Women in Small Business: Kathie Leonard of Auburn Manufacturing

Kathie Leonard, president and CEO of Auburn Manufacturing, stood in front of a wide-width loom recently. Andre Kane/Sun Magazine

Mechanical Falls — Fresh out of college and arriving in Maine in the early 1970s, a young Kathie Leonard started a career she had little chance of succeeding, if you believe in chance. She was a young woman working in a predominantly male factory in Lewiston, among other things, they made an industrial fabric to replace asbestos.

Around the same time, Kathryn Graham became the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, having previously served as the publisher of The Washington Post.

These are significant milestones at a time when women own about 400,000 businesses, or 4.6 percent of all businesses in the country, according to the Federal Small Business Administration. As old as it sounds, women in this country who wanted to get a business loan had to have a male relative co-signing the loan until 1988. Today, the SBA says there are more than 13 million women-owned businesses in the United States, representing approximately 42 percent of total business and generating nearly $2 trillion in revenue.

“I’m marketing an industrial fabric on the ground floor that’s designed to replace asbestos. And you don’t know how many applications that use asbestos,” Leonard said.

Not only in car brakes, ceiling and floor tiles, but also in mechanical insulation on ships and insulation around pipes throughout the oil industry — anywhere there’s high temperatures, Leonard explained.

“I fell in love with it, it was so much fun!” she said. Over the next three years, Leonard honed her marketing skills through her writing and what she called her ability to explain things succinctly. She says she takes calls from engineers and answers their technical questions, and even sets foot in trade shows, where she’s the only woman behind the booth.

Three years later, Leonard says she’s ready to take the next step and make more money. She and a male partner started the Auburn Manufacturing Company and never looked back. “Basically, it’s about having a better career. I wanted to grow, and there weren’t a lot of ladders for women at the time. So when you started your own business, you created your own ladder. That’s what I did .”

The short-term goal, Leonard says, is simple: pay rent and buy clothes for her kids — and have a family without worrying too much about her next paycheck. It’s important to her because she didn’t grow up with a lot, and she says she just doesn’t want to do it for the rest of her life. Leonard, 27, said she doesn’t have any long-term goals. “I just didn’t know it would last this long.”

Overcoming barriers in male-dominated industries

The president and CEO said she struggled early on to be respected as a business professional in the manufacturing world. “Everyone who comes to our company thinks I’m a secretary,” she said. “They’ll come in and they’ll think someone else – a male – is the boss and I’m . . .”

She dismisses it now, seeing it as just a sign of the times, but admits it’s disturbing. “I have a partner who is really good at saying ‘oh, you want to talk to her.’ I’ve been lucky. A lot of people do, thank you so much.”

Leonard said she lacked confidence and was anxious in her early years.

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

Much of Leonard’s experience has been on-the-job training. She did not have a master’s degree in industrial technology or engineering. “I went through something that I didn’t think I should be in this job,” she said. “I’m just an ordinary girl.”

It took her years to gain confidence. Leonard said she did this through perseverance, going back to school to learn economics, human resources and accounting, and all the skills they had to use to run a business. She calls herself a “recipe learner” because she loves the instructions – telling her how to do something, and she’s good.

“I’ve been forcing myself to do things too,” Leonard explained. “The first time I was asked to speak in public, I was scared to death. I took Dale Carnegie’s class and learned how to do it, just forced myself to do it, and I passed it. Already It’s been tough for 43 years, but I’m comfortable in my skin now, but it’s going to take quite a while.”

women in business today

Women have made significant strides in the country’s business world over the past 50 years, but many issues remain at the forefront, including the gender pay gap and the percentage of women in top leadership positions.

An indicator of the progress of women in Maine, the Maine Women’s Business List is a public directory of women-owned businesses statewide, with approximately 200 businesses on the list. The Maine Women’s Network says it represents and supports hundreds of women in business across the state. The University of Maine School of Business has a Women’s Business Organization, and Coastal Enterprises Inc. or CEI has a Women’s Business Center focused on women looking to start or grow a business in Maine.

Leonard agrees that it is much easier for women today than when she first started out in business. “I think young women make it easier for us and everyone,” she said. “My age group leads the way, but it’s been a rough road. I’m amazed at how comfortable these up-and-coming girls have always been with their skin, and it makes us all feel more comfortable. Now in every group There are more women.”

However, women are still a minority in the manufacturing sector here. That’s why she believes exposure to STEM-based education — an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math — is especially important for girls early in life, Leonard said.

Women account for less than a third of the 15.8 million manufacturing jobs, and a quarter of manufacturing leaders are women, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Census data show that manufacturing workers earn more than the average worker. Even though women in manufacturing earn more than the median female salary, they still earn only 72 percent of the median male salary in the industry. As manufacturing becomes more high-tech, some believe manufacturers may ignore high-skilled workers by not hiring women.

Auburn Manufacturing is aggressively recruiting women, Leonard said. “We have quite a few women in production, even in the textile industry, which was not a job for women in the past. 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 it.”

Looking back on her 43 years at the helm of the company, Leonard says she is amazed and absolutely proud of the company they built and the employees, many of whom have been with her throughout their careers, who made it all happen.

“I’ve grown up and I’ve been doing my homework over the years and I think I’m good at it now and I’m proud of that,” she said. “I’m proud to have 50 people working here,” she stressed. “It’s hard work, but if you have all the other stuff, they don’t mind. We have benefits, we have a place in Rangeley where employees can go and bring their families. You know it does have a little life balance. We It’s not that strict, but we’re all about getting the product to market.”

As for the progress women have made in business since the 1970s?

“I think you keep going,” Leonard said. “From 4 percent to 43 percent, that’s a big change. So, you’re almost halfway there, do we have to be over halfway?”

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