Karla Fiebelkorn: It’s exciting to run your business and make it grow
“Sometimes you have to figure out that the grass isn’t greener on the other side,” said Karla Fiebelkorn, president of Gillette Winnelson in Gillette, Wyo. She reached that conclusion in 1982 after leaving N.O. Nelson (Winnelson’s predecessor) for three months to be a marketing person for a local furniture store.
“I got a call back from N.O. Nelson and realized it was probably the best opportunity for me,” she said. Little did she know how true that would be.
Six years later in 1988 she became president of the local plumbing supplies and equipment company. “The president at that time moved to another location. I had the opportunity to buy stock and take over, which was very scary and exciting all at the same time,” Karla said, laughing at the recollection.
The scary part, she said, was the unknowns – getting a loan for the investment and making sure she had the ability to do the job. “You question yourself on those kinds of things,” she said.
As president, Karla brought experience to the job
Karla had worked in the company for eight years and knew its operations, inventory, customers and products cold. She kept the inventory up to date, worked the sales counter, did outside sales and just about every other job in the company.
But in 1988, “There weren’t a lot of women in this type of business, and I was warned by the previous company president that could be a challenge,” she recalled. “It came off pretty easy though. Nobody really questioned it (a woman president.) My product knowledge was strong and it worked out very well.”
Today there are 28 women who are local company presidents in the Win Group of Companies.
“The exciting part of becoming president was being able to run my own business and having the opportunity to make this company grow,” Karla continued to recall about the decision to seize the Spirit of Opportunity. “It’s a pretty exciting business and a challenging one that can be rewarding.”
Grow it did over the years, and the company’s not finished growing. Gillette Winnelson is a successful business that has doubled its revenues and gone from nine to 13 employees in the last two years due to mushrooming community growth and mining operations in the Gillette area.
For Karla, the Spirit of Opportunity, which is the bedrock of the WinWholesale culture, means being able to do whatever is required to get the job done and being provided all the tools to make it happen.
Local decision making helps profitability
“We saw what we could do here and took the opportunity to do it, and WinWholesale provided the tools for us to do the job better than anybody else. It’s amazing to watch the company and employees grow, and great to help your employees become something they thought they could never be,” Karla said.
WinWholesale’s philosophy of leaving decision making to local companies is another reason for Gillette Winnelson’s success and growth. “Working at a Win company is different from other companies. You can make the majority of your decisions right here. That makes a huge difference between us and anyone else,” Karla explained. “We can choose who we sell to and what products we sell. Having that flexibility has definitely made us profitable.”
The bread and butter of Winnelson companies across the U.S. is selling plumbing supplies and equipment to local plumbing contractors. Gillette Winnelson does a lot of that. However, when Karla became president she wanted to sell other products supporting the region’s open pit mining industry.
“We’re more versatile in what we stock (than competitors.) We have it all and will stock everything.”
Nontraditional products help Gillette Winnelson grow
She’s not kidding. To serve the company’s mining customers, Gillette Winnelson carries all sorts of nontraditional items for a Winnelson. “We sell them gloves, rags, toilet paper, coffee, water, Windex, drill bits, tape – all kinds of things. We’re one of the few companies in the area willing to stock those items. If someone will buy it from me, I’ll stock it to make a profit,” she said.
Good business move. The contracts for eight mines generate revenue in the low seven figures.
It turns out that properly managing growth is one of Karla’s biggest challenges. “We’re growing so fast that the averages (used to manage the business) don’t make sense anymore,” she said.
Meeting that challenge means staying on top of everything, being cautious about receivables, making sure the right people are in the right jobs and having the freedom to get the job done for customers.
Besides presidents, other people needed for success
Making sure she has the right people also has helped Gillette Winnelson succeed. It requires people who are self motivated and want to do the best job they can, Karla said. “If they’re here for just a paycheck, they’re probably not going to last in the job, by my choice or their choice,” she said.
That doesn’t seem to be a problem in Karla’s company. Turnover is low among the five men and eight women who work there. Trust in the employees is high and teamwork is the way work gets done to serve customers.
When you have the right people, you also may have future Win company presidents somewhere in the 574 local companies in 44 states – maybe even at Gillette Winnelson. Growing presidents internally is a primary way they move to a company of their own. Karla has some words of advice for any potential president before making the decision to own their own company.
“Stay focused, be willing to work hard, long hours. Have the product knowledge required and make sure you’re ready to become a president,” Karla said. She’s quick to add that in her view not everyone is cut out to be a president, and that’s okay.
“We also need other people who want to do their job and do it well,” she said. That includes warehouse people, sales representatives, operations managers, office managers and people filling other positions to make a company successful.
Either way – company president or another type of employee – the rewards working in the Win Group of Companies can be great both personally and professionally.