Women CEO’s: Taking Ownership of Family Businesses
By Deanna Shoss
“I wear my big girl shoes,” says Laurette Rondenet, President and CEO of Edlong Dairy Technologies, about preparing for big meetings. As the only certified Women’s Business Enterprise in the flavor industry, Rondenet is accustomed to being the only woman in the room. “I’m 5’ 10” and when I wear my big girl shoes I’m 6’2.” It serves as an external reminder of her earned internal confidence: “My dad taught me…I’ve been here before. I know what to do.”
A 2014 study showed that women — mostly daughters — are increasingly taking over their family-owned businesses. Rondenet is one such daughter; as is Eileen Chin, President of R.M. Chin and Associates. Both now own and run their family business- in industries that are not known for women leaders.
Edlong, based in Elk Grove Village, counts 15 of the top 20 Fortune 500 global food manufacturers as clients. R.M. Chin provides expert project and construction management services in the transportation, aviation and building sectors. In the 10+ years since Eileen took the helm, she has nearly doubled the company workforce and tripled annual revenue. “And we have an office in Dallas now,” says Chin, modestly about growing the business beyond the Illinois borders.
Such outstanding success for these two leading woman CEO’s makes one realize the bias in the “woman” qualifier in the title. They are both successful CEO’s. Period. With the proof in the pudding (literally for Edlong), Laurette and Eileen talk about the transformations they have made after taking over businesses in traditionally male dominated industries, some of the challenges along the way, and how they continue to network and support women in industry.
Not her dad’s first choice
Even as a young girl Laurette always knew that she wanted to run Edlong. But she was not her dad’s first choice. “My older brother was the heir apparent. His path was laid out for him,” says Laurette. While she planned her education around her vision, studying food science and business in college (the former because she knew she needed it and the latter because she absolutely loved it), her brother was put to work and groomed for his future leadership role. It’s just what dads did. All the while, her brother dreamed of being a school teacher. He finally told their dad. In the meantime Laurette had continued to build her life and career elsewhere.
“In 1992 I got the call from my dad that it was time for me to join him. I was 26 years old, newly married and with a six month old baby.” Plus her dad had just invested a lot of money in new equipment and then they lost their biggest client. Laurette embraced the challenge head on.
Within 18 months of that call, her dad stepped back and let her fully take the reins. “We followed the “Good to Great” model, looking at what part of the flavor industry we could own, what we could do better than anyone else.
We narrowed it down to dairy flavors,” says Laurette. (Think the asiago flavoring to make asiago cheese crackers, or a “mouth-feel” flavoring to make low-fat dairy products taste creamy.) An organizational development consultant who interviewed clients, employees and the leadership team likened them to the Navy Seals of flavor. “Your customers come to you with their most difficult problems. When no one else can do it, Edlong can.”
Growing up, Laurette was accustomed to being surrounded by male business owners as role models. She was the youngest of seven children, with a five year gap in between her and the next oldest sibling. When she was a teenager she got a lot of one-on-one time with her dad, Eugene Rondenet, each summer. She learned so much about running a business on fishing trips with her dad and uncle, also a business owner, by just listening to them talk about their businesses.
But she credits her mom for her inspiration. “My mom felt limited. She felt motherhood was the only choice then.” But by the time Laurette came along, her mom, now 82, “was having a sort of epiphany. She went back to school. And I think she brainwashed me with “Free to Be You and Me” while I was still in my crib,” referring to the Marlo Thomas song that challenged gender stereotypes. “I think your mother telling you can do whatever you want to do is so powerful.”
I do this for other companies. Why don’t I do it for you?
Eileen Chin did not always have a plan to take over her family business. In fact, she started off as a news producer before going into public affairs. “When I joined RM Chin I did not think ‘I’ll start here, go there and then be president,” says Eileen.
She joined RM Chin in 2004. She was at a point in her career where she was ready to do something else. She knew her father to be a great businessman and engineer, but saw that he had taken the company as far as he could organically. “I do marketing and strategic planning for other companies so that they can grow. I can do that for you,” she told him, adding “and quite frankly you don’t know how to do that.” She knew she could make a difference. “I’m here to make you guys look better,” said Eileen, who brought in a new and different skill set than the great project managers, architects and construction managers working there.
“I could also bring R.M. Chin a previously missing sales and marketing piece and drive new business through proposal writing and responding to RFQ’s.” Once she got the marketing and communications under control, Eileen was there and people were asking her for guidance, so she stepped up her involvement with operations and technology.
By 2012 she was ready to buy in as an owner. Her parents were still working out ownership of the company between the two of them and it was taking longer than she had hoped. Possibly emboldened by her participation at the time in a pilot CEO Advisory Group through the US Minority Development Business Center, she gave an ultimatum. “I’m done waiting. You need to figure it out or I’m leaving. And if I leave I don’t think R.M. Chin will continue to be as successful as it is.”
Busting the daughter/little girl stereotype.
Even with a layer of family drama, the internal transition was easier than the external one. Eileen felt this most when R.M. Chin applied to be a WBE—Women’s Business Enterprise–with the City of Chicago. “They just wouldn’t believe that I really owned the company. I had already been involved for 10+ years, but I had to get letters from clients and employees to testify that I was involved hands on.” The original plan was for dad Ray to stay on longer, a sound decision with his 30 years of institutional knowledge. But he felt that he had to pull back for Eileen to be perceived as the owner, and so he did.
Now she chalks that experience up to a natural part of personal and business growth. “I tell my team that if they don’t feel uncomfortable 80% of the time then something’s wrong. I feel uncomfortable 90% of the time, whether I’m trying to establish R.M. Chin as a project partner with a new project delivery model or reorganizing our management structure to position us for growth,” says Eileen. “I don’t feel like ‘the little girl who doesn’t know’ anymore.”
Eileen has always had a vision for the strategy and business operations side of things. “Now I’m better at talking more about the technical side because I get briefings, I visit sites and insert myself into understanding all of our projects. I think it’s important to be hands on.”
Beyond advice, Eileen cites her dad’s unconditional support as empowering. “He gave me leeway to explore, instead of saying to do things a certain way.” In fact, says Eileen, there are times now when she wants to say “hellooo…I need a little help here.” But it’s more about bouncing ideas off of him. As he has told her, “Eileen, you are facing challenges I never had, so I don’t know the right way to do that. And” he adds, “You do a lot better job of that employee engagement thing than I ever did.
Is caring for your employees a women thing?
There’s a phrase somewhere that says “EQ (Emotional Intelligence) is the new IQ.” Neither Laurette nor Eileen is stopping to question if caring for your people is a female gender stereotype or just good business. But both are finding great success with transparent and inclusive management styles, and both are comfortable talking about the fluidity of caring for family (Laurette is a mother of five, Eileen has two children) and leading a business.
“I think there is something “tribe” about it,” says Laurette. “You have to look out for the whole even in the face of difficult decisions.” Laurette says she is way more open than her dad, who was very secretive. “Everyone needs to know where our sales numbers are and what our strategy is” It’s one of the things Edlong was recognized for as a Best Place to Work in Crain’s: “Do you feel like you know where the company is going and where you fit into that?” Edlong employees say yes.
For Eileen, it’s the blurred line between work and family. “Being an owner of a company is not a job. It’s a lifestyle. As much as I’m responsible to my own family, I’ve got 70+ employees that rely on me to make sound business decisions.”
Women helping women.
Eileen is involved in WTS, the Women’s Transportation Seminar. She was so impressed at how helpful other women business owners were, even if they were competitors, when she was figuring out how to get pre-qualified to bid on public contracts. She is also on the planning and design board of the Illinois Roadbuilders Association, which is a predominantly male organization. “I try to look at the challenges as related to doing business—not just about doing business as a minority and a woman.” Although every once in a while she jokes with them that they got a “two-fer” when she joined the board (R.M. Chin is an MBE, WBE and DBE.).
Boards are a great way to get involved and to support other women or young girls to consider careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.) There are only 60 flavor companies in the world, and even as competitors they collaborate as members of FEMA, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. “I’m the only female flavor company owner on the board. It’s good to be at the table to talk about things like regulations and advocacy.” She is also very active in WBENC, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, among other associations, where she sits on the Certification Committee. “We actively seek opportunities to develop the next generation of food scientists.” Very close to her heart, she recently set up a scholarship program in her dad’s name with the Culinary Institute of America.
Both Laurette and Eileen have felt bullied at least once in a meeting, but chalk it up to experience and learning to stand your ground. “Sometimes as women we shrink to not make our men feel small,” says Laurette, referencing the quote by Marianne Williamson. “I’ve done it and you don’t even know you are doing it. I’m like what am I doing? I’m not shining! We need to support each other to help each other shine and be out best self.”
“I do what I love to do. I feel like I’m blessed. It’s my dream job,” says Laurette of running a 100+ year old company that has been in her family for over 50 years.
“But being a woman CEO can be hard and it can be lonely. Hmm,” she says thinking of her time if or when she finally retires. “Maybe I will start a support group for successful, driven, women CEO’s.”
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