Spellman was able to make it through the cancer and treatments while juggling family and business with the support of her husband, her children and a great team. Overall what Spellman has learned, though, is that when women are passionate about their careers, they are most likely passionate about the other aspects of their lives. For this reason, finding a balance and time to do it all is always a challenge. “While I worked hard to achieve professional success, I still wanted to have dinner on the table at 6:30,” says Spellman. “I had to be very, very organized. With success, it becomes hard to balance with family and faith.”

Today Spellman runs her home and business with the motto “Never give up.” “I don’t take no for an answer,” she says. “There’s always a way to solve a problem. My positive attitude helps me and my team grow.”

Enhancing St. Louis, Phyllis Weiss| MSW Marketing

After an extended maternity leave, Phyllis Weiss knew she didn’t want to go back to teaching. While Weiss was thinking over what she wanted in her second career, a friend who headed a nonprofit told her she needed assistance in several areas. “Of those, public relations jumped out at me as the field that excited me the most,” says Weiss. “The nonprofit agency paid for some of my training, and I continued the rest on my own.”

Weiss went on to work part time for a PR firm, and her work began to get noticed. “Several people came to me with freelance projects,” she says. “I credit my husband for noticing how happy it made me to be in direct control of the creative process and product as well as the pride I took in engendering client satisfaction. He encouraged me to make it official and open my own business.”

In 1995 Weiss founded MSW Marketing, which now offers advertising, relationship management and marketing after having merged with another firm. To strengthen both herself as a leader and her company, Weiss made sure to continue learning along the way. “The Coro leadership program (now Leadership St. Louis) was invaluable in teaching me different styles of leadership and how to work successfully with people of all backgrounds and perspectives,” she says. “My husband ran a successful business, and through him I learned much about tactics, strategies, HR issues, finance and evaluation of business models. I also learned from my staff. What I learned from them is that everyone in the company has something to contribute to making the business successful if you give them the opportunity.”

Although in the beginning Weiss was motivated to grow a company with a fabulous reputation, as the years progressed she began to think about all the companies, government agencies and nonprofits made stronger through her company’s efforts. “If in the years to come St. Louis is a better place for what I have done, then I will be proud of what I have achieved,” she says.

Creating Jobs And A Positive Environment, Alaina Macia | MTM

After earning both her undergraduate degree and her MBA from Washington University, Alaina Macia began her career working in executive development and marketing. While she was happy with her progressing career at Maritz, Macia’s parents approached her with the opportunity to grow their business, MTM, a medical and transportation management company that helps develop solutions for accessing health care, increasing independence and connecting community resources.

“My parents were succession planning for their business,” says Macia. “They had 150 employees in 2003, and I saw an opportunity and a challenge in joining. I was fortunate in that they were owners willing to allow me to make changes, put my MBA to use and make it my own.”

Since becoming the president and CEO of MTM, Macia has grown the business to 1,400 employees and from a regional to a national company by improving its use of technology, marketing and employee development. “We have a small-business mentality because we are entrepreneurs at heart with the benefits of a large corporation,” says Macia. “We have made employee engagement and retention a priority.”

Being in a high-growth business in a competitive marketplace has been rewarding but also a challenge for Macia and her team. “It has meant learning to handle growth while containing costs,” she says. “We have done this well by focusing on technology investments and adding staff when necessary.”

Macia says that knowing when and how to build up your team is important for all business owners. “Be aware when it’s time to hire when you are starting out,” she says. “It pays dividends when you hire good people.”

As she has created a team she is proud of, Macia stays motivated by creating jobs and a good working environment for the individuals representing her business. “Our employees deliver services on our behalf,” she says. “We want them to want to come to work, and we want to be able to give them more opportunities because of our growth.”

Intuition In Business, Karen Spann| Employment Group Inc.

An entrepreneur multiple times over, Karen Spann found a new opportunity with the purchase of a staffing company in 2002. “When the stock market corrects itself, temporary staffing is the first to go,” she says. “It was a great business to buy because it had an upside potential.”

Although Spann’s husband initially ran the business, which they renamed Professional Employment Group Inc., Spann was always involved in the major decisions, and by April 2011 she was ready to run the business full time, becoming its president and CEO.

Her foresight to buy and grow the business paid off. “It was only a temporary clerical business in St. Louis when we bought it,” says Spann. “Seventy-five percent of the revenue was in one major account. It is now a national company with three offices – one here, one in Kansas City and one in Denver. The landscape of the company was very different. We are now 100% women-owned. Our largest division is now engineering. Additionally, we have medical, administration and IT.”

Spann believes one of her greatest advantages in running and growing her business is that, as a woman, she is more intuitive. She uses this ability to find the ideal person for each job. “If we do that, we have won the game because the biggest problem in business is the cost of turnover,” she says. “Women are more intuitive. We can change lives. The core to our business is for our customer to have peace of mind. As a woman, we’re emotionally attached to what we do, and that makes it different.”

In addition, Spann relies on a lesson from a mentor she had at Ralston Purina early on in her career. “The best lesson was lifetime education,” she says. “I read perpetually and believe in that to the depths of my being.”

Today Spann counts herself among the lucky few who have found their passions and love their jobs every day. “I love the people here; I love the customers, the fun of it and the challenge,” she says. “ I want to make the company better every day, find the best job for each candidate and find the best for the customer every time.”

Making A Difference With Her Talents, Ola Hawatmeh| Ola Style

When Ola Hawatmeh moved from New York to St. Louis, she realized there was a great difference in pay. “When I was in college I was making $25 an hour,” she says. “Here, with a college degree, I was offered $12 an hour.”

Creative and driven to improve her career prospects, Hawatmeh decided to put her talents in fashion and her long-ingrained interests in entrepreneurship to work. “I began putting together sketches and ideas,” she says. “I also began attending Fashion Week in New York. I was inspired to create my own line.”

Hawatmeh soon teamed up with a seamstress for pieces in her first line. “I paired up with people in New York who owned a very popular club called the Greenhouse,” she says. “They agreed to let me have my first show there.”

In 2008 Hawatmeh founded Ola Style, which she says has already come a long way. “At first the fabric I used, the seamstress and models were mediocre,” she says. “I started buying better fabric and using better seamstresses and models and got exposure that way.

Now I am styling celebrities and have an accessory and sunglass line. I started out doing one to two shows a year. Now I headline 10 shows a year, including New York Fashion Week. And I created St. Charles Fashion Week here. Not only are my dresses getting national exposure but my sunglasses as well.”

While Hawatmeh smoothly transitioned into the fashion industry, the competition, specifically the negative competition, in the industry posed a challenge to her company’s growth. “I created my clothing line to make people feel good about themselves by wearing an original piece of clothing,” she says. “I overcame the negativity in the competition of the fashion industry by helping those around me become a product of me.”

Hawatmeh does this by sharing her positivity. “Being positive only brings positivity to you,” she says. “If you always expect positive things, they will come. Being positive has brought good, trustworthy people into my business to help it grow.”

Today Hawatmeh spreads positivity not only by making women feel good in her original designs but also by helping those in need with her charity, Makeover for a Cause, through which Hawatmeh donates her personal styling services and clothing. “I want to leave the Earth knowing that I made a difference,” she says.

Continuing A Company’s Legacy, Traci O’Bryan | Arcturis

Traci O’Bryan was always interested in art, buildings and working with people. She was trying to combine these components into a career when she landed on one clear arena: architecture. After earning her degree in interior architecture from Kansas State, O’Bryan spent most of her career working on large institutional buildings and corporate architecture.

In 1993 she joined Arcturis as a project manager and senior designer. As her career progressed, O’Bryan began to think about the development of Arcturis as a company, unknowingly changing the path of her own career. “I wanted to continue to develop our talent at Arcturis,” she says. “I approached Pat Whitaker, the firm’s founder, with a professional development program. She asked if I would be willing to take on the implementation. So I was doing client and project work and oversight of staff development.”

When Arcturis’ HR director left during a time of growth, O’Bryan, with her background in architecture and HR, was asked to step up. When Whitaker was planning her transition out, O’Bryan became one of three employees in the running to become the company’s next president. “It was a three-year process to decide, testing our individual development, goal setting and metrics to accomplish,” says O’Bryan. “I needed to work on my external presence through business development. I went to work in business development in the education sector for two out of three years of the process. Pat selected me to take over as president. I did so in 2010. In 2013 I was named president and CEO by the six owners, who all sit on the stockholder board.”

Although O’Bryan took the reins during a difficult economic time, she did so with confidence, finding new ways to grow the company. “With the recession, I and the leadership team felt we needed to grow nationally and internationally,” she says. “Since, we do work in every state, Europe and Canada. For the last three years we have also been doing work in China. As the economy has become more global, our clients are working globally, and we felt we needed to as well. We also opened offices in Dallas and Houston in 2012.”

O’Bryan looks forward to helping Arcturis continue its legacy and grow for future generations.

Growth Through Adaptation, Amy Heeger | AME Constructors

At an early age, Amy Heeger began to work in her father’s construction business, learning it from the bottom up while also getting to know the ins and outs of the industry. But she knew the family business wasn’t what she would do forever, so when Heeger found an opportunity to work on historic renovations on Washington Avenue in 2001, she decided to launch her own construction company, AME Constructors.

Although AME Constructors started as a niche construction company, as the industry changed because of the recession, so did Heeger’s business. “I watched who I was working with, which contractors because we are a subcontractor, and we jumped into other niches,” she says. “We also do more full-service carpentry.”

Heeger’s flexibility and industry knowledge have allowed her to continue growing her company from six to 55 employees despite challenges brought to the industry from the economy. “My ability to understand changes of the industry and to adapt to changes in the industry has helped make me successful,” she says.

Just as Heeger watched the industry closely and adjusted her business’s focus accordingly, she does so with the internal components of her company today. “Pay attention to all the details of your business: operations, sales, marketing, financing and personnel,” she says. “Dissect and watch them.”

Over the years Heeger has applied lessons from many mentors to support her company’s growth. “They all taught me that it takes performance and integrity to build a business and to surround yourself with great people because you can’t do it all yourself,” she says. Although Heeger has learned from many business owners, her father has been her greatest mentor. “He has gone through the same issue I have,” she says.

In the future, Heeger hopes to continue to try to make a significant mark of excellence in her industry. “Others know who my company is now, and it keeps me going,” she says. “I like going to events and having people know who I am. It’s a nice feeling.”

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