Suddenly You're the Boss

What happens when fate puts you in charge of the family business? These four women decided failure wasn’t an option

By Andrea Atkins
Despite having minimal business experience, Myer rescued her late husband’s company from near bankruptcy.
Photograph: Ian Allen

In 2008, Myer became one of the first female members of the New Jersey Warehousemen & Movers Association’s executive board. Initially, the men there gave her a less-than-enthusiastic welcome. But in the fall of 2010, at its annual dinner, the group honored her with a special service award. “It really touched me,” she says. Last year, sales increased 17 percent over the previous year, and by the end of 2011, her cash flow had improved by 300 percent. “I am so proud of this company,” she says. “We’ve survived the recession. And we’re in such a different place. I’ve really accomplished something here.”

Jayne Millard, 49

From | Dance-Company Fund Raiser

To | Electrical Business CEO

Jayne Millard was sitting at the kitchen table in her cottage overlooking the hills of Marin County, California, one morning in January 1999 when she got a call from her mother, Suzanne. “The business needs you,” said Suzanne, referring to the family’s New Jersey–based electrical and industrial--products distribution company. “I want you to come back east and prepare to run Turtle & Hughes.” Millard felt a chill. All her life, she’d hoped that this moment wouldn’t come, that one of her siblings would take over the CEO spot from their mother. It wasn’t the first time Suzanne had raised the subject, but Millard’s heart had always called her in another direction.

Millard had spent the previous 12 years as a marketing consultant and fund raiser for the choreographer Martha Graham and, after her death, as a trustee for the Graham company. “I loved working for an American genius,” she says. “Every day was like reporting to a shaman.” Millard and her husband, a software engineer, and their children were attached to California’s laid-back lifestyle, and Millard didn’t want to give up her flexible schedule.

A part-time MBA student and a member of Turtle & Hughes’s board of directors, Millard had a basic understanding of the company. Still, listening to her mother, she says, “I felt conflicted and scared. But my mother is forceful, dynamic, full of conviction. She said to me, ‘You’ve got so much experience in marketing and sales; you’re the right one.’ ” For the first time, Millard heard something else in her mother’s voice: She was getting old and needed help. “What finally pushed me to say yes was having the chance to be part of something bigger than me, something that my great-grandfather had started,” says Millard. “Now I would see where I could take it.”

She packed up the family and moved to Connecticut, near the company’s satellite office, where she was assigned to the marketing department (her husband eventually took a position in IT). The 550-employee firm, where her father served as chief operating officer, sells engineering services and products such as generators and fiber-optic cable (they’ve providedthe lights for the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree). “At Martha Graham, I’d been immersed in a world inspired by artistic creativity,” she says. “Now I was in a world where profit was the inspiration. I didn’t know if I had the right qualities.”

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