2017 Powered by Women

From reader nominations, DBusiness selected eight professional women who are driving growth in Michigan, the nation, and the world.

Terri Harwood // Katie Bowman Coleman // Amy B. Robinson // Monica Martinez
Lilly Epstein Stotland // Christine Sitek // Tricia Ruby // Sara Blackmer

Terri Harwood

COO • North American Bancard Holdings, Troy
Employees: 1,000 • Processing Volume: $36B

When Terri Harwood was raising two boys, she experienced  the tug that so many women feel. She wanted to work, but didn’t want to put her children in daycare. So she sought a part-time job on a shift that would coordinate well with her husband’s day job.

“I grew up in a household where your work ethic was a very important element of your character,” says Harwood, who had a paper route when she was 11 years old. “I’ve never not worked.”

The young mother found a position on the afternoon shift in the call center at a payments processing company, and worked with another woman in customer service. Harwood quickly found out she had a knack for finding the right answer for a caller, and doing it quickly. She was also adept at coaching her co-workers, and recommended  how to improve their training.

The year after she started, the company promoted Harwood to a managerial position and helped launch what would become a successful career in the payments processing industry. “They said, ‘Look, we need more people to do it the way you do it,’ ” Harwood recalls. “It was a lot about listening and asking more probing questions, to understand what the customer really wanted to know.”

She rose through managerial positions at her company, and then ascended to the C-suite with a second payments processor. Five years ago, North American Bancard Holdings in Troy, the 12th highest-volume payments processor in the United States, hired Harwood as COO.

Thanks to the recent acquisition of a competitor, North American Bancard projects that its annual payments processed will reach $50 billion this year. At that level, the company would be ranked the seventh highest-volume payments processor nationwide.

The acquisition promises to increase the company’s distribution channels, too, and will expand its geographic reach to include Canada. Prior to the acquisition, North American Bancard served some 250,000 small- and medium-size merchants, including QVC, Modernistic, and Wallside Windows.

Four months after starting at the business, Harwood was instrumental in getting the company’s leaders to attend an offsite Franklin Covey leadership development session. The offering was something new for the company, and there was no guarantee it would prove useful. “After the first day, (someone) pulled me aside and said, ‘I’ve worked here for 11 years and this is the first time (we’ve had) a professional development training,’ ” she recalls.

Harwood also established a local chapter of the Women’s Network in Electronic Transactions at the company in 2015, and last year enlisted her company as a sponsor for an organizational event .

After 26 years in the business, Harwood’s days of answering client calls on the afternoon shift are long gone, but some things have remained the same. For one, her phone rings and pings constantly. “I used to have a sign in my office that said, ‘Help, I’m talking and can’t shut up,’ ” Harwood says. “I really love to talk to people.”

Her focus on finding the right answer quickly for a merchant client hasn’t changed, either. “A lot of people in our industry focus on technology,” she says. “I have to focus on customer service.”

As good as Harwood is at finding answers, she’s recently encountered some communication snags that may stem from her being female. “It’s kind of interesting, really,” she says. “There are circumstances when, rather than consult me for items that are in my span of control, my peer group (all male) is consulted instead.”

When her peers come to Harwood for the answer, which they inevitably must, she takes control and goes back to the initial requestor with the information — reminding them of where the answers actually are. “I’m a pretty assertive individual and I don’t lack knowledge in this industry,” she says. “Most of my mentors and direct bosses have been men, so I model a lot of my behavior after them.”  — Ilene Wolff


Terri Harwood // Katie Bowman Coleman // Amy B. Robinson // Monica Martinez
Lilly Epstein Stotland // Christine Sitek // Tricia Ruby // Sara Blackmer

Katie Bowman Coleman

President/Owner • Bowman Auto Group, Clarkston
Employees: 124 • Revenue: $145.7M

Snce her father owned a Chevrolet store in Belleville, Katie Bowman (now Coleman) may have been destined for the auto business. Or maybe not.

In 1982, the same year she graduated from high school, her dad closed his dealership due to the early 1980s credit crunch, then “reinvented himself” as a stockbroker — so it seemed as though being part of the auto industry was not in Coleman’s stars, after all.  She earned her bachelor’s degree in speech and communications from Denison University in 1986, and then took off for New York to work in the fashion industry.

“I had always loved fashion and retail,” she says. “I thought it would be great to work in New York City, and I had family there. I wanted to work for a big fashion house, and luckily I got a job at Ralph Lauren and ended up as a buyer for their retail and factory outlet stores. It was a lot of fun, and I got to travel and experience a lot of great things, but (after a while) I was homesick for Michigan.”

Meanwhile, her father had re-entered the car business by acquiring a Chevrolet store in Clarkston in 1984.

“After five years, I came back and worked for Ralph Lauren here in Michigan for a couple of years and then went to Sydney, Australia, for almost a year to work for a Ralph Lauren licensee there. When I returned, there weren’t many jobs here with Ralph Lauren (that were) as exciting as what I had (already) done, and my dad said, ‘Come work for me.’

“I thought I would give that a try, and started there in 1993. It took just a few months to fall in love with it. I saw how diverse, complex, and challenging it was, and how much there was to learn. And I could see the relationship between what I had learned about high-end customer service at Ralph Lauren and how that could be brought to a dealership. That really excited me, because dealerships back then weren’t as focused on customer service. It’s something I’ve felt passionately about ever since, and have strived to create in my store.”

Coleman’s father put her to work in just about every job in every department. She drove a parts truck and spent time as a receptionist, in service, in the business office, as a porter, in finance and insurance, and, of course, in sales. In 1996, she earned a master’s degree in finance from Walsh College in Troy. “I knew I needed more accounting and finance, so I went at night and on weekends for two years,” she says.

When her dad retired in 2011, she was more than ready to take over. Bowman Chevrolet —  the Bowman Auto Group includes Bowman Isuzu Commercial Truck and Bowman Auto Center, all in Clarkston — has been the second-fastest-growing Chevy store in Michigan since 2014, and 124 employees sell some 4,000 vehicles annually.

What’s more, Coleman serves as president of the Greater Detroit Chevrolet Dealers’ Association, and is a board member of both the Clarkston Chamber of Commerce and the Clarkston Downtown Retailers’ Association.

Coleman says her leadership style is all about empowerment. “I empower my managers to be self-sufficient, but (they) come to me for guidance. I share our financial statements with them, so they can see the whole picture of what’s going on at the dealership and understand their part of it. I set targets for sales, financial results, and our Customer Satisfaction Index (CSI) with General Motors, and modify them if business conditions change.

“We won the highest new-car sales CSI for GM in our region last year, and we’ve won that before. My dad always said (to take) care of the customer. … If you take good care of them, they’ll recommend us to others. I like to be hands-on, meeting customers and being present, because it’s fun and because I think it’s important for people to see that I’m involved.”

Her advice for women in business is to keep moving forward. “If there are times when you feel, either for yourself or your family, that you need to work part time, push yourself until that time, then stay involved so you can come back in. I think that’s our biggest challenge.

“We are as capable as men, but we do tend to get pulled away at times. I did that when my (three) kids were little, but when they went to school full time, I went back to work full time. I believe women can do anything, and if we’re passionate about people, process, and business, the auto business is a terrific place to find a great career.” — Gary Witzenburg’


Terri Harwood // Katie Bowman Coleman // Amy B. Robinson // Monica Martinez
Lilly Epstein Stotland // Christine Sitek // Tricia Ruby // Sara Blackmer

Amy B. Robinson

Vice President, CFO, and CAO • The Kresge Foundation, Troy
Employees: 100 • Assets Under Management: $3.5B

Amy  B. Robinson has been surprised at the turns her career has taken over 22 years at The Kresge Foundation.

The most recent turn was her additional appointment as chief administrative officer of the foundation in January. A CPA by training, she has been vice president and CFO since 2009, as well as secretary and treasurer of Kresge’s board of trustees. “A lot of CFOs tend to be really heads-down,” she says, “but I’ve been able to do a ton of different things here.”

One of her recent steps as CAO, which includes oversight of program and data information management operations, was to hire Wendye Mingo as managing director of information technology. Mingo, who came to Kresge from the automotive industry, is notable because she’s an African-American woman in IT.

“She was clearly the best candidate,” Robinson says, noting that Mingo’s hire also helps fulfill the foundation’s objective of increasing diversity in its ranks. “It was really icing on the cake.”

Robinson readily admits that IT is a challenge. What’s her strategy to tackle the oversight of unfamiliar assignments? In part, hire smart people like Mingo — and openly admit when she doesn’t understand something.

Robinson’s oversight also includes facilities, and sometimes very big ones. In 2015, she and her team led the expansion of the foundation’s Troy headquarters. The new $9.5-million, 6,000-square-foot addition incorporates an 1852 fieldstone farmhouse on Big Beaver Road, just west of Coolidge Highway, that was Kresge’s original headquarters. Robinson explains she “dabbled a little bit” in a related 2006 project, which prepared her for the 2015 expansion that was “absolutely a stretch. I lived and breathed with that building every day for almost two years,” she says. “I felt like it was a huge achievement. It was just kind of cool to fit the old with the new.”

The addition sits partially below grade, and is surrounded by vegetation, wetlands, and other natural features — which helps explain why a fox periodically visits the lily pond outside Robinson’s office.

Robinson doesn’t confine her attention to her workplace. She sits on the audit committee of the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, a role that earned her a Women to Watch award from the Michigan Association of CPAs this year.

The conservancy was formed in 2003 to transform the Detroit River shoreline from the Ambassador Bridge to the MacArthur Bridge at Belle Isle into a pedestrian-friendly riverwalk with parks and other recreational offerings. The Kresge Foundation was a key player in supporting the redevelopment.

It’s just one part of a transformational strategy in Detroit that also saw the foundation support and provide funding for the QLine light-rail system now offering service along Woodward Avenue. Other projects the foundation has supported include the conversion of Eastern Market into a publicly-owned, privately-operated organization; the creation of the New Economy Initiative; the Motor City Mapping project; and Detroit’s Grand Bargain — where the collection from the Detroit Institute of Arts was maintained rather than sold off to pay creditors from Detroit’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy in 2013.

Apart from civic projects, last year Robinson was appointed to the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s Not-For-Profit Advisory Committee. Federal and state accounting boards, along with the national CPA organization, all look to the FASB for establishing national financial, accounting, and reporting standards for industry and nonprofits.

With Robinson’s experience as CFO and CAO for one of the nation’s Top 50 foundations, it’s natural to wonder if she might be eyeing Kresge CEO Rip Rapson’s job or considering taking the top spot at another foundation. “If something came along that was really intriguing,” Robinson muses, adding: “I don’t want to limit my abilities, and I always feel providential and want to be open to whatever comes along, but I just can’t imagine what that would be.”

Robinson says Kresge is unique in doing the complex, important work it does, and she’s still challenged by her work and excited about Kresge’s 2015 commitment to making $350 million in social investments by 2020. The strategy was new for the foundation at the time, and expanded its investment tools for promoting social change for low-income people in America’s cities. “And, quite frankly, Rip is the best CEO I’ve ever worked for,” she says. — Ilene Wolff


Terri Harwood // Katie Bowman Coleman // Amy B. Robinson // Monica Martinez
Lilly Epstein Stotland // Christine Sitek // Tricia Ruby // Sara Blackmer

Monica L. Martinez

Senior Vice President of External Affairs/National Director of Hispanic Business Development • Comerica Inc., Detroit
Employees: 8,000 • Revenue: $2.8B

Monica L. Martinez’s ambition during her years at Dearborn High School was to become a teacher, but that career path took a U-turn when she enrolled at Eastern Michigan University. Shocked to see how many others had the same goal and were in the same field of study, she searched for another career.

“I decided to go into a business program called language and international trade,” she says. “It was also a year longer because it included traveling abroad, which appealed to me.”

The teaching profession’s loss was Comerica Inc’s gain. Last July, Martinez was appointed senior vice president of external affairs, a position she holds in addition to her work as national director of Hispanic business development. In the latter role, she serves as the liaison for the bank within the Hispanic community, directing business and diversity community outreach in the bank’s primary markets around the country.

Fluent in English and Spanish, Martinez hasn’t strayed far from her Dearborn roots. Her 10-year tenure at the bank matches that of the decade she spent earlier in the corporate offices of Ford Motor Co. While at Ford, she was introduced to fields that would eventually assist her career in banking: government relations, diversity, community outreach, philanthropic efforts, and volunteerism.

“Having that experience working for a Fortune 500 company (was) very valuable for me,” she says. “The department that I was hired into at Comerica was just getting started, and it included many of those exact things.”

Joining Comerica meant moving to Dallas, where the bank relocated its headquarters in 2007. Her move to Texas also precipitated two defining moments in her life.

First, she broke her ankle. Coping with that mishap was merely a warm-up for another injury in 2014 — two broken arms and a fractured jaw, suffered in a fall from a Segway motor scooter.

“Something like that really teaches you the importance of having people around you who are there for you,” Martinez says. “One of my grandmother’s and mother’s sayings is: ‘You know who your friends are when tough things happen to you,’ and that’s so true. You turn around and see who’s around you. It’s those who help you in your greatest time of need that you can consider your closest friends.”

The bank supported Martinez during her months of suffering. “I had swelling in my spine and a concussion, and I was unable to move my arms without severe pain. I spent much of the first month in bed. The loss of my independence was tough, and (because I lived) alone, I had to rely on others for help.”

She says kindness from those close to her and, in some cases, complete strangers, kept her going. After leaders in the Detroit Hispanic community heard about her accident, get-well cards and care packages poured in.

“I found it amazing how a simple card would lift my spirits,” she says. “Tough times teach us more about ourselves. I’ve found that those challenges allow us to emerge stronger and more resilient. It also reinforced that in business and in life, it’s important to know who’s there in the best of times and, even more important, who you can count on during the worst.”

After receiving her promotion, Martinez was transferred back to Detroit. “It’s wonderful to be among friends and family, and to see the changes that are happening in and around the city,” she says. “Comerica has been influential in working with some of the organizations to help create change, and we’re very excited to be a part of that change.”

Apart from the demands of her job, her spare time is usually spent reading job-related trade journals or attending seminars. Martinez also mentors eight young people. She says mentoring was something that popped into her head when a reporter called in 2008 to ask if she had made a New Year’s resolution.

“I spend time with them about three times a week, and I spend time keeping up with them,” she says. “I spend time whether it’s going to an event or an activity, or taking them to Tigers ballgames, or listening to them and seeing how I could help them. In many ways, we’re all somewhere because someone believed in us. Mentoring helps me be that person for others.” — Norm Sinclair


Terri Harwood // Katie Bowman Coleman // Amy B. Robinson // Monica Martinez
Lilly Epstein Stotland // Christine Sitek // Tricia Ruby // Sara Blackmer

Lilly Epstein Stotland

President • Vesco Oil Corp., Southfield
Employees: 200+ • Revenue: $175M

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lilly Epstein Stotland, a recent Harvard University graduate, was at her desk working as a financial analyst for Goldman Sachs when the horror of the World Trade Center attacks a few blocks away changed her life forever.

As dust and debris from the stricken towers filled her office, she fled into the street and ran arm-in-arm with a colleague to safety. “I was one of those people you would have seen on TV covered in dust,” she says. “We ran through the dust cloud and it was a very scary, transformative moment for me personally, and for so many others. It really was a turning point in terms of the direction of my life.”

As she took stock of the disaster around her, she thought about her family in metro Detroit and the business, Vesco Oil Corp., which her grandfather, Eugene Epstein, and two partners (since bought out) founded in 1947. It was then that she realized it was time for her to go home.

“We had a family business that I always had an interest in joining, but 9/11 was the push that I needed to pursue my dreams to find work that gave me a real feeling of history and a sense of purpose,” she says. “It was that overwhelming experience that pushed me in the direction that I always knew I would go.”

Fast-forward 16 years. Epstein Stotland is now president of Southfield-based Vesco Oil, one of the country’s largest distributors of automotive and industrial lubricants. She and her sister, Lena Epstein, previously shared the titles of co-owner and general manager of the company.

In May, Lena, who was co-chair of President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign in Michigan, announced her candidacy for the United States Senate. On June 22, Epstein Stotland took over as president from her father, Donald Epstein, who serves as Vesco’s CEO. Her mother, Marjory Epstein, is vice president and chairman of the board.

Epstein Stotland says working in a tight-knit family business is fulfilling. “There’s so much history here — family history, and so many generations in Detroit. I was yearning for that in my life, and I was thrilled to be back in Detroit and have the opportunity to work here,” she says.

After her grandfather’s death in 1985, his son, Richard, took over as president and CEO. A decade later, Richard unexpectedly died after a serious illness and was succeeded by Donald.

Epstein Stotland says the family is always aware that within the industry, Vesco Oil has been a target of private equity raiders. “That has been going on for a number of years,” she says. “We feel like we have a unique story to tell in that we maintain ourselves as a family business, with all the family atmosphere and culture that comes along with that. Private equity can’t duplicate that element.”

To keep the company moving forward, the family has been making strategic acquisitions of similar-sized competitors in Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; and Pittsburgh.

“We’ve been making acquisitions in the region of other family-held businesses, and we find that many of these businesses have a culture and operations that fit and are very complementary to ours,” Stotland Epstein says. “We’ve given those owners the opportunity to remain involved in their business and continue with their legacies.”

Vesco Oil distributes Exxon Mobil and Valvoline lubricants, as well as those of Castrol, Perkins Products, Motorcraft, Quaker, and other brands. In addition to its headquarters in Southfield, the company operates warehouses in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Zilwaukee, and Mancelona. The company also handles bulk windshield washer solvent and antifreeze, and has been honored for its environmental stewardship.

One achievement she is proud of is the company’s certification in 2014 as a national women’s business enterprise by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council.  Another achievement Epstein Stotland is proud of is Birmingham’s memorial of 9/11 which features a remnant of steel from one of the fallen World Trade Center buildings. “I wanted to make sure that we had something locally that would teach students about what happened on 9/11, so I worked with the city of Birmingham and donated the display, and helped to bring the city this remnant of steel for permanent display at the Birmingham Fire Department.” — Norm Sinclair


Terri Harwood // Katie Bowman Coleman // Amy B. Robinson // Monica Martinez
Lilly Epstein Stotland // Christine Sitek // Tricia Ruby // Sara Blackmer

Christine Sitek

​COO • General Motors Co., GM Global
Connected Customer Experience, Detroit
Employees: 225,000 • Revenue: $166.4B

Born and raised in metro Detroit, Christine Sitek grew up surrounded by family and friends who worked in the automotive industry. Her grandfather was an electrician for Fisher Body, her father was a wood model-maker, and she learned to work on cars early in life out of necessity. “I could never afford a car that really worked,” she laughs.

Following high school, she pursued a teaching degree at Central Michigan University, but two years later she had a change of heart. “They were laying off teachers during a downturn in the early 1980s,” she recalls, “and I was a little bored, so I thought that might not be the right thing for me. I went back to family and friends and got some good advice that maybe I should switch gears and go for a business degree in the supply chain management program at Michigan State University.”

After completing her degree, Sitek worked as a college graduate in training at GM’s Pontiac Truck headquarters in 1989, then as a material control analyst for GM Global Purchasing and Supply Chain Management. Along the way, she earned her MBA at the University of Detroit Mercy while working full time, and advanced through positions of increasing responsibility up to executive director for indirect, machinery, and equipment. She was also leading GM’s supplier diversity Initiatives.

“I spent the first 21 years of my career in global purchasing and supply chain,” she says, “moving through a lot of different jobs and leadership positions. Then I was lucky to be asked to take a cross-functional assignment in manufacturing engineering. I thought they had called the wrong person, since I’m not an engineer and had never worked in a plant. They said they were interested in getting a different leadership style and approach into that position, and (wanted) a fresh set of eyes to support the transformation.”

Moving over in 2010 to lead program management and launch activities was almost like leaving the company. “It was that different,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody, didn’t know the culture, didn’t know the work. It was an extreme test of adaptability, learning ability, managerial courage, and my own confidence to make that career change.”

Sitek’s responsibilities included equipment installation and timing for GM’s new vehicle launches around the globe.

“Then GM challenged me again: ‘Maybe you should run some plants and get to know our global manufacturing system, the operational side of the business, and how we execute vehicle programs from the plant floor perspective,’” she says. So in 2012, Sitek took on responsibility for 14 U.S. manufacturing sites as well as leading manufacturing quality. From there, she moved to her current position as COO with GM’s Global Connected Customer Experience team, where she leads the OnStar in-vehicle communications platform.

Sitek says her leadership style “is heavily rooted in inclusion in terms of my ability to pull people together, and the importance of building strong relationships to get things done. Once you have that, you’ll have the ability to move fast and bring people with you to drive change in a goal-oriented organization.”

Sitek is big on mentorship, and says she’s had many mentors. “I was very fortunate. I probably couldn’t name all the people I considered mentors, because I took advice and guidance from multiple people in multiple positions — bosses, peers, people who had a job before me. I never had a consistent mentoring relationship, but I leveraged people in all different positions for the advice and guidance I needed.”

Sitek’s advice to women in business is straightforward: “Be confident, take risks, hold your head high, and don’t count yourself out before you’ve started. More than men, women tend to discount their abilities and wear their confidence on their sleeves. I encourage them to take that leap, get in the ring, and sit at the table — and the demonstration of what they can do will come. I think the opportunities are fantastic, more than ever, but what impacts women’s ability to seek them and be successful is that they sometimes don’t give themselves the chance to do so. I advise them to be confident, put themselves forward, and take the risks to be there.” — Gary Witzenburg


Terri Harwood // Katie Bowman Coleman // Amy B. Robinson // Monica Martinez
Lilly Epstein Stotland // Christine Sitek // Tricia Ruby // Sara Blackmer

Tricia Ruby

CEO • Ruby and Associates, Bingham Farms
Employees: 40 • Revenue: $7.3M

An industrial engineer by training, Tricia Ruby didn’t have much interest in working for her father, David Ruby, who in 1984 launched Ruby and Associates, a structural engineering firm in Bingham Farms. Instead, she pursued a challenging opportunity in Atlanta before taking some time off to be a stay-at-home mother raising three boys.

In her early 30s at the time, the last thing she envisioned was coming home to the Detroit area and going to work at the family business. Then her phone rang. “I got a phone call that there was a financial issue with the company,” Ruby says. “The financial manager had embezzled a bunch of money.”

When she arrived in Detroit  she began the work of untangling the company’s financial issues, taking on the roles of COO and CFO. Over the course of five years, she helped turned around the business — but, along the way, she recognized that the company had taken on a toxic environment.

After reading The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni, Ruby began to recognize that Ruby and Associates was suffering from all the dysfunctions described in the book, particularly a lack of trust between employees and management. She desperately wanted to see the solutions described in the book implemented. “I thought, ‘We’re never going to survive unless we made sure all of this happens.’ ”

She got her chance to make a change in 2011, when a difficult decision was made to replace another family member as CEO, and Ruby was asked to take over the top spot. At first she wasn’t sure if the employees would accept her, since she wasn’t a structural engineer. “I was really worried about that,” she recalls.

But acceptance turned out to be no problem. In fact, Ruby won over the company’s employees by quickly making moves to address the trust issue. The changes she made might seem rudimentary, but their impact was huge. “I basically redesigned our company update meeting — what that looked like, and the information that was shared,” Ruby says. “I let people have a voice in what was shared, asking them, ‘What do you want to know?’ ”

She also began implementing the steps recommended in Lencioni’s book. “If you read that book, the foundation of any team is trust,” says Ruby, who earned her industrial engineering degree from Purdue University and obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing management from Kettering University in Flint. “We had really open discussions about people in the company, and people’s roles here.”

The dysfunction now seems like a distant memory to Ruby, who is focused on smart growth — but not necessarily the pursuit of big numbers designed to impress people. And although the company is on solid ground today, the impact of the 2008-2009 recession still lingers with Ruby, and she’s determined not to forget the lessons of that period.

“We’ve experienced great growth over the last couple of years, and (we landed) big projects for some large clients,” she says, “but we don’t have to be a $20 million business for me to feel like we’re successful. We’re successful because we do great work.”

Away from the business, one of Ruby’s passions is supporting families that have been touched by autism. She is vice chairwoman of the board at Judson Center, a nonprofit organization in Royal Oak that serves families dealing with autism and other mental health issues. “One of my closest friends has two boys with autism, and Judson’s work has really touched my heart,” Ruby says.

She is also the national chairwoman of the American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC)/Michigan Small Firms Council, and a member of the ACEC Tax and Regulatory Committee. The latter activity, she says, is partly inspired by the struggles her father sometimes had running the company.

“Business leaders need to understand the business side,” Ruby says. “Most of the people I’m dealing with are practitioners. It’s a structural engineer running a structural engineering firm. But what they really need to do is learn how to run a business. That’s one thing my dad never focused on and, because of that, he had some bad outcomes. I don’t want anyone to go through what my dad went through.” — Dan Calabrese


Terri Harwood // Katie Bowman Coleman // Amy B. Robinson // Monica Martinez
Lilly Epstein Stotland // Christine Sitek // Tricia Ruby // Sara Blackmer

Sara Blackmer

Vice President and General Manager • Rave Computer, Sterling Heights
Employees: 34 • Revenue: $20M

When Rave Computer CEO Rick Darter decided it was time to prepare for his retirement, he wasn’t about to hand over the reins of the company to just anyone. He wanted someone with a mind for technology, a heart for people, and a vision for the future of Rave, a technology consultant and computer manufacturer founded in 1988.

If finding all that in the form of one person seems unlikely, it actually wasn’t that difficult. It just required the combination of 18 years serving in the U.S. Air Force and an extensive career dealing with advanced ground vehicle engineering and other defense-oriented activity. In other words, it meant hiring Sara Blackmer.

When Darter came calling, Blackmer, 40, was focused on her role as director of government markets with New Hudson-based Pratt and Miller Engineering — a position she held for five years. With an engineering degree from the University of Michigan, as well as advanced degree work in global supply chain management at Indiana University, Blackmer certainly had the credentials to join Rave.

Credentials are one thing. A lot of people have them. Blackmer says she and Rave chose each other, because the challenge was just right for this point in her career and her life. “Technology is very exciting for me,” she says. “I’m an engineer by education, and all the business I’ve been involved with has had to do with advanced technology in some way.”

That started with Air Force aircraft, and moved into advanced energy and robotics systems — and, eventually, advanced performance ground vehicles. Moving to a leadership position at Rave and its high-end computing systems seemed like a natural next step for Blackmer.

But becoming the company’s president, which is the path she and Darter agreed to when she was hired, would be a new experience for her.  The transition should be complete in the near future, and Darter will stay on as CEO following the progression. Blackmer started with Rave Computer as a vice president and general manager.

“My first focus as president, the one I’m already focusing on as general manager, is the fundamentals,” Blackmer says. “I want to make sure I learn the people, the customers, and the policies. It’s a new technology area for me, so I’ve had a lot of learning to do for that. I wanted to make sure I understood where we’re strong and where we have room for growth, and I think I’ve discovered some areas where we can do better.”

Crucial to that effort, Blackmer says, is to protect the company’s culture. Rave has a significant number of company veterans who have been with the firm for more than 20 years, and Blackmer wants to make sure she maintains the strengths that have encouraged people to build careers at Rave. “To chart a course and develop a strategy and execute it, that’s very exciting to me,” she says. “I love to develop and lead teams. It’s been part of my makeup since I was very young, professionally.”

Blackmer joined the Air Force at 22, and remains part of it today as a reservist. Her experience reflects an appreciation of service that she learned from her parents.“My dad was a career Army veteran, so we were an Army family,” Blackmer says. “We learned about service, integrity, and a strong work ethic from my dad. My mom taught me independence, confidence, and respect. Those things helped me drive toward a desire to improve myself and improve my surroundings as far out as I could touch.”

Blackmer’s time in the Air Force helped her to appreciate the defense industry, especially technologies that help support the Armed Forces. Married to her husband, Shane, for 18 years, Blackmer is the mother of three children and is more determined than ever to make sure her career plays the right role in the life of her family. “There’s less stress and a lot of excitement compared with previous career choices,” Blackmer says. “It’s incredibly important to maintain balance in your life, and I want to create an environment where my team can be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually fit.” — Dan Calabrese