Region women lead their families’ businesses
Twenty years ago, Lynn Eplawy, now president of Gary Jet Center, was living in Chicago. She had a finance degree and was happy working for a graphic design firm.
“Then one day as I was reflecting, I just asked myself what I wanted to do with my career,” Eplawy said.
She counseled with her father, Wil Davis, a former U.S. Navy pilot captain and president of Gary Jet Center, an independently owned and operated aviation firm.
“Since I was unsure of what I wanted to do next, he asked me to come and work here with him at Gary Jet Center and stay for a year,” she said.
Eplawy did stay and learned the business from the inside out.
“I did a number of administrative duties and did whatever was necessary over the years from payroll, shipping, receiving, filing and more,” Eplawy said. “It was wonderful to do what needed to be done while learning all about the business without any pressure.”
Then, 10 years ago, she took over as president while her father remains chairman of Gary Jet Center.
Eplawy’s story is an example of the changing face of business throughout Northwest Indiana. Company leaders are passing on their legacies, more and more, to their daughters in traditionally male-dominated industries.
Jeanne Robbins, of Munster Steel Co., has a similar story, but when she approached her father, she sent her resume for an open position.
“Thankfully, he decided to offer me the position,” she said.
“So, in January 1993, I found myself working for the family business, as the third generation, while attending Indiana University Northwest to complete my Master of Business Administration degree,” she said.
Family-owned businesses, such as Gary Jet Center and Munster Steel, are the heartbeat of commerce in the U.S. They make up nearly 90 percent of business enterprises in the U.S. and about two-thirds of employment, according to , a initiative.
Their influence, value and impact on the economy and society are significant, including who they choose to lead their futures. For the first time, according to , 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women this year — a significant milestone. That statistic can only lead to opportunities for women in the Region.
“Having a strong female role model is incredibly important,” Robbins said. “They inspire women to be more ambitious and aim higher — because they see it is possible.”
The Northwest Indiana business community is replete with thriving family enterprises. Several of them have successfully made the transition to daughters who embrace the challenges of their fathers with the same energy and dedication.
That’s exactly what happened when Robbins’ dad started his succession process in 2002.
“When my dad decided that he wanted to start easing his way into retirement, I was promoted to president, while he stayed on as president emeritus, so he could continue to share his 43 years of knowledge and experience,” Robbins said. “It allowed me to take on the new responsibilities while still having his support and guidance.”
Times are changing
Like Eplawy and Robbins, Megan Applegate of Applegate & Company CPAs in Michigan City and Leah Konrady of Konrady Plastics Inc. in Portage are leading their long-standing family businesses.
Applegate & Company CPAs offers a variety of public accounting services, including business tax compliance, audit and attestation, and consulting. It was founded in 1984 by Megan’s father, Paul Applegate.
“He worked alongside his father, John Applegate CPA and grew the business,” Megan said, “and in 2014, my brother Blake and I joined the firm. It feels like I’ve been working at the firm my entire life. When I came back here after my time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was thrilled to be back in the community where I was raised, and I started the process of gaining as much knowledge as I could from my dad.”
Applegate notes that until she and Blake decided to come back, there was no formal succession plan in place.
“However, my dad always had in the back of his mind that we’d eventually come back to work alongside him,” she said.
Konrady, CEO of Konrady Plastics Inc., took an entirely different path in her career before she came to the family business in January 2020.
“We were undergoing a leadership transition,” she said. “I stepped back into the family business and stayed.”
Her professional experience includes working in the public policy sector in Washington, D.C., and at a private engineering firm in California. Before Konrady Plastics, she served as president and CEO of One Region, a network of executive leaders focused on attracting new talent, ideas and change for regional development in Northwest Indiana.
Konrady Plastics was founded in 1981 in Gary as a plastics distributor by Bernie Konrady. Through his tireless efforts with his wife, Sue, the company successfully grew and moved to a more strategic location in Portage. Today the company is one of the leading plastic machine companies in the U.S.
In addition to distribution services, the company offers comprehensive plastic parts machining, including prototypes and production runs across eight industries. They include conveyor, food and beverage processing, packaging, pharmaceutical, mining, agricultural, transportation and water treatment.
“My father offers us advice and is still involved in the business,” Leah said. “He just loves his new role as vice president of maintenance and janitorial sciences.”
She said hobbies keep him busy too.
“It gave him a much easier time of letting go of day-to-day activities,” she said.
Leah’s brother, Paul, serves as president and COO of the company.
“He handles our business development, sales and client relationships, while I focus on the day-to-day responsibilities, such as financials and employees and overseeing our sales and marketing efforts,” Leah said.
Eplawy, Robbins, Applegate and Konrady moved into their roles as part of natural attrition and commitment without a formal family business succession plan. They were eager to get involved, and their stories show how families can succeed when they work together.
“If you put in the hard work and believe in yourself, it is extremely rewarding and an honor to continue growing your family’s business,” Robbins said.
But not all family-owned businesses have a clear-cut vision for smooth transitions. Experts, such as Gregory Ward of Swartz Retson & Co. in Merrillville, highly recommend formalizing a family business succession plan.
“Start a dialogue early with the individuals you are considering to be future leaders,” Ward said. “This will help you find out if their goals are aligned with your succession planning goals.”
He said many business owners wait too long to come up with a plan.
“We see a lot of business owners … (who) are sometimes surprised when there is no one interested in taking over the business,” Ward said. “Starting the process of succession planning before you are ready to retire doesn’t mean you are going to get pushed out the door sooner than you would like. It just gives you more time to see who is interested in the business and to identify the best potential candidates to fill leadership roles.”
He said preparing in advance also allows for a smoother transition.
“It also provides more time to properly transition customer relationships to the next leaders,” Ward said. “Since a lot of buyouts are priced based on customer retention, it can help you get the best return on your investment.”
Succession planning ensures less drama and provides strategies for the transfer of the business to the next and future generations.
“As an entire family, we are very transparent with each other about our business,” Konrady said. “I am very fortunate and grateful to have a loving and trusting relationship with my family. We have fun working together.”
” issued by Brightstar Capital Partners and Camden Wealth, highlighted the many opportunities and challenges of family businesses today. The report surveyed 100 family-owned businesses and noted that 61% do not have a written, formal succession plan.
The report also emphasized that family businesses can adapt to and evolve with innovation, including the addition of artificial intelligence — 84% of respondents declared that their family businesses are embracing new technology.
Eplawy, Robbins, Konrady and Applegate have their eyes set on the future, continued growth of their businesses and how to take advantage of new opportunities.
Konrady is looking at the growing demand of her industry, future technology transformation and the machines available to help them become more efficient.
Eplawy foresees many possibilities for future business operations such as aviation space, more hangars and aircraft, maintenance opportunities and sustainable aviation fuel.
“There are also changes with the new hybrid-electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicles that have the power to transform our industry.”
Her facility provides comprehensive services that can accommodate any size of aircraft for all Chicago-metro traffic.
In 2017, Gary Jet Center opened a new Corporate Flight Center. The 8,300-square-foot building features seating for over 45 people and a glass-walled lobby that overlooks a 9,000-foot runway.
“Our entire facility is coupled with an exceptional customer-focused experience that ensures the absolute best private aviation experience in the entire Chicagoland area, right here at the Gary Jet Center,” Eplawy said.
Robbins’ company also expanded. In 2014, Munster Steel moved to a new, state-of-the-art facility in Hammond.
Applegate noted the importance of continuing to grow her family’s firm with the help of their team by providing exceptional services to clients.
“On a long-term basis, our goal is to continue to develop our tax and audit and accounting department within the firm,” she said.
It is apparent that the strong family and business core values embodied by these Region family businesses have been deeply embedded.
“I was raised believing that you should always work hard and do the best job you are capable of,” Robbins said.
She also credits her mother with instilling confidence in her.
“I was blessed to be raised by an incredibly independent woman, who always reminded me I could do anything I set my mind to,” Robbins said.
Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.