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For female executives, administrators, and managers, the statistics are telling — there are close to 243,000 women-owned businesses in Michigan that collectively produce $30.5 billion in revenue, according to a recent American Express report using 2010 U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s up 32 percent from 1997 when there were 185,000 women-owned businesses in the state, producing a combined $26.5 billion in revenue (up 15 percent). To shed more light on what is an impressive growth market, we asked our DBusiness’ readers to nominate female business leaders in the region who are making a difference in their respective companies, industries, and communities. The following eight women have not only broken through the glass ceiling, they’ve literally shattered the myth that gender is a determining factor to business success.

Sheryl Ryan

President: Trinity Environmental Solutions, Detroit

Revenue: $7 million

Employees: 10

Removing zebra mussels from large pipes wasn’t part of Sheryl Ryan’s original business plan. But when residents in Monroe lost water service — a colony of the pesky shellfish was the culprit — Ryan and her team quickly put together a cleanup crew, which included a dive team.

While not every client offers such drama, commercial waste disposal has become a state-of-the-art industry that few could have imagined 30 years ago, says Ryan, president of Trinity Environmental Solutions. “When I started, everything went from the generator to a landfill,” she says.

Today, with numerous environmental laws in place, waste management at one factory might involve 20 trucks going to 20 different facilities to dispose of the materials properly. In addition to waste removal, Trinity’s services include water blasting, demolition, soil remediation, and equipment rentals.

“We’re a company dedicated to minimizing landfill usage and finding resources to replace, recycle, conserve, and create energy,” says Ryan, whose client base includes utilities, medical facilities, and municipalities. “Our philosophy is to support those core values to protect the earth.”

Ryan plans to spread that philosophy by expanding nationally through organic growth and acquisition.

A family affair, the company was started, in part, to “set a good example” for Ryan’s three daughters. Two of the girls work in sales, while the third serves as an operating manager. The younger generation, Ryan says, is more apt to “recognize the importance of conserving the resources on this earth.” —Marylynn G. Hewitt

 

Patricia Mooradian

President: The Henry Ford, Dearborn

Budget: $50 million

Employees: 280 full time, 1,500 part time

Overseeing the world’s largest collection of Americana, Patricia Mooradian wasn’t content to confine the vast collection to the grounds of The Henry Ford in Dearborn. Over the last 18 months, Mooradian and her staff have latched onto the spirit of innovation that is the hallmark of the institution and initiated the creation of a free, online, digital library of thousands of items. By making The Henry Ford’s collection of artifacts available to a broader spectrum of interested parties, Mooradian hopes the project will inspire and enrich more people’s lives.

Of course, she’s also been fundraising in a challenging marketplace, adding more technology to enhance visitor experiences, and planning new exhibits — The Henry Ford scored a major coup by being the first museum outside of Washington, D.C., to display the Emancipation Proclamation (the viewing ran for 36 hours from June 20-22 as part of “Discovering The Civil War,” a major exhibit that runs through Labor Day).

Asked to sum up her business philosophy, Mooradian, who joined The Henry Ford in 2000 following 13 years as a marketing executive at luxury mall developer Taubman Centers Inc. in Bloomfield Hills (she was appointed president of The Henry Ford in 2005), was quick to respond: “Empower people to think big, work smart, and grow wisely while striking the right balance between culture, commerce, and community.”

The goal of all the institution’s endeavors is to cultivate The Henry Ford’s standing “as a nationally recognized destination and a force for fueling the spirit of American innovation and inspiring a can-do culture,” she says. “We have a great opportunity to be part of the solution of education by sharing our assets, including those based on authentic traditions.” —By R.J. King

 

Laura Soave

Head of Fiat Brand - North America: Chrysler Group LLC, Auburn Hills

Revenue: $41.9 billion

Employees: 53,000

Laura Soave is out to prove that bigger isn’t always better. While Americans have long favored large, well-appointed automobiles, the demand for such vehicles has waned in recent years due to the global financial meltdown, rising gas prices, and an increasing awareness of environmental stewardship issues.

“The perception of small cars is changing and now, more than ever, people are looking for a small car like the Fiat 500 that has lots of features,” says Soave, who joined Chrysler in March 2010 as the head of Fiat Brand – North America. Prior to that, she worked four years at Volkswagen; she began her career at Ford Motor Co. in 1997.

In addition to making sure the Fiat 500 exceeds the competition as it relates to styling, fuel efficiency, and comfort, Soave is reintroducing a brand that last sold cars in North America in 1983. “It’s a major challenge, but we have a rich culture and heritage,” she says. “We will have 130 studios (dealerships) open (in the U.S.) by the end of the year.”

Born into a family of Italian immigrants, Soave says she’s in a unique position selling Italian cars to Americans. “My philosophy is to be true to your roots,” she says. “I’ve had great mentors, but some people wanted to fit me in a very narrow box in order to succeed. I am unique, and that’s what brought me to Chrysler.”

While Soave has her hands full now with the Fiat 500 launch, more vehiclesare in the planning stages, including a four-door version. “American consumers gravitate to new things, so our challenge will be to keep our products fresh and exciting,” she says. “One way we’re doing that is [by marketing] the brand at consumers’ events to complement our advertising efforts.” —R.J. King

 

Desi Ujkashevic

Director, Global Design Technical Operations: Ford Motor Company, Dearborn

Revenue: $120.9 billion

Employees: 176,000

Spending time on the road each month — Brazil, China, Europe — has its challenges, especially if you’re raising four children. But for Desi Ujkashevic, director of Ford’s Global Design Technical Operations, the value of personal interaction can’t be understated.

“As we introduce vehicles for a global audience, the challenge is to really understand our customers in the various regions around the world,” says Ujkashevic, who joined Ford Motor 20 years ago in their college graduate program, where she worked on engine testing. “There are lots of similarities, but also differences.”

While she maintains near-constant contact with designers, engineers, and technology experts around the world via video conferencing, virtual communication has its limits. “This business is all about product and design, and to be the best in the showroom requires teamwork,” she says. “The great thing about this job is that we bridge the creative and technical sides of the business. It’s challenging, but very rewarding.”

Overseeing a team of 400 people in her department, Ujkashevic has helped lead the way as Ford debuts vehicles that share a vast array of body types, parts, engines, and platforms. The initiative had been tried before with the Ford Mondeo, which met with mixed reviews in the United States during the 1990s. But in recent times, Ford has turned the tide and recorded considerable success with the redesigned Fiesta and Focus. More global products are in the pipeline.

“My advice for women starting out in business is to be patient,” she says. “Always follow your passion. That will lead to where you want to go, because it will be natural for you.” —R.J. King

 

Laurie Cunnington

President: Ward Williston Oil Company, Bloomfield Hills

Revenue: $50 million

Employees: 12

In response to rising prices, Laurie Cunnington and her team at Ward Williston Oil Co. are stepping up drilling operations throughout the Midwest. The effort includes drilling for new wells and within secondary recovery fields, where crude is tapped from older wells. There can be up to 30 wells in a given recovery field.

“We’re working on some new finds in North Dakota, and we see a lot of opportunity in Michigan,” says Cunnington, who bought the company in 1987 with her husband, Thomas, who serves as chairman and CEO. The couple each owned separate computer firms that they sold in the early 1980s.

Investing in oil exploration is not for the faint of heart. It can cost as much as $5 million to drill a well, and there’s no guarantee of success. Cunnington got lucky early on when a wildcat operation she and her husband invested in struck oil in Illinois and Indiana. “We’ve had more good wells than bad ones, and that’s a testament to our technical backgrounds and the fact that we have a geologist and engineers on staff,” Cunnington says.

Over the next three years, Cunnington plans to double the company’s production to as much as 500,000 annual barrels through drilling opportunities and acquisitions.

What’s more, the company is lending its expertise in Africa, where it helps raise funds for water wells in South Sudan and other areas. Each rig provides water for up to 1,000 people, and can cost between $7,000 and $10,000, depending on the location.
“The African program is a personal source of pride,” Cunnington says. “It’s amazing how quickly a village will transform once they have access to water.” —R.J. King

 

Patricia Maryland

President and CEO: St. John Providence Health System, Warren

Revenue: $2.0 billion

Employees: 18,000

Patricia Maryland was just a young child when she first thought about pursuing a career in health care. “My mom was ill most of my young years from complications from Type II diabetes,” says Maryland, president and CEO of St. John Providence Health System. She remembers her parents’ frustration in “not being able to get comprehensive care” for her mother, who died 11 years ago.

It wasn’t until she got her undergraduate degree in applied mathematics, a master’s in biostatistics, and a doctorate in public health that she finally landed in the health care field. Maryland now tells her college-age daughter, “Don’t worry, honey, it took Mom a long time to find out what she wanted to do when she grew up.”

In addition to overseeing six hospitals and 125 clinics, Maryland serves as Michigan ministry market leader for Ascension Health, where she is responsible for strategy planning on behalf of the nation’s largest Catholic and nonprofit health system.

Changing demographics and an aging population, coupled with the economic crisis and health care reform, are “all key factors of why we need to transform ourselves,” she notes. “We should look at how we [can] create accountable care, not accountable-care organizations.”

Her goal is to bring hospitals, clinics, and physicians together to coordinate “a model of care support” while “being able to sustain our mission. Our mission is to always take care of all those high-risk, vulnerable populations.” —Marylynn G. Hewitt

 

Catherine Koch

President and CEO: K-Tec Systems Inc., Farmington Hills

Revenue: NA

Employees: 13

When Catherine Koch returned to her job after giving birth to her daughter, she was told her position was no longer available. Rather than fight, she went to work for the company’s top competitor. She says it was the best thing that ever happened to her. “Without even knowing it, I had learned the business from the ground up — accounting, marketing, customer service, the works,” she says.

It didn’t take long before Koch started her own company, K-Tec Systems Inc. The Farmington Hills-based company specializes in advanced control and automation technology, and offers temperature and control instrumentation to aerospace, food, and consumer product firms as well as General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.

To get ahead, Koch began to focus less on “selling a product,” and more on finding new technology and solutions for her clients. It paid off. K-Tec has grown every year since its founding in 1989, and now has offices in Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

Koch says her employees are the key to the company’s success. Upon retirement (not soon), she wants her colleagues to take over a stable business. “I really believe investing in your workers makes your company strong. They need to have a stake in the company [and] know they are working for themselves, not just the boss.” She cites an example of helping a young employee finish college by allowing her to rearrange her work hours to accommodate her class schedule.

Her advice for young women entering the field of business is straightforward: “It’s important to see your vision, be able to accept change, and if someone tells you it can’t be done, see that as a challenge to do it.” —John S. Schultz

 

Laura Trudeau

Senior Program Director/Community Development: Kresge Foundation, Troy

Endowment Fund: $3.1 billion

Employees: 67

Laura Trudeau believes the city of Detroit is on the cusp of a major revival. A senior program director at the Troy-based Kresge Foundation, Trudeau says the organization, which allocates about $150 million in grants each year to nonprofits throughout the nation, believes Detroit merits a good share of that funding. “We can use our resources and our role for the good of the city,” she says.

Trudeau, who spent nearly 30 years in the banking industry, believes she is in the right place to help elevate the city’s future. “I love Detroit … I get to work full time on its revitalization,” she says.

The organization — established by Sebastian Spering Kresge, the founder of the S.S. Kresge Co., which later became Kmart Corp. — supports areas such as arts and culture, community development, education, the environment, and health and human services. The mission of the Kresge Foundation is to improve the quality of life for future generations.

In May, the foundation gave $750,000 to the Michigan Health Education Center at Wayne State University. The money will be used to recruit, train, and retain a diverse group of health care workers in the state. And last year, the foundation began awarding annual fellowship grants of $25,000 each to local artists in the literary, performing, and visual art disciplines.

For Detroit to complete its turnaround, Trudeau says the city must accept help from people from all walks of life, reinvest in established neighborhoods, and foster more partnerships. “This is our moment of opportunity,” she says. — John S. Schultz

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