Talking with Kathy Dwyer is like getting a breath of fresh air. Always smiling, always positive, always encouraging. She believes in doing business with integrity, giving her all in everything she does, and reaching out a hand to lift others up. If she ever has a bad day, you wouldn’t know it.
She’s spent three-plus decades helping build E.J. Dwyer Co., Inc., a spec-driven manufacturers’ representative agency in Annapolis Junction, Maryland, where she is now co-owner. Dwyer was the first woman to hold a seat on the AIM/R board of directors and is now the first woman named to its executive committee. Oh, and she’s also a dedicated wife, mother and very happily involved grandmother of five.
Ever humble, Dwyer brushes off much talk of her “firsts” accomplishments: “I’m just honored they think I have something to contribute. AIM/R also has four women serving on its board of 16 directors. But to me, it’s not a matter of AIM/R being able to say it has women in these positions. It is that it is selecting us in the same way it has selected everyone who has held those roles — because it respects our ability to be involved in the group’s leadership and decision-making.”
The road she took
Kathy Dwyer grew up in the plumbing industry and it just seemed natural that she would end up in this business. Her father had been vice president of sales for Josam, based in Michigan City, Indiana. When she was 10, her father “got the itch to start his own business, and brought our family to Maryland because that is where Josam needed a rep.”
In 1970, he set up his office in a row house, stocking a small amount of inventory. Dwyer and her five brothers and sisters grew up answering the phones and packing and shipping UPS packages.
“Dad invited me to join the company in 1979,” she said. “I’ve always had a special relationship with him and am so grateful to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from him. Dad built a solid foundation and was so wise in his advice. He emphasized that getting specification work and being a stocking rep were key to our success. We’ve never ventured too far outside that sandbox.”
She began her career at a time when there weren’t many women in the business.
“People who called the office often assumed I was the secretary and didn’t really want to do business with me,” she reflected. “They wanted to talk to my dad. But he was a great help by having me call the customers back. It was all about earning the right to be trusted.
Dwyer added that her dad focused on building quality relationships — something she’s also found important: “Relationships are everything. These are important projects and you’ve got to have complete trust in everyone involved. We look for companies and people that operate with integrity and transparency. People who are willing to work hard, and to work with you whenever there are issues. Even afterward, when I drive by a building we were involved with, it makes me feel so good.”
Today, she and her brother Ned Dwyer are partners in E.J. Dwyer. Their strengths complement each other. He handles technology/operations while she runs HR, but they both primarily focus their attention on sales. Their dad passed away several years ago, and “it still means so much every day when I drive to work and see his name on the side of the building.”
Many years ago, after seeing an announcement about AIM/R and its upcoming annual conference, and with her dad’s encouragement, Dwyer attended her first AIM/R event. She was immediately sold.
“I really wanted to figure out how to run the business better,” she recalled. “And it seemed like AIM/R could be the vehicle to do that. I came back to Baltimore from that first conference with such great ideas that we saw its value right away. We knew this was the place to be where would could learn and share.”
As Dwyer described, AIM/R members have always been so open in discussing big issues like adding value, working smarter, leveraging technology and more.
“Those discussions give us a vision and a plan for turning our businesses into professional, well-run machines that allow us to support our employees with the kind of things they need — good pay, health insurance, 401k programs,” she described. “They teach us how to represent our companies and our manufacturers in the best possible way. And the relationships we build at the conference give us peers around the country who are great resources for each other. We understand that there is enough business for everybody, and if we are successful as a group, it will help everyone be successful.”
As a member of the executive committee, Dwyer’s role is senior vice president of education. She’ll be addressing many of those types of issues in the coming year.
“There are so many possibilities on the table right now and our job is to thoroughly research and discuss the best ways to share that information with the members,” she said. “Ultimately it comes down to finding a way to teach, train and share with my fellow reps across the country how we can all run our businesses better.”