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Leading women: strength, innovation and growth

As dedicated industry professionals, women are running companies, developing innovative new products and meeting the challenges of a global marketplace. Our six subjects have varied backgrounds and career paths, but the advice they offer is surprisingly similar: engage, learn and toot your own horn.

by Laurie Junker A woman starting a manufacturing company might not be a big deal today, but it definitely was in 1979 when Kathie Leonard founded Auburn Manufacturing Inc. (AMI) with one product—an asbestos-free textile to combat extreme heat. Today AMI, based in Mechanic Falls, Maine, has five different product lines, two manufacturing plants and thousands of customers. An even bigger deal was Leonard’s decision to challenge China in a successful “anti-dumping” case in 2017 after AMI had lost a sizeable chunk of its silica fabric business to Chinese manufacturers using predatory pricing tactics. “My accounting manager told me that we couldn’t afford not to do this,” recalls Leonard. AMI filed a case with the U.S. Commerce Department and was able to prove that China was dumping its silica textiles. The experience was an intense 18-month crash course in forensic accounting, international trade law and the creative methods some unscrupulous foreign competitors use to try to skirt tariffs. But Leonard says it was worth it. “This case showed that we weren’t going to take it lying down. We may be a little company, but we’re going to stand up for ourselves.”
Continuous learning has been the hallmark of Auburn Manufacturing Inc. CEO and president Kathie Leonard’s career in the textile industry.
Leonard’s career has involved a lot of learning by doing. Her first job in textiles was as secretary to the president of a manufacturer that dabbled in heat-resistant fabric. He asked her to do some marketing for that product, and Leonard discovered she was good at it. When a coworker approached her about starting a company to focus on advanced textiles for extreme heat environments, she decided to go for it. “You know that old saying, ‘Ignorance is bliss’? Well, I lived it,” she says. She joined trade organizations and attended meetings and conferences to learn about the industry and develop customer relationships—and when she realized that wasn’t enough, she went back to school. “I can’t fake it, so I had to do the work,” Leonard says, referencing the classes she took in accounting, economics and management. The work paid off. AMI’s business took off, and Leonard, both a successful small business owner and a woman in a male-dominated profession, began getting asked to sit on boards, talk to lawmakers and give speeches. But it was a tough time for her personally. “I questioned myself and felt very unsure. I knew my own business, but couldn’t figure out why these people thought I was qualified to give them advice on theirs,” she recalls. That feeling, sometimes referred to as “imposter syndrome,” isn’t uncommon among women and, in particular, female entrepreneurs who are often working without the benefit of a staff of experts. Leonard sought the help of a therapist and read books to better understand her feelings. Ultimately, she just pushed through the fear until it went away. “I’m happy it happened to me. In the end I became more me, and I realized that’s enough.”

Do unto others

Rosemary Ward-Krienke’s charming Irish accent didn’t help her any with the truckers and farmers who’d call soon after she’d purchased North Texas Tarp and Awning (NTTA) in 1992. “They’d say, ‘I want to talk to a man!’” she recalls. “So I’d put one of the guys on the phone.” That changed, though, once Ward-Krienke threw herself into learning everything about the business, and then they wouldn’t talk to anybody but her. “It became, ‘I want to talk to Rosemary! She knows what she’s doing!’” she says with a laugh.
Rosemary Ward-Krienke of North Texas Tarp & Awning LLC, pictured here with her husband Al, bought the company in order to spend more time at home.
Born and raised on a farm in County Donegal, Ireland, Ward-Krienke, CPP, IFM, MFC, followed love to Wichita Falls, Texas, where her husband was a college professor. She purchased NTTA not because she had a passion for the tarp business, but because she was tired of commuting to Dallas for her job in industrial steel sales. She recalls, “I loved my job, but I was tired of being away from my family for most of the week.” She knew nothing about industrial textiles and found the big machines pretty intimidating at first, but figured it couldn’t be that different from the sewing she did on her Singer at home, “just twenty times bigger,” she says. In 2008 she relocated the company to Denton, just outside of Dallas, in order to expand the business—a smart move that led to a 75 percent increase in sales. The company now manufacturers covers for a variety of commercial, residential and industrial applications. Ward-Krienke’s philosophy is simple: “We do what’s right for the customer and treat people how we want to be treated.” She expects respectful behavior from her customers, too. “There were a couple of instances when a trucker would come in and be nasty and use profanity, and I wouldn’t have it,” she says. “I would tell them, ‘You are not going to treat our people like that. We don’t treat you that way.’”

Connecting with customers—and community

“People get joy out of being understood,” says Liz Diaz, LTC-MFC, owner of North Beach Marine Canvas (NBMC), explaining why empathy is one of her most important strengths. “When you get someone, they want to work with you.” That ability to connect with customers has enabled her to build a successful business making custom upholstery and covers for sailboats and yachts for the past 30 years—a career she came to by accident. Diaz was working in the head-hunting industry in San Francisco in her early twenties when she spotted a woman fitting canvas on a boat in the marina after returning from a sail with a friend. Sailing was a new passion Diaz had picked up after college.
Liz Diaz, owner and designer of North Beach Marine Canvas, says connecting with others is the key to success.
“My friend said the woman made custom covers for boats, and I thought, ‘That’s a job? I love to sew, and I love this sailing thing. I think I’ll learn how to do this!’” Diaz says. She’d grown up sewing with her mother and had a good eye for design, so she just started doing it, taking out an advertisement in a local sailing publication and cutting and sewing on her dining room table on nights and weekends. She also joined the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) and the Marine Fabricators Association (MFA, a chapter of IFAI) early on, attending conferences and meetings and eventually earning her Master Fabric Craftsman (MFC) certification, something of which she’s very proud. Before long, she was able to quit her day job and move NBMC to a workshop near the pier, where it is today. More recently, Diaz has worked to improve her business practices by hiring a consultant to help manage NBMC’s growth. This has allowed her to direct her energy into a new venture: Canvas Houses, affordable tension fabric structures that can be used as temporary housing for homeless people. “Everything I learned from starting and running North Beach has helped with this endeavor, especially my knowledge of boats, spatial relationships and how to make people comfortable within a small space,” says Diaz.

All in the family

Denise Offray is only the fourth CEO/owner in the 143-year history of OTEX Specialty Narrow Fabrics® (formerly Offray Specialty Narrow Fabrics), and the first woman to hold the position. She didn’t plan on going into the family business and was happily working in advertising after college in the late 1970s when she felt the pull. “I literally woke up one morning and thought, ‘This is ridiculous. I should be working in my family’s business.’’’ Her father, Claude Offray Jr., believed in her but not in nepotism, so she started as a secretary in the sales office: taking customer calls and attending sales meetings to learn about the business. At that time, OTEX was focused on producing high-end decorative ribbons for clothing, hats, lingerie, crafts and gift wrap. It was at a trade show, where Offray was working as a gofer, that she got to talking with a group of florists. They told her that Offray’s ribbons were the best because hot glue would adhere to them and they could be refrigerated without wilting. Offray convinced her father to let her pursue the floral market, and it was a success—eventually becoming one of the company’s largest divisions during a time when offshore imports had begun to erode the domestic decorative ribbon business.
Denise Offray is a fourth-generation owner and CEO of Otex Specialty Narrow Fabrics®.
Things changed when she decided to have a baby. “I came in to work when I was six months along, and my desk was cleaned out. My father loved me but thought I should stay at home and be with my child,” she says. She wasn’t entirely happy, but notes that it wasn’t unusual for the time (early 1980s). Not content to stay out of the business completely, she worked from home while her children were young, handling the White House and State Department accounts—accounts she had acquired while on leave—supplying them with ribbon for a variety of official functions. “I didn’t have much of a home office and had to rent a typewriter,” Offray recalls. Eventually she was back at company headquarters, participating in the 2002 asset sale of the ribbon business and helping to transition the business focus to high-performance narrow fabrics for the fire and safety industry, fall protection, outdoor, military, load management, aerospace, static dissipation, e-textile and composite markets. In 2012 Denise Offray became the owner, a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. “I have a healthy respect for the opportunity I was given,” she notes. “Yes, my father had confidence in me, but now it’s up to me to hang on to it and make it grow for the next generation.”

New products, new performance

LeAnne Flack was studying business economics and French at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., 23 years ago when she landed a summer internship at Milliken & Company, a global manufacturer of performance and protective textiles. The program gave Flack exposure to several businesses within Milliken, and when she was hired as a process specialist later that year, she was tasked with looking for ways to reduce yarn waste in the warping process at the plant in Abbeville, S.C. “I liked the hands-on aspect of working in the plant and ended up staying in manufacturing for almost ten years, eventually having a team of engineers report to me,” Flack says. Her next stop was business development, where she helped build the business case to support the creation of a new fiberglass-free, recyclable product, EnviroPanel®, in 2006 (the patent includes her name). More recently, Flack led the development of Breathe by Milliken, making the case for developing textiles for the residential market that combine sustainability and performance. She worked with a Milliken chemist, Dr. Emily Michaels, to commercialize them.
Marketing manager LeAnne Flack has had a diverse 23-year career at Milliken & Company and encourages women in the industry to engage in more self-promotion to succeed.
“The way we use our furniture today is different than the past—we eat on our couches and have dogs that jump on them, so upholstery needs to be able to resist stains and be cleanable,” Flack explains. “As consumers get more and more educated, they will also demand that the fabrics are sustainable and responsibly manufactured without chemicals of concern. We don’t need to worry about what is in or on the fabric.” That practical sensibility and willingness to jump into all aspects of product development emerged from her level of comfort with various functions within Milliken as well as the experience of others. “I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of wonderful female and male mentors who helped me, maybe because I started as an intern,” she says. “It was definitely more male-dominated when I started. But now that’s really changed, and we have a lot more women in all areas of the company.”

A global influence

Mary Lynn Landgraf’s charisma and tenacity have taken her all over the world to promote U.S. fabrics. She didn’t originally intend on making textiles her career, but concedes that maybe it was inevitable. “My great-grandfather owned a woolen mill in Charlottesville, Va., that made uniforms for military academies and the postal service, and my father worked at NASA as a liaison to the textile industry, so I guess it was in my DNA,” she observes. Landgraf was studying German linguistics in graduate school when she was asked to consult with a local fiber and yarn manufacturer that was trying to increase its export business. “I didn’t know much about the industry, so it was trial by fire, but I really enjoyed the work,” she says. After that, she held positions in international sales for residential fabric companies The Rug Barn and Duralee. Then, in 2002, a once-in-a-lifetime job opportunity presented itself—as a trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Textiles and Apparel, promoting American-made fiber, yarn and fabrics around the world. Landgraf says, “I jumped on it because I knew it would be stable employment, but I found that I loved it.”
Mary Lynn Landgraf has spent her career promoting American-made textiles to the world.
Her work took her to countries where women have limited rights, and in some cases, where the culture doesn’t permit women to work outside the home. But Landgraf says she wasn’t treated as an inferior. “I didn’t have a lot of these issues. I was well received because I was a government official and knew what I was talking about. I also represented U.S. textiles, which are considered the best in quality, performance and reliability.” Landgraf was one of the first women ever to do a show in Saudi Arabia, where she was careful to observe local customs and dress appropriately. She also kept her smile and sense of humor close at hand. “A smile can transcend language barriers and dissolve misconceptions,” she adds. Landgraf retired from the U.S. Department of Commerce in late 2017 to open a bed and breakfast, Southern Sighs Inn, in Church View, Va. But retirement didn’t last long. In 2018 she was recruited by a Swiss company, SSZ Camouflage Technology AG, to represent its camouflage technology, and in 2019 she joined the Executive Advisory Board of Global Fiber Technologies Inc. Her fated career in textiles isn’t over just yet. Landgraf’s advice to newcomers who want to succeed in the industry is straightforward: “Jump in headfirst, get a mentor, give presentations, stay visible, attend conferences and workshops, take courses in textiles, give back to the community and, above all, have a sense of humor. These are the building blocks to success!” Laurie Junker is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn. 

SIDEBAR: One on One

LeAnne Flack is paying it forward by leading one of Milliken’s mentoring groups, which meets monthly to offer support and discuss issues. She also does one-on-one coaching with young women on the manufacturing side. A recent discussion centered on how to balance work and home, especially in the age of 24/7 accessibility, but what Flack thinks really trips women up is their reluctance to self-promote and support each other. “We as women often have a hard time talking about our accomplishments and successes and promoting our abilities and what we bring to the table,” she says.

SIDEBAR: Global Impacts

One of Mary Lynn Landgraf’s favorite assignments was of a more humanitarian nature: helping Afghani carpet weavers regain international branding and recognition they’d lost during the civil war. She helped produce shows with a Department of Commerce colleague, Noor Alam Sclafani, at the Atlanta Rug Market, Las Vegas and New York markets, and worked with National Geographic at the Atlanta Rug Market show to highlight the culture and artistry of Afghanistan. But the work is about more than just rug sales, as Landgraf points out: “Helping them regain the trade keeps them employed and helps keep the family together, and that’s so important to the strength of a community, and ultimately the nation.”