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Mary Kohler wasn’t a popular girl in high school. She didn’t care about being noticed; wasn’t involved in sports. She just got by—flew under the radar. If you did happen to notice her, you’d occasionally see her helping and defending those on the fringes. One girl, in particular, was often on the receiving end of Kohler’s kindness: a blind girl named Maria who had a smile permanently affixed to her face because she couldn’t see and had to feel her way around the hallways. “People would pick on her, but I wouldn’t allow it. I’d say ‘Knock it off. Stop that.’ And I would say hello to Maria and ask her how she was doing that day.” Kohler’s propensity toward empathy, or strength in weakness, would turn out to be the key to her leadership success.
Today, a tour through the H&H Group and the number two Sir Speedy in the country feels exciting. Kohler talks about printing projects and new machinery, as the faint smells from the pressroom conjure tactile pleasures. She introduces an employee or two—being certain to call out something positive about who they are as a person, not just their role as an employee. She shows a few fresh printing jobs of locally owned businesses.
Inside her office, written on a large whiteboard, is David Sandler’s I/R Theory. “Each person has an identity and a role,” Kohler explains. “The identity represents principles, values, desires, and emotions—the inner self. The role represents the outer selves and the roles we play: daughter, friend, employee, father,” she says. What seems obvious is that the two affect each other. “The goal is to allow people to separate who they are from what they do. You are who you are, not what you do for a living,” Kohler says with a smile.
Seated behind her desk, she stacks two leather-bound notebooks on top of one another. She fills one with ideas, thoughts, and musings. The other is a new daily planner. “I like this one because it leaves room for me to write my goals,” she says. Everything about Kohler’s leadership is different: her attention to detail and the big picture, her grasp of language, her high level of emotional intelligence, her ability to see her employees as people, each different and unique, and her patience to take time to develop and empower them to become leaders. “What I learned from my mom? That’s easy. It’s take care of your people, your employees, and they’ll take care of your customers. From my dad? It’s his work ethic. If you work hard, you’ll be fine,” she says.
Kohler’s parents bought the Sir Speedy franchise in 1972 and got divorced when she was in high school. “I came to hate Sir Speedy, thinking it was the business that caused it,” she says. After high school graduation, she fled the business and managed a horse farm. “I ran away and did what I loved which was taking care of horses and animals.” After five years, she realized she needed a real job and came back to the business and found she had a real knack for it. “I could see the bigger picture and I could deal with customers really well,” she says as she snaps her fingers. Years later she bought the Sir Speedy franchise from her parents and added the H&H Group as a corporate name—giving them the opportunity to reach more people with a greater depth and breadth of services offered.
A major breakthrough happened five years ago. The company needed to grow. “I decided the only way I could build a team was if it started with my own vulnerability,” she says. “I started sharing information with them like crazy.” She surrounded herself with the right people: coaches, mentors, and joined the High Center for Family Business in Elizabethtown. “What I started to do was build my coworkers’ confidence and understanding—which empowered them. Now we’re at the point where this place could run for a year without me, and they would all do great,” she says.
Her theory was tested when three years ago her daughter was in a horrific car accident and was about to be pulled off life support and pronounced brain-dead. “I’m holding her hand and telling her ‘God loves you. God loves you.’ And a miracle happened. God gave her back to us.” Kohler didn’t work for almost six weeks. Today, Katelyn is a beautiful 20-year-old college student who earns As and Bs and, despite major head trauma, has learned to walk and talk again.
Kohler touches her day planner, the one with room for goals, and surmises, “Our purpose here is significance. We ask, ‘How can I make a difference in someone’s life?’ If we, as a company, can be significant in people’s lives, in business, and in the community—then we will succeed."