Filling the shoes left behind

Wednesday, December 29, 2004 at 1:00am

Name: Nancy Sanders Peterson

Company: Peterson Tool

Title: President and Chief Executive Officer

Hometown: Nashville

Date of Birth: July 2, but that's as far as I go.

Education: Two years at Siena College in Memphis; St. Cecilia in Nashville

First Job: Grossly underbidding to paint our family's house with my brothers in high school. I had a summer job cashiering at the Brentwood Supermarket.

Dream Job: I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up. I haven't ever had time to think about what my dream job would be.

Last charitable act: I just chaired an auction in Boston for the Committee of 200 Foundation that brought in more than $350,000 in an evening. That money is used to mentor other women who have businesses with $3 million-$5 million a year in revenue.

Company Description

Peterson Tool Co., established in 1958 by John Peterson, has been run by his wife Nancy since his death in 1979. The company now employs 162 and has almost doubled in size since 1990. Peterson Tool makes precision cutting tools for use in manufacturing and in 1998 established a wholly owned cutting-tool coatings business at its facility at 739 Fesslers Lane.

Questions:

How do you prepare to make a tough decision?

I'm not a fast, off-the-cuff decision-maker, so I'll tell you 'I'll get back to you' because I want to think it through. I really weigh my options and I've been known to pray over them.

Business is loaded with risk. How do you balance risk with reward?

I've gone by a lot of the sayings of my mother and grandmother - Keep it simple and don't spend more than you've got coming in. My biggest risk was building the new plant. I must have been on an ego trip because, looking back at it now, I'd be scared to death. But risk is not as scary when you're young. I'm a lot more conservative now.

Whom do you turn to for advice? Why?

I have a great partnership with my son.

How do you instill your organization's values into everyday operations?

Honesty has always been a high priority. Anything that management does filters down through the company, so there's a trust in each other that comes from your behavior in setting that tone in a business. I still personally hand out the paychecks to every employee, except the night shift.

What's the last thing you do before leaving?

Sometimes, I check that fax machine to see if anything is coming over. I guess I make a nice walkthrough to check in with everyone.

How do you know when to ask for help on a problem or task?

Well, I run a lot on my gut feelings or instinctively. When I need help now, it's usually because I'm worn out, so when I go for help it's usually to take a rest and get away.

How do you balance work and family?

The family has been very understanding. At first, as I began running the business, I would still try to come home and cook dinner. After about two weeks, I came home and asked [my children] 'Did you ever see your dad come in and cook dinner?' They said 'No,' so I told them, 'since I'm wearing his shoes, I've cooked my last meal.' I pulled the burners off the stove, replaced them with flowerpots and they went along with it.

Describe an ethical dilemma you've faced and how you resolved it?

I made one fast decision when my husband died and that was not to tell any of our customers of his death. Manufacturers can be really skittish - especially if a mother of six is going to take over a precision tool business where any mistakes could result in shutting down manufacturer's whole plant.

After about eight months, I started calling on customers to thank them for their business and tell them John had died last September. And they said, 'Well we've called up there and we hadn't noticed any difference in the company.' And I told them, 'Of course, we have the same people doing those jobs as before.'

If you could change one decision you've made in business, which one and why?

I haven't done any of this soul searching, I just go forward. Lord 'a' mercy, I've made mistakes, but I guess I just don't dwell on them. I usually change whatever it was I did and go on.

Not going on with my education. I said 'I'm gonna get this company running and go back to school' and I still haven't gone back. I'd give anything to have a degree and a graduate degree. I'd love to be able to run intuitively and not just on instinct. It's a real handicap in today's world. That is my life's mistake and how I'd correct it.

What's been your best effort to inspire those around you?

Pay them what they're worth. We do a Years of Service bonus that takes a certain amount of our profits and divides it amongst our employees based on the number of years they have been with the company. I started this the second year after my husband died because I wanted to keep the people we trained here with us. Employees that want to leave the company can come back if they left in good standing, but they have to start over at zero again in the plan.

How do you unwind?

I used to just soak in that bubble bath. I have to nest every now and again. Going away is my unwinding. When I go away, I don't leave a phone number and only my secretary knows how to reach me. I don't call work and I don't come here.

In your opinion, what's your biggest waste of time?

That telephone. It's the biggest waste of time in the world to sit and jaw on the telephone.

What was your greatest influence in grade school?

The greatest influences were my mother and grandmother. I was always pretty good at math and I had some great encouragement from the Sisters.

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