Sunday, October 14, 2007

Kathleen Wall

Kathleen Wall:

“Don’t Ever Be Satisfied”

Edited and Arranged by:

Joseph W. Norman

One of the first things one notices about Kathleen Wall, Professor for the Jones School of Business at SUNY Geneseo, is her positive energy and vibrant personality. Kathleen was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and stayed local to study at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her background has taken her from a planned career in archaeology, to work as a corporate librarian, an MBA in Operations Management, over two decades of production and operation management consulting work, and now arguably her favorite occupation, professor of business at Geneseo. She urges people to, “Never be satisfied,” a piece of advice she received in passing from an 85 year old woman who worked part time at a jewelry store.

VIP: How did you get to where you are now?

Kathleen Wall (KW): Oh my word, it is the most convoluted thing you’ve ever heard in your life. How many hours do you have? (Laughing)

I went to school to be an archaeologist at the University of Wisconsin. And then, one time when I was home (home being Milwaukee), I was looking at the want ads and I didn’t see too many for archaeologists. So, I thought, “Jeez.” Then, just happenstance, I had lunch with a woman at school who was majoring in Library Science. I said, “Librarians go to school?”

So, I got a degree in library science and I went to work for a company in Milwaukee that had a corporate library. You may or may not know that most good sized corporations have a private collection. Some of them are big enough that they hire librarians. I worked for Borg Warner. They are an OEM, tier one supplier to the automobile industry. They make transmissions and really exotic things like hub caps and wheels – anything that’s on the drive train of a car. Ford is their biggest customer.

At that time, Borg Warner was doing a lot of research about automating their factories. When the engineers were working on a project or needed information, they would come to the library and say, “We need information on this, or, what has been written on this?” So, we would do searches for them. I got really interested in automation and robotics, so I started to work on an MBA. Because I was working in a manufacturing company, I knew that if I wanted to advance, I had to get out of a service position and move into a line position - something that was a direct part of the business function - which was making motor parts.

So, I majored in Operations Management at DePaul in Chicago. When I got out of school I went to my boss and said, “Well, I got my MBA now, so where in the company can I go?” I told him I wanted to work in a factory. So what he did was he sent me to all of the dirtiest, lousiest factories that Borg Warner had so I could see how rotten it was to work in a factory. He said, “To start out in operations you either have to be a line supervisor or you can get into production and inventory control; do planning, scheduling, buying raw materials.” Then I began to realize they weren’t going to put a woman in charge of operations. Borg Warner was just too traditional.

I read an article in Business Week about a man named Dennis Wisniewski who was starting a business for factory automation, right there in Naperville, Illinois. This was right down the toll way from where I was then. It was 1985. So, I wrote Dennis a letter and said, “Guess what I can do for you?” (Laughs) I went and I worked for him and he built this business focused on factory automation, particularly in aerospace. And, he channeled me towards production and inventory control. I then became a consultant for a number of firms for about 20 to 25 years.

This is interesting, the reason Dennis hired me was because he said I had a very strong liberal arts background with the library science degree. And, he said he knew people with strong liberal arts backgrounds were good problem solvers. He said, “Those are the kind of people I need in my company.” And also, he said, “My wife is a librarian and she is one of the smartest people I have ever met.” So, talk about serendipitous. The guy gave me an offer within two weeks. I just went in and chatted with him a little bit.

I worked for him for five or seven years. Then I got a chance to work for another firm for five or seven years.

When I left DePaul University with my MBA, the head of the department was a man named Dr. Earl Young. He approached me and said, “Kathleen, you’d make a great role model,” because, women did not major in operations. Most women at that time getting an MBA majored in marketing, human resources, and maybe finance. So, he said, “Why don’t you come back and teach.” So for a number of years I taught part time at DePaul University and I just loved it. What I loved about it was I thought I was bringing reality into the classroom.

You guys are getting the long version.

So, then work got to be crazy and I stopped doing consulting. Fast forward to 1993, I was put on an assignment. I was the project manager on an assignment at Gunlock around here in Wayland. One of my fantasies was always to live on a lake. Lo and behold, we as a team rented a house on Canisius Lake and commuted to Wayland every day. The project lasted about six months. After that project I told my boss, “I’m staying.”

I was living in Chicago. There was no way I’d have an opportunity to buy a house on a lake in Chicago. I was 43 years old at the time and pretty well burned out. While I was project manager in Wayland, which was very demanding, I was reporting out of an office for a firm in Los Angeles. They wanted me to sell my condo in Chicago and move to the West Coast. I don’t like LA. It is a different culture. The core values are very different there. Being a Mid-Westerner, I felt like a fish out of water there.

I really liked it here (Geneseo). I was really comfortable here. So, to be brutally honest, I was having a lot of physical problems and I knew it was all stress. In both of your classes we talk about the effects of stress. I was managing the project here, living in Chicago, reporting to a guy in LA, and just pulling my hair out. I said, “Enough is enough.” I had just had it. I sold my condo in Chicago, so I had a bunch of money. Then, I said, “Screw it. I quit.” I retired at 43.

Friends of mine were looking for somebody to house sit for them while they took an extended vacation. They lived on Canisius Lake. Well, they were acquaintances at the time, but since then they have become very dear friends. I stayed in their house for six months, contemplated my navel, and tried to figure out what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

I thought back on the experience that I had teaching. Through APICS, I had a contact at RIT and U of R so I got enough adjunct work to keep me afloat for five years. Then, I ran into a fellow that runs a consulting firm at Mendon, so I worked for him for about five years. My husband retired and I could not get enough time off. Patrick was home sitting on the lake and I was getting up putting the pantyhose on. That was not working for me! Things kept coming up and I couldn’t get the time off of work to do it. So, I quit.

Patrick looked at me and said, “Well, you’re not going to totally quit right?” He said, “Why don’t you look at SUNY Geneseo?”

Here, again, serendipity plays a part. I sent a resume in just as the current operations management teacher quit to go to another school. I wrote them a letter which said, “Do you need some help teaching operations management?” It was literally about the same day. There again, it was an APICS connection. It was 2004. January of 2004. So, here I am!

VIP: How do you like it here?

KW: I love it here! I got a Golden Key award as an honorary member. Students nominated me. This year, the Business Advisory Council gave me an award for duty above and beyond my call of duty. I just love it here. Students are great. I love the subjects that I teach. The faculty is very supportive. We’ve got the best support staff. Kathy Ackerman is unbelievable. Mary Ellen (Zuckerman: Dean of the Jones School and VIP) is the best boss I’ve ever had.

I have had maybe one bad boss. Most bosses I have had have been terrific and she has got to be the best. The woman just knows how to manage people. You can learn a lot just by watching her. She’s always pushing the envelope, but not to the point of making you feel uncomfortable. She is a great networker, looks at everything as an opportunity, and with a positive attitude. Also, she is well respected by everybody here. She is quite the lady. I admire her.

So, what’s not to like?

VIP: What classes do you teach?

KW: Right now, I teach Organizational Behavior and Business and Society. In the academic year of 2005-2006, I worked here full time (four classes). Since then, I usually teach three classes. Administration doesn’t like adjunct faculty to teach more then two or three classes. Next year I’m going to be teaching the new business writing course. I think they’re calling it Business Communications. Mary Ellen and Barbara Howard asked me to do that, so I jumped at the chance. Writing and communication is one of my soap boxes.

VIP: If you could meet five people from any time period, who would they be?

KW: Harry Truman. He’s my hero. Margaret Mead because of her anthropology background. She was one of the first women to make a mark in that field. Elizabeth Hearst. Frank Sinatra. I’m a big Sinatra fan. Lee Iacocca. I admire him a lot. And, probably John Paul II because he was Polish and my father is Polish. I’m very proud of that heritage. And, I think he was truly a saint. It would be interesting to sit down and have a conversation with him. Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo. I read about them a lot when I was young.

VIP: What is your favorite Frank Sinatra song?

KW: Not, “My Way,” for sure. “Young at Heart” maybe. One of those. A long time ago he did an album called, “Some Things I’ve Missed.” I liked all the stuff he did there. So, that takes care of my mother. (Laughs)

VIP: If you could live in any time period, when would that be?

KW: I was born twenty years too late. My father’s generation.

VIP: Why would that be?

KW: I don’t know. I’ve just always had a great affinity for people in that age bracket. The music maybe. I just really have this thing for the World War II era.

VIP: Do you have any pets?

KW: No. That was part of our prenuptial. No living animals in the house. (Laughs)

VIP: Do you have any children?

KW: No, I don’t. My husband has two sons who are grown and both of them are fathers. So, through fate I have three granddaughters. I never had any children but I have three grandchildren.

VIP: It’s like skipping all of the bad…

KW: …and getting all of the good. We have a lot of fun with them.

VIP: Where do they all live?

KW: Ashley lives on Long Island. Selden. It’s very close to Port Jefferson. The other two girls are Michael’s children and they live right around here in Gates. They are five, four and three.

VIP: What motivates you to come to work everyday?

KW: You guys! Doing stuff like this. Being the APICS advisor. Everyday is new in the classroom. You could look at the job and say, “Oh, it’s the same material over and over again.” But, it’s different students every time. Sometimes you get a bunch of blank stares and you’re like, “Oh, I’m dying up here.” It is a challenge to see if I can keep you interested or not.

The students here are great. I never wanted children. I was never one of those women who was like, “Oh, my biological clock is ticking” and all that stuff. But, I enjoy the students here so much more than I ever thought I would enjoy younger people. I really do love it. You’re very challenging. That’s what I enjoy. You keep me on my toes.

VIP: On the other hand, what are things that irk you?

KW: Students who think that they are pulling the wool over my eyes. When I get to the point where I want to say, “What do you think I was born yesterday?” Students that try to take advantage of me. It has happened maybe once or twice since I’ve been here. But, for the most part, the students are great.

One thing that bothers me the most in professional life is when somebody tells me they are going to do something and then they don’t do it. That doesn’t happen here. But, when I was a consultant for example, they are paying you to come in to help them solve a problem. You tell them, this is what has to happen. And then you come in next time and hear excuses.

You just want to say, “Stop wasting your money and my time.” I did some consulting on my own when I was teaching those five years at RIT and U of R. I had some personal clients that I had to tell that. They are paying for my expertise and then they don’t listen.

VIP: Here is the Miss America question. Iif you could change anything about the world, what would it be? Or, if you could instill one bit of knowledge into people, what would it be?

KW: Whew. “If I ruled the world…” (Singing)

I had an eighty five year old woman tell me something one time in passing. I met her at a jewelry store. She worked part time there; eighty five years old. She was dressed to the nines and as sharp as the day is long. She said to me, “Honey. Don’t ever be satisfied. Always want.” That has always stuck with me. She’s right.

I would like to see every child have the opportunity to have a good education. A core value to me is education. I believe that if somebody is educated they cannot only do well for themselves but do good things for society. It is every person doing little things that make good things happen; like my friends with the foundation, I’m sure they never thought they would help so many people. That is just one little guy. One little entrepreneur that said, “I can do something to help.” And, he did it.

One person can make a powerful impact.

VIP: If you could create a business with unlimited resources, what would it be?

KW: You just touched a cord. I have a niece that has a relatively rare syndrome called Charcot-Marie- Tooth (CMT) syndrome. It’s a version of multiple sclerosis (MS). It’s a hereditary condition and as she grows she is losing the use of her hands. If I could change anything, I would want to see a cure for that because I don’t want to see her spend her life like that. That’s a very personal thing.

VIP: Where do you see yourself in five years?

KW: Traveling and planning the next trip. I figure we’ve got ten years because my husband is ten years older then I am (she’s 57). Most people that I talk to – I have an aunt and uncle who are very active and very adventuresome and have done some great traveling. They’re 76 or 77 and it’s getting difficult for them. They went to Ireland with us and did very well. But, when we would get back to the hotel, I would say, “Auntie, you don’t have to go to dinner with us.” She would say, “Just let me rest a little bit, and then we’ll go.” So I figure we’ve got ten years.

VIP: Where would you like to travel to?

KW: I promised my husband I would make a list. He thinks it’s going to be a finite list, but it’s not. (Laughs) I want to sail the Greek Islands. I want to see the monoliths on Easter Island. I have to do that. I want to see Bali. I don’t know why, but I want to. I want to go to Sicily and do some genealogy work on my mother’s family and go to Poland to do genealogy on my father’s family.

And, my neighbor is Indian, so I want to go to India with him. The way to go anywhere is with a native. And, really a good tour of the United States. I’ve seen a lot of it, but there is plenty more to see. I think those are some of the more exotic places. Patrick struggled with Thailand; he’s going to flip when he hears Easter Island. (Laughing)

I would like to see the Inca and the Mayan ruins in Mexico. I would like to sail in Belize.

I’m going to Kenya in January. Friends of ours live there. All of my husband’s friends are guys he went to grade school with. When they get together they talk about grade school. They have been friends since they were Boy Scouts together. They all grew up at Sacred Heart Cathedral in the 10th ward in Rochester. All went to Aquinas.

One of the guys he grew up with started a foundation to run a school for orphan boys from the slums of Nairobi. He and his wife started this foundation and they go once a year to make sure everything is copasetic. Every year they go and I always say, “David, we’re going with you next year.” Well, this year we are going to do it. Some of the time is going to be at their project. And we’re going to see some other projects that the Catholic Church is doing for kids. Then we’re going to have three days on safari. These people know everybody in Kenya. I mean everybody who is worth knowing, so I am psyched.

VIP: It sounds like you travel quite a bit…

KW: Yeah, we try to. I always have to drag my husband along. We always hear people say, “Oh, wait until retirement.” But, the way I figure it is I always see people die. They retire and then they have a heart attack, or get cancer. So, I’m not waiting! My husband’s a little torn about taking this trip but I said, “Patrick, you don’t know what’s going to happen next year.” He usually ends up loving it.

I dragged him to Thailand. We went to Ireland. That was easier because it is his home country. We went sailing in the Caribbean. After he goes, it’s “Oh, it was a trip of a lifetime. We did this and we did that…” But, to get him to go it’s like pulling the camel through the eye of a needle.

That’s my passion is to travel.

VIP: What other hobbies do you have other than traveling?

KW: We sail. We have a little day sailer on Canisius, but we don’t take that one out too much. In fact, we’re trying to sell it right now. $100. I want to sail the Greek islands. We have another set of friends that are big sailers, so we just have to convince Patrick that it is the right thing to do.

VIP: What is your favorite candy?

KW: Godiva chocolates.

VIP: What advice would you give someone coming out of college?

KW: Don’t get locked up in some traditional career. When you go to school, some people say, “Oh, I want to be a nurse, or a doctor, or a lawyer.” There are so many different things in life to do! Keep your mind open. Keep looking for opportunities.

I’ll use myself as an example. I was going to be a librarian. Well, then I liked manufacturing. Wherever the road led me; that was where I went.

If I were to put it in one sentence it would be, “Fight to be a generalist.” Avoid being a specialist because I think the world needs people who understand the broad picture. I don’t think the enrichment and the fulfillment is there. You don’t get enough exposure to things. If you fight to be a generalist, people will want to channel you forever.

Ben, Kathleen, & Joseph

Kathleen Wall

Adjunct Lecturer

SUNY Geneseo: Jones School of Business

Phone: 585.245.5366