Montana State University

Spring 2011

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Mountains and Minds

Kitty Saylor says MSU aided transformation from aspiring musician to CEO of national company

Kitty Saylor says MSU aided transformation from aspiring musician to CEO of national company April 25, 2011 by Carol Schmidt • Published 04/25/11

There have been many unexpected steps in Kathleen "Kitty" Saylor's journey from the aspiring concert pianist who grew up in Choteau to the woman who is president and CEO of one of the country's foremost manufacturers of polymers, but no step has been as important as the one that nearly led to failure.

Saylor now leads 1,100 REHAU North America employees located throughout Canada, the U.S., Mexico and Central America. Yet, she might not be where she is today if it hadn't been for a defining moment 13 years ago on a hot day in a dry town with a project spiraling out of control.

Saylor joined REHAU, a global polymer solutions company, as a training specialist in 1994. Three years later, she found herself as REHAU's point person for the hiring, training and development of new employees in a plant that had recently been built in Cullman, Ala., to manufacture automotive parts for Mercedes Benz.

From the beginning of the project, the dynamics were volatile, Saylor recalled. "The pressure was extreme to deliver quality parts.... No mistakes were allowed."

German ex-pats had come over to ensure a smooth start of operation, and there was a "culture clash" from the onset, she said. Saylor was not readily accepted by all of her colleagues.

"What a woman was doing in this business was beyond their imaginations," Saylor said.

Saylor decided after one especially long night that REHAU just wasn't the place for her. She made up her mind to resign.

"(But) the next day, I woke up and said, 'No--I'm not going to quit.' I knew that in order for this plant to succeed, a qualified, motivated and stable workforce would need to be in place for the long term--long after the German support team went home. And deep down, I knew I needed to stay and do everything I could to make that happen."

Saylor stayed and eventually was made vice president of human resources. Four years ago she was promoted to CEO of the privately held, family-owned company. Her accomplishments in the male-dominated industry recently earned her a spot on The Washington Business Journal's 2010 list of 25 "Women Who Mean Business."

It is a destination Saylor never even dreamed about while growing up on Montana's Front Range, nor even when she developed a passion for communication while studying at Montana State University. But those were important parts of her journey, too. For, while Saylor has met many people of inspiration during her career, her three most important mentors are Marjorie Saylor, her mother, Ray Weisenborn, her professor and academic adviser at MSU, and Ray Falcione, her adviser at the University of Maryland.

Kitty was the youngest of four children, and the only daughter in her family. Marjorie was a single mother for most of Kitty's early life.

"She raised us with both strength and a sense of humor," Saylor recalls. "She would lay down some firm rules. But it was the best and happiest childhood that anyone could ask for."

One rule that Marjorie laid down is that Kitty practice the piano. In fact, Saylor began her college days studying music at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn. But Saylor quickly realized that music wasn't her passion, nor her future. "If I would have kept at it, I probably would be playing piano on a cruise ship now," she jokes.

After one year, she transferred to Montana State, where she was introduced to the field of communication and an inspiring mentor, Weisenborn.

Weisenborn, who now teaches in Kuwait, recalls that Saylor had an instinct to "do (everything) right and do it well." A summer exchange in London seemed to solidify her focus, he said.

"When she returned (to MSU) that fall, she had changed. She was interested, more perceptive, an emerging leader, a person peers sought out, the student that professors remarked about," Weisenborn said. "With those developing qualities, I saw a graduate student."

Weisenborn called James McCroskey of West Virginia University, which was one of the best speech communication programs at the time, and arranged a graduate school interview for Saylor. She got into the WVU program, earned a master's there and later a doctorate in communication from the University of Maryland, where Falcione was her adviser.

Saylor married and lived in Chile for a time, where she taught business presentation skills. The marriage didn't work out and she returned to the U.S. and landed a job with the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs. When the administration changed, she was out of a job. She taught communication at George Mason University and worked as a waitress for a time to make ends meet.

"Then one day I read an ad for a training specialist at REHAU in Leesburg, Va., and I applied. I really didn't think it would be a career.... That was 16 years ago."

Saylor said she "didn't see it coming at all" when she was promoted to REHAU's North America CEO, but believes that the lesson she learned years ago in Alabama--when things get tough... get tough yourself and don't run away--helped prepare her for the role.

Another thing Saylor didn't see coming was an opportunity to give back to her alma mater. Her involvement began during a lunch meeting where a mutual friend introduced her to D.C.-area architect and MSU alumnus, Bill Hoy.

"(Hoy) showed me this portfolio with the concept of a house he was designing," she said. "Right on the cover was a picture of Bozeman. I said, 'That's Bozeman, Montana.' Bill looked at me and said, 'Have you ever been to Montana?' I said, 'I'm from there....'"

And that was the beginning of the REHAU MONTANA ecosmart house. A modeling and construction project that will exhibit the latest in sustainable building products and systems, the house is now under construction on Bozeman's Bridger Creek Golf Course. Students from the MSU College of Arts and Architecture Creative Research Lab, the College of Engineering and the College of Business are all involved in the project.

Susan Agre-Kippenhan, dean of MSU's College of Arts and Architecture, said REHAU was the first significant donor and Saylor the first MSU graduate to support the Creative Research Lab in the college. She and Saylor say that the college and REHAU partnership in the ecosmart project will not only explore sustainable systems and share research on green building technology, but will be a model for other universities.

Saylor said one of the things she's enjoyed most about the project is her re-engagement with MSU. She has returned to MSU several times in the past year to speak at the College of Arts and Architecture's commencement and last fall served on a leadership panel at the inauguration of MSU President Waded Cruzado alongside Governor Brian Schweitzer, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and University of Idaho President Duane Nellis.

Saylor said she has never planned her life. ("I can't figure out what I'm going to do next week, much less in five years.") Yet, she would love to return to Montana when her years with REHAU are over.

"I am thrilled to be reconnected with my university again," she said. "I've taught college courses, but I was in my early twenties then. What did I know? Now, I could actually teach something--how communication really works in international organizations. I would love to talk to university students about that. And to come back to MSU? Well, that would be my dream."