In 1997, Dennis Brozak passed the day-to-day operation of his company, Design Basics, which had revenues of $4 million,to a new president, Linda Reimer. Where did he find her? At the copy machine. In retrospect, it's clear that Reimer hadmanagement potential, but the long-term systematic training that Brozak provided also contributed to Reimer's advancement.

Back in 1991, Reimer was a longtime preschool director who wanted a part-time summer job. She took a low-level jobphotocopying blueprints for Design Basics, a company based in Omaha, Neb., that sells blueprints for homes via catalog. She didthat job so well that Brozak hired her full-time in 1994.

Over the next two years, Brozak gave Reimer various assignments that tested the potential executive's leadershipcapabilities. First, he made her a human resources director and asked her to switch the department's focus from advocatingemployees' rights to developing their professional growth. She succeeded. Brozak began challenging her more and more. "Iwanted to find out a lot about her," he says. "Can she manage and motivate people? Can she delegate accurately andappropriately? And she had to be able to fire people when necessary. She has a big heart, but she passed that test, too."

Then, to see if she understood the market and the industry, Brozak put Reimer in charge of one product, a catalog. Thecatalog's home designs sold well. Brozak then evaluated her financial acumen by making her an operations director, and hewatched how well she used the company's money. Again, he says, she did well. So Brozak gave her control over all thecompany's publishing. Once more, she produced a hit.

Finally, Brozak tested Reimer, by then a vice president, with new product development. He figured that assignment wouldshow whether she was a big-picture thinker. Reimer identified a new niche that has become a major profit center for thecompany. "She changed the direction of our sales," Brozak says.

By 1996, after 13 years at the company's helm, Brozak wanted more free time. He began passing day-to-day operations toReimer, giving her new responsibilities gradually to make sure she was ready to be promoted. In April 1997, Reimerofficially became president. CEO Brozak says revenues are expected to grow to $5.2 million in 1999.

What's the secret to identifying hidden leaders in your company? Here are some traits that Brozak looked for, and found, inReimer.

  • Curiosity. "I couldn't learn fast enough about business," Reimer says of her early days at Design Basics. "I was like asponge."
  • An affinity for finance. Finance is a broader subject than accounting, notes Brozak. There's a difference between recordingthe history of money and keeping it in constant motion.
  • Shared values. It's important to Brozak that Reimer relate to his core values: that all work is honorable and that everyonebe paid a fair wage.
  • Passion for the business. Reimer's mother designed homes, and her father built them. Their love for building has beenpassed down.
  • The ability to work well with the founder. "You need someone who can deal with the owner who grew the company fromscratch -- and who's still around," says Brozak.