Forge Magazine salutes Steele County’s Women in Business

Julie Rethemeier, Christina Wetmore, Kristin Haberman and Peng Olson all have made a significant professional impact in Steele County. Not pictured: Sabra Otteson, Melanie Nelson, the late Mary Walbran and Maud van Buren, and countless thousands more, past and present. (Karen Legault)

By: William Morris
February 1, 2018

What would Owatonna look like today without the effort and investment of generations of women?

Well, there would be no water park, for starters. The library, founded with money from a woman’s will and established and run by generations of women, would probably still exist, but in what form, who can say? Many companies would never have been founded, while others would have long since closed their doors. And many a philanthropic board of directors would be hard pressed to fill their seats without female leadership.

In fact, it’s hard to find any portion of the community that doesn’t owe something to the work and vision of women. What’s harder to find, in some cases, is the recognition they are due. In this issue, for Women’s History Month, we’ve profiled eight women who have left their mark on Steele County, from early 20th-century trailblazers to new arrivals, some that you know, and maybe some you haven’t met.

 

Peng Olson

Peng Olson’s resume takes a few unusual detours.

Peng Olson

Federated Insurance’s business continuity program manager — a position that includes risk management and resiliency planning for all Federated operations — first joined the company in 1993, after seven years with Mayo Clinic. For four years, she worked for the company as a management services analyst.

And then … she left.

“I worked for Federated, had a break in employment, went into consulting work in the Twin Cities, then chose to stay home to raise my family,” she said.

Olson is one of many women (and a growing number of men) who choose to leave the workforce for a time to raise families, a difficult choice that often leaves them at a disadvantage when they’re ready to return to work. In Olson’s case, she kept her resume active by obtaining her master’s degree and leading a major community development project. By 2005, she knew it was time to return to Federated.

“I knew the culture, was comfortable with the culture, the relationships I had built, and basically I began to create social capital in the community,” she said.

Her accomplishment that most people will recognize, though, has nothing to do with Federated. Olson was co-chair of the committee that spearheaded creation of River Springs Aquatic Center.

“That was a tough project,” she said. “I was naive going into it … I thought it was going to happen overnight.”

She got involved again for 2015’s school funding referendum, and today, she’s at it again, as leadership chair for Owatonna Forward, which arose in part from a group working to create an Owatonna Community Center. She also has served as a United Way board member and in other roles around the community.

In all her roles, she said she’s been fortunate to have an employer, Federated, and a community that embrace female leadership, and key to it all, she said, was not just the time she has spent working, but the time she stopped.

“I have the most respect for women who chose to take that risk and stay home to raise their family,” she said.

And in all those roles, she said, she sees women making great strides every year, and does her best to help them be “intentional with leadership.”

“I would say women are being embraced more by society, women in professional roles, women in terms of wages and compensation, women in terms of leadership,” she said.

 

Kristin Haberman

In 1997, with a baby on the way, Kristin and Patrick Haberman had a decision to make.

“I was in law school and he was in dental school, and we took out a map and said, where do we want to live?” she recalls.

They settled on Owatonna, due to family and friends in Rochester, Mankato and Albert Lea, and settled here shortly after. It was a good choice, she says.

Kristin Haberman at her Owatonna office. (William Morris)

“I think when we moved to Owatonna, there were two new-construction houses for sale, and then there was this boom where whole neighborhoods popped up,” she said. “It was very exciting to be in a city where a Cabela’s was coming in. There was always a new business opening, some new retail establishment.”

She’s done her part to make it a good community as well. As a partner at Einhaus, Mattison, Carver & Haberman, she specializes in estate planning, business and real estate transactions, estates and guardianships. Outside work, she’s been involved with numerous community groups, including the Food Shelf, St. Mary’s School, as a soccer coach with Parks and Recreation and more. And although not a Steele County native herself, she has a great appreciation for those who are.

“It’s people who’ve lived here their entire lives, and have a vested interest in the community and want to see it thrive,” she said. “They’re the ones doing such a great job.”

Although she’s a longtime member of Owatonna Business Women, Haberman said most of the mentors who have guided her career have been men. But while clients will occasionally prefer an attorney of one gender or another, overall it has had very little impact on her career, she said.

“Being in law school, men and women were in groups together and were all peers,” she said. “I would say there was not any gender difference at all, and it could be that profession too, because they are very aware of discrimination, and I don’t really notice it here either.”

While she calls law school ruefully “a horrible return on investment,” she said she loves the work she does, and especially that she’s not involved in litigation and criminal legal work.

“I’m not getting phone calls in the middle of the night,” she said.

With four children in college and high school, she says “we’re grounded,” and Owatonna’s tight-knit legal community has become home.

“It’s a wonderful education,” she said. “I love where I work, I love this community.”

 

Mary Walbran

Mary Walbran (Photo courtesy Mark Walbran)

The Minneapolis Star Tribune obituary for Mary Walbran recalls her dean at the University of Minnesota law school suggesting to her father that she pursue a more appropriate female career, such as music. Her father, an attorney himself, replied, “I tried that. She’s no good at music. You keep her.”

By the time she died in 1995, Walbran, 80, had left an indelible mark on Steele County, serving as the first female county attorney in the state, prosecuting a landmark early criminal vehicular homicide all the way to the state Supreme Court, with her uncle representing the defense (“Mother prevailed,” said her son, Owatonna City Attorney Mark Walbran, a fourth-generation lawyer”). She wrote an early Equal Pay for Equal Work law passed by the state, and served on the State Board of Law Examiners, earning awards from women’s legal associations and others for her pioneering accomplishments.

Mark Walbran said Mary was a “remarkable woman,” with gifts of patience and conciliation that helped her find solutions to people’s’ challenges.

“She really enjoyed practicing law, she really enjoyed her clients, visiting people and trying to solve their problems,” he said.

Mary Walbran continued actively practicing law nearly up until her death, not just as a prosecutor but as a public defender, planning estates and trusts, overseeing dissolutions of rural schools and creameries, and much more, often working side by side with her husband, John.

“I’m proud of my mother and father both,” Mark Walbran said. “They were a very good team. My dad was more the corporate litigator.”

Three of her sons, including Mark, followed her into the legal profession.

“I think overall she just loved the practice of law, loved helping people,” Mark Walbran said.

 

Melanie Nelson

In 2002, Melanie Nelson knew she needed help.

Her business, Learning ZoneXpress, had literally burned down, and she found herself overwhelmed trying to reestablish operations in a new location and get back in action. There was something missing, she know.

“The challenge really was that there weren’t any women mentors that I could turn to,” she said. “After struggling to make it, I just said, I have to go to the Cities and find other women in groups that can help me.”

Melanie Nelson at Learning ZoneXpress in 2012 (Southern Minn Media photo)

In the Metro, she found numerous professional and networking organizations specifically for women, who provided key business insight as well as what Nelson calls “soul support.” That was harder to come by 16 years ago in Owatonna, but today, there’s a much more robust network of support for women in business, thanks in no small part to the women like Nelson who created businesses where no such support was to be found.

“I think that’s changed,” she said of the lack of peer support for female entrepreneurs. “I’m really optimistic about the number of smart women, Owatonna Business Women, and the number of opportunities that are here.”

Nelson came to Owatonna in 1997 with no thought of entrepreneurship, as a family consumer science teacher at Owatonna Junior High School. Her first business, a sewing supplier called You and Me Patterns, was founded with another teacher who later bought it out. The she started Pineapple Appeal, making sewing kits for the family consumer science classroom.

“Then I started just curriculums and games and video and software and really education support materials for the family consumer classroom,” she said. “Then we branched into education and consumer health.”

After 13 years teaching and another 13 at Pineapple Appeal, Nelson launched Learning ZoneXpress, which overtime has become a specialty publisher of nutrition education materials. After 20 years leading the company through fires, floods and other challenges, Nelson is now “semi-retired,” with control of day-to-day affairs turned over to CEO Joyce Mattson. In total, the business has 14 women employees, Nelson said.

“It’s really about the people that continue to want to support Learning ZoneXpress and why they want to work here,” she said. “It’s a good group of smart women.”

And there’s no better place for smart women to succeed, she said, than Owatonna.

“I drove into town [recently], and I just cried,” she said. “This is the best town. This is the best place to start a business. I don’t think I could have started it anywhere else and been as successful.”

 

Christina Wetmore

You don’t have to spend your whole life in Steele County to leave your mark on the community.

Take Christina Wetmore, an Ameriprise financial advisor at Dufresne, Wayne and Associates. A Texas native and 20-year financial industry veteran, she moved to Eagan in 2006, and to Medford just a year ago.

She’s not been idle since: she now serves as president of the Medford Diamond Association, on the board for the Medford Education Foundation, and she’s a Community Leader for the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation’s Community Growth Initiative in Medford as well.

Christina Wetmore at Dufresne, Wayne and Associates in Owatonna. (William Morris)

“I love the community of Medford,” she said. “It seems like everyone in the Medford community has this sense of pride that is just contagious. It makes you want to be a part of them. I’ve been very involved in helping Medford grow, just because of that sense of pride in the community.”

Wetmore has financial service in her blood — her mother was a J.P Morgan banker as well. She started her career at Wells Fargo, which Wetmore says looking back had an unusually high proportion of women in its ranks for the time.

“I probably had a unique opportunity and access to a number of women financial advisors in my life, more than most women do,” she said.

She took full advantage of that opportunity.

“I’m a seeker of knowledge,” she said. “If I don’t know the answer to a question, I have to go find that answer. Talking to everyone I knew, to see if this was the right place for me, the right industry, given what I want to do, which is help people.”

And now that she’s established in her field and career, Wetmore has become the woman other women considering financial careers reach out to for guidance. Her advice? Go for it, she says.

“I always encourage women to take the path that they feel like is scary,” she said. “If you feel like it’s a little unsettling, that’s where you want to be, so I try to encourage women to take the fear out of the equation. If the fear wasn’t there, what would you do?

“Go for it. Just take the leap.”

 

Julie Rethemeier

You have to actively look to find a community group that Julie Rethemeier isn’t involved with.

Federated Insurance’s Director of Public Affairs just finished a term as chair of the Owatonna Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism board. She’s also past chair of the board for Big Brothers Big Sisters, a former member of the United Way board, an Owatonna Foundation trustee, a founding member of the Owatonna branch of Junior Achievement, a board member for Early Edition Rotary, on several boards for Riverland Community College, and plenty more besides.

Julie Rethemeier in the downtown headquarters of Federated Insurance. (William Morris)

But while she’s deeply invested in the community today, that wasn’t the case when she first arrived in town. In fact, when she first interviewed for a job at Federated, her first impression of Owatonna was … not great.

“My dad drove me down and I said, ‘I don’t know, dad, I don’t know if I can live in this small town,’ and his advice, sitting at The Kitchen over a piece of pie, was, ‘just give it a year. In a year you can move back, live in my basement again if needed, but give it a year,’” she said.

So she gave it a year … and then another … and then 29 total, and counting. She blames both her employer and the broader community for getting her hooked.

“Federated has been very good to be,” she said. “I’ve loved the culture and environment, it’s been very good to me, and so has the community. It’s where I met my husband, had my kids.”

At Federated, she began in management services, a sort of management training ground for analysts, and later spent times in operations, as human resources manager, operations again, and finally 10 years ago took the public affairs position.

The company has supported and coached her at each step of the way, she said, but even so, she’s pleased to see the company take a more intentional approach in recent years to developing female leadership.

“We have a women’s leadership program right now that started last year, to help women develop their skills,” said Rethemeier, who helps lead the initiative. “Federated is not any different than any other organization, in that you typically have a lot of women that are front-line supervisors, but then as you move up the chain, the number of women comes down.”

Often, she said, women self-select themselves out of contention for leadership roles, for a wide variety of reasons. Rethemeier said her goal is to ensure women have the support and confidence to pursue the full scope of their abilities.

“I feel like I’ve always had people who were willing to do that for me,” she said. “I in turn am doing that for other women at Federated in different points in their career.”

 

Maud van Buren

The 1935 annual report of the Owatonna Public Library included numerous testimonials to the value it brought to the community, including from managers at Jostens Manufacturing Company and Minnesota Implement Mutual Fire Insurance Company (better known these days as Federated Insurance), and Associated Church minister Frank Davis, who wrote, “Possibly a Church could do intelligent and effective business in the modern age apart from a Public Library. But I gravely doubt it.”

The institution they were praising, which remains a key part of civic life today, owes a great deal of its past and current stature to one woman, Maud van Buren, who made it her passion to draw readers to the fledgling public library.

Van Buren holds the unusual distinction of having been named head librarian in Owatonna twice, 18 years apart. In 1902, fresh out of library school, van Buren was hired to lead the library, then only two years old. Four years later, the library board declined to renew her contract, despite multiple petition drives and community committees formed in protest. The precise reason why is not known, although current librarian Nancy Vaillancourt, in her book Owatonna Public Library: Free to All, speculates that the outspoken van Buren “may have been a challenge to some members of the board.”

In 1920, the board invited van Buren, who had spent the intervening years as a librarian or library school instructor elsewhere, to return to the position, which she accepted. This time she stuck, remaining through her retirement in 1936, and oversaw many important library programs, including travelling bookcases that visited rural schools and other programs that doubled library circulation between 1920 and 1930. Dissatisfied in 1929 that 69 percent of residents were registered at the library, she declared, “We shall not be quite satisfied until all adults in the city shall have made the acquaintance of books that may brighten their lives or enrich their labors.”

Van Buren (who wrote a book, “Quotations for Special Occasions,” that can still be purchased today) remained in Owatonna until her death in 1959 at age 89, and her family remains in Owatonna. Grand-nephew Jim Partridge recalls visiting her — “a very prim and proper lady” — as a child, and recounts once hearing an Owatonna librarian make a passing reference to Maud, who has assumed mythic stature there.

“She was totally unaware Maud was a real person,” he said. “It was just a ghost that made things happen nobody could account for that happened in the library.”

Ghost or no, Maud’s impact on the library can’t be overstated, Vaillancourt wrote.

“She brought a true professional attitude and expertise to the library,” Vaillancourt wrote. “Throughout her many activities … Maud van Buren had a marked influence on many individuals and on the entire community of Steele County.”

Photos and information courtesy the Steele County Historical Society, which has more information about Maud van Buren and other women who played key roles in early Steele County history in its exhibits, “Over Here, Over There, The Great War 100” and “Constructing the Crossroads, Autos and Roads.”

 

Sabra Otteson

In the 1960s, a young woman seeking employment needed an extra dose of determination, or luck, just to get her foot in the door, Sabra Otteson recalls.

Sabra Otteson

“My first job, because it was the 60s, and I was a woman and married, and people didn’t look at woman who might start a family as very reliable, my first job was as a legal secretary,” she said.

But she did get that first start, and even started that family, before coming back to work at the family business, J-C Press, as a salesperson. Otteson’s grandfather, E.K. Whiting, had purchased The Chronicle in 1896, and although the company had long since left the newspaper trade, it remained active as a printer, still bearing the initials of the Journal-Chronicle newspaper.

By 1984, the business was run by her father, uncle and brother, but had run into financial difficulties. Otteson was there to begin turning things around.

“I took it over at the, I guess you could say suggestion of the bank? Demand of the bank?” she said.

When she took ownership, annual revenue was less than $500,000. When she finally sold the company in 2014, that number was north of $9 million.

“Just a couple months ago, I found the business plan for J-C for 1985, and it was a riot,” she said, laughing. “Our goal was to reach $1 million in sales that year, for both printing and office supplies.”

Otteson was one of the first sole female owners of a large business in Minnesota, and that wasn’t her only first: she was the first woman on several local and state boards, and blazed a trail for other local women business leaders.

“I was one of the first three women who went into Rotary, when they first let women in,” she said. “I remember two men in particular who were quite unhappy that they let women join, and one man left Rotary because they let us join.”

He kept placing orders with J-C, though.

Otteson, who remains an Owatonna Foundation trustee, sold J-C in 2014, and today splits her time between Edina and Arizona. She’s proud to see how the community has changed since her early days in the workforce. And today, she’s proud not just that she was a successful women in business. She was successful. Full stop.

“I realized, and took the posture most of the time, that I was a businessperson, not a businesswoman or businessman,” she said. “I think that’s more an accepted thing now.”

William Morris got his start in the newspaper trade as a recurring editorial intern in Wisconsin and has been writing about business, government and crime at the Owatonna People’s Press since 2015. He now splits his time working with the newspaper and as Associate Editor for Forge.

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