Rising to the Top
By Dorothy Bliskey
Kelly Sayles, 51, has risen to the top as President/General Manager of The Jor-Mac Company, Inc. – a sizeable sheet metal fabrication company in Lomira with 165 employees. Customers served include those in fields such as rail, industrial, backup power, heating/ventilating/air conditioning, agriculture, electrical enclosures and more.
Sayles was successful in reaching the top in spite of the fact she didn’t seek a four-year or advanced college degree. What she is proud of, however, is that while immersed in the work world she received an Associate Degree in Industrial Engineering and the highly-regarded Six Sigma Black Belt certification at UW-Milwaukee. Both helped set the stage for her move up the ladder.
She went from high school directly to the world of work, holding various positions as she moved up through the ranks at several companies prior to being hired at Jor-Mac in 2008 as the quality control manager.
“My father had passed away when I was a freshman, and as the third child out of seven, college wasn’t something I really considered,” Sayles said.
Her early work experience at 16 was a filing job in the accounting department of a local company. Her path to the top then progressed through various roles in accounting, the credit department, quality control, as a design engineer and then as a sales engineer at area firms.
Sayles attributes her work experience, determination and work ethic – going beyond what is expected – for getting her to where she is today. “I believe it was my drive for excellence and having a fantastic team behind me – a team who believed in me — that helped accelerate my career,” Sayles said.
“Being a woman in the manufacturing arena for the past 30 years has given me so many opportunities. I never wanted to “settle” as that is not my nature. Being able to steer the ship today is only possible because of what I have learned over the years, of what works and what doesn’t work.”
While leading this type of company has often been a male-dominated role, Sayles says it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female – it’s all based on how hard you work.
What she enjoys about her work is the interaction with the employees. “I want to know what is happening on the shop floor,” Sayles said. “I enjoy talking through problems, hearing about successes and in general not being a president that is unapproachable. I know almost every person on the shop floor by name. And if help is needed, I’m right there to work alongside them.”
Mentors helped her succeed
Sayles credits Paul Luber, the CEO of Jor-Mac, for helping her succeed. “He has taught me so much about looking beyond today and tomorrow. His guidance and faith in me has been the driving force in my success at Jor-Mac. I’ve gotten where I am because some really good people believed in me,” Sayles said.
While her mentors through the years have been co-workers and bosses, one who stands out is her late husband, Mike Kwakkel who worked at Jor-Mac with her as the Director of Operations. Sadly, he passed away this February from cancer — a diagnosis he received just 5 months earlier.
“We had been together for 14 years, but we got married just six days before he passed,” Sayles said. “Mike was a good father to his two daughters, and was very much a people-person at work. He was a fair man and treated the employees as such. He laid out expectations and held people accountable. That was his success. He is surely being missed by many. Not a day do I walk through the shop that someone doesn’t mention him. He definitely made an impact.”
Sayles says that carrying on without Mike at Jor-Mac is hard. “We have hired a very competent individual who is doing a fantastic job. What I miss about Mike is some of the conversations to and from work about happenings and plans for the day. Most of all, I miss his companionship and the way we worked so well together — not only at Jor-Mac but outside of work. We ran a very successful rental property business together.”
“Not many people can work and live with their spouse and have zero regrets,” Sayles continued. “We loved being together and that is the hardest thing for me to try and manage. We dreamed big and carried out a lot of our dreams before he died. We can really say we lived every day to the fullest. We always had a project and thoroughly enjoyed each other.”
Sayles says interests in her personal life include working on the rental properties she and Mike purchased in Waupun and along the Gulf of Mexico. “I love remodeling houses. It’s my second love behind my manufacturing career. Mike and I completely remodeled the beach house a year before he died, but we never got to go there to just relax. I feel guilty going there now, knowing he never got to enjoy it.”
“There is always a part of Mike walking with me every day. It’s funny how I go back and think what Mike would have wanted me to do when facing a difficult decision. It’s usually then that a light comes on, and I clear a path forward.”