Mahar Tool Supply Company COO Carrie Kessel’s roots run deep in the company that her grandfather, James H. Mahar, founded in 1947 by selling cutting tools out of the back of his car. Kessel says she has learned the business by osmosis as she grew up doing everything from mowing the lawn to counting inventory to filing documents.
“I did anything and everything,” she says. “I really learned about the business by being around my parents. Unfortunately, at the age of five, my father, James Wells Mahar, was diagnosed with a very fast acting form of leukemia. We found out that he had the leukemia on a Monday, and by Wednesday he had passed.”
James Wells Mahar left not only a lasting impression on his daughter but also on others in the industrial distribution sector.
“He was a loved man,” she says. “To this day, people will call me that knew him — customers, vendors, business associates — and tell me stories about him. He was very much a relationship person, which I think a lot of people were back then. He really set the foundation of the culture of the business being a family-oriented company that values employees, and also highly values customers, and relationships.”
Following the passing of her father, her mother, Barbara Lincoln, became CEO of Mahar in 1978. During her 43 years at the helm of Mahar, Kessel says Lincoln has grown Mahar from being a relatively small company based in Michigan to a worldwide global leader in the industry.
“She is a leader who is very trusted, very highly respected,” Kessel says. “Barb treats her company like family. She loves her employees, and she is an excellent leader. One of the things that she talks about all the time is ethics. I don’t think I know anyone with a higher ethical compass than Barbara Lincoln.
“The culture of our company really has evolved from James Mahar to Barb Lincoln, and I’m sure it will continue. Culture is something that takes many years to develop, and to build on. It’s a foundation and it’s a reputation. You’ve heard that saying that it takes years to build a reputation, and it can take one day to ruin a reputation.”
With family as a core value of Mahar, Kessel thanked the Mahar staff for her being named as one of Modern Distribution Management’s Women in Distribution Awards winners.
“To be a business leader, to be a mom or a dad, and to be juggling a lot of things, the only way to make it happen is to work with the village that you have,” she says. “I’m very blessed to have an excellent staff, and I feel very thankful to have won this award.”
Not surprisingly, Kessel lists her parents as the biggest mentors in her career, which started in 1996 after she completed college with an Executive MBA from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor and a BSBA from the University of Colorado Boulder. Her first job with Mahar was as a tool management coordinator for General Motors in Mahar’s Lansing, Michigan branch.
She spent several years working for 3M and other companies before returning to the Mahar fold in 2002.
“I realized that really my love was with the family business,” Kessel says. “I felt a very strong sense of wanting to give some of my time toward the family business. This is business represents a lot more than just an industrial distribution company. It represents my grandparents and my father who gave his life and the legacy of my family starting this company out of the trunk of a car.
“I felt a very strong calling to give the business some of my time and to learn from the business and do what I can for the family.”
Mahar Gets Going
During her 25 years with Mahar, the company weathered the storm of the 2008-2009 recession, as well as the impact of the pandemic last year.
“We have seen ebbs and flows in the industry,” she says. “We’ve lived through a lot of challenges and obstacles. I always like to say, ‘When the going gets tough, Mahar gets going’ because we’re very good at tackling those kinds of obstacles and doing what needs to be done to thrive and survive.”
Kessel says that while the Industrial Revolution 2.0 was well underway before the pandemic, it tipped the scales and catapulted the progress of the change to an exponential degree.
“We are now living in a much more of a digital world than ever before,” Kessel says. “It’s extremely critical for companies like Mahar to offer expert advice and service and do it with speed and accuracy and ease. The companies that can do this will come out on top because the demands are much greater than ever before.
“You have to be able to offer expedience. You have to offer expertise and accuracy, and you have to do it with ease. The companies that can provide customer service, convenience and solutions with ease will be the go-to companies for the customers out there.”
A time for strategic decisions
Kessel sees 2021 a being a year whereby all of the companies will try to maximize their profits while honing in on their efficiencies. Distributors need to make decisions strategically and not be hasty as they try to make up for 2020.
“I think that relationships are still key,” she say. “It’s not really the death of the salesman. It’s more of the rebirth of the salesman. Relationships are very critical. Now, the relationships will be built differently than before, there still will be an opportunity for face to face to some degree, but there will also be more virtual solutions to build relationships.”
Kessel is a strong advocate for community involvement. Some of her past and present activities include: Junior League of Saginaw Valley YMCA Board of Directors, National Association of Career Women in Leadership, The Stevens Center for Family Business, the Young Executives Foundation (YEF) and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Foundation, among others.
“It’s not really about gender,” she says. “It’s about what we can do as human beings to have an impact on this world while we’re here. You won’t really find me talking a lot about gender. I’m more looking at what I can do to help the industry and to help young people of any gender.
“But I will say that as far as being a woman in an industry where there aren’t so many women, the road less traveled is oftentimes a road that provides excitement and opportunity. It may not be the easiest road, but it definitely is a road that can provide opportunities for women in this industry. You have an opportunity to make a big impact and to shine in this industry.”
Kessel said the distributor industry in general would do well to offer young women and men more networking opportunities, as well as marketing efforts that target both genders early on through the use of social media. Overall, distributors need to assess the level of diversity in the industry so that it’s more representative of the mix of the population.
“Something that we all have a responsibility to do is to continue to strive towards diversity in every way,” she says.
Family-owned industrial distributor is commemorating more than a century of service to suppliers and customers.
During the pandemic, Julie Copeland expanded the company’s bottom line by selling directly to consumers…
Tim Watson will continue to lead the company under the Watson Supply banner.