As Far As You Can Go
She hardly saw herself in her father's business. Now, she's preparing to become CEO
A LITTLE OVER SEVEN YEARS AGO, Alan Bressler first popped the question to a young woman he cared about deeply. No, it wasn't that kind of proposal -- but this is a story about love all the same. For the woman was his daughter, Karen Bressler, then 30. And while neither can remember which restaurant they lunched at, they clearly recall their mutual surprise after he asked her to come work at his business, Agar Supply Co., a wholesale distributor of meat, poultry, seafood, and groceries in Boston.
Karen, who had a masters degree in international management and several years' experience in the toy industry, had been contemplating a job change. She was flattered -- yet flabbergasted. "It wasn't on my mind," she says. The furthest thought from her mind was more like it. And her father, always staunchly opposed to family dynasties, was so worried his decision could cause family strife that he neglected to consider that Karen might say no. "I thought Karen would say, 'That's great.' To my deep surprise, she started asking me a series of questions. And then said, 'Let me think about it.'"
Well, Karen finally did say "Yes" -- after a month of soul-searching, joining what experts say is a wave of women joining family businesses, often in key roles. Before long, father and daughter discovered a new relationship -- as boss and employee. They vowed to never discuss business at family gatherings with her mother and two sisters. But as boss, Alan (as Karen calls him during office hours) wanted her to devote more time to work. As father and grandfather, however, it hurt him to see Karen in the throes of a divorce and struggling to balance work and motherhood. Even as he urged her to get a nanny for her little girl, he felt somewhat selfish.
For Karen, the biggest challenge was proving herself worthy. "When I first walked in the door, I took a deep breath. I felt like everybody was staring at me. I thought, 'They don't know anything about me. They just know I'm his daughter.'"
Alan also expected Karen to prove herself. "He said, 'You'll go as far as you can go. I'm not going to promise you anything,'"" recalls Karen. Yet Karen has gone far, prodding her father to clearly define her role -- and her future -- at this $275 million concern.
And somewhere along the way, she fell in love with this unladylike business, where the product, as she so inelegantly puts it, "is leaking and bleeding all over the floor." She derives her pleasure from the people she meets and the creative, strategic thinking she does. "I think I'm an unlikely character in this play," she concedes. "It's not just being female. It's because I don't try to be male." Karen, who is wearing silver nail polish, used to have a blue streak in her hair as a reminder not to take herself too seriously.
Conventionality isn't exactly a family trait. On a rainy spring day at Boston's Four Seasons Hotel, Alan's favorite lunch spot, I'm learning how Karen's immigrant grandfather, Karl Bressler, a onetime kosher butcher and a compulsive gambler, started out selling pork scraps to Boston's Chinese community in 1939. How he later gambled his company into receivership in the 1950s, and finally paid back all his debt. And how his son Alan, with a history degree from Boston University, decided over his father's objections to join the business.
It's apparent that father and daughter have reached yet another turning point in this family saga. Alan, 61, who vaguely remembers inviting Karen in because he thought she would be good at the business, yearns to remove himself from the day-to-day operations; Karen wants a defined career path. To that end, Alan just hired Agar's very first chief operating officer. Indeed, just one day after our meeting, at the Four Seasons once again, Alan takes Karen to lunch. He pops yet another serious question. And, this time, neither father nor daughter are terribly surprised. "He asked me, do I want to be CEO, do I understand what it involves and means," says Karen.
Karen hopes she's up to the task and worries about shortchanging her daughter. It's also true, as she follows her father's two-year timetable to reach the top, she'll have to prove she's ready. Still, she now clearly knows what she wants. The answer is "Yes."
By Robin D. Schatz
This article was originally published in the Apr. 26, 1999 print edition of Business Week's Frontier. To subscribe, please see our subscription policy.