Running on Faith

By Lindsey Townsend

One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar. -Helen Keller

If you wrote a screenplay about a divorced working mom with limited education who met her soul mate and created a multi-million dollar company by applying faith-based principles, no Hollywood studio would buy your concept as believable.

Yet it’s true: and it happened to Jo Ann Brumit. As CEO and chairman of KARLEE, a contract manufacturer of precision sheet metal and machined components, Brumit runs an award-winning, world-class manufacturing organization with revenues of $80,002,000, 320 team members and 220,000+ square feet of manufacturing and support space. But what’s even more remarkable than her credentials is the fact that rather than compromise her ethics, as people are sometimes wont to do in the business world, Brumit built a company based on her Christian values.

Brumit hopes that her achievements will inspire other working women to pursue their dreams and develop their unique leadership potential. “I was an introverted, divorced single mother without a degree…yet I have had the opportunity in my life to meet two presidents and run a successful company based on the principles I believe in,” she says. “God has blessed me beyond my wildest dreams.”

This genteel lady with the quick smile, soft voice and steel backbone has rocked the male-dominated manufacturing world by proving that a caring, compassionate leadership style can build a rock-solid bottom line along with boundless employee and customer loyalty. KARLEE is a new breed of manufacturing facility with a definite woman’s touch-one where fresh flowers, English breakfast tea, and original paintings co-exist happily with hardcore industry norms like production line efficiency, state-of-the-art equipment, and just-in-time delivery.

Under Brumit’s leadership, KARLEE has been awarded the 2000 Texas Business of the Year (Large Division) and 1999 Regional Business of the Year by the Texas Association of Business and Chambers of Commerce, the 1999 Texas Quality Award, the Baylor University 1997 Award for “Best Managed Business,” and the 1991 Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Manufacturing by Inc. Magazine, Ernst & Young. KARLEE was also ranked #8 in Women Enterprise’s “Top Women-Owned Firms in Texas” based on 1999 gross annual revenue.

A Firm of Her Own

But when she first began her career as a receptionist for a sheet metal company in Houston, all that Brumit knew for sure is that she wanted to run the office. After taking night courses at the University of Houston, she moved into accounting, spending nine years as comptroller and also working as an accountant for an attorney and an independent oil producer named Arthur Barrett.

As her first mentor, Barrett routinely handed over special projects to Brumit, making sure she had the opportunity to travel and develop her skills personally and professionally. “He just put me in charge,” she said. “He told me later that I was so naïve when I first started working for him that he took it on as his personal mission to make sure I learned what life was all about!”

While working full-time to pay the bills, Brumit eventually began building her own business on the side, offering accounting and consulting services for small businesses. In 1981, two stars finally crossed paths when Brumit met Lee Brumit, a Dallas-based machinist who had started KARLEE in 1974 out of his garage to produce high-performance racing engines. When Jo Ann and Lee met, KARLEE had 13 employees and $750,000 in annual sales.

The pair soon realized that they were a perfect match both personally and professionally. “His concept wasn’t to build a large business…he likes to build things and move on, while I like to run stuff,” she says. Brumit bartered her accounting services in exchange for 50% stock ownership in KARLEE, and a partnership was born. (The name KARLEE is a combination of Lee’s interest in cars-KAR-along with his first name). While Lee focused on the technical and equipment end of things, Jo Ann was free to focus on administration, accounting, and implementation of systems and procedures.

Brumit’s background in cost accounting paid off handsomely when KARLEE implemented the cutting-edge systems that would later provide a valuable competitive edge. “We were data-focused long before it became an industry standard, which really gave us a strong foundation to build the business from,” Brumit observes. Today KARLEE’s information system is completely integrated from request for quote to electronic invoicing, and data collection terminals and bar coding provide “real time” information for immediate response to inquiries.

While other women might balk at entering such a traditionally male-dominated industry, Brumit quickly learned to use her gender to her advantage. For example, on plant tours with other executives, if she was somewhat left out of the “good old boy” conversation, “I would study everything on my own. No one perceived me as a threat, so I was able to wander around and visit with people freely…then go back to the office and implement any good ideas I came across,” she laughs.

Family First

As its core philosophy, KARLEE’s value statement emphasizes teamwork, employee empowerment, social responsibility, and continuous learning in an atmosphere of mutual trust, honesty and respect. Another key priority is to develop true partnerships with all of the company’s stakeholders: customers, team members, suppliers and community. C. Lynn Scott, director of procurement with Alcatel, has been purchasing sheet metal for telecom products from KARLEE since the early 1990s. “Jo Ann has gained the respect of her employees and her customers because we can depend upon her commitments. She runs KARLEE as if the employees are part of her family, and that dedication comes out when customers require special attention to meet upside demands or support product mix changes,” Scott said.

The company’s comprehensive business plan, achieved through management consensus, is closely aligned to the values of the individuals within the organization. “Part of being a leader is to make sure that your vision also encompasses what’s important to the people you’re working with,” Brumit says firmly. “Anyone can buy equipment and buildings. It’s the people that make the difference.”

For Larry Haynes, a customer service operational team leader, the best part of working at KARLEE is the camaraderie. “Even after 21 years of service I continue to be awed by how far we will go to help each other, both on a personal and professional level,” he says. “For me, what sets this company apart from others is the strong value system and the ‘what you see is what you get’ approach to demonstrating what we do.”

That approach even attracted White House attention last year when KARLEE received the 2000 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nation’s premier award for performance excellence and quality achievement. The Baldrige program is managed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, an agency of the Department of Commerce’s Technology Administration, in conjunction with the private sector.

To earn the award, KARLEE managers worked on seven areas of performance excellence criteria for 10 years, conducting self-assessments and improving areas of weakness until the company was ready to submit its first national application last year. “We knew we could build a successful company by using the criteria, but to be a recipient the first year we applied demonstrates that we truly live and breathe our principles,” Brumit said. She was thrilled to accept personal congratulations from both former president Clinton (last December) and President Bush at the formal awards ceremony in March. Twenty-five KARLEE employees also tagged along to enjoy the show.

Now that they have received a pinnacle of success that many other firms would like to emulate, Brumit feels they have a responsibility to share with others what they have learned. KARLEE is frequently asked to give plant tours and share their expertise with other companies around the world. This summer the company even received an invitation from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, inviting KARLEE to speak at a “Power of Knowledge” conference next April that will be the largest human resource gathering to date for CEOs, executives and professionals in the Middle East. Brumit feels she could set a powerful example for other women by attending, but since the political climate is unstable in the region, has postponed her decision on whether to attend until next year.

Leading By Example

Brumit takes a special interest in mentoring women as well as helping children develop the values and character they need to succeed in life. “Why not try to make this world a little better for the next generation?” she says. She founded the Garland Quality Council that built a partnership between businesses and schools, initiated the Koalaty Kids Program at Bradfield Elementary School in Garland, and started the Superkids Program at KARLEE to recognize team members’ children who excel in school. Last year over 1500 children from the Garland Independent School District toured KARLEE to learn about career opportunities that are available in math and science in the manufacturing business. Brumit is especially excited about the chance to bring that message to young girls.

Despite the recent downturn in the telecom industry, which forced KARLEE to downsize its workforce in January from 550 to 320 employees, Brumit is optimistic about the future. During a dip, many industries typically experience an intense period of mergers and acquisitions which eventually spawns new markets and opportunities. “It was very traumatic for us as a company, but we will be back,” she says. “We’re focusing across the board on diversification, and our challenge will be to provide niche service to the new companies competing in a global marketplace.”

Never one to rest on her laurels, in the future Brumit is considering establishing a foundation that emphasizes character education for children and writing a book on faith-based leadership principles. Although she and Lee received a tempting offer to sell KARLEE a few years ago, they ultimately decided they were exactly where they needed to be: in the midst of her “extended family.” “We want to be here, around the people that we care the most about. When it ceases to be fun and meaningful, I’ll know it’s time to move on,” she says with a smile.

Brumit’s Quick Tips

  • Know thyself. Learn everything you can about your own strengths and weaknesses.
  • Give back. Remember that those who have been blessed have a responsibility to bless others, too.
  • Stretch yourself. An introvert by nature who used let others run the company meetings because she dreaded public speaking, Brumit now enjoys speaking to groups as large as 1500. “With each difficult task that you accomplish, you set yourself up for the next level of success,” she says.
  • Commit to continuous learning.
  • Find a good mentor, and become a mentor for others, too!

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