Carol Stillwell always wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, a mason, after having spent much of her childhood in Elizabeth and Roselle Park working alongside him on job sites.
There was just one issue.
“I never saw a woman that was the head of a corporation or in management in construction,” she said.
So, when she got an opportunity, as an entry-level secretary in 1966, she made the most of it.
“I earned respect from owners and contractors who grew to know me as a go-to resource,” Stillwell said. “I also believed firmly in getting involved and participating with different industry associations, because when you sell products, you have to also give back to those who support you.”
That philosophy is how Stillwell, now CEO and president of Stillwell-Hansen in Edison, continues to run the business today.
“My people are my greatest asset — some who have been with us for over 30 years,” she said.
The 47-year-old company — No. 170 on this year’s NJBIZ Top 250 Private Companies list — continues to succeed as its workforce and clients evolve.
“I would have never thought — when we had fairly flat years in 2013 and 2014 — that we would see 20 percent growth in 2016,” Stillwell said.
Now running a nearly $70 million company, Stillwell continues to invest not only in her employees but also in the state.
“I have chosen to make my philanthropic endeavors an extraordinary part of my life and legacy,” she said.
Stillwell began her career 50 years ago as a secretary at Lummus Engineering in Clinton and Austin Engineering in Roselle.
“Women were not leaders in the construction industry then,” she said. “My feeling was that I would surround myself with people in the industry who I could work with.”
Biz in brief
Financials: 2015 revenue was $65 million
Employees: Approximately 80
One More Thing: Carol Stillwell represents the fastest-growing segment of the wealthy class in the Garden State — women. Learn more about how she has learned to manage her wealth in order to give back to New Jersey communities on the Breaking Glass blog at NJBIZ.com/breakingglass.
Her effort did not go unnoticed. Gordon Stillwell and Paul Hansen recruited her in 1969 after she had attended one of their presentations.
“I was interested in their products, and so I began asking them questions,” Stillwell said. “Gordon and Paul later said (to my superior) that I was the only person who had asked any questions in the meeting. After asking what my role with the company was, the gentleman whom I worked for said that I had wanted to be in construction, but that there wasn’t much opportunity for growth there.”
That was not the case with Stillwell-Hansen, then a garage-born HVAC manufacturer’s representative.
She knew she had her work cut out for her. And plenty of opportunity.
“I wore all sorts of hats,” Stillwell said. “If they needed to go out and sell, I supported them internally. I also read a lot of books and took some courses at Middlesex County College in order to step deeper into the trenches.”
Stillwell quickly became an integral part of the company. In 1988, she married Gordon Stillwell.
Just two years later, the couple faced a downward turn in the economy.
“In an effort to not lay off any employee, Gordon and I sold our home and temporarily moved in with my sister so that we could continue to use all of our resources,” Stillwell said. “After riding out that difficult time, (we) re-evaluated our investment goals and decided to commit to continuously investing in and growing a company that would long survive us after we were gone.”
In order to ensure the future direction of the company, Stillwell continued to build her reputation in the industry and learn everything else there was to know about running the business, before the Stillwells purchased Hansen’s portion of the business upon his retirement in 1995. (Gordon Stillwell died in 2008.)
“I emptied out my 401(k) at the time, took the penalty, borrowed $1.2 million from the bank on a five-year note and paid it off in three,” Stillwell said. “I believed in this company.”
Her bet has paid off.
The HVAC manufacturer’s representative has sustained its growth for over 47 years by also becoming a solutions provider in data center computer air conditioning and fire protection.
Stillwell-Hansen hasn’t yet faced the talent shortage that most manufacturers in New Jersey are facing today.
It’s because Carol Stillwell, CEO and president, said she knows where and how to look.
“One of the things that I like to do is sit on the board of Monmouth University and talk to younger students about opportunities in our field and with our company, many of which had never thought about that career path,” she said. “That has given me opportunities to bring new people in.
“The people that are here today will be the leaders who bring in tomorrow’s youth to grow this company. That model has worked for us for 47 years.”
“We find there is a lot of crossover with our clients in those markets,” Stillwell said. “It all goes hand in hand — much of our fire protection is in the data center market, for example.
“We envision a future in which we can build a stronger service group. No matter how good a product is, at some point, it may fail. A manufacturer’s representative has to be able to sit across from a client and say, ‘Trust in us — if and when there is a failure, we will be there to support you at the local level.’”
Just as Stillwell is there to elevate her nearly 80 employees.
“If you could quantify employees with a line on a balance sheet, I truly believe they would prove to be my single greatest asset,” she said. “What is joyful for me is to see employees who have been dedicated and loyal be part of our growth and to see them realize their hopes and dreams.”
Stillwell points to a 56-year-old man who came to work for Stillwell-Hansen at age 23.
“He (wanted) to own a home on the water and a boat in which to travel,” she said. “To see him achieve those goals through hard work, to understand what he has given back to this company — he’s just one of over 50 employees who have been here for so long that they have embraced our philosophy about caring about our clients and giving back.”
Providing for others is what Stillwell said gives her the greatest joy.
“I have generally chosen to reinvest almost everything I have in the growth and success of my company, with a small remainder invested in life insurance policies and real estate,” she said.
When she started with the company, Stillwell said, she had a habit of giving away her earned money.
“Coming from a family of much love but very few financial resources, I was acutely aware of the power giving back can have on the lives and success of others,” she said.
Gordon Stillwell and their financial adviser were concerned that she would never save any money that way. In 1983, they suggested she set up whole life insurance policies that would grow and provide cash for her to use in retirement.
“When business took a downturn, I was still able to go to the policies and borrow from them to fund the company,” Stillwell said. “I have since used the dividends to fund what I give back to the community.”
Though Stillwell-Hansen continues to grow each year, Carol Stillwell, its CEO and president, said the company needs to maintain its profit margins.
That is difficult to do in New Jersey, she said.
“I love New Jersey — I was born here and I have chosen to live and run my company here,” Stillwell said. “But the cost of doing business here continues to climb.
“We need to work with organizations such as Building a Better New Jersey Together to elect officials who work to make New Jersey a place where companies can grow in both dollars and volume. We need to make it a place where we can achieve fair profit margins and provide fair wages so we can present those benefits to our staffs.”
Health care, Stillwell said, is a good example of the challenges Jersey businesses are facing.
“I don’t know a corporation, small or large, that isn’t struggling with the cost of health care in particular,” she said. “It’s the single greatest concern of our employees and for our maturing company, as there are lots of employees who have been with us an average of 27 years.
“There was a time when we paid for our employees’ health care. Then it got to a point where we could pay 70 percent of it. Now, we’re paying 50 percent. I feel very badly that our employees now have to pay for that out of their paycheck. I have people working sometimes just for their health care. It’s a challenge.”
That includes the recent $3 million gift she provided to the Meridian Health system for the establishment of the Larkin-Stillwell-Hansen cancer infusion center at Riverview Medical Center.
“While the willingness to assist others, including friends, family, neighbors and charities, may negatively affect the bottom line on a financial statement, it builds an irreplaceable wealth of networks and relationships, which are much more difficult to quantify,” Stillwell said.
Stillwell currently serves on the board for nine organizations, including as a trustee for the Parker Family Free Health Clinic and the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank. She also gives her time to six committees, including Jon Bon Jovi’s “B.E.A.T.” center and the National Association of Women Business Owners.
“My interest is in being able to see all of the hopes and dreams that I have had while I am alive,” Stillwell said. “Many people do this when they pass — I want to see it while I am still here, so I can see whose lives I’ve touched.”
As she approaches the age of 70, Stillwell said she has been more invested in her financial plan over the last 18 months to make sure her philanthropic mission — and the company itself — continues well into the future.
“I recognize that, as I get older, I need to put people in place that I know can take on important functions in the company,” Stillwell said. “I would hope that I could be what my late husband was for them — a voice and a mentor able to share with them information that they need.”
Stillwell-Hansen, she said, is therefore set up in a trust.
“There will be a group of people identified that, if I should pass, will operate the company. As they retire, they will then have to name people to continue to operate the company. Whoever is running the trust will be running a company that is operating with no debt,” Stillwell said.
“This company will never be sold; it is a promise to Gordon and to the people that I work with that this legacy will live on.”
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